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.