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 asking 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 or so later some friends visited there 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.

Part 2 of an impromptu Decorah trip

After we visited Pulpit Rock we spent a leisurely night in the hotel, recovering from a long day of running and frivolity. Sunday morning meant one more run for both of us before a day off on Monday. Our hotel was right next to the Trout Run Trail, which is a paved bike path that goes along the Upper Iowa River. I only needed 5.25 miles so it was OK that I was still a bit stiff and sore from the day before. We came across some construction on the trail, but it looked open enough, and soon I was running along the flood plain on a crisp Iowa morning.

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After our run it was time for the return trip. Our plan was to stop for lunch in Rochester at a brewery that I had never been to, but had heard amazing things about, called Forager Brewing. As it turns out, they are a brewpub, and serve food. I saw pizza in their photos, so we assumed that was the type of place it was. When we arrived we realized that it was a lot more.

IMG_2467.jpgForager is known for it’s sour beers. I got a bunch of little samples and sure enough, I was pleased by a solid resume of pucker beers. One of them, called Todd Plump, was one of the most amazing sours I’ve ever had. It was opaque and purple (plum), and had this rich head on it that made you think about adding ice cream to it. It was sweet, slightly tart, and incredibly smooth. It’s a limited edition beer, so I doubt I’ll ever get to have it again, but I’m happy I got to have it at least once.

IMG_2468.jpgHowever Forager also has amazing food. It turns out that pizza is just one little part of their menu. They also have incredible, made-from-scratch, food that comes sourced from local farms. I ordered up a breakfast skillet and it was filled with perfectly cooked potatoes, a little hint of bacon, and topped with two of the most perfectly poached eggs I’ve ever seen. Needless to say, we were both blown away by the food. I’ve decided that we’re kidnapping a couple of our friends and making them come here with us sometime.

IMG_2469.jpgWith our bellies filled with amazing food we proceeded to our final stop of the trip, LTS Brewing. I’ve been to LTS before and really enjoyed it. I brought my half-growler with me and just had to decide what to get. I tried a couple tasters, and everything was really high quality. One of them was a bit unique, their Go Big Rouge which is a Flander’s Red Ale style beer. This style of beer is slightly sour, yet more malty than a Gose. The yeast strain is very unique, and they are often blended with younger versions as they are aged. It was a very interesting beer, but I decided to just go with their Karma Kolsh for my growler. I figured that with such a cold Spring that we’ve been having, I better get a Summer-ish beer called Karma to try and tip the scales back to warm weather.

Soon enough we were back home. We accomplished our task of getting through the entire 5 hour podcast, and we loved listening to it. We also got to have a quick, spur of the moment get-away that created memories. We got to try new food, run in a new place, and sample lots of great craft beer. A very successful weekend if you ask me.

An impromptu weekend in Decorah, IA, part 1

This past week a running podcast that I enjoy called Ten Junk Miles, released a long interview with two ladies that I know who completed a double Arrowhead 135. They started at the finish line, 4 days before the start, and did the race backwards on their own. Then they started the race with everyone else and headed back 135 miles to be the first women ever to complete a double on foot. It’s an amazing story, and the interview clocked in at 5 hours.

I pinged my wife and the conversation went like this:

Me: TJM posted the Kate and Kari interview. It’s 5 hours long lol. Do you want to listen to the podcast together over the weekend or just on our own?

Wife: We can listen together. We should pick a road trip 😁 LOL
Where has good food?

And so, our weekend plans were born. I have been wanting to visit Decorah, IA for a while, since they have a couple great breweries that I’ve heard good things about. On top of that there were breweries along the route that I had never been to either. Decorah is 2.5 hours away, which means it’s perfect for a 5 hour podcast.

I was scheduled for a ~22 mile run on Saturday morning, and my wife needed to get some car work done, but we decided that by lunchtime we’d hit the road. I had a great run, and was feeling excited to hear a long podcast about other runners doing amazing things. We headed out around lunchtime and enjoyed a lovely drive through southern Minnesota.

IMG_2458.jpgOur first stop of the trip actually came before we hit Iowa. We stopped in Fountain, MN at the tiny brewery (612 sq ft!), Karst Brewing. This is a delightful little place with a handful of beers on tap. I got a few samples and then a half-pour of their cream ale. Their beers were all decently done, and I enjoyed getting some well made beer in small-town Minnesota. With our short stop out of the way my wife took the wheel and we continued our trip.

The rest of the drive was uneventful, and after dropping off our bags at the hotel, we headed to the famous Toppling Goliath brewery. They’ve made a name for themselves with their Morning Delight beer. You have to enter a lottery to buy it, and then you only get four bottles for $100. However, it’s an AMAZING beer. Unfortunately, our experience at their brand new taproom wasn’t nearly as amazing.

IMG_2460.jpgThey recently relocated to brand new digs about 5 miles outside of town. We found a parking space in a busy lot and proceeded to see what they had to offer. When we got inside there was a sign that said to “Seat Yourself”. The bar was full, and I didn’t see an obvious beer line, so we grabbed a table. I went to the bar and asked if people were service tables or if we order from the bar. I was told that we could just take a table and someone would be around. Then we waited… and waited… and waited.

IMG_2459.jpgFinally, I went to an area of the bar that looked like it was for growler sales and stood in line. It appeared that it was also for pints, and after a much longer wait than I should have had I finally had a flight of beers in front of me. It’s obvious that they have no idea what they’re doing in their brand new space yet, and hopefully their taproom manager will get things straightened out. From what I could see they need at least twice the number of servers that they had, as well as some clear signage about how to actually acquire beer.

On the bright side, my beers were all great, and especially a sour called Dragon Fandango. It was like a tart kool-aid and was amazing. Absolutely amazing. Unfortunately, they didn’t have it in ready-to-go bombers, and I didn’t feel like wading through the line again for a growler.

From there we headed in to downtown Decorah for some yummy Mexican food at Don Jose. Every college town has a great Mexican place like this, and soon my gut was filled with enchiladas and tamales. We still had one more stop for the evening, Pulpit Rock Brewing company.

IMG_2462.jpgPulpit Rock is built in what appears to be an old car dealership, or garage of some type. It’s a quaint little building, and there are multiple rooms you can hang out in with your beer. I got a nice flight of english style brew and started in. Although the Heavy Lifter Lager left me a little disappointed, the Clarion ESB was great. All in all, a wonderful way to finish off the brewery tour for the night.

More in part two…

Milwaukee Breweries: MobCraft and Urban Harvest

The second stop on my Milwaukee brewery tour took us to MobCraft and Urban Harvest. I had just spent hours in the tattoo chair, so I was ready for something better than mediocre.

We arrived at MobCraft first, and found the place hopping. There were tons of people there, and it was a bit loud, but the space was welcoming and open. There were a foosball table off to one side, which had an excited set of people going crazy, as well as one of those sword fighting setups that beep when you strike the other person. Because it was so crowded we took a seat at the bar and I looked over the huge menu.

MobCraft has a lot of beers that are suggested by members of their community, and so they change things up quite a lot. They have a whole system of voting for which beers to make, and then that beer is available for a limited time. I ordered up a flight of things that sounded interesting, and then started sampling.

For the second time in two days I was blown away by the amazing quality that a small brewery can put out. Every beer I tried was beautifully balanced and flavorful. Three of my four beers were darker beers, and the complexity of roasts were on full display. I was doling out 4 starts for almost every beer. I also tried one of their sour beers and found it to be really good; not too tart, but not too sweet.

I enjoyed their beer so much I ordered up a four pack of cans to bring home. I was confident enough in what I had tasted that 3 our of 4 of the cans I brought home were not beers I had tried. I’ve gotten through a couple of them since I’ve returned and I’m just amazed at how good their beer is. This is another one to put on your list of places to hit for really good beer in the MKE area.

IMG_2284.jpgOur second stop was a quick visit to Urban Harvest. They’re located in a very old building in an old downtown area in the Walker’s Point area. The vibe in the building reminded me of old Stillwater, MN. I selected a couple of beers to sample and took a seat. Many of their beers were very strong, and so I actually only took a couple of small sips. However, everything was nicely done, though not quite to the level of blowing me away. It was solid, competent beer, in a great environment.

It appears that they also have a small theater attached that does music and comedy shows. At one point the taproom got very crowded as the show let out, and everyone streamed back in. Overall, another good find for a place to check out if you’re in the area.

I’m pleased to report that Milwaukee has some good beer going on, and I was happy to get to experience it. There’s still a lot more places I’d like to hit if I’m in town there again. As with Minnesota, the craft beer scene is growing, and there’s a lot of opportunity for really great flavors wherever you go.

Milwaukee Breweries: Enlightened and Eagle Park

On my trip to Milwaukee this weekend I made sure to spend some time visiting the local breweries. On Friday my son and I headed over to a couple breweries that were in the same building, Enlightened and Eagle Park.

We arrived at Eagle Park, which has a nice entrance off the main drag, with a big garage door that I would assume makes for a really nice summer hang-out spot. I ordered up a flight of 4 beers and opened up Untappd to start logging my thoughts. First though, I should mention that the interior space at Enlightened is really cool. It’s an old loading dock, and so their brewing equipment is elevated above ground level, which makes it look like it’s on display. The overall vibe was really industrial and cool.

However, I found the beer to be mediocre. A problem that I’m discovering in many small breweries lately is the lack of balance. Hop and malt character needs to work together, not against each other. In the case of Enlightened, I found many of their beers were dank when it came to bitterness. Earthy and dank for a hop character isn’t a bad thing, but you need to match it with a malt bill that balances it out. Personally, I like a little bit more caramel and sweetness in my malt backbone if you’re going to do earthy hops.

I didn’t find any of their beers undrinkable, but I just wasn’t that impressed. Probably the best in the batch for me was the Rye, which had a nice tartness to it. However, I really wish new breweries would spend more time on recipe development before launching and thinking that they can just shove anything to market. If you’re the only game in town that’s one thing, but this is Milwaukee, and all we had to do was head upstairs for a totally different experience.

IMG_2266.jpgEagle Park Brewing is on the second floor of the same warehouse building as Enlightened, and you even have to get buzzed in by a call box to enter. Once you find your way up, you’re greeted with a quaint little taproom that is decorated simply with a lot of music posters. It’s obvious that they enjoy music quite a lot at Eagle Park.

For as mediocre as Enlightened was, Eagle Park was a breath of fresh air. Everything I had there was really, really good. In particular I LOVED their Peach Milkshake beer. It was fruity and creamy, without being too chemically tasting. Perhaps it was my joy at finding decent beer, but I gave that one 5 stars. I was also very impressed by their Set List IPA. It was a truly balanced IPA, which seems to be a rarity these days. The hop character matched the malt body, and made for a really nice and drinkable beer.

I enjoyed their beers so much that I picked up one of their ‘make-your-own-4-packs’ to bring home. I’m saving some of them to share with friends, but the Peach Milkshake might not make it that long. I’m very excited with what I tried at Eagle Park, and I’m excited to see them grow. I was told that they’re actually moving to a bigger space soon, and it’s a well deserved upgrade. If you’re in the area, I would highly recommend checking them out.

Next up, another couple of places that help restore my faith in brewing.