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.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Bauhaus Brew Labs 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.  I think I might spark some controversy with this one.  Here is the fifth in the series...

Bauhaus Brew Labs

Bauhaus Brew Labs pretty much burst onto the Minnesota craft beer scene in July 2014.  The owners/brewers noted a distinct lack of good craft lager beers (other than Schell's of course!) in Minnesota and decided to fill this relative void.  The name comes from German art and craft schools in the post World War I era, and the brewery has embraced the German beer hall concept for their tasting room.  I remember trying my first Bauhaus beer at my friend Chad's place where he poured me a sample of their holiday spiced Baltic porter named Jingle Fever.  I was immediately excited! I've had a few of their other lager beers at restaurants around the Twin Cities since, and have been impressed with how wide their reach has become in such a short time.  The first time I had Wonderstuff in the can I was happy to find a crisp pilsner with an aggressive American hopping regimen.   So why did it take me so long to finally get to the brewery?  I have no idea, other than the fact that they aren't open the days I usually like to drive into the cities (Tuesday and Sunday).

The brewery is in a huge building in Northeast Minneapolis with plenty of room for fermenter expansion to my eye.  I'm not sure what the building used to house, but it has trappings of either a train or trucking depot with intact machinery for moving heavy loads outside and inside the brewery itself.  Its one of the coolest looking breweries I've been to in a while.  I actually wandered around outside for a while taking pictures before actually going in, but the day was pretty overcast so my pictures aren't amazing.

My wife (Sj) and I arrived just after some sort of fund-raiser event had ended, so the place was busy but clearing out on this fine Saturday afternoon in late October.  The taproom is spacious and open, just partitioned off from the main huge brew-house (brewhaus?) area, by a few half-walls and a serving bar.  Some high top tables and picnic tables provide seating, and a small stage takes up one corner.  There's a large covered outdoor patio area just outside that I'm guessing is packed in the summertime.

When we visited they had four beers on tap--all their flagship beers.  I was hoping for something tap-room specific or special, but hey, sometimes it's better to just try the freshest possible version of a brewery's beer.  We got the sampler tray to try them all before we had to head out for our next stop.  Here are my quick reviews based on my Untappd notes.  My personal rating scale (out of 5) is 3 I'll drink, 4 I'll seek out, 5 I'll hoard.

1) Wonderstuff--Still crisp and refreshing.  Plenty of hops to this one.  Some sulfur notes that I don't remember from last time.  Not quite as good as I remember. 3.75

2) Wagon Party--Bauhaus' version of a California Common or Steam beer made with lager yeast at warmer temperatures.  I do not like this one.  Aroma is like lake water with a hint of floating dead carp that makes me very hesitant to even taste it.  Flavor is crisp, hoppy, fairly sulfury.  Sj wouldn't even taste it based on the smell.  2.75

3) Sky-Five!--Finally badgered into doing an IPA, this is Bauhaus' attempt.  Very little aroma.  Tastes like a sweet and overly mellow pale ale--not an IPA.  Needs much more hop aroma and bitterness to make this work.  3

4) Stargazer--A German style Schwartzbier or dark lager.  I had given a 4 the first time I tried it, but this time was a 3.25.  Still has a good flavor, but more sulfur and a harsher finish than I remember.  Just tastes young.

So overall I didn't hate the beers, but to a one all tasted worse than I remember.  I've downed a couple cans of Wagon Party before, but here fresh at the brewery it was kind of gross.  What's going on here???

I really like the space and would love to come when they're having one of their many social events.  I'm also very happy that Bauhaus is trying to fill the craft lager niche in Minnesota.  What I'm not happy about is the decline in quality of the beers over the past 6 months or so.  I would venture to guess that this is coming from rushing the fermentation process.  Cool conditioned lager beers take more time than warmer fermented ales, and that time lag difference can mean less sales for a brewery while they wait for their beer to mature.  With Bauhaus trying to supply a plethora of restaurant and tap accounts as well as canning their beers for distribution all over the state, I think they're having hard time keeping up and aren't waiting until the beers are ready.  Oh, they're drinkable, but that sulfur taste from lager yeast will usually fade out with some age and cold lagering time.  Also, scrap the IPA entirely or make it an India Pale Lager and keep your own twist on the Americanized lager category.  There are already too many really good IPA's in the marketplace for this beer to compete!  I hope that Bauhaus will take a hard look at their quality and institute some more testing/sensory techniques to rein this in before the brewery starts to lose their core followers.  I know I'm less likely to order one of these beers right now than I was last year...

Thursday, November 19, 2015

A Whale A Week: Prairie Bomb!

OK, I fell down on the job and missed 2 weeks.  I've caught up on tasting several beers, but have not had the time to get them written up.  This week we go with one from Oklahoma of all places...P-p-p--prairie Bomb!

Prairie Artisan Ales' Bomb!

I had heard about Prairie Artisan Ales for a while, but we do not get them in Minnesota, so it was a while before I had my first beer from them.  It was Funky Gold Mosaic--and may have been the first mosaic hopped beer I actually liked (I've found a few more since--thanks Brady).  Prairie Artisan is a brewery out of Tulsa, Oklahoma and specializes in saisons, funk, and other unusual styles of beer.  They are certainly well ahead of the craft beer curve for their location!

Bomb!  Is a Russian Imperial Stout aged on Nordaggio's espresso beans, chocolate, vanilla beans, and ancho chilies.  This one is a big 13% ABV and comes in a 12 oz stubby bottle.  RateBeer gives this a solid 100, and Beer Advocate a 99.  I've wanted to try this for a while and was happy when my friend Jim picked this up on a Colorado beer-cation and was willing to share for this tasting.  We served this little beer from the prairie into snifters and let it 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.)

Aroma: In which we all pick up on different things
Eric: Complex!  Coffee present, but more roasty malt and bitter chocolate.  Slight vegetal or earthy character that may be the chilies.  Mild vanilla.
Jim: Coffee and cocoa.
Dave: Chocolate/chili peppers.  Nice balance.  Not really much coffee.

Appearance: In which we gaze into the darkness...
Eric: Completely opaque.  Very fine dark tan head that fades quickly.
Jim: Black, maybe a hint of red?
Dave: Black with ruby highlights.  Minimal head.

Flavor: In which we all get a plethora of interesting flavors
Eric: At first I get umami/soy sauce.  That fades to a vanilla and dark chocolate flavor that I like more.  Coffee on the finish, bitter with hint of toffee--like one of those old hard coffee candies my grandma used to give me.  Chili is a subtle burn at the back of the throat and comes off as earthy.  Not a super boozy RIS, but alcohol is present.
Jim: Coffee and roast.  Cocoa on the finish.  Pepper comes out as it warms.
Dave: Get hints of coffee in the flavor, but not aroma.  All additions can be picked out.  Base beer is sorta bland?

Overall: In which I'm the easy grader because I like coffee the most...
Eric: For a beer with so many ingredients this could have been a mess.  Flavors melded well and each item can be tasted.  Tasting with the others we all picked out different flavors or aromas as dominant.  The earthy chili pepper actually cuts my enjoyment of this beer (and I love me some chilies!)  Very interesting but I've enjoyed Hunahpu and Abraxas much more which have similar flavor additions.  4
Jim: Complex beer but pretty much true to its description.  Well done beer, but I'm not a fan of coffee beers. 3
Dave: I think this shows the talent of the brewer.  All blended well, but somehow falls short.  This beer is the sum of its parts. 3.75
Sarajo: It has left a bitter taste in my mouth.  3.5

Overall Score: 3.56

Photo info: I took a shot of the bottle label in decent side light in the basement bar.  I superimposed this with a shot I took in the backyard of some decorative prairie grasses.  I did some color and opacity tweaking to get the final result.

Monday, November 16, 2015

A Session at Northgate Brewery

In the past 4 weeks 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 hundreds of breweries over the years.  Here is the third in the series...

Northgate Brewing

Northgate Brewing has been around a while now, being in the second wave of new Minnesota breweries.  These breweries are starting to mature, find their niches, and hopefully get a handle on their process.  Northgate was started by two homebrewers Adam Sjogren and Todd Slininger back in 2012, and served their first official pint in January of 2013.  They have since brought in Tuck Carruthers as their head brewer and in 2014 moved to their current large space.

Up front, I've had some mixed thoughts about the brewery in the past.  At a restaurant last year, having dinner with a Ciccerone trained friend, we both sent back glasses of infected Wall's End.  I've also had the Parapet ESB and liked it one time but hated it the next.  Now that the guys have been in their new space for long enough to iron out the kinks I really wanted to get over there and give them another shot.

Located in a 1970's-looking office park in Minneapolis, the building itself is a product of it's age: large, cinderblock and brick, very utilitarian.  I do like the large sign out on the corner of the building which has a classic feel and brings some character to the exterior.  Just below that sign is a fenced in outdoor seating area that probably won't be too busy for a while now.

The taproom itself is comfortable with plenty of seating, high exposed metal ceilings, and a long wooden bar.  Everything was made up nicely for Halloween on our visit with spider webs, and various other creepy decorations.  This was a Sunday afternoon and the place wasn't crowded, but a few regulars and some other fellow beer tourists were bellied up to the bar.  I imagine this place gets fairly busy on Friday and Saturday nights, but it looks like they've got lots of room.  The overall impression borders on English pub blended with an typical American taproom vibe.  The very large brewing and packaging area is behind the bar and takes up a significant portion of the building.  The bar staff were very friendly and engaging, giving us a good impression of the place immediately.

On to the beers! The brewery's tag line is "Session beers for the long haul."  I like well-done session beers and what they stand for--a lighter (but flavorful) beer that you can have a few of over some time and not be silly drunk.  This is the old bar culture in Ireland and the UK, and one I quite enjoy.  As a result, many of Northgate's beers are a bit lower in alcohol and some are classic English styles.  We got the sampler to try most of the beers they had on tap and here are my thoughts based on that day, rated on a 5 point scale.  I'll happily drink a 3, search out a 4, and hoard a 5.

1) Wall's End--An English brown ale, but was very light in color and somewhat bitter for the style. 3

2) Publican Ale--This was a light (perhaps too light) and easy drinking session ale.  Served on nitro it a very smooth body.  3.25

3) Parapet ESB--English style bitter.  The malt was there, and definitely English, but the hopping seemed aggressive and almost citrusy. 3

4) Pumpion--Northgate's pumpkin ale.  Pumpkin beers are very polarizing and many hate them on principle.  I'm not one of those, but am picky on which ones I like!  This one was mostly mellow and the spicing was not over the top, but did have a bit of astringency to the finish.  Not bad. 3

5) Redheaded Piper--A decent Irish red ale, which is a style I brew a lot myself.  Better than Smithwicks in my opinion. 3.5

6) Here's Your Fraking IPA--Obviously born out of annoyance of requests for an IPA, this one isn't bad.  3.5

7) Doppelnator--Of course my favorite is the strongest of the lot!  I really did enjoy this malty but crisp version of a German Doppelbock.  I'd drink this happily all winter long.  4

So overall the beers were in the average to above average range for me.  A theme I picked up on was a lack of body/mouthfeel to several of them that cut the malty flavors I was looking for.  With lower gravity beers it can be hard to keep the beers from being overly dry and thin.  Still these were all clean and decently crafted.  Their Wee Heavy is around now and I'd like to try that one!

We ended up hanging out longer than expected since we got to talking with our neighbors at the bar and the staff.  I enjoyed the beers well enough, but the entire experience was a very good one.  I think the brewery should continue to focus on their session beers and fill that niche in the crowded Minnesota craft beer market.  Based on this visit I'll certainly give Northgate beers more attention than I had previously, and would like to visit the taproom again some time.

Friday, November 13, 2015

PhotoChallenge Week 45: Macro Camera

This week's mission is to take a macro shot of a camera.  This is challenge is very meta.  The only old camera we had at home was a Cybershot pink-red camera that just wasn't very interesting to me.  I looked up in the library at home and realized I might have a slightly cheaty option instead.  My cheat is a stereoscope--the precursor to the ViewMaster that many of us grew up using as a toy.  There are photo pairs on firm card stock that the stereoscope helps the eyes to view as a three dimensional image.  This type was invented by Oliver Wendell Holmes in 1861, but I don't know exactly when my particular piece was crafted.  My mother-in-law gave this too us, along with several of the photo cards for it, and as an amateur photographer I find this amazing!  Back in the 1800's or even early 1900's people could see "lifelike" images from all over the world in their own homes.

This is a macro shot of the stamp in the metal on top of the viewer.

I did take this with my macro lens, though the shot isn't strictly macro at this point.  I wanted people to be able to see the stereoscope a bit more.  Just a little side light from my window in the afternoon.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

I'd Push This Stone Uphill--Sisyphus Brewing Review

In the past 3 weeks 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 hundreds of breweries over the years.  Here is the second in the series...

Sisyphus Brewing

Named for the Greek myth of Sisyphus who had to roll a huge rock up a hill for all eternity, the owners seem to understand what a never-ending process running a brewery will be!  They have a remarkable description HERE that is well worth reading...when you're done reading my blog of course!  The owners aim to brew a ton of different small batch beers so that you'll find something completely different every time you come in.

Located in the Dunwoody neighborhood near the Walker and The Basilica in Minneapolis, this small (2 barrels!) brewery was easy to park near on a Sunday afternoon.  The building is a bit older and nondescript from the outside, and the taproom has a tiny chalkboard sign outside and a decal on the glass door to lure you inside.  Stealth brewery!

There is a long bar along one wall with a barrel and hop mosaic on the wall behind it.  The current tap list is on a monitor behind the bar as well.  A sizable seating area and two shuffleboard tables take up the rest of the taproom. Despite somewhat low ceilings and being on the ground floor, the place seemed light and airy.  You can't really see the brewery from the taproom, but that's OK.  Unusual artwork hangs on some of the walls and a cool huge mural made of bottle caps occupies a wall near the restrooms at the back of the place.

As per my usual routine I ordered the sampler so that my wife (Sj) and I could try most of the beers they had on tap.  They came out in fancy logo'd chalice glasses in a sturdy wooden tray--A for presentation guys!  I'll just give a quick recap of the beers taken from my Untappd notes.  You may not be able to find them on your visit...

1) Belgian Blonde--After coming from Boom Island and tasting their whole line-up, this was the best Belgian ale of the day!  Crisp pilsner malt, bright European hops, and restrained Belgian yeast esters all combined to transport me back to the fresh blonde ales of Belgium!  This is a style that isn't exported to us in America because it doesn't age well, and I can't think of many American examples that get it right. Solid 4.25 of 5.

2) Kentucky Common--An obscure and nearly extinct style that I've only had a few times.  This hits the right notes of a dark cream ale with some corn flavors present.  3.5

3) West Coast IPA--Very nice hop aroma.  A bit too bitter and astringent, which makes me wonder about the water chemistry they are doing.  3.5

4) The First Beer We Named--All Citra!  My favorite combo of tropical fruit and catbox! 4

5) Imperial Brown--A bit harsh and bitter at the end, but the front is very nice.  3.75

6) Coffee Stout--Very bitter and astringent. Coffee tends to accentuate those characters, I might work on increasing the malt presence in the base beer.  3

Overall, many of the beers were a bit on the astringent side but all were clean and fresh tasting.  No infections or crazy fermentation temperature flaws that I often see in new breweries.  I would compare them favorably to Insight Brewing, as they have some similar flavor profiles to their beers.  I'm impressed with the quality for a small brewery and felt they deserved some free press!  I'd love to go back in a while and see what new things are on tap, and to check out their consistency.  The taproom was well lit, comfortable, and relaxed. Our server was quick and efficient.  A great taproom experience!

Has anyone else been to Sisyphus?  Tell me what you think!

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

PhotoChallenge Week 44: Architecture Indoors

Last week's challenge took me a while to get due to poor lighting conditions, but I eventually got it!  The challenge on for week 44 was to do an architectural photo inside…basically looking at the type of photo's you would see in a real estate listing.

Of course my favorite room in our house is the basement bar so I decided that was my muse!

A large ray of sun was coming in making parts of this too bright and others too dark so I basically did a mild HDR treatment to the photo combining one well exposed, one overexposed, and one underexposed photo and melding them into one.  I think it turned out nice overall and was a good experiment.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Iron Tap: Bringing More Craft Beer to Waconia!

I moved out to Waconia in 2004.  Since then I've really grown to love my new town.  However, when I first moved here there was a serious lack of two things: craft beer and decent food.  In the past two years we've finally had some improvements in the beer front with Waconia Brewing J. Carver Distillery, and Schram Vineyards & Brewing popping up right in town.  These options have been a drastic improvement for me (a super beer geek) over the many "drinking-man's bar" options downtown. Not to disparage those particular establishments, but craft beer has not been a priority for them up to now.  But here we get to the focus of my story--Waconia now has its first craft beer bar and restaurant!

Iron Tap opened this summer in the space previously occupied by one of my favorite restaurants Terra Waconia.  [A little plug--Terra's new project Terra Truck now provides Chef Craig Sharp's excellent food around the West Metro.] The building has been a restaurant for over a hundred years and did require some significant remodeling and updating for Iron Tap to go in.  They also purchased the space next door and built a fairly impressive multi-tiered patio area which is bright and airy, and now includes an enclosed three-season section.  The actual indoor dining area is still somewhat small, with a long bar across from the doorway hosting 30 craft beer taps.  The floor is finished concrete and the walls are rough paneled wood.  Metal pipes form the Iron Tap sign behind the bar and also make up cool industrial looking light fixtures.  The overall effect is rustic but clean and comfortable--perfect for a small town like Waconia.

The owners of this new establishment are Greg and Bria James, and Greg was kind enough to share a beer or two and tell me more.  Greg himself grew up in Indiana, spent time in Colorado, and has now been here for about 9 years.  He's traveled extensively for work and has enjoyed checking out breweries in the places he visits.  Upon moving here, much like myself, he was dismayed at the lack of good food and drink options in our area.  Greg and Bria talked at that time and decided, "Waconia needs a restaurant!"  Other than working as a server in the past, Greg doesn't have much direct restaurant management experience.  To avoid many of the common pitfalls he's made sure to surround himself with people who have experience and know what they are doing.  The James' are also open to criticism and have already made several changes since opening based on feedback from visitors.

View from the top tier

Shall we talk food?  One of the things they've changed since opening is hiring a new chef--Robert Underwood, formerly at Crave.  With a seasoned chef at the helm they envision a changing menu over time with favorites and also new dishes depending on the time of year and ingredient availability.  At this point they have a focus on house smoked meats as well as classic fare like burgers, salads and pizzas.  From personal experience their beer battered onion rings are stellar!  I'm also a fan of their Big Tom--a brisket sandwich topped with white cheddar, bacon, BBQ, and one of those fantastic onion rings.

How about beer?  So many bars boast 20 taps but have all versions of macro lagers, or worse macro beers imitating craft beers.  When formulating their plan for Iron Tap, they specifically did not want to be "just another dive bar."  I can tell you this--Iron Tap has an Eric Wentling approved list of really good craft beers!  I've had Surly's Todd The Axe Man, Bourbon County Stout, Alesmith Speedway Stout, and more on tap there.  Greg notes that he wants to focus on local beers but doesn't want to lose sight of excellent regional breweries like Deschutes and New Belgium.  I would say at least half of the tap list is Minnesota based, often including things I haven't seen at other Western Suburb bars like Tin Whiskers' Wheatstone Bridge.  I asked Greg if he's had difficulty getting our smaller town drinkers into craft beer.  His response: "We started out carrying a few mass-market lagers but were able to pull Coors Light off the taps after 2 months.  People are buying Todd and other craft beers.  I'm happy that these beers are selling and that I can put on tap what I like!"  For those who need them (or who may be hipsters), Greg does keep a stock of macro cans including PBR ready for all takers.

So what kinds of beer does Greg like?  He mentions that his tastes change and he always likes trying new things, but right now his favorites are double IPAs and Russian Imperial Stouts.  Way to go big or go home!  I made sure to ask the difficult desert island beer question of him: coming from Indiana he has special place in his heart for Three Floyd's Zombie Dust.  I can't fault him on that choice!

This summer has been about getting the restaurant and bar open, but what lies in the future for Iron Tap?  Short term, they just enclosed that part of the outdoor seating area which should help out with capacity in the cold winter months.  They would also like to make sure their servers know more about craft beer, including brewery tours, tasting sessions, and possibly Ciccerone training.  I hope they follow up on this, as I've been to bars with large numbers of beers and servers who know nothing about them.

Thanks to Greg James for meeting up with me and taking the time to talk about Iron Tap!  I'm happy so far and have high hopes for the future.  If you are in Waconia, come check out our new craft beer and food destination--and try out the rest of the city's fun options while you are at it!

Friday, November 6, 2015

Beer Goes Boom! Boom Island Brewery Review

It's been a while since I've reviewed a brewery, but in the past 3 weeks 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 hundreds of breweries over the years.  Here goes!

The first of my reviews is Boom Island Brewing in Minneapolis.  Boom Island was founded by Kevin Welch, who tried his first Belgian Tripel in 2001 and obviously fell in love with Belgian beers.  Before opening the brewery he traveled to several breweries in Belgium and even brought some yeast strains back with him.  Their beers are packaged in pretty caged and corked 750 ML bottles and naturally carbonated.  I'm not sure if they do natural carbonation in the kegged beers.

The taproom opened at 11 and we arrived at 11:30.   I wanted to get an early start so I could visit a couple more breweries in the limited time before our first Twin Cities Horror Festival show of the day.  The brewery is located in a fairly rough area, previously home to a couple of cheep hooch liquor stores.  The area has improved in the past few years, but I still wouldn't park my car there at night.  I'm sure the building was more affordable for all that.  The brewery entrance is actually down an alley and is difficult to spot right away.  They have a small parking lot that is somewhat difficult to navigate.  Getting out next to a big overflowing dumpster under the looming boarded up windows of another building, my wife commented: "You take me to all the sketchiest places in search of beer."

There is a small outdoor seating area in front of the brewery that I'm guessing gets more action in the summer months.  We ran into the tap room manager out there on a bench before we entered.  The building itself is pretty much an open warehouse floor plan with stainless fermenters and brewing equipment packed into the space.  The taproom itself (The Boom Room) is nothing fancy, a brushed metal topped bar located off to the side of the brewery itself.  Don't get me wrong, I'm a fan of seeing the brewery equipment and knowing I'm actually sitting where the beer is brewed!  The place was pretty dark, so all of my photos turned out less stellar than I wanted.  My wife (Sj) and I sat at the sticky and unwashed bar to order the entire sampler and taste our way through these Belgian style ales.  We've been to Belgium twice for about 4 weeks total in the past few years and were very excited to try out the full range of Boom Island beers.

 I'm going to admit something up front here.  I've tried some of the flagship Boom Island beers over the past few years and have not been overly impressed.  Friends of mine are huge fans though and keep talking the brewery up to me.  Now that the brewery has been in their own space and had a few years to grow, I was wanting to give them a good shot.  Here's a quick rundown on our sampler:

Our favorite of the bunch was the Witness Wit--a decent example of the Belgian Wit style that was certainly better than that imitator Blue Moon.  This is the only Belgian style I don't particularly love, but appreciated the balance in this one and gave it a 3.75 out of 5.  All of the other beers had flaws that detracted from my enjoyment of them  The next highest score I gave was 3.5 for the Gravity Number 9 dark strong.  That one had some dark fruit and plum rind flavors that were pleasing but there was a definite Flanders sourness that I don't think was supposed to be there.  I'd like this one either clean or even with increased sourness to make it stand out.  The Limited Action Harvest Ale was interesting--a mix of Belgian ale with apple cider.  The apple came through and lent some sweetness to the beer, a bit phenolic though.

Moving on the the mid-range--Silvius pale ale was a bit too sweet and lacked the hopping for the BJPC style, but did come close to tasting like the mellow DeKoninck from Antwerp.  Saison was OK.  Thoprock Belgian IPA was tolerable but the combination of American hops and Belgian yeast esters clashed and didn't do justice to either ingredient.

Moving on to the ones I actively disliked--The Brimstone Tripel was well named as it had a mix of yeast derived fruity esters with a sulfur note that was distracting.  The Yule holiday beer from 2014 was actively infected with flavors of beet/earth and phenols reminding us of burning plastic and bandaids.  Drain-pour for sure.

During our tasting of this sampler, the manager came around to the bar on either side of us spraying it down with lemon and vinegar scented cleanser which certainly didn't help with my ability to taste or smell these beers.  He was very nice and knowledgeable about the beers though.

I feel a bit bad that I don't have much good to say about Boom Island's beers.  I really do want to like them.  I'm very happy Minnesota has a brewery specializing in Belgian styles.  I just want so much more from them!  These beers are locally made and don't have to get shipped across the ocean to get here.  They should be fresh and wonderful, complex and nuanced.  Instead most of them have common fermentation or sanitation flaws that need to be addressed if this brewery is to survive in the increasingly crowded brewery marketplace.  This is the reason I feel obligated to publish this less than glowing blog post.  I want the folks from Boom Island to take a critical look at their quality control, sanitation, and fermentation practices.  After discussing with some friends, they wondered if maybe the taplines hadn't been cleared or cleaned prior to our visit--this is a possibility but still not a great excuse for poor quality beers.

Tell me what you think of my review and of this brewery!  Have I wronged your favorite beer?  Tell me why I'm incorrect.  Do you agree with my thoughts?  I'm always open to feedback.