Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Lupine Brewing--A Wolf Among Sheep

Recently my wife (Sj) and I took a Sunday drive into Delano to visit the two breweries in town.  You can check out my South Fork Brewing review HERE.  After finishing our beers there, we bundled up against the bitter wind, the last pink light of dusk lighting our way the two blocks to Lupine Brewing Company.  I managed to grab a couple pictures of the exterior before the light completely failed us and the howling tauntaun-killing cold turned my exposed fingers to icicles.

Entering the old 1800's era building we were struck by blessed warmth, mellow lighting forming comfortable pools of yellow radiance around the space.  My first impression was of restfulness, age, and history.  Exposed brick walls added a depth of character, while reclaimed rustic wood from the other half of the building formed the bar and the tops of solid tables scattered about the taproom.  Before we had our coats completely off, one of the owners, Michael Dumas, had handed us a bowl of pretzels and introduced himself to us.  With this warm greeting we were seated at one of those hefty tables.  There were about 8-10 people in the taproom, resulting in a quiet buzz of conversation that was not overly distracting but actually added to the comfortable and relaxed atmosphere.

Not long after getting seated, another of the three owners, Eric Sargent, came over to say hello. I met Eric briefly at All Pints North in Duluth this past summer while he was pouring beers and he seems to be very good at remembering people!  Sj and I sampled through the whole line-up of beers and Eric stopped in a couple more times to see what we thought of them and tell us more about their process and recipes as well as history.  Apparently the building had most recently been a Mexican restaurant and after tearing up several layers of flooring they discovered 1900's birch hardwood floors that now add character to the taproom.  They were also able to recover the original tin ceiling tiles.  I recently talked to Paul Jostwick (owner of the fantastically beer-centric Hollywood Roadhouse) and apparently he was involved in the build-out of that restaurant and was sad to see all those old features covered up.  Here they are again, revealed and used to best effect!  Their 10 barrel brewery equipment had been located in St. Cloud prior to moving to Delano, and they'd been using it there since 2014.  I honestly hadn't realized they'd been brewing that long and had assumed they were contract brewing somewhere.

Here's my quick review of the beers with a rating on 0-5 scale.  3 is average, 4 I'll actively seek out, and 5 worthy of my secret dragon's hoard.

1) Wheat Ale--An American wheat beer.  Easy drinking, clean and well balanced.  Not my favorite style but well crafted. 3.75

2) IPA--Fairly sweet with some caramel notes.  Hint of diacetyl buttery flavor.  This tastes much more like a pale ale than an IPA and just lacks the hop punch in flavor and aroma that I'm looking for.  Still pretty drinkable though. 3

3) Rout Brown Ale--A very flavorful and balanced English brown ale.  Wayyyyyy better than Newcastle.  4

4) Murder of Cranberries--An oatmeal stout with cranberries.  Interesting beer and more subtle than expected.  I've had this before at Hollywood Roadhouse and liked it.  Some oatmeal slickness on the palate helps with the body.  Roasty.  Mild tartness from the cranberry.  3.75

5) UnCayndness Stout--Not bad.  Very subtle chili pepper spice on the finish.  I want more pepper!!  3.5

6) Three Bandits--Locally roasted coffee infused in this stout.  Very strong cold-press coffee flavors dominate this, but the mouthfeel is still full and creamy.  I'm a home coffee roaster and love the freshness of this brew.  Not for the hater of coffee!  My favorite of the night.  4.25

7) Oatmeal Stout--Had a strange Smarties roll candy aroma and flavor that hurt this for me.  Sj described it as Necco Wafers without me even mentioning my thoughts... This one was odd since Lupine proved to me that they can do stouts well (see above!) 3

Lots of dark beers to choose from, perfect for the season!  Overall, I was fairly impressed with the line-up.  While a couple of the beers had some minor flaws or stylistic issues, all of them were drinkable.  The Three Bandits was my favorite for sure and I took home a growler of it for later...

Lupine was a bit of a surprise to us.  We were immediately put at ease and really loved the ambiance and service of the taproom.  The beers weren't too shabby either!  I would highly recommend a visit to the brewery.  I'll be watching what the guys do closely over the next year and hope they continue to try new and interesting things.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

2016 Photochallenge 3: Natural Light Portrait

The end of last year I discovered  This is a small group of photographers who set forth a weekly challenge to other professional and amateur photographers.  What I was drawn to with this weekly assignment is that is pushes you to try new techniques and get out and take pictures on a weekly basis.  I plan on taking part again this year and will also do a quick blog post about each of them.  The rules of the challenge do require that these are new pictures, not from your back catalogue.  With my busy work schedule, I may not be able to get out each week and do this, so I will likely add a few of my older photos on the blog--taking the opportunity to look at the plethora of pictures I've taken and actually do some processing and weeding.

2016 Week 3: Portrait Natural Light

The challenge this week was to do a portrait and use natural light source only.  I'm not going to lie, I have 0 skills in portrait photography.  People?  Why would I take pictures of people?  That's what selfless are for right?  Also this week has bitter cold, overcast, snowy, and not worthy of making my wife go outside for a shoot.  Excuses I know!  However, at the last minute I discovered my cat Willow basking in a rare ray of sunshine in the living room and couldn't pass up the opportunity to catch a few shots before she moved.  

While she looks a little cranky, this still brings out the texture of her fur well.  I only wish I could get rid of the baseboard in the background…

I like this one purely because of the cat-eared shadow in the foreground!

Thursday, January 21, 2016

A Whale A Week: Sam Adams Utopias 2013

I had meant to have this one over New Years for a special tasting, but my scheduling failed a bit.  So here we go for a bit later in the month!

Samuel Adams Brewing was truly one of the original craft breweries.  The first bottles of the now ubiquitous Boston Lager were sold in 1985 and (like their namesake) were quite revolutionary for the time.  Over the years the brewery has grown exponentially and depending on who you ask is no longer called a craft brewery.  I started drinking beer with Sam Adams cherry wheat as my gateway to craft beer (I can't stomach it now).  What I will say about the brewery is that they continue to put out a ton of new beers in different styles.  I don't love them all, but they still take risks and try new things.  Founder Jim Koch is still very involved in the homebrew community as well.  The brewery put out one of the first "extreme" beers back in the early 1990's with the 19% ABV Triple Bock--shocking the fledgling craft beer world at the time.

Which brings us to our featured beer: Utopias.  This beer held the record for strongest beer for many years clocking in at around 28% ABV.  Utopias began when the brewery started to blend together and attempt barrel aging of the previously mentioned Triple Bock and the Millenium.  Currently the beer is a blend of beer and maple syrup aged in a mix of bourbon, port, Scotch, and cognac barrels.  Some of the barrels used are up to 19 years old according the web site!  Utopias comes out in very limited batches every 2 years and is one of the most expensive beers out there--usually going for over $200 a bottle.  The resulting precious concoction is very strong and uncarbonated, served from a beautiful ceramic vessel shaped like a copper brewing kettle.

It took me years to get a taste of this elusive beer.  The first time was in 2012, when a sweet little elf left a bottle under the Christmas tree for me.  This was a special off-year bottling that marked the 10 year anniversary of the beer.  I'll be writing that one up later this year!  I then got to partake of a bottle of Moonlight Meadery's Utopian--a strong honey wine aged in used Utopias barrels--that was also stellar.  I was once again shocked to find a new vintage waiting for me under the tree in 2013.  I have a wonderful wife by the way...  This vintage was the first to include some of the sour beer mother (Kosmic Mother Funk) that Samuel Adams has been using in their large bottle Belgian and sour program.  We had the good fortune to run into a group of the brewery's barrel room staff at a small pub in Belgium a few years ago and they told us a bunch about this process while sipping amazing Belgian lambic beers.  Since then they have actually released a special KMF Grand Cru of just that beer--I still need to try it!

As usual for this Whale A Week tasting I invited over some knowledgeable friends to help out.  Our cast of characters was:
Me (Eric Wentling)--BJCP National ranked beer judge, homebrewer for over 20 years.
Kevin Meintsma--Also a beer judge, award winning homebrewer (in fact he got to brew a beer with Mike Hoops at Town Hall this past year!)
Dan Beaubien--Craft beer geek, fellow beer blogger for Beerploma.
Sarajo Wentling--My wife who gets to try all the beers, especially when she buys them for me...

Samuel Adams Utopias 2013

Eric: Port wine, cream sherry, cherry.  Alcohol is strong--like a fortified wine.  Fresh plums.  Sweet and malty.  Vanilla and toasted oak.  Candied orange rind.  Bourbon.
Kevin: SHERRY!  Moderately high vanilla.  Faint oak.  Light aroma of dark ripe cherry.  Vanishing clove.  Moderately boozy.
Dan: Barrel.  Dark fruit.  Vanilla.  Whiskey.  Maple syrup.  Molasses--burnt sugar.

Eric: Deep amber to almost ruby red color.  No head at all and no carbonation.  Thick legs cascade down across the glass edge.  Very clear.
Kevin: No head.  Completely flat.  Very clear.  Dark amber.
Dan: Dark brandyish in color.

Eric: Complex as any beer I've tried.  Initial hit of sweet sugar and dessert wine fades to a tart but sweet marmalade flavor.  Sherry is strong.  Alcohol warming in chest and nasal passages.  Malt sugars, grape, aged cognac.  A bit of sharpness.  Finish is off-sweet and hot.  Raisins as it warms.  No hop flavors. Thick on tongue, alcohol cuts the mouthfeel though at the end.
Kevin: Very hot alcohol.  Burns the front palate--similar to a whiskey in character but highly oxidized with sherry notes.  Very strong wine character.  No hops.  Light tartness--slightly sour.  Moderate oak, raisins and figs in the lingering finish.  Mouthfeel is slick and coating.  Huge alcohol.  Despite thickness, mouthfeel is thin--possibly due to barrel aging.  Alcohol leaves the palate tingling.
Dan: Warming.  Port wine.  Dates, plums, dark cherry.  Sherry-like.

Eric: Fairly complex.  Somewhere between an expensive dessert wine and a bourbon or cognac.  A very cool experience for one as jaded as myself!  Having had the 2012 version I like that one more though. The sour Kosmik Mother Funk is notable in this vintage. 4.75
Kevin: This is not a beer.  It's a sherry.  Fairly complex, dried fruit.  Hot boozy flavor and aroma.  Vanilla and wood.  Very drinkable in small amounts. 3.75
Dan: A lot smoother than one would think given the heat in the aroma. 4.75
Sarajo: Makes my chest feel warm.  4.5

Overall Score: 4.44 (Because Kevin is a hater...)

I'm looking forward to writing up the 2012 version, and would love to try the newest 2015 batch as well...

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

2016 Photochallenge Week 1: Under The Bridge

The end of last year I discovered  This is a small group of photographers who set forth a weekly challenge to other professional and amateur photographers.  What I was drawn to with this weekly assignment is that is pushes you to try new techniques and get out and take pictures on a weekly basis.  I plan on taking part again this year and will also do a quick blog post about each of them.  The rules of the challenge do require that these are new pictures, not from your back catalogue.  With my busy work schedule, I may not be able to get out each week and do this, so I will likely add a few of my older photos on the blog--taking the opportunity to look at the plethora of pictures I've taken and actually do some processing and weeding.

Week 1: Under The Bridge

This challenge is to take a picture under a bridge and to use HDR to expose the shadowed underside and the background well.  I live in Minnesota and all week it has been under 10 degrees with significant wind chill most days.  As I write this the high of today is -13 degrees F.  Excuses I know, but I haven't been able to get out there.  So this week I'm digging out a few older bridge pictures.  I do plan on trying this come nicer weather--might even return to one of these sites!

1) The first shot was actually from my iPhone and was when I was first starting to toss around the idea of getting a "real" camera. I took this under a high overpass in Portland and used Camera + app to give it an HDR look.  This is the closest to the challenge at hand.  Just past here was a homeless shanty-town and a few blocks past there was one of my favorite breweries--Hair of the Dog.  I plan on going back here later this year and hope to get a better shot of this area.

2) Black & White.  Not really along with the HDR challenge, but still a fun picture of under a bridge.  This was a small bridge around Knife River north of Duluth. The fish hatchery empties into this small river.  Not the most scenic bridge, but nice textures and hard edges fitting with black and white.  I'd do a better job with exposure if I took this now.

3) This one is taken from under that same bridge, but the rust stains were too cool not to do in color!  I accentuated these a bit with Photoshop Elements and put a vignette around it.  Not my best, but cool abstract.

So there is my cheaty post for the week!

Monday, January 18, 2016

Take the Other Fork in the Road: South Fork Brewery Review

Recently, my wife Sarajo and I took a quick jaunt to Delano to visit the two new breweries there.  Our first stop was South Fork Brewing Company, located in the old down-town district.  The brewery is in what used to be a plumbing and heating building and more recently was the site of The Bohemian Wine Bar and Pub.  I actually wrote up the place back in 2013 and talked with Sarah about that venture HERE.  Interestingly it looks like the brewery has a similar 1 year or lifetime membership options for free or discounted beers and growlers on their website.

South Fork Brewing is probably closer to what Sarah had originally envisioned based on my previous talk with her, and isn't a huge stretch to go from hosting taps of local Minnesota craft beer and wine to brewing up their own in-house.  The brewery is a small 3.5 barrel copper affair that requires two batches to fill the 7 barrel fermentors.  They've been open just over 7 months as of this visit.  The part-time head brewer is Brett Lincoln, a fellow homebrewer and member of Jack Of All Brews homebrew club.  He's beat me in a few homebrew competitions in the past and I respect his skills quite a bit.  The man makes a mean barleywine!  We stopped in on a Sunday afternoon and the place was pretty quiet.  Sarah's husband (and co-brewer) Ken was manning the bar and spent some time with my wife and I as we tasted through the beers.

The building itself hasn't changed much from its previous incarnation--consisting mainly of a large open room with big windows facing the street.  The outside of the building has a small logo on the front door, but otherwise lacks a large sign--you almost have to be looking for the place to find it.  Inside there's plenty of table seating and a rock-fronted serving bar along one wall.  Where the old place had a separate event room slightly elevated from the main floor, now the copper and stainless steel of the brewery resides there.  The setting is comfortable overall, but a bit sterile--the walls are mostly bare and there isn't much branding or brew/beer decoration to it other than a row of MN brewery growlers over the windows.

How about the beers?  I'll run through my impressions of the beers we tried on our sampler paddle!  My personal rating system is 0-5, with 3 being an average-I-will-drink-it, a 4 being outstanding, and a 5 being rare and worthy of my dragon's hoard.

1) As The Crow Flies Kolsch: Many craft breweries with have a kolsch or cream ale on tap, often used as a stepping stone for those not seasoned in the "dark" beers.  This one is drinkable, but has much more fruity ester and clove phenols that I tend to find in Belgian ales.  I would guess this comes from either stressed out or underpitched yeast or perhaps fermentation temp control problems.  Still not a bad beer, just not a great kolsch.  2.75

2) Session IPA:  This is a lower gravity IPA made for the drinker who wants to have more than one.  The aroma on it is great with a strong punch of orange.  The flavor also has dominant citrus/orange character, but is a bit too bitter and borderline astringent--throwing the balance off.  This could be from water chemistry or perhaps too much bittering hop. Not bad though. 3

3) Sunday Funday Red: Mellow Irish red ale.  Easy to drink.  Has a smoky aftertaste that I'm not sure should be there.  3

4) Dela No No Brown: This is named for the (gasp!) cabaret show that they hold at the brewery twice a year.  Strong chocolate aroma.  This has a pleasant chocolate covered strawberry flavor.  Roasty.  Slight soapy note on finish.  3.5

5) Pilgrim Chocolate Pumpkin Stout: Subtle dry cocoa.  Almost overwhelming cinnamon.  On nitro which mellows the beer.  Not bad. 3.75

6) Plunger IPA: Decent beer.  Good citrus character to hopping in flavor and aroma--better than the session version in terms of balance.  A bit mineral in the finish--probably water chemistry related. 3.25

7) Black Cat: Belgian stout.  I get more brettanomyces tartness than Belgian ale yeast esters and phenols.  I'm wondering if this one is infected or if deliberately "funked".

Overall the beers were all drinkable--no drainpours here!  But if I'm being honest, I think that several of them had some mild to moderate flaws depending on how acute your palate is.  Sarajo, who is not a beer judge (but who shares many a beer with me) picked up most of the things I did.  My favorite of the beers was the Pilgrim, with the chocolate strawberry beer coming in second.

We had an enjoyable visit to South Fork and I hope that the place does well in the coming years.  I'd like to see a bit more vibrancy or decoration to the place to liven it up a bit.  I also feel that this brewery--like many small new breweries I've visited--needs to work a bit on the core brewing.  Temp control, control of water chemistry, proper yeast handling, these are all things that breweries struggle with, but most tiny start-ups either lack the money or the experience to add all of these things right off the bat.  However, these are the qualities (as well as consistency) that make a brewery stand out and fight its way to the top of a growing sea of options.  From talking to Ken and Brett it sounds like they are continuing to work on enhancing these things in the brewery over the coming year.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

A Whale A Week: Cantillon Lou Pepe Framboise

This week we take a break from Russian Imperial stouts with one of world's finest fruit lambics.  The Belgian brewery Cantillon needs no introduction--they're one of the few remaining breweries to use spontaneous fermentation to create wonderfully complex sour beers.  Cantillon is hands-down my favorite brewery that I've visited in all my travels.

Cantillon Lou Pepe Framboise 2011

This beer is made like the other fruit lambics at Cantillon--hot wort is pumped up into the rafters of the brewery into a large shallow copper coolship to cool overnight.  Louvres in the rooftop are opened and wild yeast/bacteria/etc. is allowed to settle into the cooling wort.  The following day the cooled liquid is put into previously used barrels and allowed to age and ferment spontaneously over a year or more.  The Rose de Gambrinus is the regular raspberry version of the beer, (and still incredible) but the Lou Pepe version has half again as many raspberries added to increase the fruit flavor.  This beer scores a 100 on Rate Beer and 98 on Beer Advocate.  I have also done Whale tastings for the geueze and kriek versions last year...

As usual for this Whale A Week tasting I invited over some knowledgeable friends to help out.  Our cast of characters was:
Me (Eric Wentling)--BJCP National ranked beer judge, homebrewer for over 20 years, sour-head.
Kevin Meintsma--Also a beer judge, award winning homebrewer (in fact he got to brew a beer with Mike Hoops at Town Hall this past year!)
Dan Beaubien--Craft beer geek, fellow beer blogger for Beerploma.
Sarajo Wentling--My wife who gets to try all the beers because she lets me buy them...

Eric: Powerful fresh raspberry!  Tart and makes my mouth water just smelling this.  Light cherry notes.  Toasted oak.  Strawberry as it warms.  No hops.
Kevin: Tart, light acidic aroma. Raspberry--moderate to high.  Soft strawberry.  Light woody aroma.  Slight hint of yeast and musty aroma as it warms.
Dan: Crisp and clean fruity aroma.  Smells like tart fruit that tickles the nose.

Eric: Excellent clarity.  Bright raspberry red color.  Sparkling and effervescent like champagne.  Fairly large and persistent off-pink head--probably the biggest I've seen on a lambic.  Very fine bubbles.  Gorgeous looking beer.
Kevin: Beautiful strawberry color with cherry highlights.  Superb clarity.  Creamy white head.
Dan: Head with a pinkish hue dissipates rather quickly.  Very appealing red fruit cherry/strawberry deep red color.

Eric: Wow!  Tart up front with "I just loaded my mouth with a handful of fresh raspberries" flavor.  Fades to a dry and puckering finish but not astringent.  Not overly complex at first, but rounded and beautiful.  Bright and makes me think of late summer in the backyard.  Subtle funk and barnyard add complexity as it warms up.  Cherry pit.  Salivary glands working overtime.  Almost thin body accentuated by dryness.
Kevin: Moderately low acidity, tart.  Raspberry is mild by obvious. No hops, bitterness is from acid.  No malt.  Very clean, character is wine-like--similar to a Chenin Blanc.  Light raspberry and cherry notes in the finish.  Light body.  Effervescent with a carbonic bite.  Very dry.  Not astringent or tannic.
Dan: Delicate tartness.  Not as sweet as it smells.  Dryness is more at the end of the sip--really got me salivating.  Sour morphs into sweet, then to a tart vinous finish.  Very complex and delicious.  Mouthfeel is thin and not as effervescent as thought it would be--maybe that is the fruit?

Eric: Raspberry is really dominant in this, covering some of the classic Cantillon funk flavors and aromas--but that is just fine!  I could keep drinking this all day if I could afford to get that much of it!  I do like the Lou Pepe Kriek more but this one is still stellar.  Increased complexity as it warms.  5
Kevin: Refreshing, delightful.  Wonderfully complex for such a light beer.  One of my favorite beers of all time.  Amazing for a 4 year old blended beer. Would pair well with a soft creamy cheese.  4.75 (to get to a 5 I would reduce acidity slightly.)
Dan: First time having it and it definitely lives up to its reputation.  4.5
Sarajo: Tastes like Brussels!  5

Overall Score: 4.81

Monday, January 11, 2016

Bad Weather Brewing...Get Your Umbrellas!

On a recent trip this past fall/early winter to St. Paul, my wife (Sj) and I finally got to stop into Bad Weather Brewing's new Taproom and brewery.  Bad Weather got their start brewing in Lucid's facility along with Badger Hill and finally had enough money and popularity to move into their own space.  I've been attracted to Bad Weather's label art since the beginning, but have had a couple of less than stellar experiences with the beers early on in their career.  This was a great time to give them a second chance.

Sj posing front of the brewery and food truck
Located in St. Paul, the brewery is in a very large warehouse-type space.  They have a big patio for outdoor seating, serviced frequently by food trucks.  Inside is a very long bar across from the main entrance, with plenty of seating and a large helpful Star Wars clone trooper on watch from behind.  The space is wide open and filled with tables, getting very loud even on this Sunday afternoon, but they did have some sound damping material up on the ceiling to help alleviate that.  Colorful murals line the walls bringing a jab of vibrant colors to the otherwise industrial place.  Sj and I found an isolated table in a back corner nestled in behind one of the vintage video game consoles (TMNT Turtles in Time how I miss plugging endless rows of quarters into you...)  They had a section of bar set up as an ordering station so we didn't have to wade through people to get our beers--something I appreciate in a busy taproom.

We ended up getting two samplers so we could try a larger number of their beers, but even then we didn't get all of them!  Samplers came out on branded wooden boards in pretty chalice taster glasses, giving us a rainbow of beers to choose from.  Here is a quick rundown on my tasters with my scores.  My personal scale is 3 I'll drink, 4 I'll search out, 5 I'll hoard.

1) Windvane--this is the flagship Red IPA.  I've hated this beer in the past.  Today I noted a good hop bite to it, but with a malty sweet taste and body.  I'd consider this a West Coast hoppy amber.  Pretty good. 3.5

2) The Hopcromancer--IPA.  More hop aroma than the Windvane.  Not bad.  Mid-range for the style and well balanced.  3.5

3) S.M.A.S.H Ale--this is likely a single malt single hop beer, but I'm not sure what hop was showcased.  I got some buttered toffee in it that threw me off.  2.75

4) Browncoat--India Brown Ale.  Who knew these guys were such geeks?  Love the Firefly reference and the beer!  Borders on a porter but more American hops.  Again good balance. 4

5) Blonde Belle--Belgian Blonde.  Light, lots of Belgian fruity esters.  A bit sweet on the finish. Better than Boom Island's. Very drinkable.  3.75

6) Galactic Tide--Rye Porter.  Decent beer.  Spicy rye malt zip.  Malty, but a balance comes from the roast.  3.75

7) Cauld Weather--Scottish Wee Heavy.  One of my favorite styles that I am frequently disappointed in. This one is no disappointment!  Darker than most, but malty, balanced, mild alcohol warming.  Sublime.  Steel Toe has competition now.  4.5

8) Scarecrow's Friend--Harvest ale with pumpkin, wild rice, maize, and spices.  Perfume-like, reminds me of lavender.  A somewhat muddled mix of spices, but still decent overall.  3.5

9) Tippin' It Down--ESB with Earl Grey Tea.  Very much like Summit's recent Make It So, but not quite as well balanced.  I get a hint of butter, soap, and then ends fairly bitter.  This is still better than when I tried it at ABR (I dumped it quick there and couldn't get the taste off my tongue fast enough).  3

Overall I was pleasantly surprised with several of the beers. They still had a few that fell short for me, but the majority were above average and many were unique.  I give extra credit for quick service and lots of beers to choose from.  The core line-up seems to have improved greatly and the brewers are experimenting with lots of different styles and specialty ingredients.  Based on this visit, I would go back to Bad Weather often if I didn't live so far away!  I also love the art style of the brewery (and beers), placing them in my top two for branding.  I would have liked more time to hang out here--and play some video games--but we had dinner plans in St. Paul with friends and had to go.

Love the geeky sci-fi art!

Friday, January 8, 2016

Trouble Finding Beer in Rochester, MN? Forage For It!

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.

While recently down in Rochester to visit a good friend during his treatment at Mayo Clinic, we took the opportunity to visit some of the new taprooms that have popped up over the past summer.  I already posted a review of the medically named Grand Rounds Brewpub HERE.  Our second visit was to the strangely named Forager Brewery.  They take this name due to the ideals of foraging wild ingredients and supporting local farms for things that can't be foraged.  The brewery also gets small spirits barrels that already lived a second life aging honey from Turkey Hill Apiary, given a third use by aging sour beers!  

The brewery is located in the Kutzky Neighborhood, a revitalizing area rich in artists, and other bohemian types.  The building itself is a large one, fitting in well with the quasi-industrial surroundings.  Upon entering the front door, I was struck by how different this seemed from any brewery I'd ever been in before.  And that is saying something!  The building houses a sweet little coffee shop focused on locally sourced items, a combination art gallery and antique shop, and the brewery itself.  All of these places meld into one another a bit and gives the impression of a large and comfortable home.  The coffee shop near the entrance feels like grandma's foyer--bright, cheerful, aromas of fresh coffee and teas wafting about.  The gallery is across from the main entrance and houses cool antiques, local paintings, and various bric-a-brac that gave us several minutes of pleasure while perusing after our meal and beers.  There's also a library filled with old and new books, antiques, and overflow seating options between the coffee shop and the brewery.

The brewery is a thing of beauty.  Reclaimed woods, old threadbare animal busts, funky light fixtures (dragons yo!), mosaics, and more all vie for attention.  Long tables with copper pennies embedded in epoxy provide some dinner seating in the center of the space, with another alcove to the side hosting a fireplace and more individual seating.  A wooden bar sits to the right as you enter, with several taps and signage displaying the current beer line-up.  You can see the very small brewery through what looks like an exterior window behind the bar.  A wood-fired pizza oven takes up a distal corner as well.  Looking outside on this rainy and overcast day you can see a large outdoor patio area complete with edible gardens.  I fell in love with the ambiance immediately.

Our server was attentive and walked us through our drink and food options with ease.  There were not a ton of beers on tap, but enough to keep us busy!  My wife, Sarajo, and I started with the Forager Box--this was thick wooden platter filled with three beer samples, each paired with a small bite appetizer.  The bites were amazing and upscale, pairing well with the beers we were served.   I also ordered an order of Jamon Iberico (thin shavings from the leg of rare black footed pigs of Spain fed on only acorns) that was nutty and wonderful.  For my main course (big and late lunch!) I had the very pleasing Cuban sandwich.  The food here is honestly great and I would recommend the place even if it wasn't a brewery.

Oh, you want to know about the beer?  Here are my brief musings on the batches we tried along with a rating from 0-5.  Forager makes small batches and are likely to have other options on when you visit.  Looking at the website and the walls of the hallway in the brewery, I love some of the artwork for these beers, but think they might have trouble getting a few through official TTB labeling channels.  

1) Broken Compass--Hefeweizen. A bit sweet for my tastes, but plenty of classic German style banana aroma and flavors.  3.5

2) Johnny C's--Belgian dubbel.  I didn't get much in the aroma on this one.  Flavors ripe with Belgian yeast funky phenols.  Sweet but finishing off-dry and not cloying.  Not too shabby for a difficult style. 4

3) Forager IPA--Red IPA.  Lots of malt to this one.  Very piney with hints of bitter orange peel.  A well balanced and flavorful version of the style. I'd call it a West Coast Amber in the old BJCP style guidelines.  3.75

4) Sherpa's Survival Kit--American double stout.  Strong coffee in aroma and flavor.  Dry cocoa. Could use a bit more body since the finish is pretty dry and bitter.  Still pretty good overall.  3.75

5) Gathering In The Woods--Sour.  This is a Flanders Red style Belgian sour ale.  Aged in barrels, this is the first batch of sour Forager has done.  A blend of different barrels, this one is full of red fruit (red grape, tart cherry, hint of raspberry.)  Tart, but not overly sour. Complexity and body could be a bit more kicked up, but still a wonderful example of a tough style.  This is one of the best Minnesota sours I've had.  4.5

So I liked all the beers!  I'm always happy (and often shocked) when that happens at a new place.  I'm excited to see them continue to work on the sours--the complexity of their very young Gathering In The Woods hints at even more complex and wonderful sour offerings in the future.  Just wait until they have multiple vintages to blend together!  I'm not a kettle sour (gose, Berliner weisse) hater overall, but find those now trendy local offerings often lack complexity and character.  The fact that fresh out of the gate, these guys are trying for the harder styles is a good omen!  Our server saw me running around the place with my camera and gave us a quick impromptu tour of the small brewery and answered some questions for us as well.  Good hospitality!  

With Forager being open under 6 months I was going to hold off on my review, but we had such a great experience here that I had to shout it out over the now snow-covered rooftops of the Twin Cities.   The venue is unique, the food excellent, the concept a pleasing one, and the beers well above average.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

A Whale A Week: Black Tuesday

I've posted a few beers from The Bruery here over the past year including Chocolate Rain and White Chocolate.  The Bruery is an amazing place in California, a short drive from the very dry Disneyland, with a wonderful taproom featuring a plethora of crazy sours, barrel aged beers, and more.  Feel free to check my previous posts for more background and my taproom review.

The Bruery's Black Tuesday 2011 Vintage

Black Tuesday is The Bruery's version of a Russian Imperial stout.  This is a very strong beer, in fact one of the strongest legitimate RIS beers I've had--clocking in at 18.3% ABV!  The beer gets some of its booze from being aged in bourbon barrels.  The beer is named after the famous stock market crash of 1929 and is released the last Tuesday of October each year since 2009.  I've had this wax dipped 750 MLbottle for a few years, stored in a dark and cool cellar to keep it as fresh as possible.  This beer has a 100 rating on RateBeer and a 99 on Beer Advocate.  It is much hoarded and traded among us beer geeks.  The first time I tried this beer it was after a 5 year vertical of Surly Darkness and this booze bomb was our finisher.

As usual for this first 2016 Whale A Week tasting I invited over some knowledgeable friends to help out.  Our cast of characters was:
Me (Eric Wentling)--BJCP National ranked beer judge, homebrewer for over 20 years, beer hoarder.
Kevin Meintsma--Also a beer judge, award winning homebrewer (in fact he got to brew a beer with Mike Hoops at Town Hall this past year!)
Dan Beaubien--Craft beer geek, fellow beer blogger for Beerploma.
Sarajo Wentling--My wife who gets to try all the beers because she lets me buy them...
We started with a trip over to Waconia Brewing for a few samples, then on to the serious job of Whaling!

Aroma: In which we are feeling the effects before we even sip it!

Eric: Demerara sugar. Bourbon and some strong HOT BOOZE!  Smells very sweet.  Mild cocoa--almost a chocolate covered cherry aroma mixed with some vanilla for good measure.  No hops.
Kevin: Boozy!  More booze!  Moderate vanilla.  Moderate oak.  Light clove.  Low sherry from oxidation.  Moderate sweetness.  Hot alcohol.
Dan: Lots of barrel.  Slight molasses.  Very boozy in the nose.  Sweet and hot.  Slight vanilla note.  Chocolate cake?


Eric: Dark brown in color.  Not opaque.  Ruby color at edge of glass.  Fine but transient tan head.  Some moderate legs on glass.
Kevin: Brown-dark mahogany.  Very clear.  Small head dissipates quickly to a collar.
Dan: Not much head.  Looks like a cup of coffee.

Flavor: In which we drink concentrated sugar...

Eric: Tooth-hurting sweetness up front for me.  Vanilla is very prominent--I can't believe they don't add some.  Flavors of bourbon filled chocolate covered cherry.  Strong alcohol booziness. Some prune or raisin oxidation. Mouth coating but not really creamy--more syrup sweetness.  Marshmallow as it warms up. Burning alcohol finish.
Kevin: "Huuuuuge vanilla!" To quote Donald The Trump.  Rich malt, buttery.  Thick, creamy, very sweet.  Light oak.  Very low tannin.  Somewhat cloying--sweetness and the vanilla stays and stays--like a guest that won't leave.  Spicy hops behind the sweet thick vanilla.
Dan: First sip is very hot and almost cloyingly sweet.  Second sip--molasses and vanilla.  Syrupy chocolate feel--very thick and stays on the tongue to create a molasses aftertaste.

Overall:  In which between the four of us we can only drink half the bottle...

Eric: An impressive beer, but just too sweet.  Not as complex as I'd like--I don't get much of the roast, dark malt complexity from this as I usually do from RIS.  I can't drink much of this due to the booze and sweetness.  Having recently tried Gray Monday, I like that more since the hazelnut adds some character.  4.25
Kevin: Very complex.  Honestly the vanilla is a bit overpowering and unbalances the beer.  It's a bit buttery (diacetyl) but in a pleasant way.  Enjoyable, but I can't drink much of this. Would pair well with a custard, creme brulee, or chocolate torte. 4.5
Dan: Very sweet.  Seems out of balance.  If you like molasses--this is a dream.  I was hoping for more dark chocolate and coffee malt flavor.  3.5
Sarajo: Delicious, but it makes my teeth hurt.  4.25

Overall Score: 4.125

Stay tuned for next week: Cantillon Lou Pepe Framboise!

Photo information: This was a composite of three shots--my wallet (with more money it than usual), flames from the gas fire in front of Surly Brewing, and the bottle of Black Tuesday.

Monday, January 4, 2016

JABlog 2015 Top 20 Minnesota Breweries!

This one should spark some conversations!  Everyone has their own opinions on what makes a great brewery: taproom experience, beer quality, beer availability, cost, location, brewer, etc.  Each year I do a top 10 Minnesota brewery list based on my own experiences that year.  My results may differ from yours.  Maybe I had a bad experience at your favorite brewery and gave it a poor grade.  Maybe you came to one of my favorites and had a bad experience with service and can't figure out why I rated it so high.  Maybe I've had a non-intentional funky beer from an otherwise good brewery but it soured my thoughts about them.  I've been to a ton of breweries this year--in fact I've been to most in the state (as of this moment) and think I can give a pretty good list.  I've increased the list to 20 since we've had such a jump in number of breweries recently. I'd love to see other folk's listings to see how close we are.

1) Surly Brewing (Minneapolis) As I've said before--Surly puts out high quality beers in a plethora of styles (not just hoppy ones!)  I don't love every beer they do (Devil's Work) but find some enjoyment in most of them.  The new brewhouse with its wonderful beerhall and even more impressive upstairs Brewer's Table restaurant is a wonder to experience.

2) Junkyard (Moorhead)  A cute and comfy retro-styled taproom just across the river from Fargo.  The beers were all excellent, well balanced, and unique.  Key Lime Gose, people!  This was the break-out hit for me this year and I hope they keep it up.
3) Steel Toe (St. Louis Park)  A revamped taproom with more space has only improved the Steel Toe experience.  These are some of the most solid and reliable beers in the state (other than the Sommer Vice I love all of the beers in the line up.)  My only gripe would be a lack of new recipes to try.
4) Bent Paddle (Duluth) These folks simply don't put out a bad beer.  They may not be your personal favorite style, but all their beers are balanced and clean, very reproducible.  I would venture that their Pils is the best Minnesota lager by far.
5) Town Hall (Minneapolis) An old favorite that continues to put out some of the most under-rated and amazing beers in the state.
6) Indeed (Minneapolis) These guys are putting out one of the best barrel aged beers in Minnesota (Rum King) as well as tons of other fine beers.  The taproom is fun and hipster friendly, but often crowded.
7) Waconia Brewing (Waconia) This is my local taproom.  I know most of the staff and end up here more than any other brewery so I may be biased.  But frankly, despite just being close, these guys are putting out some very well balanced beers.  Their Pair-A-Dice DIPA is one of my favorite beers of the year. 
8) Summit (St. Paul) Always a favorite, Summit is still the go-to craft beer option at most bars and restaurants.  Almost under the radar, they have been putting out unusual smaller batch things like barleywines and ESB with earl grey tea for us beer geeks.  I want their taproom to be open more hours.

9) Castle Danger (Two Harbors) Open and well-lit, with northwoods theme, the new taproom is fun and the beers are exponentially better than a year ago.  The Fresh Hop Mosaic DIPA was incredible.
10) Grand Rounds (Rochester) Located across from Mayo, this medically named place is serving a huge selection of good beers at their large brewpub.
11) Schell's (New Ulm) The venerable MN brewery is starting to return to its German lager roots, but is also making headlines with its sour Berliner weisse series of beers.  Moving with the times!
12) Urban Growler (St. Paul) The beers are solid here.  The small food menu puts this one higher on my list and I find that my wife and I frequent this one the most of the St. Paul side breweries.
13) Fair State (Minneapolis) Coming into their own with new takes on sour beers.  I like the Co-Op scheme, and would love to take part if I lived closer.
14) Sociable Cider Werks (Minneapolis) Doing some cool stuff with ciders and beers.  I wasn't a huge fan when they started, but the quality has improved greatly and this place is well worth a visit.
15) Hammerheart (Lino Lakes) This place is cool and very different from most of the other taprooms.  The beers are challenging and unusual, featuring smoke, spice, and barrels prominently.
16) Fulton (Minneapolis) With increased production in the past year, we can get more of Fulton's beer around town.  They are still trying out some cool things, and make me want to keep following them.
17) Forager (Rochester) This upscale eatery and brewery is worth a trip for sure.  Good beers and fantastic food in a very eclectic and unusual building.
18) Insight (Minneapolis) Not sure about the re-branding, but the taproom is really nice and the beers have been solid from the beginning. 
19) Dangerous Man (Minneapolis)  Still putting out very good beers, but also still difficult to get in the door.  I've had to wait in lines to get in, and then up to 20 minutes in line to get a beer.  Several times. 
20) Lupine (Delano)  This one is a last minute addition based on my visit there just yesterday.  An excellent taproom, solid beers in a variety of styles, and great service.  (Sorry Bad Weather, you got bumped!)

This was a tough list to come up with.  I struggled with leaving some off the list that I still enjoy...and tossed around the idea of expanding to 25.  Honorable mentions go to Bad Weather, Tin Whiskers,
Sisyphus, and Enki. 

Coming up soon: reviews of Bad Weather, Forager, South Fork, Lupine, and Brau Brothers!

Friday, January 1, 2016

A Whale A Week: Eclipse Masterpiece

This week we take a walk to the dark side...of the moon!  OK, sad, but it had to be done.  At a recent get-together my friend Rob Wengler (of Limited Release fame) shared this very rare beer with our panel of experts. 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 stouts.  This is the last A Whale A Week for 2015…but there are more to come!

5050 Eclipse Masterpiece

Fifty Fifty in Truckee, California is known for their once a year release of Eclipse--a strong Russian Imperial stout.  They put some of the batch into different spirits barrels, including rye whiskey, bourbon, rum, and more.  I did a Whale A Week review of the Old Fitzgerald 2012 version HERE.  In 2013 the brewery obtained some 1991 Pappy Van Winkle barrels (the old distillery shut down in 1992).  Pappy is a savagely hoarded and sought-after whiskey these days.  The special batch of Eclipse was aged in these freshly emptied barrels for 18 months and clocks in at 12.8% ABV.  I hadn't even heard of this variation when Rob pulled it out of his cellar.  In true Mr. Burns fashion, I rubbed my hands together and tittered to myself in excitement!

A Masterpiece!

Eric: Very strong bourbon-booziness.  Vanilla notes are strong.  Hot alcohol--like sniffing directly into a bourbon barrel.  Slightly tart and zingy--maybe alcohol effect. Sweet and candy-like.  Coffee and milk chocolate.  No hops noted.  Aroma is fairly restrained overall.
Rob: Rock candy, bourbon, vanilla.  Smooth.
Heather: High alcohol.  Oaky.  Vanilla.
Jess: Alcohol-y.  Cocoa.

Deep black.  Like Mexican vanilla.  Medium tan head with larger bubbles.  Head persistent (except in Sj's glass).  Thick appearing with legs on glass edge.

Eric: Wow!  Sweet and tasty straight bourbon.  Raisins and prunes as it warms.  Vanilla finish.  Strong boozy warming effect--almost hot.  Mouth coating and creamy.  Dry cocoa and coffee beans on the end.
Rob: Sweet, bourbon, raisins.  Balsamic without the vinegar?  No chocolate.
Heather: Marshmallow.  Pecan pie.  Mexican vanilla.
Jess: Plum.  Thick, malty, bourbon-y.

Eric: Wonderful.  Like well aged bourbon, but softer and more drinkable.  Balance is better than expected from the aroma.  End is fairly dry all things considered. 5
Rob: 5
Heather: Good as an apertif. 4
Jess: 3.75
Sarajo: It is a masterpiece! 4.75

Overall Score: 4.5