Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Four Firkins Expansion Need You!

I just wanted to spread the word as far and wide as I can that my favorite all craft beer store, The Four Firkins, is looking to expand to a second location in Woodbury.  By doing this they hope to stay viable in a market that is becoming overtaken by giant behemoth liquor stores.  And they need YOU!  You can check out their Indigogo page below for details on the proposed expansion and they also have several incentives for contributors.  Also watch the short video done by the guys from Limited Release!

When I buy craft beer I try to support my local Waconia liquor store (Legacy Wine and Spirits) but when I'm looking for harder to find beers I head to the Four Firkins.  I love what these folks stand for and appreciate that they try to get to know their customers.  While a new store in Woodbury (across the world from where I live) doesn't directly benefit me, giving Alvey help in this venture is something I feel that I have to do.   Check it out and see if you want to lend a hand to small local business!


Monday, March 24, 2014

Hudson, Wisconsin: Make A Run For The Border

On a recent weekend my wife and I decided to make a day trip to Hudson, Wisconsin for some exploration of this close border-town.  With Sunday sales of beer still illegal in Minnesota, Hudson has really started to take advantage of thirsty Minnesotans crossing the border to spend money on alcoholic libations.  Living on the Minneapolis side of things I have never actually made this particular trek before, so this was an interesting experience.  From our house to Hudson took about an hour, and we left at around 4:30 in the afternoon.  All of the following chaos ensued over just a few hours!

As we passed the Welcome to Wisconsin display after the river, it strangely felt as if we had traveled far more than 50 miles to reach our destination.  Hudson is literally right across the border and it took only another 5 minutes to reach our first destination: American Sky Brewing Company.  This is a small brewery that opened in 2012 and has been supplying Wisconsin with beer for the past two years and will soon open up distribution to Minnesota.  We happened to get there on a special Spring Fest event day, so the place was hopping!  A very good blues trio was playing and The Hangar was quite loud.  They had a cool small circular bar near the entrance that was either made of silver plane wing or at least made to look like it.  Flags and pictures of WWII aviation lined the walls.  Picnic tables were set up further in the warehouse and we joined a very nice family from the area who gave us the local beer rundown in between sets of music.

A busy place!

They had several special release spring flavored beers including one with grapefruit, one with lavender and a peaches n' cream.  They did not have samplers during the busy festival so I opted for a pint of the Cherry Blossom: a cherry infused version of their red ale.  The beer was not terrible, but the cherry was certainly extract or flavoring and lent a cough syrup flavor to the beer.  Sj's thoughts were that it tasted like Ludens Cough Drops, but not as bad as Cherry Robo!  Sj won this round with her pint of American Velvet, a pleasant coffee infused stout.  I would have loved to try the rest, but we had other places to go!  This was a fun little stop and worth a check.

A great setting!

Since were saving room for dinner, we headed out from American Sky fairly quickly after finishing our beers.  On our way out we saw one poor lady getting half-carried out of the place, trying to balance on tall stiletto heels.  We wound and slid our way through the icy roads of a half-abandoned industrial park and back to the highway for our next adventure!  Our new friends at the previous brewery had suggested we also try the new Pitchfork Brewing not far away.  Like many breweries, this one was a bit out of the way, tucked back off a no-outlet highway service road between an ice skate sharpening place and next to an Irish Pub in a small strip mall.  This place is tiny and understated from the outside and I never would have discovered it by accident.  The interior hosts a small dark bar and a few booths and tables.  Most of the building space is taken up by the incredibly small brewery (3 barrel?) visible through some glass behind the bar.  I instantly loved the vibe in the taproom.  Old pitchforks and country art hang from the walls in a homey rural fashion.  Milk pails used as lamp shades hand from the ceiling along with old burlap grain and feed bags.  Rustic dark stained wooden signs and chalk boards are tastefully displayed behind the bar.  There was even a standing bar table made out of an old pitchfork!

Our server was very attentive and pleasant, flinging down some old compact discs as coasters for us.  Mine was (suitably) Appetite For Destruction.  Welcome to the jungle indeed!  We were quickly served our shared beer sampler in an appropriately unaffected wooden holder.  They had a good mix of beers available including a brown, pale, UK IPA, and a stout.  I could see an extensive list of upcoming brews that shows a lot of variation in the brewery's line up.  I really wish I had liked the beer more than I did.  With such a fun and relaxing setting and great staff I was hoping for more fro the beers.  The best of them was a Munich dunkel but even that only rated a 3 of 5 on Untappd for me.  Most had a house flavor that was distracting and borderline tainted tasting.  Sj was not a fan of them either so it wasn't just me being a hater.  I love the setting of this hidden little homespun gem of a tiny tasting room but they have a long way to come before I'd recommend the beers.  Check them out just for the setting, and maybe they will be improving the brews by the time you get there--I can't find details but I think they just opened this year!

The next foray was to Stone Tap for dinner.  This was really the impetus for getting us to Hudson in the first place.  Catherine Pflueger (previously GM of The Happy Gnome) is the General Manager there now and we have been meaning to get there just to see her again.  She had organized a special New Glarus tasting for the night in question and we finally bit the bullet and organized this impromptu trip.  The gastropub opened in 2013 and has been getting rave reviews for their farm-to-table fine dining and excellent wine and beer list.  The building it is located in was built in 1875 and boasts many different styles of solid brick walls and old architectural features.  They apparently plan on expanding into the rest of the building to include a night club and more over time, which should be interesting.  They obviously took great care in renovation, showcasing much of the old building while updating it for a comfortable dining and drinking experience. 

We were smart enough to make reservations for a Saturday night (we overheard walk-ins being told about a very long wait for dinner) and were quickly seated near the bar in a wooden booth.  We took advantage of the special New Glarus tasters they were offering: Belgian Red, Raspberry Tart, Serendipity, and Strawberry Rhubarb--Oh My!  We shared a cheese-heavy charcuterie board (this is Wisconsin after all!) that mostly paired well with our sweet and tart beers.  Unable to decide on main dishes, Sj and I shared two of them.  The Wild Boar was perfectly cooked with a light smoky char on the outside served with the lightest pillowy gnocchi I've ever had, all brought together with a blue cheese sauce and raspberry demi.   The Quatre et Trois was an unusual combination of duck, veal, pork and chicken all formed into a flavorful and crumbly block atop a green bed of spinach, faro, quinoa and wheat berries.  Aesthetically that one was not as amazing, but the flavors were stellar!  Full to bursting, we took home a dessert of chocolate banana bread for later.  It was great getting a chance to catch up with Catherine and try out her new place.  I would highly recommend the Stone Tap to anyone who considers themselves a foodie or loves craft beers.  The beer list of taps and bottles was extensive with some items like Dogfish Head that we can't get in Minnesota (all of those were clearly marked so we could be sure to take advantage of the new options!)

Terrible picture, cool bar!

We finished dinner fairly late in the evening, but still had one more stop before returning to our land of 10,000 lakes.  The helpful server at Pitchfork Brewing had clued me in to the fact that Cassanova's (a local liquor store specializing in craft beer) had Toppling Goliath beers on tap.  The store had closed by the time we finished eating, but their attached wine bar The Nova was still open and serving.  Just a few blocks away from Stone Tap, we pulled up and entered the dimly lit and bustling little place.  I really liked the crowded feel and mix of antique and found furniture in the bar.  I'd like to stop in again some time when I have more to time settle in and enjoy the ambiance.  But this visit we were on a mission!  They were still able to fill me a growler of Pseudo Sue from the taps to take home with me to Minnesota--something that is still not legal in my state!

Considering we left Waconia at 4:30 in the afternoon, I think we had quite the evening in Hudson!  I would recommend checking out the town if you haven't already.  Take advantage of the fact that you can buy beer on Sundays in Wisconsin.  And that you can get growlers of commercial beer filled at restaurants and liquor stores.  And that brewery tap rooms can be open on Sunday.  And that you can get different beers that are not distributed in Minnesota... Wisconsin is still way ahead of Minnesota when it comes to beer and liquor blue laws, but I have hopes that this gap will continue to narrow of the next few years.  Currently there is legislation (strongly  supported by Jason Alvey of the Four Firkins) to legalize Sunday sales.  Sorry about the soap box, but I feel strongly about this! 

Thursday, March 20, 2014

30 Word Thursday: Tower

The dark eidolon looms above our cluttered lives.
A solid brick tower of sameness and conformity,
Rising to the sky bringing despair on those beneath its heavy shadow.
Challenge this!
This edition of 30 Word Thursday was taken whilst wandering through downtown St. Paul a few weeks ago.  I got a little emo in this one...sorry!  Check out the other folks contributing to this blog-hop at the Treasures Found Blog.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Waconia Brewing Company: An Early Preview!

In case you folks haven't been paying attention, "this craft beer thing" has really been taking off over the past few years!  There are production breweries, brewpubs, micro-breweries, nano-breweries, and more popping up all around the state of Minnesota (as they are across the United States.)  Many more are in the planning and construction stages as I write this.  Some naysayers have been decrying this boom as a fad and one that will crash like the ill-fated early 1990's brewery bust, but I think that is unlikely to happen.  This generation of craft beer drinkers is (mostly) not in it for the funny name or fancy label, but for variety and flavor.  Now nearly every bar or restaurant with a liquor license has at least a few craft beers on tap, or at least some transitional ones like Sam Adams or Blue Moon.  Many servers know their beer styles these days and some places even have full fledged Ciccerones on staff.  However with this craft beer rise, there is still only so much marketshare for that small piece of the beer-drinking pie.  The burgeoning craft beer enterprise will probably hit a certain saturation point and some of the weaker breweries (those with inferior beer or poor business sense) will likely fall by the wayside.

A way to get around this growing competition for tap-handles and shelf space is to focus more on a neighborhood or local market.  This is actually a trend that harkens back to the pre-prohibition days when nearly every town had its own brewery, before the massive consolidation of breweries into a few monolithic multinational corporations.  As a beer blogger I'm certainly seeing a trend toward this, especially out in the more distant suburbs of the Twin Cities.  Enki brewery in Victoria has already breathed new life into the sleepy downtown area, appealing to a lot of locals to fill their tap room.  Roets Jordan Brewery is poised to open this summer and aims to supply the local market in that historic city.  And now in my own town we have another contender for small local brewery on the horizon: Waconia Brewing Company!  Looking at my handy copy of Land of Sky Blue Waters by Doug Hoverson, I discovered that the last brewery in Waconia shut down between 1888-1890.  Its about time we had another!

I had heard rumblings about the brewery from a few of my sources, but information was sketchy.  Since I live in Waconia, I wanted more news!  So I stalked these poor unsuspecting entrepreneurs and invited them over for an exclusive interview for the JABlog.  I was lucky enough to get a chance to meet with Peter and Bob DeLange the other night at my bar to discuss their plans for the upcoming brewery.  Here is the scoop as of this writing.

Just who are these mysterious men who want to bring craft beer to the city of Waconia?  Bob and Peter are two of four DeLange brothers who have a history of working together when younger in a family run restaurant.  Peter and his wife Dee have been living in the area for several years and are currently building a new home in Waconia.  Bob recently moved here from Iowa with his wife Kaye and son, but we'll forgive him for that since he was smart enough to move to Minnesota!  Talking to the two of them one can easily tell they are brothers, as they share a camaraderie and comfort level with each other that can only come from being close family.  They obviously share a love of craft beer, but I was intrigued to discover that they are avid board game aficionados, even getting all four brothers together each year for several days of gaming and beer drinking.  Now that is a way to stay close to your family!  Currently Bob is in charge of organizing the construction aspects of the brewery and will be doing much of the "operations" work once the brewery opens.  Peter is doing most of the business planning.  Dee is working hard on the tap room design, branding and social media for the brewery.  Their younger brother Kevin is involved with the award winning Dry Dock brewery in Colorado, and is offering consultation on brewery design and set-up.  This is truly a family business!

When asked about the brewery itself, the two have a lot to say!  Obviously, there is still a fair amount up in the air at this stage in planning, but some decisions have been made already.  The brewery will be right downtown in Waconia, next to Unhinged Pizza, in the space that once housed a daycare center.  I can bet right now that pizza sales are going to sky-rocket!  They have already ordered their 10 barrel brew system, with 20 barrel fermenters and serving tanks.  The goal at this point is to have about half of the brewery building be taken up by a tap room and the other half for the brewery itself.  Initially they plan to focus on the taproom experience with growler sales at the brewery, but allowing room for a bottling line and distribution in the future.  They also aim to have some kegs on tap at local area bars and restaurants as well.  They hope to open in late Summer or early Fall of 2014, but construction, inspections, and licensing can sometimes throw breweries for a loop and cause delays.  I've got my fingers crossed for them to get things rolling as quickly and easily as possible!

Why Waconia?  They had asked themselves years ago, "Why does Waconia not have a brewery yet?"  Now with Bob moving to the area, this seed of an idea is becoming a reality.  They decided to name the brewery after the city of Waconia because, according to Peter they are proud of this town!  From a location and branding standpoint it makes sense too--just look at Excelsior Brewing's popularity.  Bob mentions one of his main goals as "Bringing the craft beer experience to the area."  I think that is a wonderful ambition, and one I've been encouraging for several years as well through this blog and the Jack Of All Brews Homebrew Club.

When asked about the philosophy of the brewery, Peter and Bob both seem to agree that their main desire is to create a local taproom that has a very comfortable and community atmosphere.  They want the environment in the brewery to be relaxing and laid back, allowing people to get together to socialize in town.  They hope to have game or trivia nights and possibly host acoustic music from time to time.  I think this type of setting will certainly appeal to me, and will offer something not available in the current downtown Waconia bar scene.

But what about the beers?  Beer details are still up in the air a bit at this point, but the brothers do have some ideas on that front.  Peter is a homebrewer and loves hoppy styles, so they will need something with some hop character to satisfy him.  Bob is a big fan of double IPA and really wants one of those on tap, but also likes German Hefeweizens.  They hope to have a stable of 4-5 regular beers with another 5-6 rotating special beers for variety.  They will likely have a lighter style like a kolsch or a wheat beer to appeal to the craft beer newbies as well.  They do plan on hiring an experienced brewer as they get closer to opening, so if you know anyone who fits the bill, please pass this information on!  The small size of the brew system will allow them to experiment a bit and try new things--something I'm always a fan of.

After hanging out for an hour and half with these guys at my bar and sharing my homebrews, I have a good feeling about this venture.  Both Peter and Bob are personable, friendly and open to new ideas.  They have been working hard behind the scenes to make this dream a reality and are now ready to move on with the nuts and bolts of construction and with endless reams of paperwork.  This is why you will never see me quitting my day job to open a brewery!  I think the DeLanges have the right idea with their current business plan: the aim of appealing to the local taproom drinker with an assortment of well-crafted quality beers.

I appreciate these guys taking time out of their busy schedules to meet with me for this interview.  I hope that I'll be able to share more information about Waconia Brewing Company over the coming year, and look forward to sipping a pint of their beer and playing some Lords Of Waterdeep or Settlers of Catan at their taproom!  Head over to their Facebook page HERE and like them now!

Addendum 10/2014:  Waconia Brewing is open!  My initial impression is that these guys are on the right track.  I'll be writing up a more in-depth review when I get a chance.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Beer Archeology 101: Building a Beer Cellar.

Cellaring Beer?

Most folks I know buy (or brew their own) beer for immediate consumption.  In most cases, this is how beer is meant to be consumed: fresh!  Commercial breweries want their beer to reach the consumer as fresh as possible and in perfect drinking condition.  They do not want these beers (especially lower gravity or hoppy ones) to lose their mojo by sitting around too long thereby giving the brewery a bad reputation.  However, some beers actually do improve or change with aging.  This entry is my attempt at covering the concept.

In about 2006 one of my friends, Brett Schneider, opened my eyes to the then novel idea of cellaring beers.  Prior to that I had really not given much thought to keeping beer around longer than it took me to drink it.  For a special Holiday brewclub event (back when Jack Of All Brews only had about 8 members) Brett brought out a bunch of old Sierra Nevada Bigfoot bottles.  I think Dave Manley may have contributed some as well, but I make things up sometimes.  With each bottle sporting a year of birth in bright blue on its base white cap, it was easy to organize this tasting sequentially.  I think we went from newest to oldest in order to see how the fresh beer tasted and then monitor the change over time by reaching farther back in years.  The newest at the time was 2006 and the oldest was 1995.  My mind was blown by this vertical tasting of one beer!  The fresh one was so hoppy and bitter that I found it nearly undrinkable.  But as we went back in time the hops mellowed.  The beers became more balanced and complex.  And eventually we reached the stage where oxidation no longer helped the taste, but hindered them instead, resulting in cardboard and muddy flavors.   There was also some variation year to year that could have been due to particular vintages or just storage conditions in the interim.  Eyes opened, I began my own beer cellar that month with a six pack of Bigfoot. 

Not my cellar...this one is Belgium!

Aging Beers

What beers age well you ask?  In general, many of the higher alcohol beers (8% ABV or higher) will age better than lower gravity beers.  Hops tend to fade fast in beers, so pale ales, IPAs and double IPAs do not typically hold up well.  Here are some guidelines for what beers age the best.

1) Barleywines seem to be ageable, but those hop flavors will fade and change with time.  If you love the fresh hop craziness of American barleywines, you may not want to age them, as you could be disappointed with the process.  As mentioned above, Bigfoot ages remarkably well, but there is a huge difference between the mouth rending bitterness of a fresh one versus the sherry-like smoothness of an old bottle.  English barleywines like the (now defunct) Thomas Hardy or J.W. Lees tend to age quite well though, getting more complex and sweeter with time. 

2) Old ales are a good choice--its right there in the name!  Fullers puts out a Vintage Ale every year that ages quite well.  This past summer Dave Manley invited a few of us over to taste some of these vintage bottles and the differences were amazing.  Each one had a box with notes from the brewer on the type of grains and hops used that really helped when evaluating these beers.  Old Stock Ale from North Coast is a good variety to age as well.

3) Imperial Stout is probably the most popular cellared beer style these days.  With a lot of special release beers like Surly Darkness, Three Floyds Dark Lord, etc. people will save these for years in order to try them back to back with different vintages.  I find most Imperial stouts to be very difficult to drink right away--so much hot alcohol and astringency from hopping and dark roasted malts.  But aged a year or two, those rough edges mellow and most will improve greatly in drinkability.  My personal favorite for aging is Darkness: I have 2008 to 2014 waiting on a perfect time to share.

4) Wood aged beers will usually do well over time.  Most have already spent some time in a barrel (spirit or wine most likely) and flavors will continue to blend well once bottled.  The Bruery's Black Tuesday, Town Hall's Czar Jack, and Goose Island Bourbon County Stout are good examples of bourbon barrel aged Imperial Stouts--making these perhaps the most cellarable of beers.  The higher alcohol of these will also help preserve the beer longer.

5) Sours are a great genre to age.  In most, the sourness and complexity from wild yeast and bacteria will continue to change for years.  Some will become less complex and more sour, others will add your results may vary.  True sour lambics like Cantillon are perfect for aging, while some pasteurized or back sweetened ones like The Duchess or Lindemans fruit lambics may actually get sweeter over time. 

6) Holiday beers are on the edge, and it depends what base beer they are using.  Anchor puts out Our Special Ale each year with a slightly different recipe and I have had a 6 year vertical tasting of these before.  The base beer is a fairly low alcohol brown ale and I felt like it didn't hold up to age well.  Avery's Old Jubilation aged one year is incredibly more nuanced than when fresh, but by two years has lost a lot of its punch.  Age these holiday beers at your own risk!

7) Belgians are also a bit of mixed bag.  Because there are so many variations in Belgian beer styles, it is difficult to make sweeping generalizations on aging.  Higher alcohol beers and those darker in color tend to age better, but I've seen some that age well and others that don't.  I've had bottles of New Glarus Belgian Red from the 1990's that were still amazing and tasted like baked cherry pie, where by all rights a 4.5% ABV beer like that should have been terrible.  In general I don't age most non-sour Belgian style ales longer than 2 years.

Beer aging at Cantillon in Belgium


How should one store their beer for the ages?  The enemies of beer quality are oxidation, light, and heat, so avoiding these should be the cornerstone of good beer storage. 

1) Oxidation: There isn't a lot we as the consumer can do here--the packaging process is where this comes in.  Some oxidation can be beneficial and adds to the "aged" character of the beer, but too much will shorten the lifespan of the stored beer.  Based on past experiences I tend to avoid aging beers from "new" breweries because they may lack the resources to properly avoid oxygen exposure resulting in beers may not age as well.  Twist off caps let in more oxygen, so I tend not to age those.  Wax dipped bottles keep out more oxygen over time, so improve the aging process.  I recently tried the aforementioned New Glarus Belgian Red--one in a 750 ml wax dipped bottle, and another in a 12 oz capped bottle.  The latter  had more cardboard/oxidation character that I attribute to the cap.  Corks can potentially be problematic--like in wines if not kept moist it will dry out and allow more oxygen into the bottle.

2) Light: Avoid light exposure to any of your beer!  Ultraviolet light will react with molecules in the beer (hop related) to cause the famous skunky aroma in beer.  Some European lager breweries actually do this on purpose (Heineken I'm talking to you!) to give the beer the Euro-skunk aroma and flavor.  Most bottles nowadays are brown, which blocks most of that UV light, but blue, green or clear bottles will allow more through.  Keep your beers in a dark place like a closet or cupboard, or in covered boxes to minimize sun and light exposure.

3) Heat:  Avoid extremes of heat and cold.  Ideally you want to keep beers cold to slow the aging or staling process.  If you are very lucky and have a walk in cooler--you are going to have fresher beer!  On the other hand, some of those beneficial characteristics you are looking for in aged beer may take longer to develop under refrigerated conditions.  I've tried side by side the same year's vintage of Lagunitas Brown Shugga aged in the fridge and in general basement temp for one year.  The warmer beer had developed more of the classic aged barleywine sherry notes and the refrigerated version had little change from when fresh.  Most home cellars should be located in an area that stays a fairly consistent temperature throughout the year.  I keep mine in the basement where it stays around 62 degrees most of the year.  Those who live in Texas may have problems...

4) Infection: Not mentioned above, but infection will ruin a stored beer and waste all that time and effort you have put into cellaring it.  This is not something you can control (except for homebrews) at home.  If the brewery making that beer had less than stellar sanitation practices, even a small amount of wild bacteria or yeast can set up shop and funkify your precious beer.  A few years back, Boulevard had an infected batch of Chocolate Ale that slowly soured over time.  They were good enough to refund customer's money to make up for it, but I still missed my chocolate beer that year!  Just this past month I cracked one of my special Town Hall Czar Jack bottles from 2011 that had soured, and ended up dumping it down the drain.  I also had this issue with a Bruery White Chocolate that I shared at a recent homebrew club meeting.  This is a risk you take with aging beers rather than drinking them right away.  A small amount of Brettanomyces may not cause problems right away, but a few months after bottling can give you some serious off flavors.  I have even heard stories about exploding bottles and growlers from latent infections, though have not had this happen to me.  I will often open aged beers over a sink in case of gushing from infections, just to be safe.

Building Your Cellar

I'm not handy so this is not a how-to for construction of an actual beer storage cabinet, but rather a way of going about collecting beers for your cellar!  Everyone who cellars beer does it for different reasons.  For some it is the thrill of the hunt--being the first to find that white whale beer and have bragging rights about it.  For others it is the delayed gratification of holding onto that beer for years and finally opening it up for a special occasion.  And for some, it is just another thing to collect like comics or classic cars.

I came into the hobby slowly.  As I mentioned before, the Bigfoot vertical was my start, and each year since then I buy a 6 pack to store away.  Being Minnesotan, I have fairly easy access to Surly special releases and started squirreling away Darkness in 2008 after getting my 6 bottle allotment at Darkness Day.  Other beers I randomly pick up and shove them into my cellar, forgetting about them for a year or two until I suddenly realize I need to crack them open.  Some I get as gifts, or bring back from travel to other countries or states.  On one recent occasion a friend decided to quit his beer trading hobby and sold me his entire cellar at once!  I had to do some serious reorganizing after that.  Another friend moved and I inherited a bunch of beers from the late 1990's to 2000--some have aged well and others have not.  I am rather enjoying sharing those ancient beers out amongst homebrew club members.  So for me, collecting has been a rather organic process over time.

Some people will focus on one particular beer (Bigfoot, Darkness, etc.) or one particular style of beer.  This is probably the easiest and gets less messy, but limits your options.  My tastes are way too varied for that!

I tend to stick to what I can find in the store, or get my friends to bring back from other states.  This takes longer for your cellar to develop, but you end up paying base price for the beer and have control over how the beers are stored.  It is always nice to know someone who lives near a source of rare beer, who can mule it back for you!  I was slightly sad when my mom moved back to Minnesota from Oregon, since she would bring me cases of Deschutes beer each year!  But now, being retired, she will still help me hunt down other local limited release beers while I'm working in the office, so it all evens out!

I know several people who have built a quicker cellar by trading or buying beers online.  The benefit of that is avoiding four years of cellaring to get a 4 year vertical of Alaskan Smoked Porter!  However you run risks of getting poorly stored beers or heat/damage during shipping.  Most of the folks I've known who do this seem to go whole-hog for a while, but eventually either burn out, have children, or find another hobby to occupy their time and money.  Everyone has their own shifting priorities in life! 

Sj actually bought me an entire Rogue Old Crustacean Barleywine vertical from the brewery's web site last Christmas!  Ranging from little 7 oz bottles from 1998 to a big ceramic flip-top monstrosity from 2012, this was an instant mini-cellar. 

Keeping Track

I have only recently begun to properly catalogue my cellar.  I started when I instantaneously doubled my cellar, and needed to stash some things further into dark corners where I would promptly forget they existed.  If you are into trading or selling, this is essential to keep a tally on what you have available to trade and how much you paid for them.  It is also good to watch your dates, since some beers may go south and you end up with too many that you should have tasted sooner.  There are some apps for this, but I just started a spreadsheet on my wife's computer.  The most difficult thing with doing this is remembering to remove the beers when you drink them! 

I will admit that there is some enjoyment to be reached from digging in the back of a closet and discovering a dust and cobweb festooned bottle of something you thought long-gone years ago.  Like Howard Carter seeing the first glint of gold from a long-hidden sarcophagus, finding these "lost" beers can spark your excitement.  But by taking this tactic, you risk waiting too long and missing the beer's peak.  I have started storing my Belgians and lower alcohol "drink soon" beers on a shelf that is more easily accessible and viewed, and keeping the big verticals hidden away in harder to reach places.  For some folks I know, they literally have to hide these types of beers from their spouses or risk finding them empty on the counter when they come home from work!


It is a good idea to have some sort of system to where you are storing these beers.  Some people may have just one shelf or cupboard that is easy to view, but if you have more beers than that it is easy to "lose" them.  I try to keep all my sours together in one place, Imperial stouts in another, barleywines together, and then a random shelf that is easier to see and get at that has my quicker rotation beers like Belgians.  If you have boxes or crates, make sure to label them with what is inside so you don't have to dig into each of them every time you want find a particular beer.

Many beers don't have dates or vintages listed on them and it is a good idea to record that on the bottle.  My friend Steven suggests using a sharpie and marking a date on the cap or label so you can easily find the beer and vintage you are searching for.  I have a couple years worth of Surly Smoke, from before they dated the bottles, that are still a question mark and I wish I had been keeping track better!  Another friend, Dave, used to put a sticker on the bottom of each beer with the year, cost and where he bought the beer. 

Tricks Of The Trade

Drink them!  I have struggled with the urge to hang onto the beers like I'm Smaug the Beer Hoarding Dragon, awaiting some long-distant future when the stars will align for a perfect occasion to taste them.  But if you think about it, how many truly special occasions are there each year?  Birthday, Christmas (or other holidays,) Anniversary?  A big 22 ounce of beer is about all you will be able to finish even if your spouse will share them with you.  If you buy more than one at a time, just crack of one them every 6 months to a year to monitor how they change with time.  This allows you to decide if they are at peak or starting to lose their edge.  That can also help out with judging how other vintages of that particular beer might age. 

Share them!  Periodically have a small group of beer-lovers over and open some of these beers to share.  I get almost as much enjoyment from seeing the feverish gleam of avarice in my friend's eye before we crack a rare beer as when I'm drinking it.  Watching everyone scramble to be the first to check in the beer on Untappd is always fun as well.  However, too many people present can lead to smaller pours and more chaos that isn't always conducive to discussion about that rare beer.  It is a balancing act.

Do vertical tastings!  This will be an excuse to try several at once, and judge the beer against itself.  How does time change the basic character of the beer?  Start with the youngest and go backward in time.  I've got several small collections like Ommegang's Three Philosophers 2003, 2007 and 2011, and four years worth of Alaskan Smoked Porter that will form the cornerstone of a nice shared tasting. 

Pool your cellars!  If you have a few rare beers, and know your friends have a few as well--pool your resources for a more impressive tasting.  I have 4 years of the Stone Vertical Epic beers at home.  I'm going to throw it out there to my homebrew club to see if anyone has the intervening vintages so we can have an Epic tasting of them! 

Host a beer tasting party!  Two years back I hosted an Imperial Stout tasting event at my place with me providing a 4 year vertical tasting of Darkness.  Everyone who came, brought another rare stout and we had an impressive amount of beers shared among 10-14 people.  Tastings of this size allow you to try more beers, but your share of that rare beer you hoarded for 5 years may amount to just a small taster glass.  As mentioned above, larger groups also get louder and you may lose some of the nuance when discussing the individual beers. 

Most importantly enjoy yourself, enjoy the beers and enjoy the camaraderie and company that you find yourself in.  Drinking craft beer is a social hobby and should be shared among friends. 

Are there any tricks or methods that you have discovered regarding beer cellaring over time?  If so please share them with us on the comments for this post!

Friday, March 14, 2014

Great Waters Brewing Company Review

I've focused recently on reviewing several of the new brewpubs in the Twin Cities, (see my entries on Free House and Day Block at these links if you haven't checked them yet,) but realized that I have not done reviews of many of the old veterans of the Minnesota beer scene.  With a recent trip to the Minnesota History Center to see their prohibition exhibit, I finally had a reason to return to Great Waters Brewing Company for lunch.  I'll be honest I'm a creature of habit and living in the Minneapolis (far) suburbs I rarely go to St. Paul.  My car's GPS also seems to dislike the Old City and will often send me on random wild goose chases at times.  It is always nice to get out of your safe areas and try new places though!  Sj and I met with our friends Bill and Jackie S. around 12:30 at the brewpub on a Sunday.  As with any review, I'll talk about the experience we had, but your results may vary!  I always encourage folks to comment on this post if you have had different experiences or thoughts--good or bad.
Great Waters Brewing Company opened back in 1997--one of the first brewpubs in the Minnesota and up until about a year ago, one of only about 4 that have remained in business over the years.  The brewery is in the Historic Hamm Building on St. Peter Street in downtown St. Paul.  I enjoyed walking past some of the old buildings after leaving the pub.  There is a pedestrian mall that abuts Great Waters and provides an outdoor seating area for warmer weather.  When we visited the temperature outside was just warming up and the Ice Patio from the Winter Carnival was just starting to melt.  I would love to be served a pint at the ice bar some time!  Yes we Minnesotans are incredibly weird.  Parking is at several area ramps as well as metered street parking (meters are free on Sunday!)
The quickly melting remnants of Minnesota ice culture...
The restaurant itself takes up a sizable area with a large bar at the entrance and a spacious dining area off to the right of the main entrance.  The bar itself is no shiny newfangled bar imported from Ireland, but rather a well-used working-man's bar-top.  The place has high ceilings and plenty of space to spread out in and get comfortable.  One can also see the small brewery through some logoed glass behind the bar.  The wall-paper and decorations are a bit dated, but not in need of desperate overhaul like some places I've been to.  The ambiance fits exactly with what this place is--an unpretentious and serviceable bar and restaurant. 
Regulars at the bar.
Where the newer brewpubs are trying unusual menus to differentiate themselves, (pizza, haute cuisine, smoked sandwiches,) Great Waters has a pretty old-school brewpub menu of sandwiches, burgers, pastas and salads.  They do have some fancier items like steak and duck breast on the dinner menu as well, but I can't speak to them at this point.  While I appreciate fancier foods, I'm also just as happy having a nice burger or some chicken wings with my ale!  I've had food here several times over the years and have not had a bad experience with it, other than the fact that those Rasta Wings are not "Minnesota Hot", they are "Jamaica Hot!"  On this most recent trip we arrived during Brunch on a Sunday and Sj got the Eggs Florentine, while I ordered the patty melt with fries.  The burger was done exactly to my specifications and my meal was exactly what I was in the mood for.  I think Sj was a little less excited about her meal, but I think she just wasn't completely sated after eating.  Bill ordered a huge open faced meatloaf sandwich smothered in gravy that he continued to rave about. 
Grilled meaty perfection...
Decent food aside, this is a brewpub--so lets focus on the beer!  This place has been brewing their own beers for 17 years, starting long before the current craft beer craze.  They were an anomaly back then but have waited out the years, continuing to craft unusual beers over that time.  Now with the craft beer boom, I feel like some of these old-guard places like Great Waters, Town Hall, and Barley Johns sometimes get ignored in favor of the next new thing.  I'll also admit, the last time I checked out Great Waters I was less than impressed with the beers I tried.  It has taken me well over a year to get back and try it again.  That last visit was right at the time when their old brewer left and they had just hired on Tony Digatono as the head brewer that very week!  I had just taken up using Untappd to keep track of my beer ratings around then and looking back now I was less than glowing about my tastings at that time.  Luckily, I was quite pleased by the improvement in the beers since that trip!
A nice mix of beers, with up to date info print-out to go give details.
Great Waters has an impressively large tap list of house brewed beers.  I ordered the full sampler to try them all and ended up with 10 different beers!  Their standard beers like the Saint Peter Pale, Brown Trout and Golden Prairie Blonde, were all decent and much better than I remember them.  The seasonals were interesting with a very flavorful and malty O'Byrne's Irish Red leading the pack.  But where the beers really shone for me were in the cask conditioned ales.  Firkins and casks have been getting more popular the last few years but these guys have been serving these for over a decade now!  I did not love the House Ale--it tasted a bit metallic to me--but the Joe Moment Mild and the Invidia Barleywine were very tasty and made the most of the smooth mouthfeel and warmer temp of the cask serving method.  And by far the best beer I had there was the Blackwatch Oatmeal Stout.  This is the beer I ordered a pint of once I had worked my way through all those samples, and may be one of the very best oatmeal stouts I've ever had! 
Overall I had a very pleasant experience at Great Waters, with tasty food, many good beers, and a great time hanging out with friends.  This type of place is really where the craft beer movement came from and it is worth it to pay homage to the folks who have been slowly and steadily educating our palates over all this time.  If you haven't had much experience with English cask conditioned ales, you owe it to yourself to check this place out--and get a pint of that Blackwatch!  Oh, and they have a nearly up to date tap list on line so you can get a good idea what's on tap before you head over!
Head Brewer Tony Digatono has been brewing for Great Waters over the past few years.  Tony is a really nice guy, somewhat quiet as many brewers are, and doesn't really live in the spotlight.  Because most of his work happens behind the scenes and only shows up in your beer glass, I thought it would be worthwhile to learn more about him.  Sj and I met Tony back when he worked for Town Hall and he was one of our favorite servers there.  We were very surprised and excited for him when we heard he had taken a professional brewer's job at Great Waters.  Look for Tony at beer festivals or Great Waters events and say hi--just look for the slim guy with the red beard!   
1) Tony, tell me a little about yourself: where did you come from and what did you do prior to becoming a brewer?
I went through my late teens and early twenties without any idea of what I wanted to be when I grew up. I started taking night classes so I had an excuse to go part time at my crappy warehouse job. Six years later I ended up with a B.A. from the U of M in Religious Studies. Naturally, after earning that degree I took a job as an apprentice with the plumbers union. Which, leads us to question two.
2) What made you want to become a professional brewer?  Did you have any formal training or did you just jump right in?
I made a ton of money working construction, but work became intermittent when the economy crashed. About that time I took up home brewing as a hobby. After getting laid off for the umpteenth time, I knew I had to do something else for money and wondered if it could be brewing.  I got my toe in the industry by getting a job as a server/manager at Town Hall Brewery.  Mike (Hoops) and his crew were incredibly generous answering my questions and letting me shovel grain on my days off.  After about two years, an assistant job opened up here at Great Waters. As soon as I accepted the job here, I signed up for the Brewing and Malting Science Course through the MBAA. The course was good, but in some ways I wish I could retake it now that I have more practical experience.  I am currently trying to find the right correspondence course to further my formal education. If I was younger and single, I would love to go through a long formal education.
3) I noticed that you guys had a LOT of different beers on tap at the brewpub.  Do you enjoy brewing this many different beers or is it difficult to keep up?
Yes and yes. I feel obligated to give our loyal customers something new to try when they come. I also feel it's good for the front of house staff to be able to have a wide variety of styles to recommend to their tables. At the same time though, I have to remember this is a business. Space is at a premium in the cellar and I can't risk running out of our best seller because I wanted to brew something fun for me.
4) Great Waters has always prided themselves on serving some of the beers in traditional English fashion.  Is it easier or more difficult to brew beers that will lend themselves to that method?
In my mind beers brew the same regardless of the style. We are very proud of casks though. Physically it takes a lot more work.
5) If you had to choose a style  (or styles) of beer as a favorite, what would you choose?
Like a lot of drinkers, my tastes go through phases. Right now my fridge is entirely full of German Pilsners. If I'm out to eat, I'm probably going to get a local pale. I'm also about out of my mind waiting for Maibock season to start.
6) Many of the beers on tap at Great Waters have been around for years.  Have you been able to experiment much since taking over as head brewer, or have you kept more to traditional Great Waters recipes? 
There's a reason those beers have been around so long. I count four former Great Waters brewers as friends and want to stay true to their legacy. That's not to say the recipes haven't been tweaked a little. Some tweaks were happy accidents caused by something being on back order and a substitution was necessary.  Other changes were made just to satisfy my curiosity.
7) Is there anything else you would like to talk to my readers about? 
I would like people to know how much I appreciate that their hard earned dollars allow me to make a living doing something I love. My assistant Shane and I are trying to make the best beers we can and always want the next to be a little better than the last.

Thanks again Tony! 

Thursday, March 13, 2014

30 Word Thursday: History

Singular angles converge to unique trajectory for a long lost flight.
Brick and granite constrain the seeking airship in its quest.
Above, a smiling wooden sun gazes upon the spectacle.

This week's 30 Word Thursday is from our trip to the Minnesota History Center to see the American Spirits prohibition exhibit.  I was struck by the unusual patterns and angles that make up the place and tried to get that down on film.  Check out the Treasures Found Blog to see the other 30 Word Thursday entries.  Heck, take part yourself!  I'm really enjoying this exercise in photography and language, so thanks for challenging us Erin!

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

American Spirits: The Rise And Fall Of Prohibition

This will be a short one, but I wanted to get it out there while the exhibit is still running!  This past Sunday Sj and I met with Bill and Jackie S. for lunch at Great Waters Brewing Company and then took advantage of the warming weather and walked to the Minnesota History Center to check out their special exhibit called American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. 

I've been to the History Center a few times for Winterfest before, but always after dark and when the exhibits are closed down for the night.  Wandering in during the day I was struck by how large place is.  High ceilings, wide corridors and very tasteful decorations abound!  Bill and I were intrigued by the wood-framed airplane hanging from the ceiling in one area of the building and I took a bunch of pictures of it to test out my new camera. 

Bill, like John Adams starts the day with a glass of hard cider...

We had half price tickets, so had a cheap entry to the exhibits.  The prohibition exhibit itself was fun, especially for a couple of beer geeks!  The place was hopping and somewhat slow moving due to a lot of wordage on the exhibits, but I never felt truly crowded or pushed to speed up.  Several of the displays were interactive like the test for telling if you are a Wet or a Dry, and trying to decide what would be legal or illegal under the Volstead Act.  Short movies played in other areas that you could bypass or watch depending on inclination.  Perhaps my favorite part of the exhibit was looking at all of the anti-drinking posters from the prohibitionists.  Looking back most of these just seem ridiculous, but at the time they were disturbing and well-believed.  This is all proof that PR and spin rules our American politics and has for more than a century!

Thanks goodness this isn't true!

After the exhibition, we decided to make the most of our entry fee to visit some of the other areas.  One hall was about the Greatest Generation and included a lot of items from the WW2 era and then the baby boom era after the war was over.  There were interactive areas like one for kids to pack gun ammunition like Rosy the Riveter.  A full sized soda fountain was being properly run by a group of young kids when we passed through--they were "taking orders" and cleaning counter tops like pros!

Another area on past and present Minnesota industry was aimed at mostly young folk, but was still fun for the four of us overgrown children.  I have to say that the full sized buffalo that could be dissected for its useful parts was pretty freaking awesome, even at my advanced age! 

Sj takes down the wild buffalo.  Bill and Jackie help with the vivisection...

American Spirits is open for one more week, ending on March 16th, so if you have been hemming and hawing, you best move quickly!  And if you haven't been to the rest of the center, I highly recommend it.  Kids will dig much of this!

Friday, March 7, 2014

Day Block Brewing Review

I'll admit it, the frigid cold, ice-packed roads, and repeated snowmageddons here in Minnesota have kept me acting as more of a homebody than I'd like.  Several new breweries have opened since last Fall and I've been falling down on my self-avowed mission to review them for my readers.  This weekend we braved the arctic blast, heading downtown to check out Day Block Brewing.  Located on Washington Avenue, near the 7 Corners area, the brewery opened officially on January 27 2014.  As of this writing, they have been open just under two months.  I like to give brewpubs and breweries a little time to iron out the kinks and get a couple batches of beer under their belts before doing official reviews, and that time has now come!  Come along on a trip with me…

This particular trip was on a Sunday, around 12:45 in the afternoon.  Driving in from Waconia, I like to visit places on "off" days like Tuesdays and Sundays to avoid traffic and crowds.  This also usually allows more time for pictures and for asking staff questions about the food and drink.  On the other hand you do sometimes run into issues with restaurants having the "B Team" on those days and perhaps less staff than usual for a higher volume time.  In my opinion if a restaurant or bar has poor service on a day when there should be plenty of time, it does not bode well for busy crunch times!

The brewery is named after its location: the old Day Block Building, dating back to 1883.  There is a small parking lot behind the building, which is always convenient downtown, but if crowded you will need to find metered street parking.  The building itself is made of light colored brick, with thick walls made to last centuries and multiple fires.  I'm always happy to see historic and classic architecture reused rather razed for new high-rises, so this place had already piqued my interest.  I took along my new camera to test it out and hopefully get some good pictures of the place.  You can be the judge on how I did with that goal!  There is a small sign for the brewery on the street-side corner of the building, and a banner higher up on the front.  Walking from the parking lot, we passed two doors, each with an arrow pointing toward the main entrance around front.  Passing an unlabeled door, I reached yet another door, this one with an arrow pointing back the way I came from!  I would like to recommend that they add a Day Block Brewing sign directly over the main entrance at some point in the future, as I saw several other folks trying the wrong doors during my visit. 

Inside, the main restaurant, bar and small kitchen are located off to the right of the entrance.  There is a second bar area on the left, that was not open at this time, but gives them room to spread out during peak hours.  The 10 barrel brewery itself is located in a glassed in room behind that accessory bar, and is all fresh and glistening new stainless steel.  Both bars are of fine-grained lighter colored wood with a fairly large silvery tin-tiled back splash.  Growlers and glasses line the back of the bar and 6 hand-turned wooden tap handles are used to pull foaming pints of craft beer for thirsty patrons.  Brown painted tin tile lines the tall ceilings, criss-crossed by track lighting and industrial piping.  Exposed thick brick walls and a huge expanse of spotless glass windows line the room.  The overall impression is of extreme age with a fresh coating of paint, populated with new wooden booths and tables.  The look inside the building is pleasant and well-lit, but has a slightly generic feel to it.  The one thing I didn't see, that would be welcome, was some sort of Day Block sign over the bar.  Maybe they are not wanting to spoil the ambiance, but I think they could do with some branding here!  The place was very cold, with solid brick walls and huge expanses of glass radiating an icy chill through the pub.  We were forced to wear our winter coats through out our stay.  Summer will be nicer.

Artistic Licence!

Tell you more about the beer you ask?  They usually have six beers on tap at any one time, but had just run out of one during my visit.  With a small sized brewery, they are able to do many smaller batches and try more things, which is one reason I tend to like brewpubs.  They have listed the batch numbers on the beer menu, and at least one beer was up to batch seven.  This indicates that they have had time to dial in their system and hopefully make tweaks to recipes for fine tuning.  I ordered the six beer sampler for their 5 beers and got an extra pour of the rye bock.  Served in a long wooden paddle the flight certainly looked impressive when brought to the table.  I'll give my impressions of the beers as a BJCP beer judge, but keep in mind my tastes may be different from yours!  If you like a beer that I don't, that doesn't make you wrong.  The Winter Wit was a Belgian Wit style beer with a pretty strong orange character--I actually liked this one pretty well, but get migraines from wheat beers so let Sj drink most of my sample.  The humorously named Former Mayor Ryebock (R.T.Rybak for those non-Minnesotans out there) was a pleasant and malty maibock with rye and probably my favorite of the day.  The Black IPA was fairly good for what it was but I'm just not a fan of the style, so can't get too excited about it.  The Porter was decent, but didn't blow my socks off, seeming a bit thin in body.  My least favorite was the Frank's Red Ale.  I got diacetyl (buttered popcorn) and too much toffee sweetness from it that made it difficult to drink.

And the food?  I'm pleased at the new trend to go back to the brewpub model in Minnesota.  With Northbound Smokehouse, Free House and now Day Block taking this tack, there are more options recently for Minneapolis.  If I drive in from the suburbs I usually want some food with my beer, something that brewery tap-rooms can't do unless they happen to have a food truck stop by.  Brewpubs are also open on Sundays, unlike tap-rooms, but still can't sell growlers due to archaic post-prohibition laws about Sunday liquor sales in our state.  (Check the link here for more info on that particular problem via The Four Firkins.)  The kitchen at Day Block is tiny, but has an interesting mix of appetizers and pizzas.  We ordered the pickle sampler, which included pickled radish, kimchi, and regular pickles with hops in the mix.  All were good and refreshing.  We also ordered the much-discussed bacon flight: a mixture of three specialty bacons served end-up in tiny porcelain bowls filled with dipping sauces.  I love this idea and the sauces were really tasty (spicy chocolate, curry and another I can't remember) but at least half of our bacon was burned to solid black twigs of meat briquette.  If bacon is on your menu as a signature plate you really, really need to cook it correctly.  Sj ordered a Taco Truck Pizza topped with flank steak, cotija cheese, pickled jalapeno and radish.  This was good, but didn't "wow" either of us.  I ordered the Bahn Mizza: a pizza-fied take on the classic meat filled Vietnamese banh mi sandwich.  This one was a winner!  Slightly spicy with Asian flavors, pork and shaved carrots, atop a perfectly crispy crust.  Now this is a signature dish!

The burnt bacon was not as photogenic!

As hinted at earlier in my review, our service was a bit mixed during this visit.  When we entered the building, there were three guys at the bar and three other occupied tables.  We were not allowed to sit in one of the empty booths as they were reserved for parties of three or more.  I understand this policy, especially on a busy Saturday night, but perhaps they could have made exception for slow Sundays?  Our waitress did eventually push a second two-top table up to ours to give us more room for our apps, pizzas and beer flight though.  Our service was not fast, but we did find out later that our poor waitress had cut her hand and needed to take some time to get that dressed.  Ok, I'll give her some leeway there!  We did get our appetizers at the same time as our pizzas--a pet peeve of mine--but I should have learned by now not to order everything at once.

My overall impression of Day Block Brewing was favorable, but with some caveats.  I think the food was good, but they need to step up their game on that bacon.  Nine bucks for mostly burned bacon is nine bucks too much.  The beers were mostly good quality (minus the red) but none of them really excited me.  Perhaps my palate is jaded after years of chasing the next new hop or funky beer.  I'm hoping that these guys make full use of their small brew system and create lots of seasonal and one-off projects rather than sticking to a bunch of safe standbys.  I didn't mention it previously, but Day Block makes a note of trying to use as many fresh and local ingredients as possible--a policy I thoroughly agree with.  The beer they ran out of used a rare hop from Wisconsin, and I know they  use malts from Rahr in Shakopee, so they are trying to do this in their brewing as well as the restaurant.  I would certainly stop by here for a beer again, and perhaps a Bahn Mizza, but probably won't make the 45 minute trek from home just for that.  I hate to say it but Day Block is just too close to my old favorite Town Hall, and if I drive all the way to 7 Corners area I'm going to want to stop in there first. 

I'd love to hear what other people think of the place, so feel free to comment on this blog if you have anything to say!  Am I wrong?  Am I right?  Is there a new beer that I must get back there to try?

Update 5/13/14 Day Block Revisited!

After writing my initial review I was actually contacted by one of the owners, who seemed to really be interested in feedback.  He suggested I give them another try, so as of this update, that is just what I did.     This visit was also on a Tuesday at noon, but this time I took along my beer-loving mom for a late Mother's Day lunch.  The layout and vibe of the place is the same as my initial impression, though slightly less chilly this time.

We each got a 6 beer sampler and I have to say that I was very impressed with the results.  Out of all 6 beers the only one I didn't love was the Kolsch--and that was mainly because it was a Kolsch!  They had a Spring Lager that was hoppy, fresh and amazing.  The Block 21 Pale Ale was citrus-filled and entirely refreshing.  I'm always impressed when a small brewery can pull off lagers well and there were 3 excellent examples in this flight.

I ordered the bacon flight again, just to see what would happen.  This time the bacon was not burned and was heavenly!  One had a sweet maple dipping sauce, another was spicy jerk seasoned with a zippy pineapple sauce, and the last was chocolate dipped.  Yum!

For main dishes my mom got the Chimmi pizza, with beef chunks, pickled onions and spicy chimmichurrie sauce.  I got the Bahn Mizza again because it is worth making the trip for.  I won again, though both pizzas were good.

Overall, a few months after my first review I have to say that things have shaped up nicely.  Service was quicker, bacon was better, and the beers were even better.  I can now whole-heartedly recommend the place!

Thursday, March 6, 2014

30 Word Thursdays: Rahr

Augurs and leaded glass host a century's collection of dust and rust.
Hollow footsteps on metal gantries echo from aged cement walls.
A lone yellow pane gazes back, sparking intrigue.

This week's addition to 30 Word Thursdays comes from a recent tour of Rahr Malting in Shakopee, Minnesota.  Rahr has been around since 1847 and on this tour we were able to visit some of the oldest areas of the facility.  This is one of the biggest malting facilities in the world and is responsible for malting the grain used in many of the great beers that I often post about in this blog.  Thanks to the folks at Rahr and BSG for hosting us!  Make sure to check out the other entries to 30 Word Thursdays at the Treasures Found Blog Here.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Eclipse Imperial Stout Tasting


This past Friday Rob Wengler and Ron Johnson (of Limited Release fame) hosted an epic beer tasting event for the ages.  This small group of beer geeks gathered in Rob's home for an evening of great food, camaraderie, and crazy good Imperial stouts!  Rob and Ron have been doing their show for a couple years now, going to many special beer releases and events, documenting it all lovingly so the rest of us can share in the fun.  I have been lucky enough to be involved in many of these as their "Beer Expert" and Rob has shared many of these White Whale beers with me for tasting notes in the episodes.  They are up to 10 episodes now and if you haven't watched them, start catching up HERE.  They are fun, informative, and usually have some pretty hilarious animations.  Not to mention that they have been getting a lot more good interviews with brewers as they have grown in popularity.  And many episodes have me looking uncomfortable on film and/or being duped into drinking Mickey's Malt Liquor!  It just doesn't get any better than that!  During their travels, these guys have accumulated a bunch of crazy beers and this dinner was a way to finally drink some of these beers in a setting that would be conducive to vertical tasting and comparing the various vintages. 

First off, I'd like to give props to Rob as one of the best home cooks I know, second only to one of my partners at work.  I would have gladly come to this event even without the lure of amazing beer, just for a chance at some of his cooking!  He fixed us an amazing prime rib that had been sous vide in a sauce made of Lagunitas Imperial Stout, then dropped the slow cooked and tender meat into a hot oil bath for a few minutes to get a crazy crispy and flavorful crust on it.  This method he terms: "The Uber Fondue-ber."  Sides included roasted fresh Brussels spouts with crisped pancetta, truffled mashed potatoes, and crazy good mache salad.  Seriously, you don't find better food outside of The Happy Gnome...

We were unlucky enough to have a spectacular ice and snow storm the day prior to the tasting, resulting in hard packed snow and ice on all the roads.  Driving from Waconia to Minnetonka, the trip usually takes about 25 minutes, but on this particular day it was closer to an hour of slip-sliding across dangerous intersections and risking life and limb.  Several of our dinner-mates were not able to make it due to road conditions and those that did come were all late.  Poor Chris posted a picture later from home wearing his 5050 shirt and sipping one of his own bottles--at least he was there with us in spirit!  So we took this time to sit around shooting the breeze, watching Rob do his cooking magic and sipping on rare beers like Pliny the Elder and Snake Venom.  Ron was staying in town from California and it was good to have some time to catch up with him as well.

After a wonderful dinner fit for kings, we all settled in for our evaluation of Eclipse.  FiftyFifty is a smaller brewery out of Truckee, CA.  They do a limited release party every year for their Eclipse Imperial Stout, with tasting of older vintages and several different barrel aged versions of the current year's batch.  Each Eclipse is brewed in small 300 gallon batches.  Rob and Ron managed to make it to this event and brought back several bottles for us to try!  They are currently working on post-production for the corresponding Limited Release episode and I'm looking forward to watching it.  Hopefully some of the footage from our tasting will be usable for it.  Of course trying to tape 8 people drinking strong ales is not easy...

With Andrew's expert knife skills we (unsafely) cut the tenacious wax from the tops of six different versions of Eclipse, all from the 2013 release.  With a wax color key, we slowly worked our way through pouring all these beers into snifter glasses marked with chalkboard paint.

Here is a quick run down (from a somewhat foggy memory, so forgive me):

Evan Williams (Black Wax): Our overall least favorite of the night.  This one seemed a bit harsh and tannic, with some higher alcohols.  Even as hard-luck loser, I would drink this any other day with gusto.
Elijah Craig 12 year (Purple Wax): One of the top contenders for most of us.  I think the final tally may have had this as the winner overall, but it was a close fight with the Pappy.  Overall very smooth and drinkable with a balanced sweetness and strong vanilla character.
High West Rye (Tangerine Wax): This was my 3rd favorite, but most of the other folks found it less exciting.  It was drier than most of the others and the bourbon was fairly restrained in this one and I got more of the base beer in tasting. 
Four Roses (Bright Red Wax): This was a bit unbalanced, with more booze and a bit too sweet.
Rum (Fuchsia Wax): This was interesting, and stood out in the top 3 for many of our tasters.  It has a thicker mouthfeel and sweeter finish than most.  I'm just not a rum guy, so it only made it to 4th place for me.  I noticed a trend to start doing rum beers at this year's Winterfest, so I think we'll be seeing more of these over the next few years.
Pappy Van Winkle 20 Year (Pink Wax): This was wonderful.  The bourbon really took front and added tons of complexity to the beer.  Lots of vanilla, tannins and booze to it.  Not as well balanced as Elijah Craig...but Pappy!

After all of these amazing beers, we managed to badger Rob into cracking his Java and Vanilla versions of Eclipse as well.  Both were amazing, but the Vanilla took my medal for best beer of the night!  We may have also tasted of a Chocolate Rain and Grey Monday from The Bruery.  But it gets blurry around there...

Luckily for Sj, myself, and Ron, Rob let us crash at his place rather than brave the deadly roads.  And come morning Rob fixed us some much needed home-made malted waffles and crisp bacon.  Overall I had a fantastic time and am glad that I was included in such an epic beer dinner event.  Times like these elevate the beer drinking experience to a truly higher level!