Wednesday, August 6, 2014

A Trip to Duluth! For Beer!

Continuing with my travelogues of beer based tourism for the summer, I thought I'd spend a bit of time talking about our recent trip to Duluth for the All Pints North beer festival.  Sj and I went to the fest last year after getting the combo pack of tickets for Autumn Brew Review, Winterfest, and APN.  We ended up having such a good time that we made sure to do the same thing this year!  I took off work early on Thursday and we drove up to the character-filled city on the shores of Lake Superior.

Day 1: Thursday

We arrived in town early enough to stop at the best brewery in Duluth: Bent Paddle!  The tap room and brewery was so new last year that the place still smelled of wet paint.  Now, a year later, the place has a more lived-in vibe and was nearly full of patrons, a mix of business people after work, bike enthusiasts, hipsters, and an old friend named Brad.  This is truly a melting pot of beer lovers!  They had a large number of beers on tap, including two nitro versions and a firkin of their Cold Press Black Ale with vanilla beans.  Of course I had one of those and it was heavenly!  They had just recently changed their tap handle design and had the old ones for sale--so I had to get one for my collection at home.  Now if only I could find a Steel Toe and a Surly tap I'd have all my local favorites on display...  During our brief visit we had the good fortune to run into Peter Mack, one of the awesome brewers previously of Rock Bottom and Town Hall. 

From Bent Paddle we headed to Fitgers Hotel to check in and get settled before dinner.  I've mentioned this place before so I'll keep it short here.  Not the cheapest place to stay in Duluth, but it is right along the Lake Walk and one just has to go down the hall to find Fitgers Brewhouse for a fine pint of beer.  They have wonderfully attentive staff and free shuttle service around Duluth.  We made great use of that shuttle! 

We next drove up Scenic Highway 61 along the lakeshore to make our evening dinner reservation at the New Scenic Café.  Someone suggested this place the first time we went to Duluth years ago and it has become a mainstay in our dining choices!  About 20 minutes north of town, this little restaurant with its beautiful flower gardens hosts some amazing quality food.  This is fancy fine dining food in a relaxed atmosphere and the prices are not terrible compared to the Twin Cities.  We shared starters of Ahi tuna tacos and curried mussels and both were perfect.  We each had the duck breast for dinner since neither of us wanted to share! 

By the time we arrived "home" we met up fellow JAB member Shawn Kummrow for a beer upstairs at Fitgers Brewhouse.  The wheat wine was very tasty, but I enjoyed the Hoppelujia IPA more!  A full day done Sj and I ambled down the hall to a much needed rest!

Day 2: Friday

A late start today since no cats were present to scratch at doors, lay warm paws upon your face, or howl plaintively until fed.  The coffee at Fitgers is free, but that pale tan colored swamp water is not worth it!  The day was a bit overcast, but not outright raining.  Taking my camera along and crossing my fingers for sun, we headed back up along the Scenic Highway. 

We stopped at the French River Fish Hatchery.  A small river next to the hatchery empties into the lake and this gave me access to some great photo ops!  We wandered into the somewhat deserted hatchery grounds, not sure if we were really in the correct place, but taking our cue from the sign on the open gate saying they were open to the public.  After finding a hidden trail up to more old buildings we entered The-Hatchery-That-The-60's-Forgot!  An old decrepit "Visitor's Center" promised information, but was mostly out of commission.  The antediluvian displays were faded with time, decomposed and coated in a thick layer of dust and dead insects.  Another, larger building had a small nearly unmarked door that looked promising.  We entered this large, dank building to a strong aroma of fish, mildew, and moist age.  Were we really supposed to be in here?  Clicking on a switch, a small amount of hooded light flickered on above us, dimly illuminating huge tanks of lapping dark water.  Below the surface of these long pools swam thousands of small salmon and trout spinning gently in the mild current.  The light was too poor for good photos but this was pretty cool!

The 60's called and want their stuff back...

Afterward we hiked back to our car, running into Shawn and his family in the parking lot.  We then continued on our northward trek, driving past cheesy roadside attractions (as opposed to Wisconsin Cheese attractions), scenic overlooks, small towns, and resorts.  We ended up having a decent lunch at the Rustic Café, paired with a local Castle Danger IPA. 

We ended up at Gooseberry Falls for some epic photo taking and some light mountain-goat style climbing!  It was a struggle to get photos of the falls without people entering the shot, but with some creative angles and editing I think I got a few good ones. 

Once again not making it any farther north, we headed back to Duluth.  Our friends Randy and Andrea had just arrived in town and we met up with them a group of their other friends at Bent Paddle for a pint and some company.  Waiting in an epic line to get beer, we ran into Kat who bought us our round!  This time they had a firkin of Bent Hop dry-hopped with Nelson Sauvin hops that was quite tasty. 

Later we met up with the whole crowd at a small local apartment that Kat was renting for an absurdly low amount of money.  Many great beers were shared including an oaked Imperial brown ale from Hammerheart, Mon Cherries from Borealis, Wit Noir from Blacklist, and Green Monster from Deschutes.  Lounging amongst old and new friends sipping on cool beers...This is how to spend an afternoon!

From here, Sj, Randy, Andrea, and I all took a brisk walk to Fitgers Brewhouse owned Tycoon's Alehouse for dinner.  With more fine Fitgers beers to choose from and very good upscale pub fare we all had a very pleasant evening.  With just a few blocks to walk back to our hotel, Sj and were ready to crash.  But wait!  Is that a text from Shawn saying he is right down the hall at Fitgers Brewhouse?  Guess I'll just have to go have one last pint of hoppy goodness and hang out a bit longer...Shawn seems to know everyone, so I got to meet several new people during this little stint at the bar.  A perfect end to a great day!

Day 3: Saturday

Desperate for real coffee this morning (see previous day's festivities to understand why...) we had the Fitgers shuttle take us to Canal Park area for some strong Caribou drinks.  We wandered about in the increasingly warm sun, getting a good look at the Duluth Lift Bridge and the pier.  We walked back to Fitgers along the Lake Walk, getting too much sun and plenty of exercise. 

Again taking the shuttle, we were dropped off for lunch at Fitgers Brewhouse owned Burrito Union.  These guys own quite the fleet of restaurants!  Located in a cool old building that retains much of its charm, this place is an upscale version of a Chipotle, but with better food and Fitgers beer!  We shared some really good fresh salsas and enormous burritos as a good base for this afternoon's coming festivities. 

After a very hot walk back to our hotel we prepared ourselves for All Pints North, making good use of the shuttle again to drop us off near the Bayfront Festival Park grounds.  Last year's fest was on a very overcast day and was quite comfortable.  This year's was very hot, muggy and the huge ball of fire sun was glaring its melanoma-inducing rays down upon us with extreme glee.  Not a cloud in sight to shield us from the sun and little wind to cool things down.  This did not bode well for staying hydrated and not regretting this whole thing tomorrow...

The festival opened at 3 PM, floodgates opening and hordes of thirsty beer geeks rampaging into the grounds!  Actually I think this was the most relaxed and calm festival crowd I've seen at a beer festival, making this one of the reasons I love this particular event.  With the heat and sun, Sj and focused on lighter, refreshing beers as much as possible.  Sweat streaming down my back, clothing sticking to me in unfortunate places, I trooped on, suffering for my chance to try new and unusual beers.  A bluegrass band played on stage adding a cool vibe to the festival.  The breweries were mainly from Minnesota, but there were some from other areas to mix it up a bit.  Many brewers brought special versions of beers, always welcome at this type of event!

Yup, I only took one pic of the whole fest...too busy drinking!

Interesting Tidbits from the Fest:

1) Schells had one of the longest lines in the fest.  I wanted to try their newest sour beer made with cherries, but didn't want to wait that long...I'll have to try it in bottle soon!

2) Bells brought several interesting beers including a wonderful India Red Ale.

3) I got to try the Bourbon Barrel version of Mon Cherries--quite good with a hint of smoke.

4) I finally gave Carmody Irish Pub a second chance (after having a terrible experience at the pub in the past.)  I tried the Flanders Red, which I had heard good buzz on, but it way too acidic and not balanced well.  Maybe I'll try them again next year.

5) Got to hang out with Pio from Free House, Jason from Enki (and his very sweet wife!), and Ian (formerly of the Firkins.)  Though not all at once!  I love getting to see all these people I know through other beer events!

6) Hammerheart again had  huge line this year (though last year's was due to that being their first release to the public).  I have to say that they have come a long way in one year!  With smoked, spicy and barrel aged releases these guys really brought it strong.  Friends in the Primary Fermenters have been telling me how Hammerheart has become and now I need to get out to the brewery!

7) Jack Pine is always fun to try with their sessionable beers and this year was no exception.  Vengeance, a jalapeno infused cream ale, was perfect on this hot day.  Sj and I also got the dregs of a mostly hidden bottle of amazing barleywine!

8) Town Hall's Manhattan was as wonderful as always, but tough to drink this alcohol bomb on such a hot day.  I never made it back for Russian Roulette!

9) Didn't even make it to the Surly tent this year...too many new things to try.

And a lot more!  Clouds came out and the wind kicked up a bit after that first few hours making the day more bearable.  This is still my favorite beer festival, and I almost hesitate to spread the word about it in hopes of keeping it smaller and more manageable.  We left before the bitter end, wanting to avoid heat stroke and terrible hangovers, getting picked up by our shuttle nearby. 

Back to the hotel and a burger at Fitgers Brewhouse, and off to a very needed rest.

Day 4: Sunday (the Aftermath)

Thirsty Pagan!

Actually felt pretty good for the day after a beer fest!  We packed up and took a trip across the bridge into Superior Wisconsin for a lunch of pizza at the Thirsty Pagan.  Sj and I shared samplers and tried all the beers.  My experiences here have been hit and miss.  Most of the beers this time were decent, but not many stood out as exceptional.  Last year they had several sours that were great, but this year only a not-so-good Berliner Weisse.

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