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!

1 comment:

Brady said...

Agree, for being a new brewery in the state, they have really cranked out some good first run beers. Excited to see what down the road.