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.

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.