While in Roseville for the Minnesota Mashout homebrew competition this past January, I got a chance to visit Bent Brewstillery. After two straight days clustered around a bunch of beer geeks judging beers in the basement of Grumpy's, where could I find a change of pace? Yep, just a short walk through melting snow to a nondescript office park to hang out with even more beer geeks!
Bent has a bit of a storied past. The building originally housed the Pour Decisions Brewery headed by brewer and scientist Kristen England. The beers tended to focus on obscure/extinct/unusual styles that really appealed to the beer geek in me, but maybe made for a tougher sell on the average drinker. They did some contract brewing for Bent Brewstillery at that time, using the owner of that company's homebrew recipes. A couple of years into the endeavor, there were apparently some money troubles (I think mainly because one of the partners no longer wanted to have a part in things). With the need for an infusion of money to keep things going, Pour Decisions merged with Bent Brewstillery in 2013. England stayed on as head brewer, but the latter name was chosen and the running of the business side went to Bartley and Brenda Blume. They kept this name because they wanted to create something new in Minnesota--the first brewery/distillery combination facility. They have a sizeable 20 barrel brew system with 40 barrel fermentors, as well as a 5 barrel "experimental" system that England uses mainly for his continued passion of sour beers! With the large brew system they also create the wash for distilling in their 500 gallon still.
The building has changed a bit since the early days, but still hides out in a quiet and seemingly deserted office park. I used to laugh at the tiny little sign in the window of Pour Decisions, but the new brewery isn't marked much better--just a small vinyl banner over the door. A food truck was parked outside next to the small patio area on the day I visited, providing vittles for hungry drinkers. Inside the place is fairly dark, with a scattering of high tables and some up-ended barrels around the main floor space. Thick and imposing spiky metal fencing bars one entry to the brewery and the distillery but you can see the stainless steel in the darkened space beyond. Frankly I find this feature to distract from the otherwise warm and comfortable feel of the place. The bathrooms deserve mention--fancy sinks in both, and a European style bidet in the women's room--much swankier than most taprooms! And no, I did not infiltrate the ladies room...
A fairly small bar sits in the far corner, manned by two servers on this day. There was often a long line to get beers but these two were quick and friendly, even when having to fill tons of sampler trays.
In the past I've had mixed feelings on the beers at Bent. One would be amazing (sours for instance) and another would be flawed in some fundamental recipe formulation way. I've been to the brewery twice previously and decided to hold off on my review until I could give it one last shot. That time was now, and I was happy to discover that things are much improved from my previous visits. I ended up getting a sampler of the entire line-up and tasting through them as we played dice games on the larger high-top table in the taproom. I rate beers on a 0-5 scale, 3 is average for me, 4 I'll search out, and 5 I'll hoard. I was already being anti social with my friends by taking notes, so these are pretty quick impressions not BJCP scoresheets!
1) Hil Yis! ExperimentALE #7: Made with New Zealand hops, this has a light gold color and strong tropical fruit notes of apricot and mango. A somewhat bitter finish but a good and flavorful beer. 3.75
2) Nordic Blonde: I still don't get this beer. Amber blonde? Oxy-moronic as a jumbo shrimp, this is one of the flagship beers from Bent and is in cans all over the place. I have actively despised this beer in the past, but this time it wasn't as bad. Amber in color with some hoppiness in aroma and flavor. Somewhat bready and crisp which reminds me more of a Vienna lager than a blonde. Still not a blonde. 3
3) Moar: A light Scottish ale but with American hopping. Hoppier than any Scottish ale has a right to be, but the malty body of this is pleasant. Citrus hops are bright in aroma and flavor. Very easy to drink. 3.5
4) Brother Vesper: A Belgian quad. Complex, woody, dark fruit, caramel. Dark cherry as it warms. Warming and boozy. Very nice beer. 4
5) Fest Hop ExperimentALE #8: Strong tea-like tannins. Hoppy and fruity. Mellow but well balanced and different. 3.75
|Tyrone hams it up while testing out the hop infuser!|
7) Funked Up Series #6 Berried Gose: A German style gose (light, tart wheat beer with salt and coriander usually added). Mixed berry aromas and flavors--blueberry, raspberry seem dominant to me. Pretty pink color with some haziness. Light saltiness adds complexity and balances the acid bite. 4
8) Malvasia Pyment: This is a honey wine with Malvasia grape juice added before fermentation. Served in a wine glass. Excellent clarity, light golden color. Tons of tangerine, pear and honey flavors. I like this a lot! 4.25
9) White IPA with fruit: This is a batch that they were experimenting with--each day this week had a different fruit addition to the base beer. Today's version was spruce. I've had lots of sahti beers, as well as other spruce beers, but this was outrageously like drinking Pine Sol cleanser. No thank you. Would be interested to try the base beer or other versions. 1
This brewery still seems to have a little multiple personality disorder to me. I get some beers that seem out of style just to make a point (Dark Fatha, Nordic Blonde) while others are aiming to be true to classic and rare styles like gose, Belgian quad, and pyment. I love the fact that the place usually has a mead of some type on tap since they are so hard to find anywhere. They also have cold press coffee available on tap if you need a pick-me-up after a hard day's drinking.
While I was wrapping up my tasting, a small group of brewers and distillers was getting a short tour of the distilling side of things with Bartley Blume himself and I was invited along for the ride. Bartley is a somewhat intense guy that really seems to be passionate about his distillery projects. He pointed out the large still and a tiny little experimental one they use for small batch trials. We got to sample the Gunner Ghost navy strength (114 proof!) gin--fairly bursting with flowery botanical aromas like lavender, rose, and coriander. They actually use Cascade hops in the mixture which is a nice nod to the fact they are also a brewery. This was a strong one, but very flavorful! We also tried the Bent Anchor Poitin--an Irish style moonshine made mainly from the cast-off potato peels from Minneapolis hipster haven Anchor Fish & Chips. This was surprisingly smooth and reminded me a lot of vodka but with a bit more character and body to it. I was sporting my J. Carver Distillery shirt this particular day and mentioned their experiments with grappa, and within seconds Bartley had given me a taste of their test batch--not bad for a first effort!
I would say that based on this recent visit, I would recommend Bent as a taproom to visit, especially if you live on the St. Paul side of things. I respect Kristen England's beer and brewing knowledge to the utmost, and now having met Bartley Blume I feel that he has a lot of passion for the distilling side of things. I think that with these two each focusing on their areas of expertise Bent Brewstillery is finally becoming what what it was destined to be.
Since I've recently widened my boozy pursuits to include cocktails, I went ahead and bought a 375 ML bottle of the Gunner Ghost to try out at home. I made a fairly classic martini with it to showcase the gin.
2 oz Gunner Ghost Navy Strength Gin
1 oz Ransom Dry Vermouth
3 dashes Dashfire Number 1 Orange Bitters
Shake with ice
Garnish with lemon twist
This turned out pretty tasty, but very strong and very dry! The vermouth I used actually had botanicals in it already and in retrospect I'd choose something more mellow to pair with this beast of a gin. The Dashfire bourbon barrel bitters (another local company by the way) adds a bit of fruity complexity and accentuates the citrus hops in the gin. It took me a while to drink all of this due to it's powerful flavors and alcohol.