Monday, March 7, 2016

Got Wood? Big Wood Brewery Review

Recently, my wife Sarajo and I spent a weekend in St. Paul for the epic two day Winterfest event at the Union Depot.  On that Saturday, after a wonderful breakfast at The Buttered Tin, we decided to try out Big Wood Brewery.  Located in White Bear Lake, this place has been on my radar but far enough from my Waconia home to make it less enticing to visit.  However, from downtown St. Paul the brewery is just a 20 minute drive!  Possibly the best part of our field trip was that temperatures (Feb in Minnesota!) were upwards of 55 degrees out and a beautiful bright sun shone in the crazy blue skies.  Driving into the center of town, I was surprised at how cute the area is, and with the sheer number of people out and about.  Like the white bear that emblazons road signs and nearly everything else in town, locals had crawled out of their caves, shaken the hibernation grogginess from their heads, and inundated the streets and shops of White Bear Lake!  Frankly, White Bear Lake surprised me with how quaint and active it was.  Olive oil shops, boutiques, independent book and toy stores, bakeries, all vie for one's attention.  And now a brewery!

Big Wood Brewery was founded by Steve Merila (Founder), Jason Medvec (President) and Ty McBee (Head Brewer).  They started out brewing at Cold Spring Brewery (along with 21st Amendment, Liftbridge, and more) for about a year and a half in order to build brand name and the capital to open their own brewery.   In February of 2014 they were able to open their own taproom.  We accessed the brewery via a cool little alleyway decorated with a strange and eclectic mix of outdoor furniture and lawn decorations from the next door shop.  Coming out of this fantastical alley, we discovered that there was a large (but full) parking lot right next to the tap room itself.  The building is big and brick, with a somewhat large but still understated "Big Wood" painted up near the top of the building wall.  Some big hunks of wood carved with the logo sit up against the building.  The outdoor patio area was full of people on this strangely warm day so we went inside.

Sarajo "Vogues" it up outside Big Wood

Stepping down into the ground-floor/basement of the building, I was struck by the rustic and woodsy feel of the place.  Bright sun filtered though the windows and open door, throwing lines of shadow and light through the whole place and accentuating the wood grain of nearly every surface within.  Heavy wooden chairs cluster around several high wood tables.  The bar top is made of a beautiful polished piece of solid wood (probably ash) that came from a windfall tree on WBL's own Manitou Island.  The place was busy, but we were able to find a table for 4 easily.  Two servers behind the bar were happy to take our drink orders and were great about coming around to deliver beers and refill water glasses for us during our stay.  Great service!

Taking a field trip around the place, I discovered a bench made of a half-log with a cribbage board incised into it (I didn't tell my wife about this for fear that she'd make me lose to her again.)  A second seating area (with ping pong table) that blended into the brewery itself was located down a short hall and through a cool round hobbit-hole door.  On the other side of the taproom is another solid dark wood door decorated with a sturdy weathered metal Green Man knocker.  Through this ominous doorway lies the copper and stainless steel brewery itself, along with the small Sabco 10 gallon brew system that started the whole thing off.  While I was sneaking around back there and taking pictures for this blog, I ran into the head brewer Ty McBee.  Ty was very passionate about brewing and was happy to talk brewing nuts and bolts with me for a while (despite being busy at the brewery that day).  I asked him the toughest question--which of his babies (beers) he likes the best.  His response: "That's just mean to ask!  If I'm still brewing, it will be something pretty light.  But all in all Morning Wood still surprises me.  I love it!"

The copper brewery lording it over the tiny Sabco pilot system...

Back in the taproom, my wife and I met up with some local friends Ron and Denise, whom we had met at NHC in Michigan a few years back.  Big Wood is their nearest taproom and they frequent the place regularly.  It was great hanging out with them while enjoying this beautiful day and sipping on a wide variety of beers!

You want me to talk about the beers?  But of course!

I've had Big Wood beers in the past, mainly at beer festivals and have not been a fan.  I found most to have astringency that was out of balance.  I've heard that things have improved, and our friends like the place, so why not give them another try in their own environment?  I'll give my brief impressions of the beers below.  I grade on a 5 point scale with 3 being an average drinkable beer, 4 being stellar, and 5 being something I'd hoard or drink every day if possible.  For my credentials: I'm a BJCP judge and homebrewer for over 25 years.  At Big Wood they had two samplers--one with the regular rotation beers and one with the taproom exclusive and seasonals.  I ordered both and made my friends and wife watch me sip, sniff, and tap into my phone!

1) Amigo Grande: Mexican Lager--I get a hint of sulfur, but acceptable in the style and fades after first whiff.  Crisp finish.  Very easy to drink on a 50+ degree day!  4

2) Thrice Shy: Belgian golden strong ale--Doesn't hide its high alcohol content well, comes off a bit hot.  Plenty of pilsner malt character and fruity esters to add complexity though.  Fairly sweet but not cloying.  Not a bad American version of Belgian ale.  3.5

3) Bark Bite IPA--This has a pleasant citrus aroma to it.  Flavor has plenty of hop citrus character as well.  The body is pretty thin and the finish is pretty astringent.  3

4) Jack Savage Pale Ale--Not a ton of hop aroma to it.  Flavor has caramel notes, but not overly sweet.  Some bitterness present, mild orange flavors.  Well balanced pale ale.  3.5

5) Bad Axe Double IPA--Better than last time I had this.  Malty notes at first, but very bitter finish.  Lots of pine hop character.  Some alcohol to it.  3.5

6) Big Black Wolf: Black IPA--I'm not a fan of black IPA's in general.  This one is very bitter with strong roast and smoke.  Roast malt adds astringency to an already hop bitter beer. 3

7) Udder Stout: Milk Stout on Nitro--Pretty sweet (as it should be). Coconut flavors.  Thick mouthfeel and very creamy.  Mild milk chocolate as warms.  This was Sarajo's favorite.  3.5

8) Morning Wood: Coffee Ale--Better than in the past (used to be unbearably astringent).  Light coffee and chocolate aroma.  Flavor similar to aroma and more mellow than remembered.  Possible hint of diacetyl, but OK in this beer.  3.5

9) Yule Wood: Holiday/Winter Ale--Strong allspice, orange peel and clove in aroma.  Sweet flavor and lots of spices present. Brown sugar.  Allspice is strong in this one!  Luckily I like that flavor!  3.75

10) Forest Fire: Smoked Rye--Sweet malt present.  I can pick up the spicy rye.  Phenols from the smoked malt come off a bit band-aid rather than bacon.  I tend to like smoked beers, but this one isn't quite right for me.  3

I frankly had not been overly impressed with Big Wood beers in the past, finding most to be very thin and astringent for my liking.  I had also been a little turned off by the Dude-Bro style marketing (Morning Wood anyone?).  However, having been to the taproom and partaken of the glorious wooden ambiance, extensive mix of beer styles, and great customer service, I've been pleasantly surprised.  I'm always impressed when one of my favorite beers in a place is their lager--that takes some skill!  I still find that many of the beers border on thin body and astringent finish, but this has improved (I bumped up previous scores of 2-3 on a few to above average) since my last tasting.  When I get a similar effect in many beers at one brewery I start to think about water treatment.  Big Wood does filter and treat their water for different styles but don't do reverse osmosis.  Knowing how hard most of the water is in the Twin Cities area, I think that may be accentuating the bitterness in the hoppier beers here.  From talking with Ty, it sounds like he's always tweaking recipes and trying to improve the finished beer, and I can tell this is the case.  I think the beers here are pretty good, but the overall experience we had during this visit has elevated it to more than the sum of its parts.

I'd easily be tempted to go back to explore White Bear Lake and make Big Wood a stop on my tour in the future.  I'd love to check out some of the cute shops and even a steam-punk looking cocktail bar in town (Alchemist!).  Oh, and Ty says that they'll be coming out with a new FINE IPA in 750 bottles at the brewery very soon, so keep an eye out for it!

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