Winona Breweries, pt 2 & National Eagle Center

IMG_0649We started our second day of the trip with a wonderful visit to the National Eagle Center in Wabasha, MN. We got to see some beautiful eagles up close, as well as some eagles out over the river. One of the coolest parts for me was when we spotted a tree out on an island in the river with four bald eagles perched in it, just chilling out. We have tons of eagles up in the metro area, but getting to see so many of them in one place was a lot of fun.

IMG_0652We also got to see a special presentation by the Cincinnati Zoo where they showed off a bunch of different birds from around the world, including macaws and owls. It was fun to have a bunch of colorful birds buzz the audience as they talked about their habitats. They made sure to highlight a simple way to help birds in South America, recycling aluminum cans. Apparently, some of the biggest deposits of bauxite are in areas where many of these birds live, and by recycling we can limit the amount of new bauxite that we need to take out of the ground. My only regret of the morning was forgetting my good camera at home.

Once the bird show was done we grabbed some lunch at a nice Mexican restaurant in town and headed back to Winona to try a couple new breweries. The first on our list is the brand new Island City Brewing Company. This brewery opened a week ago, which always causes me to expect the worst. Many breweries have a hard time moving into production, and as a prime example, the brewery I visited on Wednesday had been open 4 months and was pretty terrible. However, Island City showed that it’s very possible to nail an opening.

IMG_0655They don’t do flights, but they offer short pours that looked around 6oz. I got two of their regular beers, a red and a berliner weisse, as well as their special red with an infusion of juniper, orange, and mint. The red intrigued me because it was a 3.5% ABV beer, and I’m always on the lookout for nice session beers. However, trying to impart good malt body into a beer so light is difficult. I’m pleased to report that Island City nailed it with this one. It had a great malt body, yet was refreshing and flavorful, like a red should be. The infusion version was a completely different taste than I have ever had, and reminded me of a nice herbal tea. It was something different and I was happy I tried it.

IMG_0656The final beer of my sampling was their berliner weisse, and it was a wonderful example of how a sour beer should taste. It was a great ‘sour patch’ tart beer, which isn’t always everyone’s cup of tea, but I enjoyed the balance. Overall, Island City is doing things right. They have a fun warehouse space in a very, very old building right on the river, and their opening lineup is very solid. If I had one complaint it is that they don’t do a proper flight (they only have four beers on tap not counting the infusion), and that they don’t do small growlers. I have a hard time going through 64oz of beer on my own at home before it gets so flat that it’s just not tasty anymore. Apart from these minor quibbles I was really pleased with what Island City offered. It was well worth the trip.

Our second stop of the day was Wenonah Brewing, which was just north of Winona in Goodview, MN. For as quaint and professional as Island City was, Wenonah was on the opposite side of the spectrum. The building looked like a former gas station, and the inside remodel job looked pretty rough. It was mostly comfortable though, and the staff was very, very friendly. Wenonah does flight sized samples, so I ordered up a set of 5, one of each of their beers.

 

IMG_0658As I worked through their beers my overall impression was mediocre. The nut brown ale was way too dark, and the IPA was a complete failure. I’m really tired of places that try to use earthy hops to make an IPA, as it usually just doesn’t work. The beer ends up being overly dank, to the point of tasting like dirt. The only real winner out of the flight was the Honey Cream Ale which was well balanced and drinkable. As I was talking with the staff they pointed out their brewing setup, which was basically just a very large homebrew setup with a bit of extra pumps and plumbing. Everything they do is small batch, and so I assume they change out their flavors quite often.

The contrast from Island City was very apparent. Until a week ago Wenonah was the only game in town. If someone wanted to experience a brewery taproom, they were it. Now that they’ve got some competition I feel like they need to step up their game a bit more. I foresee them becoming the more ‘counter-cultural’ place to hang out vs. the established Island City. Thankfully, the beer culture, even in outstate Minnesota, is expanding to allow for different perspectives in beer. I think if Wenonah can up their quality game just a little bit, and focus on being that place with unique, ever changing flavors, they can establish their niche. Much like how places like Dangerous Man work in the metro area.

Once we finished up, we headed back to the hotel for a nice relaxing afternoon and evening before dinner. So far it’s been a really nice relaxing trip. Tomorrow is some early morning running and then a stop at Red Wing Brewery for lunch on the way home. Another great weekend away with the wife, sharing in an adventure.

 

 

 

Winona Breweries, pt 1

This past weekend, the wife and I decided to take another short trip out of town, and of course, breweries were a part of the weekend. We headed down to Winona to check out a couple of places down there, including one that just opened a week ago. On our way down we decided to go through Rochester (MN), and we stopped in at a brewery just north of the city that we hadn’t been to yet, LTS Brewing Company.

LTS stands for Life’s Too Short, and based on my first impression of the beers at LTS, I 100% agree. They have an impressive tap list, and since we were just passing through I only got to sample 4 of them on a flight. Overall, the direction of their beer trends European, with many Belgians, dunkels, and bocks. For my flight of four I chose an Irish red, a dunkel lager, a bock, and a Scottish 80 schilling.

The Irish red came served on nitro, which I honestly wish more breweries would do with their amber and red beers. The smoothness of nitro really complements the deeper, more earthy, character of many red beers. That was no exception in this case, as my first taste confirmed that this place knows what they’re doing.

The next beer on my flight was a dunkel lager, cutely named ‘Dunkelstiltskin’. It was smooth yet rich, and ended up being the beer that I bought a half-growler of to bring home. I followed this up with their bock, which hit all the right notes that a bock should. It was deep and malty, with a clean finish. The final beer on my flight was the 80 schilling, and although this is a unique taste, it’s one that I enjoy. It was nice and peaty with that traditional Scottish yeast flavor.

If you can’t tell, I really liked what LTS was serving. Everything was well made and, despite some minor adjustments for uniqueness, matched the category of the style they were aiming for. I highly recommend making this a stop if you’re passing through Rochester, MN and sampling their wares. Life truly is too short when there’s so many good beers like what you find at LTS!

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Brainerd Breweries, pt 2

Yesterday, I talked about the first two of four breweries that my wife and I hit over our weekend up north. Both Jack Pine and Big Axe were great places, and I loved visiting them. As we continued our trip we next stopped at one of the best known breweries in this area, Gull Dam Brewing.

Gull Dam Brewing

Many beer lovers in the metro have heard of Gull Dam Brewing from billboards and social media. They’ve got a great name, and were one of the earliest and biggest breweries up in that neck of the woods. Their site lists them as a brewery and event center, so right up front you know you’re heading to something different than just a hole in the wall. My wife and I pulled into the parking lot and were greeted with a wonderful outdoor space with a stage and firepit. We headed inside to a spacious warehouse area with big long tables and high-tops.

IMG_0559.jpgWhen we walked in the door we noticed that a food vendor had set up inside, and we took the opportunity to order up some yummy nachos. While my wife dealt with that, I got myself a flight, which was served in a cute muffin tin. It’s important to note, that Gull Dam is aiming to please a different audience than the other breweries. It’s obvious from their beer styles and event atmosphere, that they’re looking to cater to the lake-vacationer crowd. All of the beer was targeted towards more casual beer drinkers, and leaned more towards summer. They even had a Helles that they listed as a light lager to appeal to a non-craft crowd.

Having said that, I can’t complain about any of the beers that I drank. The Helles was nice and refreshing and the Scotch Ale was what I was expecting. The IPA was a slight bit strong for my tastes, but none of the beers had any brewing flaws in them. They were all really well done, and good examples of the styles that they represented. It may sound like I’m disappointed, but in reality I’m very pleased that someone up north is trying to do what they can to ease people into the craft beer scene. Maybe someone comes in thinking that they just want a light beer, but you get them to try something a bit more daring, like a hemp lager. Maybe that’s enough to get them to try something else new, and so on, and so on. You’ve just exposed them to some really good beer, without overwhelming them with crazy spices and odd styles.

For what they are trying to be, Gull Dam does a great job. In fact, their environment is great, and I could see spending entire evenings out on their patio space in the summer time. Throw in some live entertainment and a beautiful summer night, and they’ve got most small taprooms beat for environment. They’re worth a visit, and worth supporting, and I’m glad I was able to make them a stop on our trip.

Roundhouse Brewery

img_0563The final stop on our trip was on Saturday night, over on the east side of Brainerd. Roundhouse Brewery is built in some old buildings that comprised a railroad roundhouse complex. As soon as you walk up to the building you see that you’re about to step into something historical. We had the added benefit of a beautiful snowfall making the entire night feel magical.

We entered the space and were met with the sound of two guys playing and singing off in the corner. The group Dos Guys were entertaining the crowd for the evening, and it was delightful to listen to some great cover tracks by a couple guys with great voices. I ordered up a flight again, and started digging in. As I was working through the flight, some other folks were working on a giant jenga game that eventually became a source of entertainment the closer they got to the taproom record height (they didn’t break the record though).

img_0564One of the big standout beers for me (and one that I brought home) was their Pump Cart Pumpkin Ale. It might seem a bit out of season, but it was still a really great beer. The spice mixture was spot on, making the entire beer smell and taste like a gingersnap cookie. It’s felt like Fall around here lately, despite being February, and so a nice Fall beer was rather delightful.

Another real standout beer was their Old Betsy Brown Ale. This was a northern English style brown ale, which isn’t nearly as common as the American counterpart. I was elated to taste a REALLY good example of a northern brown, and thoroughly enjoyed that beer. It was malty and earthy in just the right way to scream English ale.

Overall, the beers were very well done with no flaws or issues. The space was also perfect for a taproom. It was open and inviting with lots of exposed brick and timber. There was lots of seating, and the space seemed to carry the noise well. The entire environment screamed “relax” and it made the entire evening happy and enjoyable. We were able to enjoy some good beer, in an inviting space, on a beautiful night. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend hitting Roundhouse if you’re in the area, as it’s a great place, with good beer.

IMG_0562.jpgI can’t emphasize how happy I was with the quality of beer that I had this weekend. Everyplace that I went had good quality product, with no flaws. This is a testament to how far the brewing industry in Minnesota has come in the past 5 years. A small vacation town in northern Minnesota is able to support 4, year-round, breweries with high quality standards. This is no small feat, and I would encourage anyone who wants some good craft beer to check out what Brainerd has to offer. You won’t be sorry!

Brainerd Breweries, pt 1

This past weekend, the wife and I had a short getaway to the Brainerd, MN area. We had no agenda but to get out of town and relax. It also happened to be an area where there are four breweries that I’ve never tried. It’s been a while since I’ve done a brewery tourism post, so this seems like a good opportunity to share my experiences with some northern Minnesota brews.

Jack Pine Brewing

We decided to hit Jack Pine Brewing as our first stop, as it was on our way in to town. When I was researching Jack Pine before the trip, I was intrigued at how they were growing from a small 2-3bbl setup to a full 15bbl brewhouse with a brand new location. This seemed like a good sign that they were doing something right here, and I was excited to try them.

Their current location is in a small warehouse area, with a taproom sharing space with the brewhouse area, on days that they are not brewing. It’s a warm and comfortable room, but I can see the desire to want to move up to something nicer. I ordered up a flight, bypassing most of the standard brews, and opting for some of the more unique items on the list. The first one that caught my attention was the Rusty Nail #5, Sour Brown ale. I haven’t had a lot of sour brown ales, so this was a real treat. The sourness worked really well with the malt profile to create something that wasn’t a sweet sour, but more rich and earthy sour.

IMG_0555.jpgAnother brew that really impressed me was their Chokecherry Black Bear Stout. This is a beer that is aged in whiskey barrels that were filled with chokecherry. The balance of fruit, vanilla, and oatmeal stout was perfect. I actually gave this beer a perfect 5 on Untappd, which is very rare for me. I could have sat there sipping this beer all night.

After (and during) my flight I got a chance to chat up the beertenders and talk about the Minnesota brewing and the taproom scene. They were nice enough let me try a sample of their 2015 Barleywine, which after aging a couple years, was amazing. I picked up a bottle of the 2017 to bring home for a friend to age a couple years (hopefully to the same effect). We eventually grabbed some swag and called it a night.

Jack Pine was a great experience, and I highly recommend checking them out.

Big Axe Brewing

Our first stop of Saturday was at Big Axe Brewing, one of two breweries in the Nisswa area just north of Brainerd. We arrived close to opening time and grabbed a seat at the bar. I ordered up a flight, again choosing some of the non-standard brews, and started chatting with the guy running the bar. The conversation was actually a ton of fun, as he’s a local chiropractor, and just works at the taproom occasionally. My wife and I enjoyed talking about physical medicine rehab in out-state Minnesota while we tasted the wares.

IMG_0556.jpgOne standout in particular for me was their Chipotle Stout. I’ve had a fair number of spicy beers, but I’m always hesitant when trying new ones due to how heavy handed brewers can get with the spice. I’m pleased to report that Big Axe nailed it with this beer. The heat was on the back end and it stuck with you with just a little bit when you were done. It was a pleasing warmth that reminded you that you just drank something spicy, but it didn’t overwhelm the flavor of a really solid stout. It was a good enough beer that I brought a mini-growler home, and devoured it pretty quick.

Big Axe has a bit smaller space, but they are adjacent to a cafe where they can share seating. When we arrived we were the only ones in the place, but by the time we left it was completely packed. We had a good time at Big Axe, and I was really happy with the beers that they were putting out. Everything was well brewed and I didn’t detect any flaws in their process. Overall, a really great experience.

Tomorrow, two more breweries in the Brainerd area that are worth stopping in to!

 

Voyageur Brewing Company

This past weekend the wife and I took a trip to the north shore to get away a bit before the holidays hit. As luck would have it, Minnesota got socked with a snowstorm the day before we were supposed to leave. We kept an eye on the forecast, and snow reports, and decided to give it a go. As it turned out, the driving was fine and the weather ended up being perfect for some winter hiking fun (more on that in future posts). It was also perfect weather for checking out a new brewery we had never been to before.

Voyageur Brewing Company is a cozy little brewery and restaurant in Grand Marais, MN, right off of 61 through town. We checked their website and saw that they opened at 11 on Sunday and arrived right before 11:30. When we got there we found a sign on the door stating that they weren’t opening until 11:30 and we quickly found out why. Since it was only a minute or two before 11:30 I tried the door and we walked inside. What met our eye was a bunch of studio lights and a camera crew filming some type of program. They saw us come in and motioned us to a table off the side and the waitress came over and explained what was going on.

Apparently, Voyageur Brewing was being featured on a pilot for a new show on the Travel Channel about a British gentleman touring America one brewery at a time. She informed us that they were just finishing up and we simply had to keep our voices down for a few minutes while they completed the interviews. I ordered a flight and listened in as they put together the a few different takes with a few different questions about local brewing and ingredients. It was actually really interesting to listen to the conversation as the brewers talked about using Minnesota ingredients and the differences in American beer from British brews.

img_0141Soon the filming was done and returned my attention to the beer. Voyageur has a nice staple of regular beer, and their flight comes with their standard four, plus a choice of two seasonals. Overall, every beer I had was well made. One of my favorites was actually their IPA, despite the fact I’m not a huge IPA fan. Their balance of hops was spot on, and made for a really easy drinking beer. I could easily see drinking that one again.

The only beer I had an issue with was their porter, and not because of the flavor. I actually really enjoyed the brew, but it was more akin to a Schwartzbier/black ale than a porter. It was very easy drinking and smooth, which isn’t what I usually expect from a porter. I wanted a bit more chocolate and toasty overtones. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the beer; I love black ales, and this was a really great one. It just wasn’t a porter in my mind.

After my flight I got a chance to talk with the star of the pilot show and hear about how much he was enjoying getting to see America beyond New York and Vegas. I got to talk with him about our new Major League Soccer team and the differences with American Football. As I was chatting I was also enjoying my final beer of the visit, their Imperial Stout imbued with oak chips. This beer weighs in at over 9%, which puts it outside of my usual comfort zone. However, this beer was so smooth and flavorful, without the harsh alcoholic burn, that I really, really enjoyed it. I was told they only bring it out a few times a year, and I was honored to get to try it on our trip.

Voyageur Brewing is a wonderful place that we loved visiting. The taproom is comfortable and inviting. The walls were adorned with artwork from the local art community, and it even motivated us to visit a local gallery and buy a few prints to bring home. The staff was welcoming and really made us feel at ease despite showing up during an important event for their company.

img_0143I haven’t even talked much about the food which was really great, and worth the visit alone. The cheese curds were actually from a family that runs the cheese curd stand at the county fair where my wife grew up. One of the owners of the brewery was from her hometown. My pork sliders, on brew bread, were really tasty and just the right portion size. My wife enjoyed her Thai tacos, and we left feeling satisfied with both food and beer.

If you’re ever up in Grand Marais, Voyageur Brewing is worth the visit. It’s a great addition to a wonderful northern Minnesota town.