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...