Tuesday, August 4, 2015
Don't Forget Your Goat Leggings: A Return To The Thirsty Pagan!
This is the third year in a row that on Sunday morning after All Pints North Beer Festival we visit the Thirsty Pagan for an early lunch before heading back home to the Twin Cities. Located in the industrial town of Superior, Wisconsin, just over the bridge from Duluth, this brewery has been a staple in the local beer scene for many years. The building used to be the Russell Creamery, then hosted Twin Ports Brewing Company for several years. In 2006 the brewpub was bought by Susan and Steve Knauss and the name was changed to Thirsty Pagan Brewing. Since then, the place has continued to make many rotating craft beers and serve up pizza to the locals. The current brewer at the Pagan is Allyson Rolph who I got to briefly meet this visit. She's been doing a lot of experimental beers including a good selection of sours over the past few years, really pushing the boundaries of what the brewery had been in the past.
This fine Sunday morning we arrived right at 11, waiting in a short line of cars outside (it was hot out already!) waiting for the doors to open. Joe and Jackie, two of our friends from beer dinners at McCoy's Public House, have been regulars from the "old days" and were waiting right behind us! We joined them and some more of their family for a fine time at the Thirsty Pagan!
There is an outside ring to the main bar area with additional seating, including a sloped floor and tiled walls from it's creamery days. The main bar area is a rough square with a small bar, hand-made tap handles, and plenty of trippy artwork on the walls. A tiny stage sits at the back corner with the backdrop of a vintage Miller Hi-Life mural behind it. Some tables and booths fill the rest of the room. This is a well-used place--comfortable and lived-in without being grungy or dirty. One can feel the age and history of the building from the second you enter. A new fancy taproom can only fake it to try to get this kind of atmosphere!
Before we talk beer, I'm going to talk about food (perhaps because I'm hungry right now as I write this and the thought of pizza is making my mouth water...). The pizza at the Pagan is it's true claim to fame. No frills, no artsy flat-breads, just thick saucy pizza with huge amounts of gooey Wisconsin cheese. Seriously good stuff. They do have some specials on most days and these are often worth trying out--the BLT sounded weird but was crazy good! The pizza is wayyyy better than Pizza Luce in Duluth.
OK, on to the beer! These folks make a lot of beers. Their regular line-up covers most of the classic brewpub styles like amber, stout, pale ale, IPA, saison--some still have the same names as they had in the old Twin Ports days! I'm not going to lie here, I have had mixed experiences with some of the core beers in my past visits. Last year I felt that a few of them had flaws, and not many seasonals were on tap at the time either, including only one sour beer. This trip I wanted to try out the seasonal stuff. There was a whole second sampler worth this time including the seasonal options and the sours (which I'll get to!) The sampler comes in a very cool long table-consuming arch of a converted barrel stave. This is quite impressive!
My wife and I shared this seasonal sampler of goodness, occasionally fighting over the best like a very small pack of wild dogs. Don't get your hand between Sj and a tasty sour beer or risk losing it! All of the beers in the sampler were good to great. I really enjoyed the refreshing Lawn Chair aged in tequila barrel--subtle oak and booze in a subtle cream ale base. The collaboration between Thirsty Pagan, Dangerous Man, and Castle Danger (Danger Danger Pagan Pils) was hoppy and wonderful--a great example of Bohemian pilsner. Pils Popper was a jalapeno pilsner that I later got mixed with the smoked porter to make a more bacon-y version. And then the Pinta Colada coconut milk stout put Dangerous Man's on notice! Town Hall's Three Hour Tour is still the best though...Keep in mind that I was trying all these the day after tasting a huge variety of beers at All Pints North, and these are still sticking out in my top list for the weekend.
Let's move on to sours shall we? Allyson has been experimenting with sours for several years now, and is certainly showing us that she's learned a few things by now. About 3 years ago I was shocked to find sours on the menu and was happy to try them. They were good then, but seem even better now. Last year they had only one and I may have shed a small tear or two, but this year they had four available! The first was a very respectable Berliner weisse, but this isn't a style of sour I'm as excited about (despite seeing over 12 versions at All Pints). My favorite was the Cyrus Batch 002: a lightly colored sour with hints of pineapple and tropical fruit and a moderate sourness that quickly fades from the tongue. Then there was a kettle soured red that was a pretty good mimic to a Flanders Red and a version of that with cherry, strawberry, and ginger. It's really cool to see this little brewery putting out such a variety of sours! The best part? I could get a growler of the Cyrus to take home with me!
So, let's recap shall we? The pizza is awesome. The beer is awesome. The brewer is awesome. Our server...maybe not the best in the world. When in Duluth, you should really drive over the bridge and check this place out.