Thursday, June 23, 2016

We'll Cross That Bridge When We Come To It: Lift Bridge Brewing Review

Not long ago my wife (Sarajo) and I took a day trip out to Stillwater, Minnesota for a little visit of the sites and breweries in the area.  It's actually been 14 years since we last stayed in Stillwater for our first does time fly!  I've been meaning to get to Lift Bridge Brewing for years, ever since they built their own brewery.  Not too long ago one of my friends--Randy Ust--formerly of Midwest/Northern Brewer and then Herkimer, started working for Lift Bridge and was willing to give us a tour of the place.

We showed up fairly early in the morning, before the taproom opened, and entertained ourselves for a bit playing cornhole (hey I didn't invent the name) outside until Randy arrived.  The day was beautiful and sunny with a slight hint of chill that was burning off rapidly.

Led by our bearded friendly giant (BFG), we got an awesome up-close and personal tour of the facility, located in a large but attractive warehouse building on the outskirts of town.  The facility is one of the bigger breweries in the state, but not as massive in scale as say Surly or Summit.  The brew system is a 15 barrel affair which they use to fill 11 30 barrel fermenters and 4 60 barrel fermenters.  Do the math there--they have to brew 4 times to fill one of those 60's!  I sense a bigger brewhouse or 24-7 brewing in their future!  Lift Bridge began around 2007/2008 and have been steadily growing ever since, perhaps being more cautious in their expansion plans than some, but still ever enlarging their production and distribution.  Randy showed off a new yeast propagator that was the most recent addition to the equipment as an example of a new area of growth.

They have a bottling line, a somewhat "experienced" kegging line (and Randy to lift those heavy kegs), and now a new canning line for packaging up the beers.  We also got to peek into an accessory warehouse where all the bourbon barrels filled with precious beer lie maturing and waiting to become one of the best barrel aged beers in the state--Barrel Aged Silhouette!

Home of future Barrel Aged Silhouette...

Lift Bridge was one of the early additions to the  Minnesota Craft Beer Renaissance (I should trademark that) and led with Farm Girl Saison as their flagship beer.  Back in early 2007/2008 putting out a spicy, estery Belgian style beer as your flagship in Minnesota was pretty bold.  Many of the early recipes for the brewery had additions of spices or flavors to accentuate the flavors and nod to the experimentation oriented homebrewing roots of the founders.  The current Head Brewer for Lift Bridge is Matt Hall, a storied brewer previously of Firestone Walker in California, and things have only improved since he came on board.  I've met Matt a few times at Happy Gnome beer dinners and he's not only a stellar brewer, but also a wonderful guy.

Awesome old wooden fermenter on display in the brewery.

Once we were done with our tour of the grounds (plenty of room for more fermentors!) we headed to the tasting room.  In 2011, after the "Surly Bill" allowed for brewery taprooms, Lift Bridge was the first in the state to take advantage of it.  The taproom is open and comfortable with mainly bench seating at varnished wooden tables.  A jukebox sits in the corner, and a small bar lines the back wall.  Plenty of merchandise fills some cubbys in the back corner for your swag needs.

The taproom has a lot of the standard Lift Bridge beers on tap but also hosts some small-batch taproom only beers that are worth a check.  Randy took us through the then current line up of beers and here are my pencil sketches of some of them from this visit.  I've given the beers a score between 0-5, with 3 being my average drinkable beer.

1) Shadow Effect: Taproom only German style schwazbier.  This was very roasty and dry--much more in line with a dry Irish stout than a malty lager. Still decent though.  3.25

2) The Warden: A sweet/milk stout.  I get lots of coffee, cream, and roastiness.  Very nice. Can't drink much of this since I'm lactose intolerant!  3.75

3) Mango Blonde:  The base beer for this a very respectable blonde--better stylistically than most of the big selling Minnesota examples (I'm talking to you Fulton and Excelsior!)  The addition of mango is subtle but makes this pop with some juicy tropical flavors.  I had an aunt and uncle who raised mangoes in Florida so I grew up loving this fruit, but most mangoes in Minnesota are hard little bitter things compared to those.  This beer gets the balance right!  4

4) Cowboy Jack's IPA: A session IPA brewed for Cowboy Jacks, and available there or in the taproom.  Very strong citrus hop up front on aroma.  Crisp.  Lemon and orange flavors.  Dry finish.  Quite nice.  I like this a lot more than the Crosscut and would drink it regularly if I could.  4

5) Irish Coffee Stout 2016:  A blend of barrel aged Russian Imperial stout and milk stout finished with cold press coffee.  This beer is actually one of my favorite Minnesota coffee beers and is often underrated.  Aroma of roasted grain and fresh brewed dark coffee.  I get a thick and creamy mouthfeel out of this. Flavors of coffee, malted milk, hints of vanilla and toasted oak.  I like this beer best aged one year. 4.25

Overall, Lift Bridge is putting out some very good beers.  I'd still like to see them drop or minimize the spiced beers, but think that some of the newer offerings are hitting the mark well for me.  These guys are doing some amazing things with barrels and I want more!  This trip I didn't get to try the Commander Barleywine, nor the BA Silhouette, but I'll be posting separate reviews of those beers in the coming weeks since Randy was kind enough to donate a few personal bottles of his own to my cause.

Magnetic cribbage boards build into the tables!

By the time we finished sampling beers and buying merchandise the place had filled up for a busy noon crowd of thirsty drinkers.  This was fun mix of locals and other beer tourists like us--everyone seemed to be having a good time.  Thanks go out to Randy, Sarah, and all the staff at Lift Bridge for a great experience.  I'd highly recommend visiting the taproom.  In fact, make a trip of it:  check out the cool downtown area, have dinner or lunch at LoLo, check out Oliphant in nearby Sommerset, WI across the historic lift bridge, and stay the night in one of the many B&B's (I like the Rivertown Inn).

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