Wednesday, December 30, 2015

2015: The Beer In Review!

The Beer In Review

This is my yearly wrap-up for my beer-tastic blogging exploits!  I started doing this blog in 2012, initially with the intent of posting Jack Of All Brews club events.  I discovered that I enjoyed writing things up but wanted to expand into more beer and brewery reviews as well.  About 2 years ago I started to get into photography and added a few non-beer related photography and book-club posts as well--hey variety is the spice of life!  My goal has been to have at least one post a week, since blogs that update only once a month or so quickly fall to the bottom of my check-in list.  I think I've been doing fairly well on that front, averaging about 2 posts a week over the past year.

In January of this year I started a series of beer reviews called A Whale A Week.  This mainly began as a way of guaranteeing at least one blog entry a week and to make a dent in my expanding cellar of rare beers.  This has been an amazing experiment.  By inviting different friends over to share, I've not only tasted amazing beers, but have enjoyed the social aspect of the process far more than I expected.  I've had old friends, neighbors, and even had a few new friends I've met on local beer forums (Beer People on Facebook mainly) over for this series.  I still have a fairly sizeable chunk of rare beers, as well as some vertical tastings of somewhat less rare beers that I'd like to get through so I plan on continuing A Whale A Week into 2015.  Upcoming beers?  Three Floyds Dark Lord, Cantillon Lou Pepe Framboise, Cascade Figaro, Big Foot vertical from 1995-2015, and many more!  If you are local and want to join me for a tasting some time, touch base!

This year we didn't take any international trips, but did get to several areas for shorter excursions.  Our biggest trip was to Asheville, NC for a week and that was a wonderful beery place to visit!  We got to plenty of breweries there for sure!  Sj and I also went to San Diego for the National Homebrewer's Conference and of course made sure to visit lots of places there.  We took a road trip for the Hoppy Halloween homebrew competition in Fargo and got to try out a slew of new places along the way. A trip to Duluth for All Pints North and another quick jaunt to Rochester rounded out the beer-visits for the year.

I started out the year making up my own weekly photography challenges, and incorporated some of these techniques into my Whale A Week posts--making sure to use a special photo for most of them. More recently I joined up with the weekly photo challenge to force myself to try new things. I haven't had very much comment on any of my photo's but, hey, I'm mostly doing it for myself. I'm particularly proud of some of the photos I did for my Surly Darkness series.

Now is the time I reflect and decide what some of my favorites of the year have been.  I do this a bit differently every year.  I'll post a few here, but will do a couple other lists over the next few days to spread the wealth!

Top 10 New Beers I Tried in 2015

I decided to stick with new ones since otherwise my lists would be very similar year to year.  I gave all of these beers 5's.

1) Surly Brewing Todd The Axe Man.  I have not been as happy with Abrasive the past two years, but this beer has taken it's place in my top tier!  Strong hop aroma, balanced bitterness, tropical and catty at once.  Well done!

2) Waconia Brewing Pair-A-Dice DIPA.  This is a new limited release at our local taproom, made with all New Zealand hops and boasts a tropical fruit and balanced malt character that is simply stellar.  The first time I tried this I was blown away and have had goblet after goblet of it since.

3) Pelican Mother Of All Storms.  An amazingly complex barrel aged English style barleywine.

4) Wicked Weed Red Angel.  A blended raspberry lambic from the Funkatorium.  We went back multiple times for this when in Asheville.

5) The Rare Barrel Ensorcelled.  One of the best barreled sours I've had from America.

6) Goose Island Nuthulhu.  Vanilla, hazelnuts, RIS!

7) Freehouse Infinity.  An early contender, tasted in January of 2015.  This was a perfectly balanced barrel aged RIS--the brewery's first anniversary beer.

8) Keith Brady's Chester Hopperpot.  The only homebrew on the list, this incredible IPA has won first place at MN State Fair, Best In Show at Hoppy Halloween, and just keeps getting better.  I want more commercial beers to taste this good.

9) Lift Bridge Barrel Aged Silhouette.  First tasted at The Happy Gnome Lift Bridge beer dinner, this one put the brewery back on the map for me.

10) Spring House Blood Lust Aged in Pappy Van Winkle Barrels.  Tasted at a Surly Darkness vertical, this was one of the best RIS I've had all year.

Top 10 Breweries I Visited in 2015

1) Surly Brewing (MPLS, MN)  This one is just a treat.  Say what you will about Surly, they remain one of the most challenging and unique breweries in the state.  Their new brewhouse is a thing of beauty and has some of the best food I've ever had at a brewery.

2) Wicked Weed Funkatorium (Asheville, NC) Wicked Weed's sour facility is making a huge range of American sours that is incredible.  We went back 4 times in 7 days.

3) Junkyard Brewing (Moorhead, MN) A surprise contender.  Comfortable taproom, fabulous beers.  I want to live closer.

4) Burial Brewing (Asheville, NC) Somewhat ghetto taproom, but full of character and had some of the best beers we tried in Asheville.  Skillet Doughnut Stout!

5) Ballast Point (San Diego) I've really loved most of the beers from Ballast Point since they arrived in MN, and the visit to the brewery was not a let-down.  Fantastic up-scale food (seafood focused) and a huge variety of beers to choose from.

6) Modern Times (San Diego) We enjoyed both the FlavorDome and the regular brewery.  80's and 90's retro style, house roasted coffee, and a mix of sours and regular beers.

7) Waconia Brewing (Waconia, MN) My local, so I spend more time here than many other places.  This family run business has embraced our small community, putting out stellar beers very close to home.  Their Octoberfest placed second among about 10 we tried at a homebrew club event recently (only losing to Ayinger).

8) Prairie Rose Meadery (Fargo, ND) Not my first meadery visit, but certainly my favorite.  Susan Ruud has crafted something wonderful here.

9) Castle Danger (Two Harbors, MN) This summer we visited the new taproom and I was happy to find excellent beers, with a wide open and well-lit taproom space.

10) Green Flash Cellar 3 (San Diego) Green Flash's new cellar/barrel aging facility that had opened just days prior to our visit.  Plenty of sours available and a food truck serving house (truck?) made jerky that was amazing.

For 2016 I plan to continue A Whale A Week.  We've already scheduled a week trip to Portland (oh I'll get to some good breweries there!) as well as a Disneyworld 15th anniversary trip.  I hope to continue visiting all the new taprooms in the Twin Cities area and supporting our burgeoning local beer scene.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

A Whale A Week: Barrel Aged Sexual Chocolate

This week we try a bottle shared by my friend Rob Wengler, of Limited Release fame.  We had a get-together of some of our old high school bunch (and spouses) recently and tried a few special beers.  I've heard of this beer and have been excited to try it for a while!

Foothills Brewing was established in 2004 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.  They have a tasting room in their main brewery facility as well as a brewpub downtown.  For several years they have been doing a special release of a beer called Sexual Chocolate that has developed quite the cult following.  The beer is a Russian Imperial stout infused with cocoa, and the even more rare version from 2014 that we have here is barrel aged for 4 months.  ABV is 9.75%  The beer has a rating of 95 on Beer Advocate and 100 on RateBeer.  People line up to get this! 

Foothills Barrel Aged Sexual Chocolate 2014

For this tasting we have a few characters.  Myself (Eric Wentling)--a BJCP judge, lover of all things barrel aged.  Rob--Homebrewer, beer video journalist.  Heather--She's from Denver, need I say more?  Jess--fairly new to the judging thing, but ready to try it out!  Sarajo--my wife and lover of both chocolate and stouts.  We served this up with some of Rob's somewhat suspect gingerbread cookies--made with a mold that was supposed to be a rainbow going into a pot of gold--but, well you get the picture....

Aroma: Sweet smell of success

Eric: Get it on! Sweet maltiness with cocoa and vanilla.  A bit of woodiness or oxidation.
Rob: Hot alcohol.  Dried fruit.  Burnt/toast.  Chocolate.
Heather: Cocoa.  Bourbon.  Baked brown sugar (how come you taste so good?)
Jess: Red Twizzlers.


Eric: Very dark in color.  Fine large deep tan head.  This head just goes on and on and on.
Rob: Interesting chunky head: Thick, Black, Brown.
Heather: French press coffee.
Jess: Dark chestnut color.

Flavor: Tangy!

Eric: Not as sweet as expected from the aroma.  There is strongly flavored wood in my mouth--tannic!  Dark bitter chocolate.  Hint of tart cherry and squishy plums.  Finish fairly tart and dry.  Slight alcohol warming.
Rob: Milky.  Bourbon.  Slightly sour.  Not too sweet. I keep thinking of chocolate milkshakes with cherry.  Decent balance.  Coffee aftertaste.
Heather: Not quite as good as coffee--like chicory on last note.
Jess: Warming alcohol finish.  Vanilla-y bourbon.

Mouthfeel: as dirty as it sounds...

Eric: Thick and mouth-coating at first, but a dry tannic bite at the end.
Rob: Full.  Thick.  Brings me back to this tasting like a milk shake.
Heather: Deep throat burn.

Overall: An innuendo filled glass half full

Eric: Very nice beer, but not as chocolate-y or complex as I expected.  Not super boozy.  Pretty dry and bitter from too much oak--like sucking on a big piece of wood. 4
Rob: Better than I remember.  Wood seems higher but I don't love the tangy-ness.  4.2
Heather: Don't know if you want to spit or swallow...3
Jess: 3.5
Sarajo: Leaves you with a bitter taste in your mouth.  3.5

Overall Score: And I do mean score!  3.64

Writing up this one was fun, but difficult.  Tasting it with this group was a treat in itself!

Cookies for the holidays!

Monday, December 21, 2015

Time For Grand Rounds! Grand Rounds Brew Pub

I never thought I'd be so excited to go to Grand Rounds.  As a Medical Doctor, I look back at much of my schooling with a thankfully distant sleep-deprived haze of ambiguity.  While I value the experiences and the things I learned during those years, it was punishing on the body and mind.  Nearly every week (depending on what rotation you were on) you were expected to go to Grand Rounds--usually a complicated learning case study presented in front of the other doctors.  These were usually open to the entire medical staff and required you to get in to the hospital even earlier (4-5AM) to see all those patients on the floor before making your way to the lecture hall.  On at least one occasion I had to personally present a case in front of all my resident peers, attending physicians, and more.  I'm a bit of a social-phobe, so this was quite upsetting to me.  Long story short (to late!) when I heard that Rochester, MN--the home of Mayo Clinic--had a brewery called Grand Rounds I had to try it out!

On this rainy fall day we drove into town and went straight to Grand Rounds Brewpub for an early day tasting.  The brewpub is located right downtown near a couple of other pubs and speakeasys, and across from part of the medical center.  The huge old solid building was built in 1866 (one of the oldest in Rochester) as a bank, and still retains some of its early trappings.  Entering the front door there's a host stand (empty this time of day) directly in front of you.  Entry to Tessa's Office (a super cute little upscale wine shop next door with wine on tap) is directly to the right, but was closed at this early hour.  To the left you enter into the very spacious pub area, filled with tables and chairs as well as plenty of seating along the bar.  An attractive stainless steel tap set-up behind the bar provides many different beers for tasting, and eclectic frames above the bar display the current tap-list.

Some of the fancy light fixtures are actually from the old Mayo building!  Our server on this day (Tap Room Manager Kelly Griffin) was kind enough to take us and another interested couple on a quick tour of the place as well.  The brewery itself is a 7 barrel affair using tall skinny wine fermenters nestled just behind the bar and visible through glass. Past the bar is a another large sectioned-off room for special events.  Then down some stairs into a darker low-ceilinged accessory lounge.  Beyond that was a veritable catacomb of hallways, storage, refrigeration, and even closed-off old tunnels that once led to Mayo!  This was one of the most interesting brewery tours I've been on, so thanks much for making the time for us!

Being a brewpub, Grand Rounds has food, and quite an impressive looking menu.  We got a big order of duck nachos to go with our beers and it was very good.  I imagine the rest of the food is good as well.  While sipping beers and eating our food, we also got to meet the very pleasant Tessa Leung, the Chief Operations Manager for the pub (and I'm assuming the brains behind Tessa's Office next door!)

How about the beers?  Well, I took copious notes for your reading pleasure!  We tried all the beers, 11 in all, including one infusion and one cask offering.  A huge variety for such a young brewery, and arranged with care by Kelly in best tasting order.  I'll give my quick notes and rating of 0-5.  I'll happily drink a 3, I'll search out a 4, and hoard a 5 beer.

1) KA Minnesota Kolsch--made with local honey from The Bee Shed.  I get light pear esters, honey sweetness, light sulfur nose.  Crisp with a light hopping (don't believe it is 72 IBU!)  3.5

2) 10,000 Lakes Sommerweiss--Very bright lemon, hint of esters like mild banana.  No clove phenols.  A bit of spicy wheat malt.  Hops present but in the background.  Well done. 3.75

3) CSI--Citra Session IPA--Aroma is crazy Citra cat box mixed with tropical fruit.  Fruity.  Dry.  Slightly astringent finish.  Tasty and easy to drink.  3.75

4) Grapefruit Rind Infused CSI--This has serious grapefruit aroma!  Bite-y and brisk flavor.  Actually overall a bit more mellow than the regular CSI.  Tastes like a Radler.  Still a hint of astringency on finish.  Body seems increased.  Head fades quick.  Tart.  3.5

5) Hop Bollocks Session IPA--Not much aroma.  Better body than CSI.  Pine and lemon flavors. Finish a bit astringent.  Nice overall.  3.5

6) Nelson IPA--Made with New Zealand Nelson hops 7.3% ABV, 75 IBU.  Strong aroma of grapefruit and white wine grapes.  Malty but not sweet.  Lingering grapefruit zest, muscat grape, and lemon.  4

7) VMO--Vienna, Marzen, Octoberfest.  Malt character in this is unreal!  Bisquit, bread, toastiness, with a grainy finish.  No hops.  Middle is very smooth.  Not crisp as some lagers are, but not overly sweet.   Malt more complex, flavorful, and dark than most Octoberfest beers, but this one hits right in my preferred heavier end of the style guidelines!  4.25

8) Freedom Scotch Ale--Makes me want to paint my face blue and wave around a Claymore.  Lots of dark fruit (possibly Special B malt) leading to raisin and prune flavors.  A hint of smoke, but not overwhelming.  A bit on the sweet side, but OK for style.  3.75

9) Coffee Stout--Light roast and coffee aroma, but mild.  Tastes like a dry Irish stout and is very roasty.  Pretty dry, but not astringent.  I get more coffee flavor and aroma as it warms up.  4

10) Hawii 507 Coconut Stout--on Nitro.  Very subtle coconut and vanilla in aroma, as well as flavor.  Very sweet up front.  Body creamy and mouth coating.  Vanilla accentuates the sweetness.  Yum.  4

11) Cask Coconut--More coconut aroma that regular version.  Smooth and medium body.  Less sweet than the regular as well.  Coconut flavor up.  4.5

I liked the cask coconut and the VMO the most. Sj liked the VMO and Scotch the best.  But honestly all of these beers were good to great in my book.  I'm impressed with the overall quality, especially knowing that these guys have only been open for a few months.  This was a really polished brewpub, with great customer service, very good beers, and a comfortable cool old building.  This one is highly recommended if you are in the Rochester area.  In fact, make a day trip of it and visit Forager Brewing as well!

Thursday, December 17, 2015

A Whale A Week: Drinking With Cthulhu!

The story begins last year with a visit from my oldest colleague, the famed international explorer and dilettante Bryan Keehl.  Having recently returned from Tunisia via a combination of tramp steamer, rail, and motor-car, he ended up back in the States.  From a small brewery in the heart of the mob-run, flapper-ridden, cesspool of depravity that is Chicago, my good old friend brought me a rare and precious gift.  Secreting it upon his person, he risked the Untouchables and other federal excise men, as well as rival gangs, to bring me a strange and extraordinary bottle.  The brewery (now unable to legally brew during these prohibition dry years) was the first I ever frequented, back in my younger, more adventuresome days.  These days the place is run by an evil and monolithic shadow corporation intent on taking over the entire world's production of beer from its not-so-secret home in Belgium.  For years the brewery has been infiltrated by cultists following the dark arts and subverting the very fabric of the beer world from within.  Oh, but the beer is still tasty--perhaps too tasty to let a little thing like that interfere with my enjoyment of their most select brews!

Goose Island Nuthulhu

The base black and oily liquor for this is a Russian Imperial Stout called Cthulhu after H.P. Lovecraft's ancient and forgotten evil alien god that sleeps fitfully in the ocean depths.

From The Necronomicon in the words of the mad prophet Abdul Alhazred:

"That is not dead which can eternal lie,
And with strange aeons even death may die."

This particular noxious concoction is brewed by the shadowy Cthulhu cultists at the Chicago Goose Island Brewpub with hazelnuts, vanilla, and presumably shoggoth ichor extract.  Released in just a tiny batch (400 white wax dipped and unlabeled bottles) it is much sought after by collectors of beer antiquities such as myself.

For this special tasting I took a jaunt deep into the cellar.  With flickering torch in hand I wiped away the cobwebs of ages, half-seen skitterings at the corner of my vision, chitters of unspeakable things echoing in the distance.  Past the recently bricked up portion of the darkest depths of the passage (did I hear a subtle sob and scratching from behind?) I continued to make my way.  Past a rare wine cask, at last, upon a nitre encrusted stone slab, there rested my prize.  Brushing the dusty accumulations and excretions from the bottle, I could see the white crook-necked goose emblazoned upon the solid glass.  Stoppered with thick white wax to prevent decay, the bottle felt heavy in my now somewhat shaky hands.  Moving swiftly I left behind the empty reliquary and made my way back out of the dripping and lime encrusted cellar.

At a heavy scarred wooden table, surrounded by our cabal of adventurous drinkers, I set down the precious bottle.  Brother Rob, cloaked in his customary brown robes, brandished an aged but sharp dagger to cut the protective seal.  Sir Martin provided a hand-forged and weighty iron opener suitable for releasing the liquid from it's long slumber.  Heather, Jess and Sarajo, three fine ladies, bold for their fairer sex, pushed their chalices forward to partake of this potentially dangerous tasting.  Master Hutch loomed over us, keeping guard for any untoward effects released from this mystery.

Appearance: The ancient flagon is opened and eldritch horrors are released into the world of man!

Popped like the seal on a long-closed grave, the hiss of exhalations moan from the bottle--hinting at untold riches or dangers to be had.  Decanted into our waiting cluster of bejeweled goblets and chalices, the vile and viscous inebriant slowly drains from the bottle, black as the pits, with just hints of bloody highlights at the edge of the glass.  Only a slight foam of head rises, but then slowly sinks back down into the cimmerian murk, like a submerging crocodile into the benighted and roiling Nile.

Aroma: A cautious sniff of this liquid leads to outbursts and utterations.

Eric: Strong alcohol wafts from the clear glass goblet.  Earthy coffee from the Dark Continent melds with the aroma of raw cocoa nibs.  The scent of the filbert drifts upon the nose following the sooty melange.  From the darkest jungles of South America, the seed pod of the rare vanilla orchid blossoms as this warms from the heat of my trembling and sweaty hand.
Brother Rob: Smell the hazelnut and tremble my brothers!  Roast and chocolate are strong in this.
Heather: Vanilla bean, nutmeg, and madness!
Jess: More balanced than the other beers we've sampled my friends...

Flavor: The syrupy nectar of Cthulhu tempts us with its untold ancient secrets.

Eric: Refined sugary sweetness.  Hazelnut fairly drips off the tongue, leaving a slick mouthfeel, as if an enormous slug has left behind its trail upon it. Vanilla bean accentuates the sweet taste, lingering long after the sip has finished.  Some warming of the throat hints at strong alcohol hiding behind the sweetened flavors, lurking out of sight but ready to cause dementia and chaos in the incautious drinker.  The finish continues honeyed and toothsome but not quite cloying.
Brother Rob: Lotsa, lotsa vanilla!  A bit of aspartame, this leaves a spicy feeling.  Like a creme brulee from distant France.  Not sure if I get egg yolk, or if the vanilla association leads to these notes.
Heather: Creme brulee.  And Grainnnnnnnnnnsssssss!!
Jess: Smooth...but in the the way that Nutella is smooth.  Full mouth feel.

Overall: The (quite literally) final words on this singular brew.

Eric: The sweetness of this concoction is near overwhelming, but the wild and powerful hazelnut and vanilla flavors make this stand out in my mind as one of the more unique rare beers I've tasted this year.  Better than most of its brethren.  Suitable for warming one on an interstellar journey through long aeons and the cold remoteness of space. A 5 out of 5 I say!  As I sip my final dram, I feel the world shimmer, the fragile veil between our world an audible rip and a vision hits me--an island in the Pacific, rising from the sea, a great octopus headed creature crouched upon its shuddering shores, fish-like eyes seeing into my shattering soul.  Ai, Cthulhu ftagn!!
Brother Rob: (Silent, in demented reverie, he scrawls out a 4.75 in thick ruby ink that can only be his own blood.)
Heather: (Heather is gone, just a number 5 left incised into the wood of the table.)
Jess: (Gibbering madly from the corner where she rocks on her heels, repeating the numerals 4.5 over and over mixed with maniacal laughter and titters.)
Sarajo: (Brandishing Sir Martin's solid opener like a mace, clutching the last few drops of Nuthulu in her glass to her chest.  She eyes my still partially full goblet with an avaricious gleam in her crazed eyes.) "My precious dessert! A 5 for me oh yes! Mine, all mine!"
Sir Martin: (Lies silently upon the floor in a shadowy pool of blood.)
Master Hutch: (Laughs with deep ringing tones, the bloody dagger clutched in one gore-spattered hand.  The one who was to watch over us has betrayed us all...this is why he did not partake of the madness inducing brew!)

Overall Score: Madness!  And a 4.85

Seriously, this was a great beer.  Thanks to Bryan for bringing this back for me.  And thanks to my bold beer adventurers for helping out with the tasting!

Eastlake Tsothoggua!

As an added bonus and to continue the Lovecraftian action, we also tasted the recently released Tsothoggua (also a Cthulhu Mythos creature out of time and space).  I had picked up this bomber bottle at Eastlake Brewery in Minneapolis the previous week.  The beer is also a Russian Imperial and aged with oak and Spanish brandy.

The beer is dark and has a smoky overly roasted (nearly burnt coffee) aroma and flavor.  Hints of dark bitter chocolate are present.  A bit astringent and thin (especially compared with the almost unbearable sweetness of Nuthulhu) but still a solid beer.  Hints of brandy are present, but the oak perhaps takes this too woody and dry.  This is my favorite beer from the brewery.

Eric: 4
Rob: 4
Sj: 3.5
Heather: 3

Overall Score:  Not as much madness!  3.625

If for some strange reason you have come to this point in your life without reading any H.P. Lovecraft prose, you should be ashamed!  I suggest Shadows Over Innsmouth, The Call of Cthulhu, The Rats in the Walls, The Outsider, and The Whisperer in Darkness as some of his best stories.  A local playwright and actor named Tim Uren has done a one man show of The Rats in the Walls for Fringe Festival in the past that was perhaps the finest horror play I've ever seen in live theater.  He hopes to remount it one more time this coming year so keep your ear out for the scratching and skitterings from between the walls...

Monday, December 14, 2015

"Hey, Nice Beaver!"-- A Beaver Island Brewing Review

A short one for today, this was our last stop on the epic Fargo road trip.  We stopped in St. Cloud on the way home for a late lunch and discovered that they had a new brewery right near where Tyrone used to live while going to school.  We just had to check it out!

Beaver Island Brewing: Dam Fine Beer

Beaver Island started up in 2015, so the paint is figuratively still wet on the place. The building has been many things over the years including an old Chrysler dealership.  The place (not surprisingly) has a northwoods theme with pine trim and even a canoe hanging down from the ceiling.  The long bar is made of reclaimed bowling alley wood and shines with a well-used luster. Behind the bar is an amazing serving station created using some old automobile parts and chrome, built around the original lubrication station from the auto dealership.  This is a fine centerpoint to the bar and seems to work great!

We arrived on Sunday, when they have limited hours mainly for growler fills from the locals before watching weekend sports.  Fabulously bearded Co-Founder Nick Barth (with a history 10 years of hospitality service and Sommelier training) was tending bar when we arrived.  A few other people were just leaving and we were happy to be able to talk with Nick about the brewery a bit.  The other Co-Founder is Matt Studer, a homebrewer for over 8 years.  Being smart about it, they decided to hire a head brewer with legitimate professional experience and found Chris Laumb for the spot. Chris was at O'Hara Brothers, McCann's, and most recently Cold Spring.  They have a 15 barrel system with 30 barrel fermenters requiring strenuous double batches to fill them.  Instead of stainless steel from China, they tapped local St. Cloud company DCI to make their custom brew system and fermenters.  It sounds like they all had a little learning curve on this, but the partnerships seems to be a good one!  They also don't stock any base malt and are doing everything with 55# sacks of grain--allowing them to do more specialty malts.  That can be more expensive, but allows them more freedom to experiment and get more character into the beers--a lot like homebrewers can do!

So while we were talking, Nick was serving us up some of the beers from the beautiful chrome plated serving station.  What did I think?  Here you go based on my Untappd notes from that time.  My personal grading scale is a 3 I'll drink, a 4 I'll seek out, and a 5 I'll hoard.

1) Ripple--a German inspired ale with German grains and Spalter hops, 4.8%:  Crisp and malty at the same time.  3.75

2) 39 Red IPA:  A good balance of continental malts and American hops.  3.75

3) Union Suit: Very strong roast and dry finish.  Very drinkable, and I can't believe it has 8.9% ABV hidden in there! 4

4) Tip-Up--brewed with Minnesota grown hops and then spruce tips late in the kettle: By far the best spruce beer I've ever had (and I've tried a few!) Well done!  Beachwood smoke up front, followed by a mellow complex malt bill, ending with a strong but balanced pine/spruce flavor that is pleasant. The overall impression is one of drinking a liquid (and alcoholic) pine campfire.  This would go really well with strongly flavored game like duck or venison. I bought a growler of it.  4.75

Frankly my expectations going into Beaver Island were a bit on the low side.  But after talking with Nick and really enjoying all of the beers they had to offer I was rather happy with our impromptu stop!  It looks like Tip-Up was their 11th beer, so these guys are really just starting out.  I like that they appear to be working smart, and seem to be doing things the right way from the start.  I also appreciate how they've re-used small and larger touches from the previous incarnations of the building to maintain some continuity.  Well worth a stop in St. Cloud!

Oh, and Nick steered us to The Pickled Loon for lunch.  The place looks like an old borderline-shady bar, but they had plenty of craft beers on tap including Tip-Up and Stone Coffee Milk Stout.  They had some fantastic food including pork belly tacos that I'd put against some of the finer restaurants in Minneapolis.  The bathrooms were a bit freaky though and might warrant an update on your vaccinations.  A fun place to stop for some tacos and beer!

Sunday, December 13, 2015

A Whale A Week: The Bruery White Chocolate

This week we continue a series of rare beers that we tasted a few weeks back in my bar.  We actually started with this beer, then moved to the big bold beers.

The Bruery White Chocolate 2014

Sarajo and I were lucky enough to visit The Bruery in Placentia (not Placenta) California in Fall of 2014.  We were at Disneyland to celebrate our anniversary and made sure to take an afternoon off from animated characters and thrill rides for one of my favorite breweries in the world.  Check HERE for the blog entry on that visit.  While there we sprung the $30 each for a couple bottles of the just released and limited White Chocolate.  This is a wheat wine aged in oak barrels with vanilla beans and TCHO chocolate.  I've had high hopes about this one, especially since the bottle we tried for 2013 ended up being sour and dumped down the drain.  RateBeer gives this beer a 98 and Beer Advocate a 92.

We served this into snifters and let it warm up a bit before tasting.  The beer is 14.3 % and from 2014.  For this session we had me (BJCP judge, homebrewer, stout lover), Jim Stroner (Tin Whiskers Beer-Vangelist, craft beer geek), Dave Manley (homebrewer, learned beer geek), and Sarajo (my wife and fan of non-hoppy beers.)

Aroma: In which we get hopeful of things to come...
Eric: Fairly subtle.  Vanilla grows as it warms up.  Boozy.  Chocolate is very mild.  Hint of tartness.  Some oak tannins.  No hop aroma.
Jim: Chocolate and bourbon.
Dave: Initial wheat tart, then untoasted oak.  White chocolate.  Alcohol.

Appearance: In which we all apparently see a different beer...
Eric: Deep gold in color.  Slight haze to it.  Fine white head persists at edge of glass, but most fades quick.
Jim: Amber.  Cloudy.
Dave: Copper orange.  Slight haze.  Minimal head.

Flavor: In which Eric makes "bitter beer face!"
Eric: Tartness up front.  Wheat malt very pronounced.  Vanilla is strong and comes out once the tartness has faded from the tongue.  Boozy hot alcohol.  Chocolate is difficult to pick out.  Body fairly thin.  No hops.
Jim: White chocolate, vanilla and an unexpected souring.
Dave: Tart.  Wheat.  Boozy. Orange.

Overall: In which we all mix tears into our glasses and ceremoniously pour down the drain...
Eric: Souring.  The sourness clashes and destroys the delicate sweeter vanilla and chocolate flavors.  The sweetness is cut down by the souring and the body is dryer than expected.  Harsh booze and sourness just kills this for me.  I love intentional sours--Flanders Red and Lambics are my favorite beer styles--but this one just seems like a mistake.  Epic fail two years running from one of my top 10 breweries.  $30 I dumped down the drain.  Again.  2.75
Jim: Had potential but the sour was confusing. 2.75
Dave: Not terribly drinkable, if it was an 8 or 9% ABV it could be better.  3
Sarajo: We should have just bought another Atomic Kangaroo...2.75

Overall Score:  2.8

Photo info:  This week I tried to make my own brush with Photoshop Elements by taking a picture of a white chocolate square and scattering them over the bottle pic.  No matter what I did it was partially transparent so this didn't work quite to my liking, but hey--I tried something new!

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Look At My Junk! A Junkyard Brewing Review

Recently I've made it to nearly 20 breweries and distilleries!  I'm going to chip away at them in the order we visited.  Keep in mind that I'm reviewing based purely on my (and my wife's) experience on a certain day and that your results may vary.  I tend to wait until a brewery has been open for 6-12 months before reviewing, unless my visit is above par and deserves a write up.  I try not to be a jerk but pride myself in being honest.  I've been a homebrewer for nearly 26 years, a BJCP National ranked judge, and have been to many hundreds of breweries over the years.

Junkyard Brewing Company

The winner of best brewery we visited on our recent trip from the Twin Cities to Fargo was Junkyard Brewing Company.  Hands Down.  No contest.

I had never tried a beer from Junkyard, nor had I really heard much about them prior to this trip.  Located just across the river from Fargo, ND, this little brewery is still just barely in Minnesota!  The brewery was started by Aaron and Dan Juhnke in 2012--at least on paper.  They built their own nano brewery--a 50 gallon system that was laughably small by comparison to most commercial breweries these days.  By August of 2013 they were able to put their first kegs on tap for the beer drinking public.  Then in the summer of 2014 they moved into a larger brew space and upgraded to a (still relatively small) 3 barrel brew system.  They also added a taproom to the new brewery, serving 10 taps of their beers.  They are currently having a hard time brewing enough beer to fill growlers!  Time to upgrade again?

Our visit here was on a fine fall afternoon, sun warming us as we walked from the car to the little red and white painted building.  The Junkyard dog logo was emblazoned on a small sign out front, as well as painted on the side of the building itself to the side.  Entering the door, we discovered a small and comfortable space, filled with happy and thirsty folks.  Our friend Mark Glennon, who abandoned us for Fargo about a year ago, had already arrived and was holding us a larger table.  Junkyard is one of his favorite breweries and he was eager to share it with us!

The bar is fairly small, but two servers were working hard and fast to keep everyone filled up.  The place seemed a bit like a rough timbered wood and steel NE MPLS brewery, but with a retro 80's and '90's vibe to it.  Fun versions of their beer labels were painted on the walls, giving a lighter touch to the scene.  A picture of The Terminator on the bathroom door warns "You'll be back!"  So true!

The beers were good.  Really good.  Shockingly good.  Here are my notes from Untappd and ratings from 0-5.  I'll drink a 3, seek out a 4, and hoard a 5 beer.  While they didn't have samplers, they did sell beers in half-pints and we all shared a bit so we got to try nearly all the beers between our group.  My battery was going so I didn't take notes on all of them...

1) Coachgun--IPA.  Really well balanced with some classic American hop character.  Not overly bitter or overly hoppy.  Well done! 4.25

2) Key Lime Gose--Sour with salt and Key Limes.  Wow, this beer was crazy.  Like a very tart margarita.  One of the best kettle sours I've had this year.  Or ever.  4.25

3) Skunk Ape--Pale Ale.  A good American pale ale.  Had some pine notes and wasn't too sweet.  3.75

4) Coal Miner's Daughter--Imperial Stout.  A very roasty and less viscous/sticky RIS than many recent examples.  Reminds me more of classic Old Rasputin.  Almost a smoky hint to it.  Solid.  4

5) Peanut Butter Bandit--Peanut butter stout.  The only thing I wrote was "Holy Crap!"  This is probably the best peanut butter beer I've had.  I've brewed my own.  Better than Dangerous Man.  Better than Rocket Republic.  Better than Terrapin.  4.75

6) Free Candy--Belgian Quad.  Pretty sweet but very easy to drink. This one was aged in booze barrels and had added complexity.  3.75

7) Whistle Wetter--Double IPA.  Really well balanced for the style.  4.25

So overall, every beer I had was well above average to great.  None of our group of 5 had a beer they didn't like.  With bright afternoon sun shining in through the window through our glistening beer glasses, we all talked, sipped, and relaxed in the warm glow of fantastic beer and a comfortable taproom.  This place is my personal break-out hit from our trip, and will certainly make it into the top breweries I've been too this year.  I am a bit annoyed that one can only find their beer at the taproom or in a few bars/restaurants in the Fargo area.  I think they're having a hard time brewing enough to keep even those limited accounts full, and I now know why.  These are complex, well balanced beers, made to appease the palates of the brewers--not the common denominator.  I'll be first in line at upcoming beer festivals to try their newest batches!

Monday, December 7, 2015

Things To Do In Fargo When You Drink Part 2

Continuing the epic story of Tyrone, Annette, Sarajo, and myself on our weekend roadtrip from Waconia, MN to Fargo, ND--and back again!  Check out Part 1 HERE.  At this point in the trip we were taking Uber around to let poor Sj stop sober-driving us all over creation. We left off with Prairie Rose Meadery...

From there we were meeting some of Annette's cool family (she's almost a local) at Rhombus Guys Pizza.  Apparently this place started as a smoothie stand in the early 2000's, changing into a pizza place in Grand Forks, spreading a pseudopod into Fargo, and now they even have a small brewery!  The brewery itself is in Grand Forks, but the Fargo site just started serving the beer prior to our arrival.  Like they knew were coming!  They had a lot of cool and unusual pizzas to offer and all of us were happy with our choices.  The brewery itself hasn't been open long and the beers still need a bit of time in my opinion.  I tried the Into The Darkness porter which I gave a 3 and an "OK", as well as the Octoberfest which I gave a 3.5 and noted that it tasted more like an ale.  Still, cool to try another brewery's beers that we can't get in Minnesota!

Next up after taking our leave of Annette's family was the nearby Viking themed Drekker Brewing.  Located very close to Wurst Bier Hall, this place has a great location in the center of the city.  The space is long and narrow with a fair amount of seating and a decent sized brewery set-up in the back.  This is a fairly young brewery and feels a bit like the paint just dried.  They had a lot of beers to choose from for such a new place--even splitting a couple of samplers our group didn't try everything.  Looking at my Untappd notes (which were getting spotty by this time of night) I gave most of their beers between 3-3.5 stars.  My favorite of theirs was the Coffee Broken Rudder, an Irish red ale that was very well done and unusual (4 star).  My least favorite was the Azacca Attacka pale ale with plastic phenols (2.75).  Overall, a cool space with a fair amount of money behind it, but it seems a little too nice, like they haven't really found their own vibe yet.  The beers still need a little work to make me search them out, but not bad.  Drekker is still young so I'll let them practice a bit!

Ty showing off his inner Viking!

At this point in our long day we were feeling a bit like Hunter S. Thompson on his addled journey through the Nevada desert.  The night was dark, but we were shiny.  We tramped around downtown Fargo.  We spent time ogling the theater with thousands of colorful bra's dangling from it.  We molested a couple of large painted bison to the disgust and dismay of NDSU fans everywhere.  In a bison-tinged haze, we kept moving to avoid crowds of pitchfork wielding peasants.

We next found ourselves as if by magic in front of Fargo's only distillery--Proof!  This is a craft distillery specializing in Vodka and Gin.  Unusual (compared to Minnesota) is the fact that they can actually serve food at this distillery.  They had a tapas type menu from a small restaurant on one side of the large open building, but we were too full on sausages and pizza for any more sustenance.  The place is big with high ceilings, but separated into areas by a strangely oriented bar and some other oddly angled seating.  The bizarre angles and height differences made for an weird vibe and a feng shui would offend the ancestor spirits and nature spirits alike.  Lovecraft would be proud.  There was a very strong monkey-cages-at-the-zoo aroma permeating the place that I found very distracting. This rotting and fermenting silage smell hints at poor cleaning and grain removal in the distillery itself since I didn't see any poo-flinging monkeys around.  We asked our server for a sample of the vodka to decide which type of drink we wanted and our server was very obliging.  However, the vodka had a very strong aroma reminiscent of nail-polish remover or rubbing alcohol.  Avoiding the vile vodka, we all ordered some Minions Gin based cocktails and all were decent but didn't knock our socks off.

Just down the block was a place known for their cocktails, and we were almost in the doors when strangely we looked about ourselves at the graying dawn's light and decided that perhaps we should call this a day and rest up for the following day's planned debauchery.  And so we made at least one good decision this fine day.  The rest of the bison herd would rest easy...for now...

Oh, and then in a Cold War game of "I can stay up drinking longer than you!" we all ended up at Ty and Annette's nicer-than-ours suite room for some 18% ABV Bruery beers and Cards Against Humanity.  Luckily our room was a close stagger down the hall...

The next morning I was up and judging beers at 9 AM.  Turn down those dim basement lights please!  The Hoppy Halloween challenge continued and I tried many good beers and meads while trying to provide good feedback.  Once the afternoon judging session was over, our group took a quick field trip to the only brewery we didn't get to visit the previous action-packed day: Fargo Brewing Company.

Fargo Brewing Company was the first brewery in Fargo, starting out contract brewing at Sand Creek in Wisconsin fall of 2011, then moving to their own large warehouse facility in 2013.  When I first tried their Wood Chipper IPA in can I chuckled over the name, then spat it out in disgust since strong movie theater butter popcorn aromas and flavors abounded.  I've avoided them since. But now these guys have their own place and are selling a lot of cans out of their production brewery.  They have a lot of room to grow in the current building!  The taproom itself was just a small area of warehouse floor near the entrance, cordoned off from the main production floor.  They had a small corrugated metal and wood serving bar with about 11 different beers pouring, and a couple of busy bar-tenders serving the small but thirsty crowd.  A few etched and scarred picnic tables provided seating for us, and a bunch of games by the door provided additional entertainment options.  This is a no-frills working kind of place that reminds me a bit of Lucid's current brewery space--but bigger.

The beers at Fargo Brewing were better than the first time I tried them for sure!  Strangely, my favorite was the Fargo Original--a good example of a crisp but malty Helles--which I gave a 4.25.  Second favorite was the sweeter Stone's Throw Scottish ale which I gave a 3.75.  All the other beers we tried were average to slightly above.  I think perhaps they're playing it a bit safe and appealing to the large market of novice craft beer drinkers in North Dakota and don't fault them for it.  They are certainly putting out a lot of decent beers!

Returning to our hotel, we finished up the evening with a long and crazy Hoppy Halloween dinner and award ceremony, complete with costume contests (Ty and Annette won that!), homebrews galore, Prairie Rose meads, medals, and more!  This is hands down the most fun I've ever had at a homebrew competition and I'm glad we made the drive up for it.  And on the way home the next day we stopped at one more brewery--Beaver Island--with another write-up to follow!

Friday, December 4, 2015

A Whale A Week: Dark Horse Six Pairs of Legs

Dark Horse Brewing's 6 Pairs Of Legs

This week's A Whale A Week offering is a rare little gem from Dark Horse Brewing in Michigan.  Sj and I were able to visit the brewery two years ago when we were out there for NHC.  We had a great time and loved the cobbled-together-almost-ghetto vibe of the place.  I keep discovering random special beers from these guys and this week's beer one such find.

6 Pairs of Legs is described on the bottle in this bizarre fashion: "Imperial Porter made with Dark Horse Syrup Co. maple syrup, then aged in a bourbon barrel, and then aged in a bourbon barrel that had maple syrup aged in it."  Whew!  That was a mouthful.  So this is a big beer (ABV is not noted on the bottle) with lots of maple syrup involved.  Sounds good to me!  This is a 12 oz bottle dipped in very thick wax.  There were not enough ratings of this beer in RateBeer or Beer Advocate to get a number rating.  I've had the bottle for a couple of years but don't know the vintage on it.  I also have no idea where the name came from...For this tasting we had over Bryan Budahn (a brewer with Schram Vineyards and Brewery), Kristen Budahn (enjoys dark beers like a champ), Sarajo (my lovely wife who refuses to write up these reviews but will still drink the beer), and myself (BJCP judge, homebrewer for over 20 years, super beer geek.)

Aroma: (In which we find that Kristen has some judging chops...)
Eric: Strong maple syrup aroma.  Coffee.  Hint of soy sauce at first, but fades over a couple of seconds.  Bourbon and vanilla.  Cocoa.  Roasted grains.  No hop presence.
Bryan: Booze.  Oak.  Some sweetness.
Kristen: Hints of a very dark chocolate.  Maple.  Bourbon.  Harsh alcohol at first, but this is very pleasant after you smell it over time.  Toasty notes.

Eric: Slightly viscous.  Very small dark tan head with large bubbles.  Fades quickly.  Deep brown in color with ruby highlights against the light.  Good clarity for such a dark beer.
Bryan: Dark brown, hazelnut at the edges of the glass.  Fine bubbles on top with minimal head.
Kristen: Dark, chocolaty brown.  Tan head.  Clear.

Flavor: (In which Kristen again shows up the guys with her palate and descriptions.)
Eric: Sweet and boozy!  Strong bourbon, vanilla, marshmallow.  Finish is sweeter and maple comes out at the end.  Some alcohol warming but not hot.  Dark chocolate.  Hint of coffee.  No hop flavors.  Body is only medium but this is mouth coating.
Bryan: Booze mid-way through.  Nome sweetness.  Some chocolate and toastiness.
Kristen: Bourbon in the finish.  Smooth.  Mapley (new word).  Mild smoky notes.  Warm.  Doesn't finish too sweet--you want to take the next sip.

Overall: (Balance is the key!  And Bryan is a tough grader!)
Eric: This beer reminds me of The Bruery's Black Tuesday, but not as sweet and not as hot.  Well balanced but certainly to the sweet side of things.  Maple was not as strong as I expected but it does add complexity.  I'd pour this on pancakes! 4.5
Bryan: I would buy this again for up to $15 a bottle.  Full mouthfeel but with a dry enough finish to prompt you to take another sip.  Warming without being hot.  I wish there was more! 4
Kristen: Very balanced and easy to drink.  No overpowering flavors.  Good maple and bourbon notes. 4.25
Sarajo: This could get you in trouble! 4.5

Overall Score: 4.31

This was a cool little gem of a beer with almost no buzz behind it.  Well done again Dark Horse!

Photo info:  I took a shot of the bottle before opening, cut it out from background and superimposed it on a shot I took of fall maple leaves from last year.  Not entirely happy with the result, I added a pencil sketch filter and this made the colors pop a little more.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Things To Do In Fargo If You Drink Part 1

Recently, my wife Sarajo, as well as Tyrone and Annette Babione (both BJCP judges) all took a road trip up to Fargo for the Prairie Homebrewing Compainions' Hoppy Halloween competition.  This was a fantastic trip and we stopped in at a ton of breweries, beer bars, distilleries, and even a meadery!  So I'm going to do my best to remember details and write it all up.  Keep in mind that enjoyment of craft beer can be subjective, and also that these visits were a snapshot in time and may not reflect the day-to-day quality of a place.  I'm always curious what others think, so feel free to comment if you have had a similar (or different) experience at any of these places.

In my previous post HERE I mentioned stopping at Hayes' Public House on the Thursday evening on our way out of Waconia.  After that brief but fun stop, we kept driving up north and west until we reached the bustling (OK, not really) town of Fergus Falls.  My family has a cottage on Ottertail Lake fairly near Fergus and growing up, this was the closest city to us during summer trips.  I'm sure the town has changed since I was younger, but we didn't see much in the dark just driving through.  Our destination was Union Pizza and Brewing Company, where we had plans to stop for dinner.

Union opened in early 2015 and is the first brewery in Fergus Falls since well, probably Prohibition!  The place used to be a Dominoes Pizza, but has been upgraded to serve woodfired pizzas and craft beers.  Recently they've begun serving their own house-made beers in addition to a good mix of local Minnesota craft beers and ciders.  Hence our trip there!  When we arrived the place was pretty packed but we didn't have to wait for a booth, which was nice.  There was a lady performing live music in the corner of the main seating area--she was decent but the volume was way too loud for such a small place.  I believe one of the owners took a break from running the bar part way through and played guitar for a short stint as well.  We had a fun server in a wonderfully terrible Christmas sweater who walked us through the food and drink options like a pro.  They had a lot of pizzas to choose from, including a fantastic Reuben pizza with saurkraut, pickles, and spicy sauce drizzle.  We tried all three of their beers between the three of us who were drinking: Traveller is an IPA that had good citrus-orange hop aroma and flavors up front, but had a rough and astringent finish (2.5/5).  The Jeff Davis is a porter with deep dark color, but some tart/sour aromas and flavors that indicate sanitation issues (2.75).  The UPBC Cincinnati is a pale ale and was the best of the bunch, but still not quite to my liking (3).  These guys have only been open a short time and brewing even less, so I'd give them a little slack on the beers for now.  The pizza was great and the service good.  I'd go back if I was in town for sure!

From there we drove (in the dark now) the final hour or so to Fargo, and to our final destination--the Country Inn and Suites, where the Hoppy Halloween event was held.  We ended up hanging out in the world's saddest hotel bar (tiny and understocked) until it closed and then walked around the corner of the building to Green Mill...and shut it down too!  Heck of a start to the weekend!

On our next day (this would be Friday) I judged beer in the basement of the hotel with a bunch of locals and some other visitors.  They run a well-oiled and fun show at this competition!  After judging was finished for the afternoon (we split early) we were ready to go explore what Fargo had to offer.  I was suitably impressed.

1000's of colorful bras adorn this building...

 Our first stop was Wurst Bier Hall for some food.  This place is something that would be right at home in Nordeast or Uptown Minneapolis--full of metal and woods, funky murals, and wacky jackalopes.  While the name of the place sounds like it should be a classic German oompa band, lederhosen, and spetzel kinda joint, it's really more of an upscale sausage and meat emporium.  Sausages of all kinds with a plethora of toppings share the menu with burgers, porketta, and more.  They also have a very large beer (or bier) list boasting several German offerings, but mainly American craft beers from all over.  Oh, and a bacon sampler that came paired with beer samples!  Yum!  We could have stayed here eating and drinking longer but didn't want to fill up too much before more Fargo debauchery!

From Wurst we drove to an industrial warehouse area at the edge of town to try out Kilstone Brewery, who were open before all the other breweries in town.  This place is brand new.  Brand-brand new.  The website isn't up yet and even the Facebook page is pretty bare, so we were a little unsure of where we were going and if they were really open.  But we had nothing else to do so we persevered and were rewarded for our troubles.  We discovered the small brewery hidden deep among the tall metal-sided buildings at the far end of a parking lot (yes parking is easy!)  There's a large garage door that opens up to let some sun and air into the tiny taproom in nice weather, and we lucked out in getting there during a beautiful fall afternoon.  The L-shaped bar and a few small tables provide a spot to sit and sample, but the place is tiny.  A big happy labrador lolled about in the sun, and came to investigate the new visitors.  A pocket sized brew system and a few conical fermenters sit in the back of the place, nestled in with bags of malt and other brewing tools.  A mural of trees and running water provides some color behind the bar, but the place is very utilitarian overall.

While we were trying to decide on our sampler beers from a fairly sizeable collection, a lady that we initially took to be a regular started to give us some pointers.  Her name was Jan Wigen and it turns out that she was one of the owners of the brewery, (along with her husband Randy), and she introduced us to one of her two sons (Brock) who are the brewers there!  Apparently Randy was the homebrewer and has turned his sons into pro brewers to help out the family business!  Brock took us on an impromptu tour of the site and talked shop with us, and seemed very eager for feedback on the beers.  Where the basic appearance of the place was not outstanding, we all had such a great experience with the hospitality of the Wigen family that this ended up being one of our favorite stops on our whole Fargo trip!

Our sampler's were served on platters and in small jelly jars for a fun effect.  While we tasted through the entire line-up Brock explained that almost all of these beers were probably only the first or second batches of the beers and that they would be working hard to tweak recipes over time and get used to the brew system.  I'll zip through a couple of my notes from tasting here:  My favorite of the lot was between the Apple Cinnamon Brown (served with cinnamon sugar on the rim at request) and the Pac's Porter--I gave both a 4 which is pretty high praise from me!  They also had a respectable Citra IPA, and a slightly (but still good) diacetyl-ridden Ironstone Irish Red.  My least favorite was the pale ale which seemed to have a bit of plastic phenol to me, but Ty and Annette liked that one the most.  Overall the beer quality was well above all of our expectations, and if these are the first batches I think Kilstone has a good start.   Thanks for the time and hospitality Wigens!

After a favorable trip to Kilstone, we headed back across the border to Moorhead where we visited Junkyard Brewing.  I loved that place and am affording them their own blog entry to come.

Moving back across the river into Fargo we next stopped at Prairie Rose Meadery. This place is the long-time dream of world famous mead-maker Susan Ruud.  I've judged mead with her at homebrew competitions, and have had her judge my own meads--she knows what she's doing!  Sarajo and I got to try a couple of her first commercial meads at NHC in California this summer and were both very excited to see what she had planned for the meadery.  Oh, and for those who don't know meads--it's wine made of fermented honey.  Like wine, mead can be dry, semi, or sweet.  One can also add spices, fruits, juices, and more to them.  Prairie Rose is located in a small office park (like most brewing facilities) and is a little tough to find at first.  Once you enter the somewhat non-descript entrance you find yourself in a cozy little space that reminds you of an elderly family member's parlor.  I mean this in an entirely good way!  A couple of comfy couches and a small tasting bar with honeycomb shaped back-bar complete the picture.  Susan's wonderful husband Bob was tending bar and gave us the star treatment, serving us samples of all the meads and even a couple of fun mead cocktails that they've concocted.  I believe we tasted about 6 different meads (and maybe a sneak peak of a a few more) while we were there!  The Mint and the Anise were very well done--especially amazing that I liked them since I'm not a fan of either flavor.  The Cherry and the Blackberry were both very drinkable--too drinkable for safety!  My favorites were the Traditional (such a well balanced sweet honey character) and the Ginger mead (of which only Steve Piatz can give Susan a run for her money!)  We bought quite a few bottles and Bob was kind enough to bring them over to us the next day.  These are some of the best commercially available meads I've ever had.

Think this is enough for two days?  Not a chance!  Up next: Drekker, Proof, Rhombus Guys, Fargo Brewing, bison molestation, and more!  Stay tuned for Part 2!

Too much to write about!  I'll split this travelogue into two parts...

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Inspired By Reading Book Group: Miss Peregrin's Home For Peculiar Children

Once again, after my wife Sj (of Sj Designs) finished reading her book club book, she talked me into reading it as well.  For those who haven't read all of my previous posts, the Inspired By Reading Book Group is a virtual book club made up mostly of jewelry designers who take inspiration from books and create amazing works of art based upon them.  I've taken part a few times with my budding photography skills.

This month we read a young adult novel by Ransom Riggs called Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children.  The author is a photographer and a collector of strange old found photographs.  Between his own collection and those of some other collectors he pieced together a narrative using these odd photos.  The book is told from the perspective of a teen boy, who grows up listening to his grandfather's tall tales and looking at those old and remarkable photographs.  As the book goes on we discover that perhaps there may be some truth to these stories and photos, but that's all I'm going to say or risk ruining it for you!  The book is actually being made into a movie by Tim Burton, but I suggest reading it first--besides you need to see all the cool pictures!

So this challenge was really up my alley.  As an amateur photographer I found inspiration in the very visual media of this book.  Let's be honest, when was the last time any of us read a book with pictures that wasn't for small children?

For this photo I used one of the characters from the book (an invisible boy) as inspiration.  I set up my tripod in my basement bar and arranged a vintage martini glass and stereoscope on the bar-top as set dressing.  I took a shot of the bar and chair without myself in it.  Then I sat down very carefully and used my remote trigger for the camera.  This took a few shots to get right, and my camera kept falling asleep and not recognizing the trigger.  Eventually I got two shots I liked.  I was then able to import them into Photoshop Elements.  With the plain bar as background layer, I put the shot with myself in it on top.  I was then able to very carefully erase my face and hand out of the top picture, allowing the background to show through.  This took me some time and cursing.  But I got the effect I was looking for.  Next I changed it to sepia tone for that 1900's look.  Then I superimposed a photo of peeling paint on concrete with a low opacity setting to simulate fading and age spots on the photo.  Last but not least I used a "frame" that had lines on it to simulate scratches on the film.  I'd love to figure out how to get a creased look or ratty edges...

Next up was another shot at the bar, since I had everything set up already.  This one was inspired by a super creepy picture from the book of an 1800's evil looking dentist.  I rearranged my foreground items and made sure my arm and shoulder was in the shot.  I sat a skull in front of my body so it would show up only in the reflection in the mirror.  The shot turned out great but it often takes people a couple of seconds to see the reflection.  The side light from an overcast afternoon also highlights only half of my face making it look much more ominous than usual.  I took a couple of these with an evil grin but it was just too much, even for me!  For the rest of the shot I used an overlay of a rust patch that I took in NE Minneapolis from the side of a building, to simulate age.  Then tweaked to sepia tone and done!

Next up, I made Sj get dressed up in her Ren Fest outfit and had her pose for me.  I didn't have a lot of time so my staging and set up were a bit rushed.  It was also really cold out and my model was not happy with so much skin showing in the whipping wind.  I took a couple of long exposure shots with an ND filter to cut the sun's light a bit.  The wind moved the leaves more than I would have liked and there wasn't much directional light, but hey, work with what you have!

I actually like this one the most.  I added a rust stain to the background to add texture and color to this one.  I also added scratches to the photo to add more age.  I also had to smudge out some of the background fence and house details.  I like the unhappy ghost look!

So creepy much?  This one was less about Miss Peregrine than the others.  The tone of the book reminded me of Richard Matheson's The Shrinking Man which I red when I was much younger.  I tracked down a copy of this fairly rare Gold Medal Original paperback a few years ago and it sits with the rest of my old pulp-era collection.  For this shot I took a macro of a huge spider from my back deck, who had wrapped up a yellow-jacket wasp in its web.  I superimposed a shot of myself reaching out an arm and blurred it a bit to make it look less odd.

Back to Miss Peregrine: I loved this book with it's crazy characters, amazing old photos, and quasi-supernatural plot.  Happily the second book has been out a while and the third in the series just came out recently so I'll have plenty to read in the near future!

Monday, November 30, 2015

Hayes' Public House--Mighty Fine Craic

Recently, my wife Sarajo, Tyrone and Annette Babione (both BJCP judges), and I all took a road trip up to Fargo for the Prairie Homebrewing Compainions' Hoppy Halloween competition.  This was a fantastic trip and we stopped in at a ton of breweries, beer bars, distilleries, and even a meadery!  So I'm going to chip away at reviewing these places for my readers.  Keep in mind that enjoyment of craft beer can be subjective, and also that these visits were a snapshot in time and may not reflect the day-to-day quality of a place.  I'm always curious what others think, so feel free to comment if you have had a similar (or different) experience.

Hayes' Public House

We live in Waconia, so the quickest way up to Fargo was initially via windy country roads though our beautiful farm country.  Within a short time we drove through the town of Buffalo (not Bison) and Annette pointed out a brewery right there in front of us--Hayes' Public House.  Shrugging, Sarajo good-naturedly turned into the parking lot and we all piled out in search of beer.  Ok, so we only made it about 25 minutes from home, but hey...

The brewery itself was opened in November of 2013 and uses a small 3 barrel system that the brewer has to use twice in quick succession to fill the 7 barrel fermenters they use for batches.  As a home brewer I know that's a lot of work for one batch!  The tag-line of Hayes' is "Inspired Old Ales" and they specialize in English/Irish/Scottish Styles of beer.  The outside of the building is painted green and has a bold maroon and gold sign above the entrance.  Inside, the place is made to feel like an authentic Irish pub, with dark woods, and a mid-sized bar across from the entrance.  The walls and ceilings are lined with Irish flags, Waterboys and Pogues posters, and other UK bric-a-brac without being overly crowded.  The walls are light green, preventing the place from seeming too dark or close.  The tasting room was apparently crafted entirely by friends, family, and local artisans from Buffalo.  Having been to Ireland a couple of times, the place feels familiar, but a bit more open and spare than many of the truly old Irish pubs we visited.  The bar itself is very pretty and hand-made, with taps coming through the wall in the bar-back.  There is some PA equipment in the corner, and one of my friends tells tales of great live Irish music there from time to time.

We arrived right around 5 PM and the brewery was pretty quiet with just one local guy getting an after-work pint, and our friendly barkeep.  We didn't have a lot of time to spare since light was wasting and we had a long ride ahead of us.  I got the sampler to try several beers (of course!) and we got to testing them out at one of the comfortable wooden tables.  Here are some thumbnail reviews based on my notes in Untappd.  My personal scale is this: 3 I'll drink, 4 I'll search out, and 5 I'll hoard.  I'll be up front here, I did have a growler of beer from Hayes' about a year ago and was not impressed at all, so my expectations going into this were somewhat low.

1) Hayes Irish Stout--A classic dry Irish stout in the vein of Guinness.  Yes I've had Guinness over there and it is better than here.  This was the beer I had last time and hated, but this time I was pretty pleased.  Dry, roasty, hint of sweetness.  Infinitely drinkable session ale.  4

2) O'Ruaidhri Irish Red Ale--A classic Irish red.  At this point there aren't many good Irish reds even in Ireland.  The closest you might find is Smithwicks, but that one is pretty mild these days.  Hayes' version, despite the impossible name is malty, flavorful with a hint of roast to balance it out.  4

3) Dullahan Coffee Porter--The base porter was pretty well made.  Coffee was dark and roasted which did add a bit of astringency to the beer, but still fairly well balanced.  I think Sj liked this one the most.  3.75

4) Hartfiel's Smoked Export--A export stout is usually a bit higher in alcohol without being a booze-bomb like RIS.  I haven't come across many American versions of this style so was excited to try this.  The base beer was well done, but the use of peat smoked malt really added a STRONG phenolic smoke to the beer.  Don't get me wrong, I actually liked it quite a bit, but it won't be for everyone.  Think Hammerheart Brewing.  3.75

5) O'Hanlon's Imperial IPA--I wasn't so sure about this style at an Irish pub, but these guys managed to pull it off.  A very well done DIPA with a harmony of malt sweetness and hop bitterness.  Not overly alcoholic.  Hop aroma is stellar.  4

Overall, let's just say that I was fairly impressed, especially coming into it expecting problems.  This is why I'll always give places a second or even third try over time.  I've been to too many new breweries that struggle at first get their own style and system down to judge too fast.  Apparently the guys at Hayes are figuring it out!  I'm also a fan of classic English styles and I like that they have a mix of these but are putting their own twist on them as well.  Before we left the place, the brewer came out of the small brewery in back talked with us for a few minutes.  He seemed very passionate and was excited about some barrel aging projects to come (we spotted a J. Carver Distillery barrel in the group!)  We had a great stop at this unexpected little gem of a brewery/pub and I hope to get back in the future.  It's actually closer to my home than anything in NE Minneapolis!

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

A Whale A Week: Cigar City Hunahpu's Imperial Stout

This week we do an interesting taste-off.  Early on in this series of posts we reviewed the Brandy Barrel version of Hunahpu's Imperial Stout HERE.  For this tasting we first tried Marshal Zhukov's Stout--the base RIS that gets the star treatment to make it into Hunahpu's spiced version.  The bottle I had was from 2011 and was donated by my good friend Rob Wengler of Limited Release fame. Following this big beer we drank down Jim's bottle of 2014 Hunahpu's from 2014, lovingly retrieved directly from Hunahpu's Day in Florida that year.

We served these into snifters and let them warm up a bit before tasting.  For this session we had me (BJCP judge, homebrewer, stout lover), Jim Stroner (Tin Whiskers Beer-Vangelist, craft beer geek), Dave Manley (homebrewer, learned beer geek), and Sarajo (my wife and fan of non-hoppy beers.)

Marshal Zhukov's Imperial Stout

This is a big bad Russian Imperial Stout named for one of Russia's greatest generals in WWII.  Jim had tried this at GABF and it was one of his favorite beers of the day.  We all got a load of oxidation in the beer and decided it was well past its prime.  Our average rating was 3 out of 5.  So I should have drunk this sooner and won't blame Cigar City for its less than stellar flavor profile.

Hunahpu's Imperial Stout 2014

Named after a Mayan mythological character who gave cocoa to humans, this beer is a strong RIS aged on cocoa nibs, Madagascar vanilla beans, cinnamon, and pasilla and ancho chili peppers.  This version is not barrel aged.  RateBeer and Beer Advocate give this beer a solid 100 rating.  People wait in lines overnight for the release of this special black nectar.

Eric: Some alcohol right up front. Cocoa, mild chili flavors.  Vanilla increases as this warms up.  Hint of coffee.  Deep and rich aroma that makes me really want to skip writing and just drink up!
Jim: Spice is the first thing I get.
Dave: Cinnamon, cocoa, chili, vanilla, coconut?

Eric: Black as night. Fine deep and dark tan head that fades fairly fast.
Jim: Dark!
Dave: Black, not as viscous as Zhukov's.  Little carbonation, wispy head.

Eric: Intense!!! Mix of cocoa (dry and dark), mild vanilla, cinnamon.  Finishes with a mellow earthy burn.  Booze is present but not overly hot alcohol (just hot from chili!)  Roasted coffee notes in the middle. Body is pretty thick and mouth coating.  Sweet, but balanced by bitterness and spicing to not seem overly cloying.  Seems like this is bourbon barrel aged.  Very little oxidation.
Jim: Cinnamon/spice.  Fruit.  Chilies.  Finished with chocolate and vanilla.
Dave: I can pick out all the parts at different times.  Some heat at the end, but not too much.  Coconut? Tropical?

Eric: Amazing beer!  That is all.  5
Jim: A lot going on--well done! 4.5
Dave: Strangely, this is more than the sum of its (many) parts.  I want this on a tropical beach with fish tacos.  4.25
Sarajo: Still just as good!  4.75

Overall Score: 4.625

This is one of my favorite beers of all time.  Not because it is rare (I've had less than splendid things to say about many of these rare beers) but because as Dave said, "It is more than the sum of its parts."  We tasted Prairie Bomb! in a previous week HERE and while that had similar flavoring, it just didn't meld into something as sublime as Hunahpu's.

Monday, November 23, 2015

56 Brewing Review

Recently I've made it to nearly 20 breweries and distilleries!  I'm going to chip away at them in the order we visited.  Keep in mind that I'm reviewing based purely on my (and my wife's) experience on a certain day and that your results may vary.  I tend to wait until a brewery has been open for 6-12 months before reviewing, unless my visit is above par and deserves a write up.  I try not to be a dick but pride myself in being honest.  I've been a homebrewer for nearly 26 years, a BJCP National ranked judge, and have been to hundreds of breweries over the years.  Here is the most recent...

56 Brewing

I first heard about 56 Brewing at Autumn Brew Review this year.  I tried one of the beers, was pleasantly surprised with it, and made sure to add the place to my list of places to visit.  They are located in a very industrial area of NE Minneapolis, hidden away behind some massive concrete buildings and silos.  We nearly got lost looking for the place, but finally found the funny little sign pointing the way to free beer!

There was plenty of parking in the dirt lot, and it was easy to see the small brewery entrance.  They had a small garden with some hop bines and some decorative pumpkins set up outside.  We played with a friendly German shepherd outside for a few minutes before heading into the brewery itself.  The afternoon was beautiful and crisp, a perfect time for exploring and beer tasting!

The brewery itself is very, very, very small.  At this time they don't have a true taproom and can't sell pints of beer--in fact the entire brewery would fit inside several of the other Nordeast taprooms!  While they can't sell pints, they can give away free samples and seem happy to do so to thirsty travelers.  One can also get 32 and 64 oz growlers filled at the brewery, and I just saw that they have bike delivery services now on their website.  They've only been open since May of 2015 so are very new to the scene.  The brew system itself is crammed into the existing space, with some built in refrigeration areas left over for fermenting.  There is a small tasting area that was bustling with people during our entire visit--word seems to be getting out.

Since the website is a bit spare on details I contacted president and brewer Kale Johnson for some more information.  He was kind enough to take the time to fill in some information for us!

Kale is an engineer and his wife, Dr. Kerry Johnson is a professor at St. Catherine University Graduate School.  They are both into the outdoors, sailing, and enjoying the Minneapolis arts, music, and restaurant scene.  Kale has many years of homebrewing experience, utilizing his science background.  His homebrewing went from extract to 30 gallon all-grain batches very quickly.  Head brewer Nick Chute also has an extensive homebrewing background and between the two of them have over 14 years combined experience.

When asked where the name 56 came from, Kale gave me a fairly fun response:

"We have many meanings behind 56.  7*8, 14*4, 38 hexadecimal, Joe Dimaggio home run streak, spinal tap's number 11 (5+6), aubrey holes at stonehenge, etc.  56 is a number that has stuck with me since an early age and I chose this number over many of the common 'lucky' numbers such as 7 or 11.  I'm a math, science and numbers person so it seemed appropriate to name our Brewery with this.  The first tracing to 56 goes to a manually operated paddle boat that my father built for us kids.  In the cast iron crank arms there is a cast number 56 stamped into it.  That paddle boat resides in the brewery."  

I'm partial to the Spinal Tap answer!

Another interesting aspect of the brewery is something they call a CSB (Community Supported Brewery).  Per Kale: "The CSB is simply a program that allows our community to "buy into" the company by purchasing discounted beer.  Similar to a CSA, but with beer.  It's a way for us to connect at an even greater level with others and gives them a benefit.  Funding through this program is a very small amount into our business."  This is a little different from the entirely member owned Co-Op model at Fair State.  The CSB shares are available twice a year and vary from a $35 Member Supporter to a whopping $550 Level 3 that includes a growler a week for the whole year.  All levels include a 10% swag discount and invites to member only events.  Even knowing I'm not likely to get out there very often, I joined at the Member Supporter level on my visit.  Hey I got a T-shirt out of the deal and I'm supporting a brewery I think is going to go places!

But the truth is in the beer right?  Here are the beers they had on tap when we were there and my notes (scribbled on one of their menu cards) and scores for the beers.  My personal rating scale (out of 5): 3 I'll drink but won't go out of my way for, 4 I will search out, and 5 I will hoard.

1) Lake Sandy Rye Lager--A lager made with pilsner and rye malt.  The beer is bright, crisp, hoppy and peppery.  Slight sulfur note, but not out of character for a lager--not overwhelming.  I would drink this on a warm and sunny day.  4

2) NE Nectar Honey Kolsch--Definite honey and malt aroma up front, and also comes through in flavor without being sweet.  This is somewhat hoppy for the style, but refreshing and clean with hints of pear ester.  3.75

3) Polonaise APA-- Sweet at first, but a decent bitterness comes in late to the taste which evens this out.  Crisp, almost lager character to it on the finish.  Pleasant citrus peel hop.  3.75

4) Dark Territory--A stout brewed with oats, milk sugar, coconut, and cocoa nibs.  The coconut is subtle (then again my favorite such beer the massively flavored Town Hall Three Hour Tour).  Cocoa nibs very present and somewhat drying/astringent.  Has a smoky flavor as well that I'm not sure about.  Overall could be sweeter/maltier.  3.25

5) California Street IPA--Single hop El Dorado IPA.  Like the APA, this one is sweet at first but has a solid bitter finish.  I get pears, lychee, citrus fruit from the hopping.  3.75

Having tried these surprisingly balanced and tasty beers (all above average by my scale) I was very happy that we stopped in.  Again, I rarely review a place this young but when they impress me I'll go ahead and write them up!  From Kale's comments it does sound like expansion to a larger brew system (and hopefully taproom space) is in the plans for 56 Brewing.  Here's looking forward to checking them out again soon, and hopefully I'll get advanced warning about special releases with my CSB membership.