Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Waconia Brewing Company Review

For those who missed it, I interviewed the owners of Waconia Brewing Company back in March of this year before they had started construction on their new building.  You can read my interview HERE if you want to learn more about Bob and Peter DeLange.  Since that interview I have been lucky enough to hang out more with them and their lovely wives (and co-owners) Kaye and Dee, and have been able to follow the progress of the brewery over time.  During the summer they offered up Founders Club packages (T-shirt, pint glass, bottle opener, sticker, and 12 growler fill tokens) for adventurous locals to buy into.  Founders also get a larger glass of beer at the taproom, which is never a bad thing.  I have membership number 1!  I figured I had to try to support these fine folks in my own town. 

The brewery had a soft opening just for Founders Club members the week prior to their official opening date October 22 of 2014.  I was able to swing in and try their first three batches of beer, but didn't want to do an official review until they were fully open and rolling.  I also got to take part in the Terra Waconia/Waconia Brewing beer dinner just before Halloween and blogged about that previously.  Just recently the brewery had their official Grand Opening bash featuring a pizza truck and live band.  I stopped by briefly and the place was standing room only!  So here is my "official" review so far of the brewery--keeping in mind that the place has only been open a month.

The brewery itself is located right in the middle of downtown Waconia, near Unhinged Pizza, taking the former space of a children's daycare.  So sad that they tore out the old tiny toilet seats.  It would have been hilarious watching taproom patrons trying to figure out how to deal with that!  The entrance is off to the side of the building, not incredibly visible from the parking lot. 

Entering into the taproom, I was impressed with the look right away.  While outside the place looked like any other strip mall, the inside transports you to another, more rustic land.  The walls are of reclaimed barn wood and offer a rural quality to the taproom that fits very well with our location out in the hinterlands of the Twin Cities.  Chairs and tables are massive things of solid steel and heavy distressed wood.  The bar itself is quite long and solid as well with plenty of seating.  A pop of technology in the rustic place are the two small iPad stations set up for credit card payments at the bar.  On one wall a large WBC logo made up of hundreds of blackened screws is drilled into the wood in an impressive work of artistry.  Some framed pictures of local photos take up space on unoccupied walls.  A cozy fireplace surrounded by four soft easy chairs takes up one corner near the entrance.  Overall one is struck by the natural and almost primitive look of the place, but beneath that is an eye to detail and sturdy construction.  This taproom is no slap-dash thrown-together afterthought, but rather a well thought-out comfortable place to share a beer and talk.  From my previous interview with the brothers, this is exactly the feel they were hoping to hit, and I think they have outdone themselves.  I find it aesthetically to be one of my favorite taprooms, right up there with Indeed for those who have been out there.

They have a good selection of WBC swag including t-shirts, sweatshirts, and hats in several different styles and colors.  Two TV's are mounted above the bar, for the odd "game" but this is no sports bar...we already have plenty of those in town. 

But what about the beer?  One can order nonic pint glasses or samplers to taste all the beers.  The samplers come out in a heavy locally made wooden tray with an inlaid steel Minnesota shaped plate.  At this point the folks at WBC aim to have four standard beers: IPA, amber, kolsch, and wheat, on tap all of the time.  They will be doing a constantly rotating bunch of seasonal and experimental beers as well throughout the year.  I have now had the beers a few times and am ready to give my review.  Keep in mind that these are the first batches of beer that the brewer Tom Schufman has made on this brand new system and that he is just now learning the in's and outs of the process and of our local water supply. 

Carver County Kolsch: I like this beer.  It has a little bitterness on the tail end that is out of style that is likely from our very hard Waconia water.  The beer has a very clean and drinkable character that will appeal to folks used to drinking fizzy American lager beers.  I do get a hint of the fruitiness that comes from the kolsch yeast and sets it above those lagers in my opinion. 

255 Amber: A well done American amber that combines light hopping with a malty caramel backbone.  This is easy to drink but has some color and more distinctive ale flavors to appeal to a different audience.  A good transitional beer for sure.

Waconia Wit: This one wasn't my favorite.  Cloudy (but is actually required for the style) with lots of citrus flavor from orange peel in the boil.  I get too much sulfur from the aroma and flavor, probably from yeast.  I know that this one has not been as popular and they have already replaced it with WacTown Wheat--a more traditional and well done American Wheat beer served in a tall weizen glass.

90 K IPA: This is my favorite of the bunch!  A solid IPA that rides right in the middle of the style.  It has a very strong citrus hop aroma and flavor, but is not astringently bitter like some versions.  There is a bit of malty sweetness to balance the beer out.  Very easy to drink a pint of.  Interestingly I have talked to several people who think it is either too sweet or too bitter, proving that taste is very subjective for this style of beer! 

Belgian 342:  This was an experimental Belgian pale ale made with an experimental unnamed hop number 342.  It doesn't have quite as much Belgian yeast character as I'd like, but this probably makes it more palatable to more taproom patrons!  A sharp but pleasant hop bitterness pushes the boundary of the style, but in the end this beer is quite nice. 

Overall I think the beer quality already exceeds my initial expectations for a new brewery, but could certainly be tweaked a bit to make the recipes even better.  I actually try not to judge the beers from breweries under 4 months old and was going to wait on writing this up, but decided that they were good enough already to go ahead and do so.  I think that the current round of beers is better than several Minnesota breweries that have been open more than a year.  This gives me high hopes for the upcoming beers from WBC!

The brewery itself is a sparkling new stainless system that boasts a whirlpool tank for clarifying (and for hopping) the beers.  This is one of most spotless and well-lit breweries I've seen!  They serve beers directly from large serving tanks located in the walk-in refrigerator behind the bar. 

(Deliberately blurry…for that dreamy "I'm in a brewery" feel!)

I finally got a chance to meet up with Head Brewer Tom Schufman and ask him a few questions about himself and his ideas about brewing. 

1) JABlog: Tell us a little bit about your background: what did you do before coming to work for Waconia Brewing Company?

1) Tom:  I grew up in Eden Prairie (graduated 2000) then went to school at Bemidji State to pursue an Environmental Studies degree. Did a little work in that field and found I needed to go back to school in order to find a decent job. I decided to keep working odd jobs until I took a tour at Summit Brewing. There, I inquired about a temporary packaging position they were looking to fill, which I landed! Mostly grunt work, but I loved being there and got to leave with a few cases of beer at the end of my shift. It also helped my resume for an opening at Northern Brewer Minneapolis as a full time employee. There I got to brew multiple times a week and create recipes for people every day. It was a great job. New products to play with, new hop varieties always coming out, Blichmann Top tier in the classroom to pilot batch...again, great job. I also got to meet a ton of cool homebrewers & professional brewers while there. Brian Hoffman of Fulton often showed up to shop for the brewery and he posted an assistant brewer position on the cork board. I went for it, had a great interview, and got the job...part time to start. So full time at Northern Brewer, part time assistant at Fulton...living for beer! That lasted a few months before I quit Northern Brewer and went on full time at Fulton. As a fast paced & growing company, I moved up the ladder quickly learning a lot from Peter Grande (owner and brewmaster). I got promoted to shift lead brewer and got to work with a great crew before I heard of the Head Brewer at Waconia Brewing job. I live in St. Boni, so felt obligated and excited to apply. The dream of being so close to home, doing what I love and having a ton of control on the beer was a possible reality. I had a fun & professional interview with Bob & Pete and they ultimately chose me for the role, and I could not be any happier!

2) JABlog:  What is your favorite beer style to drink? (Or to brew for that matter!)  Also what are you planning on brewing us over the next few months?

2) Tom: I'm a seasonal drinker. Right now I'm digging on maltier beers and holiday spiced beers...but you can't deny Sierra Nevada Celebration in winter! I like to brew seasonally too. I'm brining in an English yeast strain soon & am planning on some dark beers for Dec/Jan. English beers are some of my personal favorites (Fullers ESB was my gateway beer). Expect some lower ABV hoppy beers for spring as well as a Maibock towards May. December will also bring our first single hop IPA series. Australian Topaz will be the first of many cool hops I've nabbed over the last few months. It gets me excited to try all the new hops out there and some JAB guys agree with me it's a cool experience to get to know hops like that. Small batches (10BBL) so they stay fresh but won't be here long and a small number of growlers will be sold. Watch our website and facebook/twitter for new releases in that series.

3) JAB:  How about longer term plans for the brewery?  Any barrel aged or strong ales on the horizon?

3) Tom:  With J. Carver Distillery down the road & a ton of wineries around us...barrel aging seems like a no brainer! Right now, we don't have the space for a serious program but I do plan on having a small fleet of barrels to play around with. I'm a big fan of brett barrel aged beers so down the road we will do that :) Also, with that English strain in house I'll definitely be making a Barleywine or RIS, I just don't know exactly when--as we need to keep up on our production beers which you can now find at some local bars & restaurants. I will find room to play around though! Oktoberfest for 2015 too!

4) JAB:  Have you had any new revelations/discoveries/fiascos since starting to brew on your new system?

4) Tom:  No new revelations, but it keeps me up at night sometimes trying to figure out a solution to some of our problems. I knew it was going to be tough to get it all running smoothly & keep it running smoothly. Our boiler had the wrong pressure sensor installed, and when I tried boiling water, it wouldn't boil. Dan at Enki had told me to check the boiler because the same thing happened to them, so tip of the hat to him!

Fulton had a 20BBL system and we have a 10BBL so it's was easier to go a bit smaller that it would be to go larger. Bob really has helped me a ton with troubleshooting help, running lines, keeping me sane while the buildout was in progress. The TEK mechanical guys out of Hutchinson did a great job for us too. You never know what's going to happen, but there is always a fist pound after Bob and I have a successful brew-day where minimally to nothing bad happens. If you ask other brewers, they will tell you "it's always something...." For real though, things seem to be running smooth now.

JAB:  Thanks Tom, so much for taking the time to respond and give us more info about you and the brewery!  I look forward to seeing what you do in the coming years!

For a newly opened brewery Waconia Brewing Company seems to be on the right track.  I like the beers overall, and love the feel of the place.  This is exactly what I was hoping for when I first heard rumors of someone opening a brewery in my town.  The DeLange family has done things right and one can tell that they put not just their money, but their hearts into this enterprise.  Since I have gotten to know the folks involved here, I can no longer claim to be perfectly unbiased, but I try to be honest with myself and my readers.  At this point as a Founders Club member, I'm invested in this!  I WANT to be excited about getting a growler of WBC beer to take home.  I WANT to hang out in this taproom with my friends.  So far so good!

Friday, November 21, 2014

Fair State Brewing Cooperative Review

On a recent field trip into the Twin Cities, my wife and I stopped by Fair State Brewing Cooperative taproom for a pint.  This brewery is located on Central Avenue in Minneapolis, surrounded by an eclectic mix of Thai, Mexican, Chinese, and Middle Eastern restaurants and shops.  I have never really visited this neighborhood before but is seems like a great place to try some unusual (for Minnesotans) foods and a trip to the taproom.  While the brewery itself does not serve food, they encourage people to bring in food from those local restaurants.

Drawn in by the Red and Yellow logo, we entered this brightly lit and spare taproom.  Some booths and tables offer seating, as well as some at the bar toward the rear of the building.  The place is long and narrow, well lit with light colored walls and wood.  I liked the colorful Fair State mural on one wall near the entrance as it brought a punch of color to the room. 

What makes Fair State different from the other Minneapolis breweries is its business model.  Taking a cue from artist and grocery coops, the brewery offers member ownership of the brewery.  For a $200 fee ($300 to include a spouse) one becomes a member/owner of the coop.  There are special tappings, discounted happy hour beers, and referral rewards as benefits to joining.  There is also an elected board of directors which you can run for or vote for as a member.  They hope to also offer dividends to owners as the brewery becomes profitable.  This is an intriguing concept for a brewery, and may draw a different type of clientele for them than some others.  I do like the idea of having an ownership in a brewery and potentially having some impact on the operations and choices that brewery makes.  I also like the idea of a free pint the anniversary of your joining the group!  Once we sat down I noticed that the entire wall behind our booth had photos of members on clipboards, bringing a personal touch to the otherwise fairly understated taproom.  There were lots of blank spots left, so it looks like there is plenty of space for new recruits up there!

Wall of owners!

Even if you aren't a member, anyone can stop by for a drink.  10 different beers were on tap, and they offer full and half pints.  I was sad that there was no sampler to try them all, but the bartender was happy to give me couple of samples to try before ordering a full pint.  I ended up getting the schwarzbier--a very good example of the classic German dark lager, followed by a very well balanced IPA.  Sj ordered a stout that was pleasant but perhaps a bit more roasty like a porter.  We also got to taste Cletus (that sounds so wrong!) an Imperial Hefe that was interesting, but not my style. 

I didn't stay here long, but enjoyed the vibe and would certainly stop in again.  If I lived in the area I would probably join up.

I like the sentiment: Drink like you own the place!

Monday, November 17, 2014

Urban Growler Review

Just before the first heavy snow of 2014, I was able to finally take a much delayed field trip to visit some of the new breweries that have popped up in the Twin Cities this summer.  I've been lax in visiting some of these places due mainly to traveling, but others I have given a bit more time to "ripen" and get into the swing of things before passing judgment on them. 

Our first visit on this overcast and dreary Sunday was Urban Growler Brewing Company in St. Paul, MN.  Our good friend Hassan (whom we have traveled with to Belgium) is a card carrying member of their version of the Founder's Club, and has been singing their praises to me for a while now.  On this visit we were happily able to meet up with Hassan and his wonderful wife Chris for a bite to eat and some good beers.  My wife, Sj, and I found the place without difficulty by following our (sometimes) trusty GPS unit from Waconia to St. Paul.  When we arrived, our fantastically bearded server Shane informed us that their credit card machine had just gone down, but that they would figure something out for us if needed.  Luckily they got it working before they put me to work washing glasses or hauling grain bags...

The space is small, but seems bigger due to high ceilings, and is very comfortable.  Large windows would have captured a fair amount of light if the skies hadn't been filmed with looming gun-metal clouds.  A small half-circle bar sits ahead and to the right of the entrance.  The brewery proper is sectioned off along the right side of the building, but is easily visible to visitors (something I always want to actually see in a brewery).  I really liked the effect of the fermenters right behind the bar that were bound with shiny copper rings.  Small chalkboard signs hung in different areas containing famous and not-so-famous quotes about beer and drinking for a little ambiance.  A row of lower tables is situated along the left side of the building, with the now vacant outside patio visible from there.  Between the tables and the bar are several high-tops, one of which we took over.  The building itself is very old with thick yellow brick walls.  With all that solid brick and glass I'll bet this place will be cold in the wintertime. 

Shane brought us a photogenic sampler of all the house beers to try, and Sj and I worked our way through them very deliberately.  Urban Growler is one of the few local breweries that has food options, not having to rely on sporadic food trucks to satisfy hungry drinkers.  I was quite pleased with my Cubano Panini sandwich and buffalo chips, and Sj liked her carnitas tacos. 

The beers were an interesting mix, with most being fair examples of their styles.  Their flagship is the Cowbell Cream Ale--a well done version, but not my favorite style of beer.  Think Spotted Cow from New Glarus and you will be on the right page.  They had a good seasonal Pumpkin Saison that had a very restrained hand on the spice and pumpkin leaving most of the heavy lifting to the fruity and funky Belgian yeast.  The De-Lovely Porter was a perfect example of a robust porter that I could find no fault with.  The Graffiti IPA was an really well balanced and somewhat spicy rye IPA.  All of the beers were well done, but my favorites were the porter and the pumpkin ale. 

Talking to Hassan, I was pleased to find that the brewery was opened by two women: Deb Loch and Jill Pavlak.  Let's be honest, brewing has been a very male dominated field until fairly recently.  I mean women can't even grow a glorious brewer's beard!  All kidding aside, I think this is fantastic for them, and they are certainly bringing some much needed female perspective to the marketplace.  Looking at their website, it looks like Deb and I competed in many of the same homebrew competitions before she went pro, though she has outdone me by winning a medal at the National Homebrew Competition!  It sounds like she still does small test homebrew batches before scaling up to full brewery batches so hasn't had to give up the experimental nature of homebrewing.

I really enjoyed my brief foray to Urban Growler, and if I lived closer to St. Paul I would surely frequent this comfortable and well-run tap room often.  The service was friendly and quick, the food good and filling, and the beers varied and tasty.  I highly recommend this place as one of the best new breweries I've been to in the Twin Cities.  (Oh, and apparently the big round silver unmarked building just outside is Bang Brewing--so check them out too while you are there!)

Thursday, November 13, 2014

30 Words: Sunrise

An Awe inspiring sunrise breaks silently over a sleeping landscape. 
A surreal painter's palette appears from atmospheric magic.
Perhaps an omen of wonderful things to come in the upcoming year.
This week's 30 Word Thursday picture was taken a few weeks ago on the way to the airport.  Sj pulled the car over on the shoulder so I could jump out and snap a few pictures with my camera.  This has been a very good year for me and as I turn 41 I hope that next year is even better.  Check out the other 30 Word Thursday entry's at Erin's Treasures Found Blog.  Also in extra cool news, Erin has taken some of the 30 Word entries from the past year (including some of mine and Sj's) and created a book of them, with 40% of the purchase price to go to the Alzheimer's Association.  I know I write a mostly beer related blog, but have really enjoyed this way to post results of my budding photography hobby and to work on creative writing that isn't related to booze!  Initially this was just going to be a year's experiment, but since Erin is continuing with it, so will I!  You can buy a copy  of the book HERE.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Outskirts of Pittsburgh, PA

Previously I wrote about the cool breweries we visited in Pittsburgh, PA.  Those entries are HERE and HERE.  While writing those I realized I wasn't quite done with my beer travelogue...and had some cool non-beer pics I wanted to post!  So here is the wrap up for our recent trip:

Let us talk of Ligonier, Pennsylvania.  This is a really cool, sleepy little colonial looking town that grew up on the site of a historic British fort from the era of the French and Indian war.  It just drips with classic Norman Rockwell mid-America from times long past.  This is a good thing.  For fall several of the local groups and stores made fun scarecrows that were situated around the picturesque town diamond.  Our B&B at Thistledown was a fine old medical building converted to a new and relaxed place to stay the night and have a made-to-order breakfast.  Several art galleries, antique stores, ice cream parlors, etc. all abound around the diamond and the nearby roads. 

Many stores have limited hours, especially Monday and Tuesday, so the place felt a little abandoned and ghost-towny during our initial stay there.  This was accentuated by the town being made up for Halloween.  Occasionally we would pass a local resident, often garnering a squinty-eyed and suspicious baleful glare rather than a welcoming smile.  We had some good leisure time over our trip to walk around the town, check out the reconstructed fort just down the road, and finally explore some shops once they opened up.  There is no nightlife in this town.  Five PM hits and the streets roll up and empty like some weird episode of the Twilight Zone, where all the folks shutter their windows and bar the doors to hide out until daybreak! 

Once the shops have closed up there are only two games in town for a drink that are walkable. 

1) The first is the old fashioned Joe's Bar, featuring 1950's d├ęcor and over 220 taxidermied creatures.  Sj and I opened the door to look in, but instantly knew that this was not our place and these were not our people.  This is the local drinking-man's establishment that hasn't changed much in 50 years.  I didn't look close but I doubt they have heard of craft beer yet.

2) The best option for us was the Ligonier Lanes Bowling Alley, and the attached bar with the improbable name of The Wicked Googly.  Yup, you read that correctly!  We ended up here on the first night we arrived (after our brewery hopping in Pittsburgh earlier that afternoon) since it was a block from our B&B, and was actually open.  We ended up here pretty much every night we were in Ligonier.  They actually had a pretty good selection of 10 craft beers on tap and more in bottles, making this an ideal stop for me.  However, the servers (all of them) knew next to nothing about the beers, and one had to walk over to the bar to look at the hand written list of beers.  The place has a restaurant with pretty amazing chicken wings in several different dry rubs and sauces.  Our first night we took advantage of the lanes and did some bowling while sipping on Imperial Stout and Pumpking. 

Four Seasons!

Sj next to the cute little brew system at Four Seasons
Not far from Ligonier we discovered a cute little brewery in Latrobe called Four Seasons Brewing Company.  We went by during the limited growler sale times, but at that point they were still working on getting clearance to finish the tap room and serve pints.  A large bar was under construction in one half of the warehouse getting ready for taproom hours.  They were very friendly to us there and let us sample all the beers.  They actually just won a silver medal at GABF for their oatmeal stout...but they didn't have any on tap for us to try.  I cried a little inside.  They had a very good Kolsch and a bright and clovey Belgian Single that I really liked. 

Thinking we were going to a BYOB restaurant for dinner, we had grabbed a growler of the Single and headed out.  And of course the restaurant had an open sign in the window, but was closed.  We ended up eating at Carol & Dave's Roadhouse for dinner and they actually had a nice local IPA on tap from Rivertowne.  Not nearly enough Swayze, nor bare knuckle fist fights to be a proper Roadhouse though!

Outside areas of the Phipps Conservatory.

The next day we were back in Pittsburgh again to see the Phipps Conservatory and I had a chance to snap some pictures of cool plants within the sheltering confines of tons of glass.  No time for breweries, this time, but our local guide Andrew directed us to The Headkeeper Tapas Bar in Greensburg about half way back to Ligonier.  This place had 600 varieties of beer to choose from, including a large local selection.  Interestingly most of these were bottles in a huge wall of beautiful coolers.  Only 10 beers on tap, but still too many to choose from!  One can buy bottles to drink there or to take home with you.  I wanted to go back, but we only made the one stop.  Not local, but Sj and I split the fantastic Elysian Dark of the Moon pumpkin stout.  Outside they had a large comfortable patio area heated by propane lamps.

We had a great and relaxing trip, and I was happily surprised that we found as much to do in the area as we did.  The craft beer scene is growing rapidly, but most of the places we found were only about a year or so old.  I'd put this area at where Minneapolis was about 3-4 years ago, but coming on fast. Thanks to Andrew Thornton for hosting us while we were there, to Chip Walton for suggesting some of the places we went to, and to everyone who we met on this fun side-trip! 

Historic Ligonier welcomes all strangers with open arms...er...with spiky walls and cannons?

Friday, November 7, 2014

Pittsburgh Beer Scene Part 2

Continuing the beery travelogue on our recent trip to the Pittsburgh area.  If you missed my previous post, check it out HERE.

Day two of our trip to Ligonier found us eating a wonderful breakfast bread pudding and sipping pumpkin spiced lattes at Thistledown B&B, located right along the quaint main street.  Ligonier is a small town at the site of an old French and Indian War English fort (which has been rebuilt as a very cool interactive museum).  With the classic town diamond with white gazebo band shell, tons of small cafes, galleries, and antique stores, this place is unstuck in time.  With slight breeze blowing falling leaves around the streets, and an Indian Summer warming sun, this was a truly beautiful and relaxing place to wander around.  The only negative?  Very little is open Sunday through Tuesday, making our timing here a bit problematic.  So what else to do but go back to Pittsburgh for some more beer tourism!

Mayberry?  Or Ligonier, PA?

This time driving in the daytime, we were able to see and appreciate the hills and valleys (hollows) covered with large trees currently in the process of dropping brilliant yellow and orange leaves upon us.  Coming from the very flat areas of Minnesota this terrain was quite a change for me, and reminded Sj of the mountain near where she grew up in Alabama.  We passed through several small towns on our way into Pittsburgh proper.

Our first stop was Arsenal Cider House, named after the Allegheny Arsenal, in the suburb of Lawrenceville.  This is very close to Roundabout and Hop Farm Brewing, so one could get to all of them in a short time.  Located in a small red house across from a large church, we found this place difficult to find at first since there was no visible sign.  Upon cautiously entering we found a small, rustic interior with burned and distressed pine woodwork and rich wall colors.  Civil War era pictures and memorabilia lined walls and shelves.  A small tasting bar filled with taps and wooden casks formed the focus for the small taproom.  When we arrived right after 11 AM opening, there was a large tour group ahead of us finishing up with their tasting.  Another group was just finishing a tour and switched places with the current crowd...so much for hitting the taproom before they got busy!  We barreled (no pun!) our way into line and were able to each taste a thimble sized paper cup of 4 different fermented beverages each for free. 

This place makes really good cider!  They had strong wine-like ciders and meads, some made from cherries and blueberries, as well as some more traditional dry and semi-sweet hard ciders.  Some were oak aged to add complexity and tannins.  Probably my favorite was the oak aged blueberry wine that was the best blueberry fermented beverage I have ever had!  We ended up ordering a glass apiece and watching the chaotic taproom tour group from our little table near the back of the tasting room.  Did I mention the amazing tap handles shaped like pistols and skeletal hands grasping fruit?  I risked TSA body cavity search in order to bring one of those pistols home in my luggage!  I love what these guys are doing, and hope that they expand from growler and tap sales to bottles so I can get some sent to me.  The only thing I would suggest is to add a sign to the questionably marked taproom...

After our strong cider/wine, we were in need of sustenance.  A nice walk from the cidery was one of the more unique brewpubs I've ever visited: The Church Brew Works.  And yes, we made lots of jokes about sitting in a pew on Sunday!  This large brewpub is located in the 1902 St. John's the Baptist church, reminding me of a massive church bookstore we saw in Maastricht, Netherlands earlier this year.  I had heard mixed things about the beers, but had to check it out myself.  They won two GABF medals in 2012, so how bad could it be? 

This place is enormous.  A small brew system occupies the pulpit, with fermentation/serving tanks behind the long bar to the left of this picture.  I'm not so sure about the tawdry yellow flags and signs though--it seems to detract from the majesty of this place.  They also had un ugly yellow bopping hot air driven promo thing outside that I associate with cut-rate used car lots.  It was crowded but not insane and our service was accurate and fast.  As with most of Pittsburgh, a ton of folks were sporting their Steelers gear and a somewhat rowdy table next to us were watching the game through an iPhone.  That town has some serious sports team pride! 

We had a pretty good pizza with wild boar and BBQ sauce made with one of their beers along with a side order of terribly cooked fries.  Sj and I shared a sampler of all their beers.  This was a mixed bag--some were good, others not as thrilling.  None were outright terrible, but overall they reminded me of the brewpub beer quality from the early 1990's.  My favorite was actually the light lager since it was the cleanest of the bunch.  I have a hard time believing that these beers won GABF medals, but I know that things can change batch to batch and possibly brewer to brewer.  I tried to look up some details on the brewer, but the garish bright blue website didn't have any information.  I would certainly recommend checking this place out, but I found several better places for beer even in the same suburb. 

Ok, I decided to add a third entry to this travelogue and am including more on Ligonier and the Eastern outskirts of Pittsburgh in that one... Coming up soon!

Thursday, November 6, 2014

30 Word Thursday: Hot House

Yellow and orange leaves dropping from the sky, twirling along the street.
While encased in glass, like the Beast's rose, summer flowers remain in bloom.
A last gasp of color!
On our recent trip to Pittsburgh, we were able to visit the fantastic Phipps Conservatory.  I took this last chance to take pictures with my macro lens for the season.  The light was often strange inside the building, and this one caught a cool ray of sun.  Not quite impressive enough on its own I added a watercolor paint effect and added some canvas texture.  Check out the other 30 Word Thursday entries at Erin's Treasures Found Blog.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Pittsburgh Beer Scene Part 1

This has been a month of travels.  Just on the heels of a wonderful adult childhood trip to Disneyland, Sj and I set sail (ok we flew) for Pittsburgh, PA.  The real reason we took this trip was to take part in a book club run by Andrew Thornton at his Allegory Gallery in small town Ligonier, PA.  A long way to go for a book club?  Yes, but it was loads of fun, and we needed a more relaxing trip after the crowd-filled chaos of Disney.  We arrived at the Pittsburgh airport and headed down to Hertz to get our rental car.  The line was long and some (probably) drunk yahoos in line behind us were getting surly, nearly getting security called on them.  While I am slightly sad that I missed the chance to see someone getting tazed, it probably would have slowed down the rental process even more. 

At a recommendation from Chip Walton of Chop & Brew and Brewing TV fame, we headed right from the airport to get lunch at the Piper's Pub.  This was a little old fashioned pub, filled with soccer fans eagerly watching "football" and putting back full British sized pints of beer.  The bar area is small and somewhat loud, but gives a better view of the taps than the 1950's era restaurant seating in the back.  They always have at least two cask beers (I had Duck Rabbit Milk Stout) and a very good selection of local and British ales.  Lots of traditional English, Irish, Scottish fare are present in the menu and we both ended up with the tasty and incredibly mouth-scorchingly hot lamb stew.  A nice way to ease into the beer culture of Pennsylvania! 

From there we headed to Roundabout Brewery.  This is a pretty new brewery and the tap room is small and somewhat spartan.  While we were attempting to park around the corner and dodge a poorly parked drunk-bus, the burly-vested-shade-wearing driver strutted into the middle of the street in front of us while talking loudly on his cell phone.  After some rude hand motions all around, we parked and made our way into the Lilliputian sized tap room.  Luckily the drunks from the bus were on their way out and things got a bit quieter.  The lady serving at the doll-sized bar was still very busy but quite pleasant and got us a sampler of all 5 beers.

The beers at Roundabout were all very good.  The Trompe le Monde was a pretty good clone of La Fin du Monde from Unibrou, made with locally sourced honey.  The Hy-PA was a wonderfully balanced IPA made with Chinook and New Zealand Montueka hops, and I would gladly drink this every day.  But by far our favorite was the Jacked Up O'Lantern Stout: one of the best pumpkin spiced beers I've had, made with local La Prima espresso coffee.  We bought a small growler of that beer to have in our hotel room later in the trip.  I really liked the vibe and the beers here (and they had a cheese plate and meat pies for the hungry drinkers!)  Our server gladly suggested some other places to check out, giving us a small booklet on the Pittsburgh Libation Trail, as well as a few that weren't in the book.  I've seen a similar publication in Bend, OR, but they have a prize if you get to all the breweries...


Next up was Hop Farm Brewing Company, just a few blocks from Roundabout.  I mean it was right there, so we had to stop right?  This was another industrial building surrounded by quasi-decrepit warehouses.  The small taproom featured a small bar that the wife and I bellied up to.  We ordered the sampler to try all the beers they had available, though both of us were getting a bit full by this time.  There is not a lot of info online about this new brewery, but it looks like they grow some or all of their own hops.  We had a good server, who was helpful about finding other local places to check out.  I wish I had liked the beers as much as I liked the mixed rural/urban taproom feel.  The Cherry Bomb was an Imperial Berliner with sweet cherries, but just didn't taste right.  There was a lime basil (the plant) saison that was an interesting concept, but just not fermented right--too much sulfurous essence to the aroma and flavor that overwhelmed the subtle spicing.  The One Nut Brown was probably the best of the group and the only sample we finished.  Sorry guys, you have some growing up to do yet. 

By now it was starting to get late, with dusk dropping upon us earlier from the shortening days of fall.  Our server at Roundabout had strongly suggested we try the new (5-6 months old) The Brew Gentlemen, but they were only open that day during our scheduled trip.  Since our last stop had been fast and somewhat disappointing, we opted for a quick drive-by sampling on our way out of town.  Located in (shocking) another industrial steel area in Braddock, PA, this building had a wonderful metal and wood charm to it, inside and out.  In true Pittsburgh fashion, folks in Steelers gear were outside grilling up food in the parking lot when we arrived.  A nearly empty seating area just inside the main doorway led to the bar area that was much more bustling.  The two young bartenders were dressed in slacks, dapper vests, and ties--a big step up from pretty much all other taprooms I've seen.  We found a couple chairs at the bar (for easy access to the taps) and ordered a mix of samples that all came out in small stemmed cognac glasses.  They had a lot of beers on tap, with a huge variety.  Saisons rubbed elbows with IPA, and wheat beers.  To celebrate fall they had no less than three pumpkin spiced beers: a stout, a saison, and an amazing maple flapjack beer!  But the winner for both myself and Sj was the Chipotle DIPA.  Seriously who puts chipotle in an IPA?  Keep in mind that both of us love spicy food and this beer may not fly with my Minnesota (black pepper is too spicy!) compatriots. 

Whilst raving about the beers we discovered that both of the young gentlemen serving us were owners, and that the brewer was even younger.  Am I getting old that I call 24 young?  Yup.  We got to discuss the beers a bit with friendly Co-Founder/Creative Director Asa Foster, but the taproom was getting busy and we had to get rolling.  Our bed & breakfast was in Ligonier, another hour and a half drive through the mountainous and now dark countryside!  If the tap room had been open more days, I would have come back every day of my trip.  Overall I think that Brew Gentlemen is the one to watch on the Pittsburgh craft beer scene.  Not since early Surly Brewing have I seen such a bold and well done grouping of beers in such a recent brewery.  Well done Sirs, well done!

Steel Town!

At this point poor Sj had to drive our rental car all the way to our B&B while I continued to rave about Maple Flapjack ale.  I did help spot for deer, and counted a plethora carcasses laying sprawled on or near the road.  We made it safely, but ended up heading back to Pittsburgh the next day for more adventures (To Follow).

Up Next: 30 Word Thursday

Monday, November 3, 2014

The Bruery, Placentia, CA


On a recent anniversary trip to Disneyland, I discovered that one of my favorite breweries was a short cab ride away from our temporary home of the Grand Californian Hotel.  I have tried several of The Bruery's amazing beers over the past few years, but there is no Minnesota distribution, so they are hard to get my hands on.  Their most sought after beer is probably Black Tuesday--an insanely strong and sweet bourbon barrel aged Imperial stout.  The oddly spelled name stems from the owner/brewer's name: Patrick Rue.

The view from our section of the bar...

Taking a break from the (dry) Disneyland fun on this particular Sunday, Sj and I hopped in a cab for the short jaunt to the small industrial park where the brewery is located.  When we arrived we asked our driver what the best way to get a cab back would be.  He said he could wait an hour for us (which seemed strange) but we didn't want to tie ourselves down on time.  More on this later.  The simple but large tasting room was fairly full when we arrived, but we were able to snag a couple of seats at the long bar.  Nearly everyone there had wooden sample tray in front of them, almost no pints of beer were being poured--very different from the average tap room.  Near the entrance they had a sign up for tours and sheets of paper with written descriptions of the 32 tap beers and another for their bottled options to take home.  Tastefully framed versions of their bottle labels decorate the walls behind the bar...and not so tastefully slapped all over the place in the bathrooms.  Behind the bar they also had a not-so-secret stash of bottles to be bought for on premises drinking--including some pretty hard to find stuff like the barrel aged Bois.

Stainless and bottles...so many pretty bottles!

Our servers were awesome.  Instead of rolling their eyes at us for waffling on our sampler orders, we received great advice, and perfect hospitality.  Frankly I am seldom confused by beer menus, but this thing was so huge and many of the beers were high-test, so I was a bit boggled.  With help from our servers and from the nice "regular" lady seated next to us we were finally able to order a few rounds of samples.  The samplers came in a cool wooden crate carrier and were all served in little snifter glasses.  Most of these were pretty pricey, but all were worth it!  In addition to just a huge list of beers, they also had a couple of mini flights with either different vintages or different treatments of the same beer (oaked, cocoa nibs, etc.)  They had a couple of options only for their Reserve Society members...one of the perks of joining. 

Seriously, have you ever seen this many beers from one brewery?

We ended up getting several groupings of beer, each seemingly more impressive than the last.  A few didn't hit the mark--the Coffee Smoking Wood comes to mind (just too astringent.)  Favorites were the malt-bomb barleywine Mash and its coconut incarnation.  I was also a huge fan of the hoppy, bretty saison Atomic Kangaroo.  A tour was going to leave about halfway through our debauched tasting, but I didn't want to let our seats go in the rapidly filling up taproom.  Oh, and I wanted to keep trying more amazing beers!  Sj and I had planned an hour or so for the tasting, but even without the tour we ended up spending closer to two hours at the taproom.  To counter some of the booze, we ended up needing some food from the cleverly placed food truck outside the brewery. 

We ended up buying a whole case of beer to take home with us (we had brought an empty Styrofoam shipper to Disney for just this purpose) as you get 15% off a full case of 750 ML bottles.  We also lucked out and were there during the special release of White Chocolate--a big and chocolaty wheat wine.  Between the obscene amount of samples we tried, $30 White Chocolates, and all the rest--this was not our cheapest brewery visit!

Word to the wise on visiting by cab: one can get there easily, but getting back home can be more problematic.  We had the friendly bar staff call us a cab when we were wrapping up our buying spree, but 25 minutes later no-one had arrived to pick us up.  After another call we were assured that a car was 5 minutes away.  By this time were both really ready to get our big heavy box of beers back to the hotel and get back to Magical Disney activities.  After 15 minutes I called another company (Yellow Cab) and they said they would get someone out for us.  After 15 more minutes someone got dropped off at the brewery and we dove for the cab before he could leave the parking lot.  30 minutes later (after finally arriving back home) I got a call from the Yellow Cab telling me that they still didn't have anyone to pick us up.  So plan ahead or rent a car!

I love the beers from The Bruery with a passion.  This was a holy pilgrimage for me and other than the cab issue was one of the best taproom visits I have ever had!  I'm looking forward to slowly doling out my spoils over the coming months to prolong the memory and experience.  If you get out that way--this place is a must visit.  And if you can get access to their beers in your market: do so now!

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Terra Waconia & Waconia Brewing Company Dinner

So our sleepy little town of Waconia now has its second brewery!  Waconia Brewing Company is open for business!  I will be doing a full write-up on them soon, but wanted to do a quick blog post about their first beer dinner that occurred Thursday the 30th at Waconia's own Terra Waconia restaurant.  This is the second time I've been at a beer dinner for Halloween there, and they do a great job of getting you in the mood!

This particular event started right across the road at Waconia Brewing's tasting room.  Several of us dressed up for the event--I as Indiana Jones and Sj as Willie the shrieking maiden from Temple of Doom (complete with bugs in her hair and stuck onto her clothing!)  We were greeted warmly and a large platter of cheese, meats, and olives provided sustenance for us hungry patrons.  Within minutes, Tom the brewer handed me a new hoppy and complex Belgian pale ale made with an experimental hop.  Once most of us had arrived, we got a quick tour of the brewhouse (my first time being in there) and then headed across the street to the restaurant.

The small entry way to the restaurant was coated in white plastic with artful bloody hand prints and gore spattered across it.  Once you moved into the building, the windows were blacked out and the place was lit by flickering scattered candelabra and individual candles in wine bottle holders.  Cobwebs with suspended spiders coated the old tin ceiling and many of the walls, grabbing out at passers by.  Creepy horror music led a disturbing tone to the darkened surroundings.  A freakish doll hung from a fan.  Another doll on the bar held half its face and scalp in one hand...  All of my pictures are pretty sad due to the low light, so keep in mind that things looked better than this!

Sj and I got to sit with Dave and Sarah Manley this year and had some great conversations while waiting for each course to arrive.  Strangely much of the talk revolved around Halloween and horror themes...  The kitchen staff were all decked out in bloodstains and gore, working by headlamps so as not to break the mood for us diners.

Our first course was a seafood cake made to look like small bloody brains on a plate.  This was very good, but the texture was as squidgy as the brains it was supposed to be!  The pairing was with Waconia's kolsch and was a good one in my opinion.

Second course was a most disturbing squished and decomposing rat dish!  Made of potato carved into a ribcage, beets, beef, and a beet "blood pool", this was one of the craziest looking dishes I've ever had.  Tasted great!  I believe this was paired with the IPA, nice and refreshing for a palate cleanser after lapping up all that blood...

Did I mention the dead rat being the craziest dish?  Yup, but only until the next plate arrived!  This plate of finely shaved duck in broth, topped with hideously worm shaped gnocchi was my favorite of the evening.  Gotta tell you, it was hard taking that first bite!  Paired with the Waconia Amber, also a good combination.

Last dish was Eyeball Soup.  A melon soup served in a wine glass with floating lychee "eyeballs" with a firm apple pupil inside.  I'm not a melon fan so this was not my favorite of our courses, but still totally fun.  The texture and shape of the lychee was so spot-on for eyeballs that this was tough one to eat!  This was paired with the Waconia Wit, perhaps the only pairing I didn't love.  The beer itself was fine, but the soup and the beer seemed to clash a bit.

After the dinner was served, Chef Craig Sharp came out in his freaky clown mask with a devil doll to give us one last scare!  This was a great dinner, filled with scares, good food, good beers and good friends.