Sibley State Park camping

A couple of weekends ago the wife and I took the camper out for our first weekend of the summer. I had read a news article about how it was the 100th birthday of Sibley State Park, out near New London, MN, so we picked it as our destination. We decided a simple one night trip would be a fun way to kick off the year. Especially, since I had a very long run (20 miles) scheduled for Saturday morning, it was easier to plan to be at more familiar parks for that.

As with many of our trips, I try to find new and unique breweries along the way to sample. In this case, there were two before we hit the park. The first was in Willmar, MN called Foxhole brewing. This brewery is right in downtown, next to a theater, and had a typical taproom vibe to it. We found a table and I ordered up a flight. As I worked my way through the variety of beers I was struck with how none of them appeared to have any brewing flaws. Even the sour ale was spot on. When you’re dealing with small out-state breweries, the quality of the brewing process can sometimes leave something to be desired. However, in Foxhole’s case, they put out a solid line up of beers. Needless to say I was impressed.

After our visit to Foxhole we headed up the road to New London for a stop at Goat Ridge Brewing. Goat Ridge is built right on the banks of the Middle Fork Crow River, and their back patio sat right along the shore. I ordered up a flight and we picked a table outside, listening to the sounds of the river. The beer was adequate, and not quite as good as Foxhole, but it also didn’t exhibit any particular brewing flaws. I think that if I had done these breweries in the reverse order, I wouldn’t have dinged Goat Ridge at all. For a brewery in a town of 1200 people, it exceeded the expectations.

After Goat Ridge, we finally arrived at the park. Thanks to the late setting sun we were able to sit outside and enjoy a bit of the evening before turning in. Unfortunately, the camp site next to us was very close and the people decided to stay up until the wee hours of the morning talking. They weren’t being loud or obnoxious, but their campsite was so close to ours that it was impossible not to hear them. It meant that we got a more restless and disturbed night that we would normally want, but eventually I did manage to get some sleep.

Come morning it was time for an 8 mile run. It was drizzly and a bit chilly, but I knew once I got started that it would be just fine. My goal was to hit a loop called the Mt. Tom trail, and then partway through the loop, head over to the west side of the park and do some of the horse trails. Once I finished with the horse trails I would follow Mt. Tom back around to Lake Andrew and then back to the campground.

One of the first things that struck my about the Mt. Tom loop was how relentless the ups and downs were. The park’s website said that Mt. Tom was 220ft high, which isn’t that big outside of central Minnesota. However, the trail that goes around the mount was a constant journey up and down. There was almost no part of the trail that was flat. Thankfully, the trail was really nice, and it was easy to run on the runnable portions, but by the time I got to the horse trails I was ready for a change.

The horse trails were pretty standard, and they went around a few hills and prairies. I got to see a giant snapping turtle at one point which was fun. They were wetter than the Mt. Tom loop, but since I was already soaked from the drizzle, it didn’t matter that much. I got back to the main loop and continued on my way to the lake. I thought about cutting it short, but knew I’d probably regret that. I did take an alternate path back from the lake that was paved, but it was a nature interpretive trail with placards describing all the trees. It was a fun way to end the run.

As luck would have it my wife was finishing her run at the same time, and we met up a quarter mile from the campsite. She had a blast on the Mt. Tom trail as well, and commented on how unexpected it was to get so many little hills. We also both really enjoyed the Mt. Tom overlook, which is squat little tower on top of the hill. From the second story you can get a beautiful view of the entire area, and it’s actually quite breathtaking.

Once we finished our run it was time to start showering and packing up. Even though it was mid-morning, I still felt a tiny bit bad running my drill to crank up the camper jacks. The poor people in the site next to us probably were unceremoniously woken up earlier than they wanted.

Since it was only an hour and a half drive back we decided to hit a couple more breweries along the way. First we hit Nordic Brewing, a new one in Monticello, MN. We arrived just as they were opening, and got to park ourselves at a nice set of comfy chairs by the windows. Their beer was pretty solid, and I particularly enjoyed their imperial oatmeal stout.

Once we were done there we headed over to Big Lake and one final stop at Lupulin, which is an old favorite that I hadn’t been to in a while. I had a couple beers there and then we headed back to the car for the final part of the trip home. Overall, this was an incredibly fun weekend, and even though we were only gone a single night, it was really easy. Having the camper, and all of our stuff just set up in a box, makes setup phenomenally easy. Most of the time when we get to a campsite, we’re ready to start relaxing within 15 minutes. It sure beats fighting with an air mattress in a tent.

This is the first of a bunch of trips this summer, and I feel like we started off the season right. Sibley State Park was a lot of fun, and the Mt. Tom loop was a great route for a shorter distance run. It was well worth the drive from the cities.

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.

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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.

Brewery Review: Torg Brewing

The Twin Cities brewery and taproom market has exploded over the past 7 years, and one of the most common questions that people ask is if we’re approaching saturation. As a case in point, on multiple occasions my Beer & Bikes group that I ride with will hit multiple breweries in an evening. If we discover that the brewery we’re at for the evening is doing an event (or Trivia that we’re not interested in participating in) we’ll just have one, and then bike a couple blocks away, and sure enough there’s another brewery.

Despite a few areas being a bit more saturated than others, I still don’t think we’ve hit actual saturation yet though. That’s because until every city/neighborhood has a brewery  to call it’s own, there’s still room for growth. For many people, the brewery taproom is a place to gather and be with other people. Similar to how a coffee shop serves as a gathering spot, the brewery taproom can be a central community spot for an area. Similar to how the traditional pub in the UK seems to function.

Needless to say, I was overjoyed to hear that my area would be getting a taproom, just 3 miles by bike from my house. I was also excited to hear that they would be specializing in more English style beers, which are some of my favorites. I love beer with solid malt backbone, and ESB’s and Irish Red’s are two of my all time go-to styles.

img_3555Torg opened up in 2018, and since then we’ve found ourselves visiting on a regular basis. It’s close enough that we’ll sometimes swing by for a pint on our way back from running errands, or have a spur-of-the-moment gathering with my biking friends. It’s close and comfortable, which makes it a great neighborhood taproom. They have a great patio on the upper level, and despite the noise from the very busy Highway 47 nearby, it’s not objectionable to sit there for long periods of time.

On the topic of beer, I’ve been very happy with the choices they offer. Just like many new breweries, they had a few struggles when they first started, with some text books “new brewer” mistakes, but everything seems to have now settled down into good quality beer. The Woman of the House oatmeal stout is a solid choice for days like yesterday when the wind was howling and snow blowing everywhere. It’s light and flavorful, but feels comforting on a cold day.

The Kilted Yoga Irish Red ale knocked it out of the park for me. It had just a subtle hint of peat, and a solid malt backbone that I love in my Irish reds. Squirrel Nutkin and Bridged’s Bathwater are two other great English style beers with a smooth character, mellow earthly hop profile, and nice low ABV for easy drinking.

img_3494There are of course a few issues that I have with some of their beers, in particular the ones that are claimed to be on nitro. They’re not as smooth and creamy as nitro usually should be, and feel like there’s a bit too much CO2 still adding carbonation in them. It’s gotten better over time, but I still feel like this is one area of improvement. I’m also not a huge fan of some of the hops that have been chosen for some of their new beers. I’m sensitive to certain hop families like Simcoe and Falconer’s Flight, which both taste like a cat litter box smell to me. This is my issue, but I feel like a couple of their newer beers are giving me this type of flavor, and I’d love it if their next new one didn’t have this same issue.

A couple of niggles aside, I am overall impressed by Torg Brewing. I think they’re putting together a solid lineup of good tasting beer. Along with the fact that they’re right in my neighborhood means that they’re quickly becoming one of a few go-to places when I’m thirsty for a nice taproom.

 

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.