Thursday, August 6, 2015
By The Ravens Of Odin! A Hammerheart Brewing Review
So my readers may not know this about me (yes you do) but I'm a big geek. I grew up reading Tolkien before the movies made it more accessible. I played D&D. I read every last tattered science fiction, fantasy, or horror book I could pick up at Goodwill or garage sales. I read books on mythologies from various cultures--for fun, not because school made me do it. Eventually, in college, I ended up with a degree in Anthropology (the study of mankind ranging from prehistory to culture to biology). Look, teaching myself about cultures and history (and a good helping of Indiana Jones) led me to that! Do I have a point? Yes, I'm getting to it!
A particular favorite in my study of history and mythology was that of my own Norse heritage. Norse and Celtic mythology is rife with battles, swords, wolves, dragons, magical hammers, tricksters, and betrayals. All the stuff that makes for a good rousing story. The idea that my ancient forebears sailed longboats on the open seas, pillaging, berserking, and downing horns of mead certainly appeals to the 15 year old boy that still lives in my head. I even named my tuxedo cats Loki and Freya to celebrate their ancient Norwegian roots.
When I finally got a chance to visit the HammerHeart Brewing Company's taproom in Lino Lakes, I was struck by what a good job they did to set themselves completely apart from any other taproom I've been to. Ever. From the outside the taproom and brewery doesn't look like much, though there is a small carved stag's head over the door lintel to warn of what is to come inside.
As I entered the taproom proper, I was struck by the rustic Nordic glory of an ancient meadhall. A grouping of age darkened oak casks were situated on-end with a cluster of stools to provide seating. The walls were all lined with rough wood paneling. Pillars hosting metallic stag's heads and wire-and-bell-jar lamps supported the low roof. Antler chandeliers dangling from above put out a low overhead light.
As the door creaked open, the bright afternoon light flowed slowly across the expanse of a thick wood bar across from the entrance. A couple of likely viking patrons, (one with a thick beard and the other sporting a long pony tail), at the bar quietly continued their conversation over tankards of ale without looking toward us. The door shut behind, returning the room to a dim gloom lit by the small lamps and rays of sun from the arched windows by the doorway. A group of drunken barbarians off to the left of the bar sat and sprawled about upon a picnic table, banging their fists on the scarred wood to a chorus of slurred shouts. The high-pitched shriek of guitars and the inhuman wail of a tortured voice sang out nearly incomprehensible lyrics of doom and destruction from hidden speakers. Viking longswords, axes, and the horns of cattle adorned the walls behind the bar, glistening with danger in the indirect light. I could feel the atavistic Norse blood rise in my veins, beginning to pound to the pulse of the music, singing some lost ancient song of rampage. This was...unexpected.
A row of tap handles of carved wood and antler bristled from the top of the bar, promising rustic ales for the thirsty and adventurous drinker. The lone barmaid, skin decorated with twisting patterns of ink, solemnly gathered up several small chalices of beer for me to sample, serving them on thick hand-carved wooden trays, stylized dragons cavorting upon their surfaces. The aroma of roast, smoke, and the citrus tang of hops wafted from the tray as I settled it on top of a barrel. Rays of light glinted upon the glasses, a multitude of colors reflected back from the array of samples. Continued sounds of drunken revelry from the rear burst in waves over the Banshee howl of the music, tables still vibrating with the slapping of ham-like fists.
Despite the chaos, I dug into the plethora of ales, ready to taste the history and future gathered withing those dark and sometimes murky depths. Many of these liquors had been brewed with smoked malts or were aged in oak barrels, which made this one of the most unique beer samplers I've ever tried. Many of the beers sported odd names reminiscent to ancient mythology. My favorite of the bunch was the Barrel Aged Hokan's Brown Ale: a good base English brown with a hint of whiskey and leather. Gorm The Old was a smoked strong old ale that stayed with you long after the sip was done. Dublin Raid was a well crafted Irish Red with a strong but pleasant peat smoked flavor and aroma redolent of a true turf fire in a small countryside pub. While some quaint names are fun and easy, others are unpronounceable and mysterious like Brekkefossensvann. I can only imagine trying to order a few of these at a busy and loud Minneapolis bar: "I'll have the Von Winterhherz Verhasst please!" Bartender gazes at you blankly. "Um, I'll have the HammerHeart beer?" Bartender shakes head and sullenly pours pint for you. The only beer of this day's sampler that I didn't really get along with was the Fautzrauch--a smoked pale ale that was just not balanced.
Most of the beers were good and drinkable, some outstanding. I'll admit that I really like unusual styles and am drawn to smoke and barrel aged styles. Many will find these beers difficult or challenging, but I respect what HammerHeart is doing. With their axes and swords they have hewn a small niche for themselves among the proliferation of Minnesota craft breweries. Located in Lino Lakes, I wonder how much foot traffic from locals this lodge gets. I wanted to grab a growler of Gorm but they were unable to sell on Sundays as of this writing. Hopefully they'll be able to do so in the future since I imagine plenty of folks drive through this town on their way back from "Up North".
We don't see much (or any) HammerHeart beer on tap out in the Western suburbs of Minneapolis, but I have seen it around more in the Twin Cities this past summer. Just this weekend I tried the fantastically complex and boozy Barrel Aged Thor's Smoked Hot Pepper Imperial Porter at Republic 7 Corners. By all rights that beer should have been a train wreck--but I made my wife go there a second time the next day for another serving. Somewhere, across the ages, Odin winked his one eye at me and toasted with his auroch's horn.
While I felt an immediate kinship to this place, its style, and its beers, I could tell my wife was less excited than I. The sounds of Metal music and the drunken louts certainly didn't help with that! This may be the most unusual brewery I've visited and makes it stand out as singular in an ever growing crowd of breweries. Well worth a visit for sure, but you have been warned--Metal music and smoked beers are not for everyone.