Brewery Review: New Glarus

Most Minnesotan’s are very familiar with the New Glarus name. It’s a Wisconsin craft beer company that is only available in Wisconsin. It’s a part of their identity, and for many years people would flock over the border to get New Glarus, in particular their Spotted Cow ale. Personally, I’ve always been a fan of their fruit beers, especially their Strawberry Rubarb beer that tastes just like pie.

This past weekend, when I was near New Glarus for my 100K race, we stopped by the brewery to check it out. Well, to be fair, my friend Mike and I stopped by, while my wife was running her 50K race. We were only about 10 minutes away from the brewery and so getting there was nice and easy. It’s laid out as a campus, similar to old school breweries like Schell’s and Leinenkugel’s. You drive in along a winding road, and when we arrived we already had to park in lot a little further away.

The way that New Glarus works is that you go up to the beer garden, and you buy tickets for your beer. You can get either a sample glass for $8 and 3 pours, or a full pint, and then purchase tickets for each pour you want. I opted for the sample glass and got my wristband with three pull off tickets on it. The cool thing about this is that you get to keep the sample glass as a souvenir. This does really emphasize the “destination” aspect of New Glarus though, and not that it would be a place you’d swing by for a pint after work.

img_4884I got my tickets and glass and went over to the service station. I was hoping to find something unique on tap, but unfortunately, it was mostly all their standard beers. There was only one beer on the list that I hadn’t had before, so I decided to get that, along with two other pours of beers I know I enjoy. The beer garden environment was fun, but there weren’t a lot of tables, so we mostly just stood off in the shade while we drank our sample. Then we had to go over to the rinsing station to clean out our glass and get back in line for our next sample. Overall, it wasn’t a slow experience, but it wasn’t at all like a traditional taproom.

Once we had finished the beer we decided to hit the shop downstairs. I was hoping for some unique bombers, but unfortunately all of the ones I had been looking forward to were sold out. I ended up getting a special small batch bottle (for $15 yikes!) and a four pack of beers that I don’t believe that I have had before.

I had one of the beers tonight, their juicy IPA, and frankly, I found it a bit weird. Unlike the typical hazy IPA, New Glarus actually infused juice into this IPA. It wasn’t a bad taste, but it wasn’t at all what I expected. I was expecting something with more hop forwardness, and that’s not at all what this is. Despite that, I’m still looking forward to the other beers in the pack I picked up.

Overall, visiting New Glarus was interesting, but it’s not like simple taproom tourism. It’s meant to be a destination that feels like a bit of an adventure. What that means is that I don’t feel a strong need to visit again in the future, and will just stick to keeping a closer eye our for their specialty stuff when I’m over the boarder.

Brewery Review: Brainerd, Crosby, and Little Falls Breweries

A couple weeks ago, we headed up to the Brainerd area for a weekend getaway. As is our custom we hit some breweries while we were up in the area. Once again, this trip showed me that you can get decent craft brew outside the metro areas. Although none of these breweries would be considered a destination on their own, they are all well worth the visit if you’re in the area.

img_4776First up, Starry Eyed Brewing Company, in Little Falls, MN. This brewery is right off the highway and has ample parking next to it’s hop farm. It was cool to see another brewery that is investing in growing some of it’s own ingredients. We got a flight, and some food from the fundraiser going on outside, and I started my tasting. Overall, the beers were on  point for style, but the one that stuck out for me was the coconut porter. That one was top notch, especially if you really like coconut flavor.

img_4781After we had gotten settled into our campsite, I headed in to Baxter to visit the new location of Jack Pine. I’ve been to Jack Pine before, a few years ago when they were in a different location, and I was curious to see their new space. I remembered being really impressed with their beers the last time I was there, however this time, I found their selections to be just average. Perhaps it’s because the last time I was there in the winter, and their winter lineup is more impressive. Nothing was particularly bad, but there were only a couple of standouts. The most impressive being their jalapeño cream ale, which was incredible. The heat balance was perfect for me, and I loved every last sip. I brought home a crowler of it and shared with with friends this past weekend. This is one that I could see getting every time I visit.

img_4793The next day we ended up in Crosby, MN and visited Cuyuna Brewing Company. This is a small brewery in what has become a very bike centric town. They had a nice selection of fruit style beers, and they were all really solid. I brought home a crowler of their apple lime saison that they did in collaboration with Sociable Cider Werks, as it was a great blend of beer and cider. They also had a nice cozy taproom, right on main street, with friendly people behind the bar.

img_4798Our final stop of the trip was Roundhouse in Brainerd. This is another one we’ve been to before, and our impression of it was probably tainted by the wonderfulness of the evening. It was a snowy night and there was music playing, and some folks working on the giant Jenga game. It’s a night that felt relaxed and special. However, this time it was a little less pleasant. There were a couple people who insisted on smoking on the patio, and seemed like they had been drinking a bit too much. They were a little over the top and it diminished the enjoyment of the evening a bit. The beer was all pleasant, and I liked that I could get a good Grodziskie. It’s not a beer style I drink often, but I don’t mind one once or twice per year.

Overall, it was a great weekend of fun, and the brewery tourism was just one part of it. It’s nice to have so many options when we travel, and if you’re ever heading up this way, I’d encourage you to give these places a solid try.

Brewery Review: Back Channel Brewing

The wife and I finally had some time to do a little brewery tourism recently and decided to hit a new place that I’d heard about, but hadn’t yet been able to visit: Back Channel Brewing. Located in Spring Park, MN which is along the shores of Lake Minnetonka, Back Channel Brewing is a small brewery that boasts an amazing taproom, with open air views of the water. The day we visited it was one of the first 75 degree days of spring, so of course we grabbed a seat near the open patio.

In keeping with the nautical, lake-life ambiance, Back Channel does a nice selection of lighter lagers and ales, perfect for sipping on the shore. That’s not to say that they don’t have anything darker and richer, but I applaud them for trying to win people over to craft beer by brewing something familiar. I ordered up a flight of four beers and took a seat overlooking the lake.

img_4348

I decided to keep most of my flight light, and got their SheeCat Leichtbier, Horny Sidekick American Light Lager and Alfred’s Blonde Ale. I also got their Crooks Haven Irish Stout on Nitro as a finisher. Right off the bat I was impressed with the brew quality of the lighter beers. It was obvious that they know how to build a solid flavor profile into a brew that is under 4% ABV. Each of these three lighter beers were solid, and I could easily see myself knocking back a couple of them on a beautiful summer night.

Once I finished these three lighter beers I got a short pour of their NE Pale Ale, which was an incredibly juicy ale. It had all the standard characteristics of a hazy pale ale, and it had a strong astringent taste to it that signified that the haze was coming from hops, which is what it should be in this beer style. It was really nice to drink, but it’s a beer style that isn’t going to last long, so hopefully they’ll work through their batch before the sediment drops and the flavor dissipates.

I finished off my beer tour with the Irish Stout, which was super smooth and dry, making it an excellent beer to complete the day. They also had a food truck there which specialized in making beer infused eats. Specifically they did some amazing chili that I got over some nachos. Along with a super soft pretzel, our food tummies were just as satisfied as my beer one.

The drive to Back Channel is down a single road through the lake, so it can get a little crowded on the weekends, but if you’re heading down this way, just enjoy taking your time and soak in the views. There are some incredible houses, and because of the economic nature of the area you might even see a Lamborghini or two. A sunny spring afternoon makes for a perfect backdrop to check this place out. Additionally, the Dakota Rail Trail is nearby if you want to bike on over from the Wayzata area.

Although a bit out of the way to be a regular stopping off point for us, I can certainly see heading out to Back Channel again in the future. It’s a beautiful area, and the beer is solid. Everything that makes a good taproom a place worth coming back to.

Garphish Brewing Company

This past weekend I had some time free, so I decided to check out the newest brewery in the north metro area, Garphish Brewing Company. When I say “north metro” that’s a bit of a stretch. This brewery is in the small town of Bethel, MN which is a roughly 30 minute drive straight north of where I live. It’s a mostly easy drive though once you get through Highway 65 traffic in Blaine. Seriously, they need to do something about that road.

I love seeing small towns in out-state Minnesota getting on board with craft beer. These are places where cheap macro-beer is king at the local bar, and if you’re lucky they might have a single tap of Summit EPA or Blue Moon. Infusing some cool new beer culture into these areas is a great benefit to the area, as it helps educate people on good beer, and it draws in people like myself who like to do some beer tourism.

One of the first things I noticed about Garphish was the building it’s in. They’ve renovated an old church into something really fresh and unique. It’s a traditional old church that feels like a split level home. The main sanctuary is up a half flight of stairs, and the fellowship hall is in the basement. For this remodel, the top level became the taproom, and the brewery went into the basement.

The atmosphere in the taproom is homey and small-town. The seating in the space is mostly old dining room sets that look like they just retired from someone’s kitchen. There are also couches scattered around that give off a thrift-store vibe and provide for some casual seating around coffee tables. Despite being in a small town that’s more likely to have a biker bar, Garphish evokes a cool hipster atmosphere that will make people from NE Minneapolis feel at home.

I ordered up a flight of four beers. They had five beers on tap, with a 6th having just kicked. I was told by the beertender that I have to try the Kölsch, so I added that to my paddle, along with an apricot beer, a mild, and a oatmeal stout. I headed over to a couch and started my tasting. I took my first sip of the Kölsch and was immediately assaulted with a cloying sweetness that screamed under-attenuation. I was surprised that the beertender recommended this beer, and I started to worry that I was in for a really bad experience.

I moved on to the apricot, and was pleasantly surprised with a decently fruity and well brewed beer. I’m very sensitive to the chemical taste of fruit extracts used in many fruit beers, however, I could tell this one was mostly real fruit. It was nice and smooth and had just a slight bit of fruity tang to it. My hopes were rejuvenated that perhaps the first beer had been a fluke. I then tried the mild, and from the first sip I knew that this was a very traditional Scottish type of mild. Very earthy and peat-y with a light mouthfeel, yet some texture to the flavors. I was very impressed that a small town brewery had the guts to brew something so unique to American palettes. This quickly became my favorite beer of the trip.

Finally, I tried the stout, which I found to be overly roasted. It was brewed properly, but I had to let it warm up quite a bit to let the roasty-ness mellow. It was while I was drinking this beer that I was surprised by a paper airplane that flew over the couch and crashed in to my arm. I looked behind me to see a young boy standing on the stage looking sheepish. His dad exasperatedly told him that he can’t do that to the customers, and that’s how I met Brandon, the owner and brewer.

img_2811Brandon came over and apologized for his kid, to which I informed him that it was perfectly alright and pretty funny. I was actually impressed with the kid’s aim! Brandon and I started talking, and I told him that I was from down in the cities, and loved traveling around checking out new breweries. We started talking about the beers, and I brought up my disappointment with the Kölsch. He was shocked that I thought it was sweet because he brewed it with tons of jalapeño. He then went back to the bar and poured two more samples and had me try it again.

What I tasted that second time was a completely different beer. I got lots of nice heat and a smooth crisp beer. I asked him if he had two taps of the beer with different batches, and he confirmed that he did. He brewed the beer two different times, and the second time, he used a different yeast. It appears that it made a huge difference, and he agreed that he’s never going to use that particular yeast again. I was so impressed with the proper beer that I went back in and re-checked it in to Untappd with a better rating.

We spent some more time talking, and he agreed that the stout was too roasty, and he was going to dial that back next time. He then shared some of his growth plans and how he’s put together some of the equipment that he’s using. One of the things that impresses me about a brewer is when they can have an honest conversation about their creations, and not get defensive. Talking with Brandon showed me that he’s got a good brewing head on his shoulders and I’m excited to see what else he can do to bring great craft beer to small town Minnesota.

I had a great time at Garphish, and although it’s too far away to be a regular stop for me, I can certainly see myself stopping by from time to time. They’ve got a great atmosphere and they’re brewing some decent beer. They’re doing a great job with teaching people about craft beer, and I’m happy to see the popularity of good beer spread to more than just the metro.

The bad beer needs to stop

I don’t exactly recall if I’ve talked about this before on the blog so directly, but I feel like I need to say something about the rise of bad craft beer lately. It’s something that I’ve been seeing more and more of as small little breweries pop up all over the place, trying to get a piece of the pie. It’s more apparent in suburban breweries, or outstate ones, but sometimes there’s even an inner city one that doesn’t do great.

Those bad inner city breweries are rare though because they can’t survive in a market where there is competitors every few blocks. If you’re serving truly bad beer in NE Minneapolis, you’re going to be laughed out of the neighborhood before you’re open a month. Most breweries in the cities aim for mediocrity, which gets them by and doesn’t single them out as someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing.

However, when you get out of town a bit, and get into areas where there is only one brewery for miles around, it’s a different story. A few months ago I visited a brewery in Pine City called Three Twenty Brewing. They’re the only game in town, and the quality of their beer showed it. There was a paper-y, oxidized taste to much of their beer, and it didn’t make me ask for seconds.

This past weekend we headed down to a new place in Prior Lake called Boathouse Brothers Brewing. It was their opening weekend, and so they were packed with people. I got a flight and was immediately met with some truly badly brewed beer. There was almost no carbonation, and the flavors were all over the map. I didn’t even finish my flight.

I had also somewhat recently visited Blue Wolf Brewing in Brooklyn Park, and my initial impression was that it wasn’t too bad. Not outstanding, but passable. I was there during their opening week, and then a month later some friends visited and immediately texted me asking how I could have rated their beers so high. I stopped by this past weekend again and was floored by how much their beer had changed, and how completely terrible it had become.

In all of these cases, I think I know what the primary problem is. You have home brewers who can brew a decent beer, and then think that they can take on a full industrial system. However, things don’t scale up like you would think, and most non-trained brewers have no idea how to fix it. The paper-y taste in Pine City is probably due to bad processes that are letting air into the beer. The Boathouse Brother’s issues are a lack of understanding on how to carbonate beer at commercial scale. Blue Wolf is most likely an issue with poor fermentation practices and sanitization. These are all things that require training and experience to learn how to deal with. Simply brewing on a homebrew system is completely inadequate to learning how to run a production beverage facility.

It’s sad to see people drinking up these bad beers because they’re the only game in town. They don’t have other options, and so they’re stuck with either traveling to the cities, or suffering through someone learning their craft over months of practice, at the expense of their patrons. I get the desire to want to have a fun local taproom in your community. But people need to demand better than a job-training site for homebrewers. We need to insist that people hire trained and competent brewers to run these systems, or at least mentor homebrewers into how to use them successfully.

Let’s not settle for flawed beer. As craft beer fans, lets insist that people deliver on their promise to bring good craft beer to their communities. It takes time, knowledge, and training, but in the end it makes the craft beer community a better and stronger place.