Monday, February 8, 2016

Brau Brothers Brewing!

Not long ago my wife (Sarajo) and I took a field trip to the far and distant land of Marshall, MN to visit one of the more venerable craft breweries in the state--Brau Brothers Brewing Co.  I live in Waconia (a far far western suburb of Minneapolis) and Marshall is about a 2 hour and 15 minute drive (mostly) west of us--getting close to the South Dakota border.  No man's land.  This fine winter day, we warmed up the car and headed out over the frozen windswept tundra of Hoth Western Minnesota.  The car's windows creaked with the cold and dry gusts scattered granular snow in small drifts across the winding country roads before us.  The car's thermometer topped out at negative 13 degrees F along our frigid trek.  A thankfully bright sun warmed us inside the frosted windows of our vehicle, rainbow hued sun dogs shimmering in the air to each side of it in a miraculous fashion.

Across an abandoned wintry scene more reminiscent of a bleak desert, we wound our way through the countryside, snow crusted farms and fallow dune-like fields speeding by our windows.  Occasionally, we would have to jerk the car into the oncoming narrow lane to avoid an especially large snow drift.  This was truly remote, yet the hostile environment had a sort of wicked and pastoral beauty to it.  Finally, we entered the outskirts of Marshall, a larger city than I expected, with a population over 13,000.  Civilization at last!  We followed our trusty GPS to the "new" site of Brau Brothers.

A little history lesson before we continue.  Dustin and Mary Brau (along with help from his two brothers) started in 1999, opening a small brewpub called the BrauHaus in Lucan, a town with a population of just over 300 souls.  These guys were truly pioneers of craft brewing at the time.  With just a handful of breweries in Minnesota at the time (Schells, Summit, Town Hall, Great Waters, Fitgers, to name a few) starting a brewpub in the world's tiniest town was a bold move.  They continued on for a while, but in around mid-2000's with craft beer starting to "grow up" in the state they decided to expand into a true production brewery in order to supply beer to the budding tastes of the Metro area.  In 2006 they opened their larger brewery in Lucan and began packaging beer for us Minnesotans who were thirsty for a change.  I remember first trying the beer at a wine and beer event at the Arboretum (mainly wine at the time with just a couple of breweries involved.)  The Brau family were there in force, sampling their beers and trying to educate the palates of all those wine drinkers!  I loved the folks and enjoyed the beers, making a note to keep an eye on their progress.  A few years later, Sarajo and I were at a small beer dinner at the now defunct Pairings and got to talk with Dustin and Mary Brau quite a bit over some amazing food and great beers.

As the craft beer scene has continued to grow dramatically, the Braus have also continued to grow.  Their growth has been steady and sustainable, unlike some of the huge exponential growth of some of the bigger regional breweries in the state (Surly, Summit).  Taking advantage of their rural location, the brewery location in Lucan hosts its own hop yard--providing fresh hops for the seasonal IPA 100 Yard Dash--as well as its own barley fields.  In 2012 it was time to expand the brewery's footprint, and to get a bit closer to a larger city in order to capitalize on taproom and food sales.  The Braus bought a huge old Runnings (off-brand Fleet Farm for you city folk) building at the outskirts of town and starting brewing on a slightly larger scale.

Snapped with my phone and frostbitten fingers...

Here's where we come in!  Bundled against the bitter cold, dodging angry wampas and frozen tauntaun carcasses along the way, we made our way into the enormous building.  Within, I was struck immediately with just how massive the place really is!  Crazy high ceilings, girders, and either insulation or sound-baffling line the roof.  Across from the entrance is a small area filled with Brau Brothers swag (shirts, tin tacker signs, glassware, etc.)  But once you fully enter the space, the center point to the taproom comes into glorious view!  The 1956 Lucan firetruck that Dustin Brau used to fight fires on sits behind the long brick-fronted, stainless steel bar.  Even this large red firetruck is dwarfed by the available space in the taproom!  The serving taps actually come right out of the side of the truck, with restaurant storage available in the back of it.  This is an incredibly cool feature for a taproom and really makes it stand out.  Several large booths, high-tops, and regular sized tables provide copious amounts of seating around the taproom space.  We were there on a Sunday afternoon and the place wasn't especially busy, but they have space for large events if needed.  We met up there with our friends Tyrone and Annette Babione--fresh from helping out at a beer festival in Mankato--and quickly ordered some beers.  The taproom was a bit chilly, but frankly this wasn't surprising considering the outdoor temp.  Our server was a young guy, fairly new at the place but helpful and earnest, getting us our beers quickly and without fuss.

We were all excited that Dustin Brau himself was kind enough to come in on this Sunday to give us a personal tour of the place!  First he took us into the spacious brewery proper, pointing out their 1995 15 barrel brew system, rescued from a long-closed brewery in Richmond, VA.  "This isn't exactly a Cadillac system, but we've learned how to make it work for us," Dustin remarked as he told us the story.  The floor in the brewery had to be built up in order to provide drains for overflow, so you have to take a big step up when entering the brewery floor.  It was a bit chilly back there, and I wished I had not left my coat back at the booth!

Dustin Brau showing off the brewery!

Next we took a trip into the even cooler barrel storage room.  I believe they put out their first sour beer last year, and have been working at creating a small sour and barrel aging program for the brewery since.  Sealed off from the regular beers, this room was filled with several used barrels, most filled with slowly souring beer.  I'm a huge sour-head so this program gets me interested!  Surprisingly, Dustin commented about how quickly the locals took to the sour beer and wanted more when it was gone!

Moving on, we checked out the vintage 1975 bottling line.  They really don't make them like this anymore!  We also got to discuss the water treatment used in the brewery.  One thing that sets Brau beers apart from some of the other MN breweries is the fact that they use reverse osmosis water to start and then build up the water salts to suit each beer style they make.  This process apparently started back in Lucan where they had high radon levels in the water and the whole area was forced to do RO water treatment.  I think water and mineral salt control has a huge impact on the final quality of the beer--after all beer is over 90% water!

Dustin spent quite a bit of time with us, showing off all the nooks and crannies of this enormous brewery space.  We saw the small lab area, the label machine, the basketball hoop (yup this place is that big).  Whilst freezing our limbs off, we spent some time hanging out in the walk-in cooler while Dustin cracked open some beers to fill our now-empty glasses.  It was still balmy compared the outside temps!

Once the epic tour was over, we all settled into a large booth in the taproom and ordered some much needed food.  The menu is extensive and features a lot of locally raised bison.  I ordered a house cured pastrami sandwich that was quite good, but could have used a sturdier bun.  The hand cut fries were great and they also had sweet potato tater tots!

While waiting on our food, I tasted through much of the beer line-up.  Here are my bullet-point reviews.  I rate on a scale of 0-5 with 3 being standard OK beer, 4 I'll actively seek out, and 5 I'll hoard.

1) Bohemian Pils--Light straw color.  Up front noble hopping.  Hint of DMS.  Crisp and drinkable.  3.5

2) Quad--Belgian strong ale.  Lighter in color than expected--more of a light amber.  Slightly hazy.  A bit boozy with a candy-like sweetness. Ends dry and a touch astringent.  I like this now but would love to try with 6 months of aging! 4

3) ESB--Bread, hint of caramel, hop bitterness well balanced.  Very nice and comforting.  4.25

4) White Cap--Belgian Wit with orange peel and coriander.  Spices certainly present without being overwhelming.  Mild Belgian yeast character.  A very summery beer--way better than Blue Moon. 3.75

5) D'thai--A lager made with Thai Jasmine rice.  Slightly fruity aroma.  Very light in color.  Brisk, hoppy, crisp and wonderful.  Anyone could (and should) drink this beer--even your craft beer hating neighbors.  4.25

6) Bancreagie--Scotch ale with peated malt.  Aroma of peat fire smoke.  Flavor is sweetish, but ends dry.  Smoky flavor but not overwhelming.  Mellow compared to the last time I had this (2 years ago).  A bit fruity as it warms up.  3.75

7) Old 56--Named after the fire truck, this is the beer aimed at non-craft beer drinkers. Some corn flavor.  Bright, very light (lite?) but actually has some grain flavors.  A very good light beer option.  I'd drink this over PBR or Coors any day. Very nice dry finish. 4

8) Bourbon Oak ESB on cask--Hint of tartness.  Oak is too strong and astringent.  Bourbon not really present.  Not my favorite, but not terrible.  3

9) Moo Joos--This one is the flagship milk stout.  Sweet, roast, coconut.  Hint of sweet tart.  Great creamy mouthfeel.  Milk chocolate flavors.  3.75

10) Ring Neck Braun--Brown ale.  Mellow, a bit sweet.  Hint of diacetyl.  3

11) Tiramisu--Version of Moo Joos.  Aroma of coconuts. Flavor is harsh dry cocoa.  Tart finish is off-putting.  2.75

12) Village Tart--A sour!  Aroma is barnyard (but in a good way!) Flavor is tart with some malt flavors to back it up and give body.  Mouthfeel is medium.  A good base sour that cries out for the addition of some fruit! 4

That is a lot of beers to try!  I was excited to see a couple of cask beers, as well as a good mix of lagers and ales.  Overall, I was very impressed with the quality of beer, especially the lagers, which tend to be harder to pull off.  My least favorites were the experimental versions of regular beers--which is often the case with such one-off experiments--but I appreciate them trying new things in the taproom.

Prior to my visit out to the taproom, and the occasional bottle of Moo Joos in The Cities, I had frankly almost forgotten about Brau Brothers.  They were at the forefront of the local craft beer boom in Minnesota, but seemed happy to stick with their rural location, not urgently pushing for more expansion and market share. In a way, this slow growth method is more sustainable and fits with their small town way of life.  Supply the locals.  Send some beer to the Twin Cities.  Do a little contract brewing for some other smaller breweries in MN and South Dakota.  Buy a giant building and grow into it.  I had thought recently (while sipping that Moo Joos at a friend's holiday party) "What ever happened to these guys?"  Now I know, and am quite happy with the progress they have made.  The beer quality is excellent overall, and they seem to be happy with what they are doing.  Dustin seemed as energetic and "into it" as he did back at the start of things.  He has plans for a fully Brau Estate beer made with their own hops and barley, as well as expanding the sour and barrel aging program.  Yes please!

I think it's safe to say that we all had a fantastic time visiting the brewery, and really appreciated the time that Dustin spent with us.  I highly recommend the place for food and beers, but it is a serious trek from the Twin Cities area!

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