Monday, February 29, 2016

Off The Edge of the World: Flat Earth Brewing Company

Flat Earth Brewing has been around for a while.  They were originally established in 2007 (open by 2008) by former Town Hall Brewing alum Jeff Williamson.  The name was based on the Flat Earth Society--a group that to this day believe that the world is not a sphere.  Most of Jeff's original names focused on science fiction or geeky subjects--he was nerdy before it was cool!  The old brewery was literally spitting distance from their much larger neighbor Summit Brewing, and was a pretty small affair nestled into a warehouse building.  Several of our homebrew club (Jack Of All Brews) members made a trip out there for a Saturday tour shortly after they opened.  It wasn't much to look at, and this was prior to legal taprooms in Minnesota, so we just had a few free samples and hung out with Jeff a bit.  The first time I ever tried Flat Earth beer was at a tasting they held at the Minnesota Renaissance Festival--again shortly after they opened.  I was impressed--especially with the Belgian Tripel and was excited for what they would do over time.  They were really in the forefront of the the craft beer renaissance here in Minnesota.

Sometime around 2010 Flat Earth had financial troubles which necessitated bringing in outside investors to avoid foreclosure.  In May of 2012 Jeff either left the company or was fired (there was a bit of confusion about that matter at the time and I've never heard what really happened).  The then assistant brewer Friday Bob Roepke continued on as the head brewer at that time, and continues in that position today. Fairly recently Flat Earth moved into the old Hamm's Brewery building in St. Paul and added a taproom for on-site pints and growler sales.

Frankly, Flat Earth is one of the few older breweries I've not reviewed for this blog. In part, it was probably still out of loyalty to Jeff, but he seems to be doing fine these days.  This year my wife and I each bought a PubPass -- a passport-like book giving you a free pint at each of the locations involved in the program.  We did this because it included several places we already like (Freehouse, Indeed, Bryant Lake Bowl) but also some we've been meaning to try.  As a last minute replacement (when Glockenspiel went out of business) Flat Earth became a new spot in the program.  Then, in a feat of beer trivia madness at The Happy Gnome we won some Flat Earth shirts, glasses, and a free growler fill.  OK, the world was clearly trying to tell us something here...time to get out to the brewery and check it out!

On an overcast day we set out from distant Waconia on our trek to the very Edge of the World--St. Paul!  In usual fashion, shortly after crossing the river, my car's GPS decided to have a seizure and try to send us in circles on roads that no longer exist.  Luckily, Sarajo was able to get Google Maps on her phone functioning and we eventually found our way to the huge old brick monstrosity of the Hamm's Brewery.  Much of the complex is decrepit, with holes in windows, crumbling brick walls, graffiti tags, etc.  The entrance to the taproom is actually down a fairly tight alley between two of the looming red brick buildings with a small sign claiming "Brewery" that is somewhat easy to miss.  Into the darkened recess you go but once inside, there's a wide central area providing plenty of parking.  The taproom is up a short flight of stairs and through a large wooden door with just a tiny chalkboard sign indicating that you are at the right place for Flat Earth Brewery.

I'd love to go spelunking in this old derelict pile...

Entering via the old fashioned heavy oaken door, we found ourselves in a dark (that day anyway) large open space with high ceilings and minimal lighting.  Thick brick walls fairly radiated the cold of a meat-locker, requiring us to keep our coats on for much of our stay. A few windows at the back of the taproom provide a bit of a view and some much needed light.  Strange old antique furniture including a throne-like chair, a mini pipe organ, and some large industrial scales are scattered about the space without much rhyme or reason.  For a room this size there was surprisingly little actual seating--one large table and a few more mismatched garage sale reject tables.  A small bar in the corner provides growlers and swag for sale.  On arriving we actually discovered someone we knew--Pio (the super friendly brewer for Minneapolis' Freehouse) and his friend Ryan.  Small world!

Continuing past our friends, we wound through some dark labyrinthine hallways and alcoves, passing odd murals, curling photographs, crumbling brickwork, groups of quietly conversing people, and outdoor patio furniture.  The dark, the cold, the twisted byways, bring to mind the dank subterranean vibe of a sepulcher or the Poe story The Cask Amontillado.  Eventually we made our way to the taproom bar (fairly high and without seating).  Our winter-coat-wrapped server was happy to serve me up two sampler boards so I could try through most of the line-up.  No worries about the beer getting warm here! We carted our beers back to the front room since there was no space to sit in the back room.  When we first arrived the place wasn't especially crowded, but by the time we left (4:30ish) the joint was jumping and the whole back bar was crowded with people standing by for beers.

Here's the part where I go through all the beers and give a quick thumbnail sketch of my impressions.  I'd go into more detail, but everyone would be bored (and my wife would probably be upset that I was ignoring her even more at the taproom!)  I rate on a 0-5 scale with 3 being my average beer, 4 is stellar, and 5 is one I'd take to a desert island with me.

Starting with the Flagships

1) Angry Planet Pale Ale: Citrus/orange aroma with some caramel. Flavor very orangey up front and a hint of sweetness. Not much body to it and the finish is bitter and dusty tasting.  3

2) Northwest Passage IPA: Hopping present in aroma and flavor, but not extreme.  Flavor sweet and biscuity with a dry and bitter citrus finish. Much better than I remember this one. Decent balance. 3.75

3) Belgian Style Pale Ale: (Up front, I don't tend to like super hoppy Belgian beers.)  Lots of ester, clove, fruity Belgian yeast character in aroma and flavor. Sweet balance to this one.  Citrus hops strong.  3

4) Cygnus X-1:  Classic porter.  A very pleasant mix of roast malt, coffee, and chocolote.  Balanced with some initial sweetness and finish is fairly dry.  A well done American style robust porter. The best beer they had by far. 4

Moving on to the Seasonals

5) Red Cape Ale: Brewed for the Winter Carnival.  Not much aroma here.  Flavor is subtle with a hint of roasted barley and caramel.  Off dry finish.  A decent Irish Red if that is what they were aiming for.  3.75

6) Spoon Thief: Oatmeal stout.  The body is thin, but there is still a slickness to it.  I get a meaty or brothy flavor that can come from yeast autolysis (breakdown).  Slightly astringent burnt finish.  Did not like this one at all.  2.5

7) Bermuda Triangle: Belgian Tripel with honey.  Aroma is fairly quiet--not much Belgian yeast character at all.  Flavor is very sweet and seems under-attenuated.  Bitter on the end.  Yeasty tasting.  Some green grape ester flavors as well.  A bit hot. 2.75

8) Winter Warlock: Single malt English barleywine based (if I remember correctly off Bass Number 1).  Very light in color with excellent clarity.  Smells and tastes like a strong but dry apple wine.  More cidery than many actual hard ciders I've tried.  Hot alcohol.  I couldn't finish this sample. 2.75

At this point I had tried most of the beers and we still had our free pints coming!  So Sarajo got the Cygnus X-1 (also her favorite of the bunch) and I got Black Helicopter.

9) Black Helicopter: Coffee stout.  This was one of the first good coffee beers I tried back in the day and was my favorite Flat Earth beer--that's why I saved it for last!  This version was served on nitro and had a thick tight off-white head on it.  Mild coffee notes and sweetness in aroma.  Much stronger cold press coffee in the flavor for sure.  The body is really thin--accentuated by the nitro I think--which makes this taste like a good slightly sweet cold press coffee on nitro.  Not as good as I remember, making me unsure if the beer has changed, my tastebuds, or if the nitro has altered it that much.  3.5

Overall the beers were a mixed bag.  My two favorites of old (Black Helicopter and Bermuda Triangle) were kind of disappointing to me this trip out.  The Cygnus X-1 was our favorite and I got my free growler filled with this.  One thing I'll point out here is that other than the Red Cape and Spoon Thief, the brewery hasn't exactly been changing up their line-up or trying many new things since 2012.  I'm curious to see how much they expand production or try out new recipes now that they have plenty of space in their new building. (Addendum: I did get to try a stout aged in Waconia's own J. Carver Distillery Gin barrels at Winterfest that was pretty interesting...)

Our experience at Flat Earth was (like the beers) a bit mixed.  The place is big, has parking, and had pleasant staff.  However, the place comes off as dank, somewhat somber, and a bit tomb-like.  Scattered oddities and mismatched furniture give it a thrown-together-from-grandma's-musty-storage-unit kind of feel.  Just to see the old brewery building (in all its derelict glory) it was worth the trip.  I'd love to get a chance to explore the rest of the grounds and building complex with my camera...  Here's to hoping that Flat Earth takes full advantage of the space, and starts experimenting more!

No comments: