Experimenting with N/A beer

As anyone who knows me knows, I love beer. I’ve been a craft beer guy for a long time and have tasted just about every beer flavor you can imagine. I also realize that constant consumption of alcohol and the calories that go with it is not always the best for you. So I’ve been seeking out some alternatives that can give me some of that same flavor profile, yet not burden my waistline any more than it needs to be. Plus, sometimes it’s nice to have a beer in the middle of the afternoon when you’re working from home (as we all are now) and not feel weird about “drinking” at work.

Enter N/A beers. Over the past few months I’ve been exploring the new frontier of craft non-alcoholic beers. No longer are we stuck with things like O’Doul’s, but there is an entire marketplace filled with some pretty decent options, and it seems like more and more are entering the space every month. Even some local craft breweries are getting into the act.

Before I talk about what I’ve found that I like, I do need to acknowledge that nothing you will find in N/A will taste exactly like the beer you’re used to. That’s because alcohol is a flavor, and it’s not one that’s easy to duplicate effectively. Therefore, you need to temper your expectations and understand that you’re not going into this for beer, but non-alcoholic beer. It’s different, and that’s OK.

Something that surprised me when I started tasting some of these beers was that even the big breweries were getting into the market space, and doing a good job of it.

  • Coors Edge is a pretty decent corn-tasting lager that has that same crispness and refreshing feeling that a cheap beer does. It’s also pretty widely available.
  • Heineken 0.0 is another big brewery entry that really nails that simple macro-brew taste in a zero-percent package. This one is probably about the closest thing I’ve come to real beer in the N/A space.

On the smaller side there’s a few breweries that are making a big splash.

  • Partake Pale is a really solid entry, as is their IPA. I haven’t been able to find their stout yet, but from the pictures, it actually gets closer to the real color than other ones I’ve seen.
  • Wellbeing Brewing does a really solid Golden Wheat, and their Dark Amber isn’t too bad either. A little bit sweet, but not cloying. I’ve got a couple other new ones of theirs on the way, so I’m anxious to try those.
  • Hairless Dog is one that is local, and I’ve written about them before. Overall, it’s a decent beer, but I think they’re slightly behind some of the others on this list. Their IPA is probably their most solid.
  • Surreal Brewing is one that seems to be all over the place around here, including the local grocery store. They have a wide variety of flavors, and one of their biggest selling points is super low calories. They’re Red IPA is only 33 calories per can which is crazy. It’s got a good nose on it as well as a fuller bodied taste. One disappointment is their Juicy IPA which isn’t very Juicy. I don’t think the aromas were able to really survive the NA process.
  • Athletic Brewing Company… it’s taken forever, but I FINALLY got my hands on some this weekend. I cracked open their IPA it is probably the best N/A IPA that I’ve tasted out there. I’m anxious to try the Golden I picked up as well. I can see why they’re sold out all the time.

Finally, I need to mention our local brewery Fair State Coop that does a really solid N/A lager. It’s crisp and clean, and when I’m relaxing by the open window next to my desk (because it’s all we can really do right now anyway) it scratches the itch for a malt beverage. Plus, I’m supporting a great local brewery!

I’m certainly not giving up beer, but having options is always good. It’s great to see a marketplace that’s so filled with creative and awesome brewing options. I’m guessing that with the explosion of craft beer that N/A craft will be not too far behind. So what have you tried? Anything you think is really awesome?


Brewery Review: Boathouse Brewpub

Of course when traveling I need to sample the local brewery scene. Ely, MN has a nice little brewery right on the main drag that is also a brewpub. Our first night in town we hit there for supper, and to try the local brews.

Since they had 7 beers on tap, and their flights were 4 beers each, I got two flights so I could try everything. I posted a picture of it on social media, but didn’t realize right away the perspective made it look like I had 8 FULL pint mugs of beer in front of me. It ended up being a funny accident as I then had to clarify that, no, these were flight sized mugs.

In terms of the beer, I was very impressed at the quality. In the flight, I didn’t detect any overt brewing flaws, and almost everything tasted to style. A couple beers of note: The altbier was really well done, and actually nailed the style really well. This isn’t a common style to find in pubs, since it has a slight earthy and peaty character. However, on a cold winter night it tastes really great.

I also really enjoyed the Blueberry Blonde. The aroma nailed the blueberry scent, and that really helped to create the perception of a blueberry flavor in the beer overall. Blueberry is a hard one to put in a beer, but this one was successful. This was all helped along by a scoop of actual blueberries floating in the beer. It was also entertaining to watch them float and sink on the carbonation bubbles.

A couple beers that were just OK for me were the milk stout, which was thinner than I like my stouts. It was bordering on porter territory, but still tasty. The bourbon barrel porter also lacked in the barrel age flavor, but it was still a decent beer.

The food was also decent for pub food, and it was a great way to kick off our trip. Certainly worth a stop if you’re in this neck of thee woods.

Beer Review: Hairless Dog Black Ale

I’d heard about Hairless Dog (a 0.0% ABV beer) for a few months now. It’s finally ramped up production enough that it’s hitting lots of mainstream stores, including Cub groceries. So last night I decided to pick up a six pack and check it out.

Although they have multiple flavors, I chose the black ale because it’s one of my go-to styles, and I wanted to see how they did with creating a deep rich malt backbone. However, when I poured out the beer into a glass I was met with a deep copper colored beer that resembled more of an Amber visually. First impressions matter, and having a beer so light called a “black ale” feels like a miss. They could have just called this beer an Amber or Altbier and no one would have probably questioned it.

img_0424That’s mainly because the flavor wasn’t very “black ale” either. There was a hint of roast, but it was so subtle that it was almost non-existent. The overriding flavor was sweet malt, which makes sense given that this beer does not go through any fermentation. In fact this is their big selling point, that this beer is never fermented so there isn’t even a hint of alcohol in it. It’s truly 0.0%, not a fraction of a percent like other NA beers.

Despite the sweetness the beer tasted mostly OK. It had the character of a Mr. Beer kit beer that you may have gotten for Christmas. Something that comes with old yeast that doesn’t quite attenuate out and you’re left with something tremendously malt forward. It certainly was attempting to be beer, but it was very obviously not. It’s also worth noting that alcohol itself has a flavor, and that helps define what gives beer it’s taste. None of that was here.

However, having said all of these negative critiques, I still got enjoyment from drinking it. It almost felt like if beer were to be made as a soft drink, this is what you would get. A sweet fizzy drink that, in this case, has a dominant flavor of beer. It was drinkable, and gave me a hint of that beer experience, but it certainly wasn’t like drinking a beer. I do wonder if the IPA would come across better, since the sweet malt can be overlaid with a lot of hop character? I might have to give that a try sometime. They also have a coffee stout that might come across better, as the coffee can add another dimension away from the malt.

Overall, not a bad experience, and I’m 100% behind companies trying to create a market for a product like this. I’m one of those people who really likes the flavor of beer, and if for some reason I had to give it up, I would appreciate having options like this that at least taste like they’re in the same neighborhood.


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.

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.