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.

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.

Breweries and soft drinks: a rant

Hey breweries!

You guys with all the awesome taprooms that I love to visit?

Ya you.

You all probably know how much I love visiting new breweries. I love the craft beer scene that we have here in the Twin Cities, and heck, even all over Minnesota. I love craft beer, and you guys have done an amazing job bringing high quality brews to the world at large. I love sampling all the new stuff you brew; weird concoctions (that sometimes don’t work out), and amazing new recipes that blow my tastebuds away.

You know what else I love? Hanging out in a comfortable taproom. I love sitting with friends and spending a couple hours just talking about life, politics, art, music… whatever. There’s nothing quite like a great taproom environment to help someone relax and enjoy themselves, either alone or in the company of others. Heck, I spend almost every Wednesday night of my life visiting different taprooms with friends (usually on bike), just because we want an excuse to hang out.

When I travel, I ensure that I hit at least a couple breweries on my trip. I love seeing what the beer scene is like outside of my Twin Cities bubble. In fact, my Untappd unique beer count goes through the roof whenever I travel, which is incredibly fun to see. Even when I’m not traveling, one of the regular activities with my wife is to visit a taproom, just to hang out. She knows how much I love craft beer, and trying new beers, and despite the fact she doesn’t drink, she loves being in a beautiful taproom and being together.

You know what I don’t like? When a brewery doesn’t think about the non-drinkers, and the designated drivers, in the groups of people who show up. I realize that you make almost no money on any soft drinks that you sell, but you also know what? If you don’t have non-alcoholic options available it makes it a hell of a lot less likely that my wife and I are going to spend time there. There’s nothing worse than sitting in a beautiful taproom, enjoying some amazing beer, and feeling awkward as my non-drinking spouse and friends sit patiently sipping their room temperature water.

And you know what else? I’m not asking for you to expand your horizons to weird and experimental craft sodas. My son could care less about your “IPA of sodas” made with lime and tonic water (it tasted like s**t). My wife doesn’t need your guava infused, rose-petal, cranberry kombucha soda hybrid garbage. They just want a solid root beer, Coke, or 7-Up. They’re not there to experience some incredible new flavor of pop. They’re there to hang out with friends who like craft beer.

No one is asking you to enter a new market segment. Really, it’s not that hard. Just run down to the local gas station and pick up a couple cases of some different flavors of pop and stick them in a cooler. That’s all. No one is going to think any less of your hipster, craft beer-cred because people can also ask for a can of Diet Coke or a La Croix. Those designated drivers and non-drinkers just want to hang out in your cool taproom with their friends and family. They want to experience the cool environment you’ve created. They’re not asking for much, just something simple to drink.

Oh and get this… if you want me, the craft beer drinker, to spend more money? Give my group a reason to stay longer. If my non-drinking friends who are hanging out with me have something to drink, I’m going to keep spending money, and drinking more of your beer. Isn’t that what you want?

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Death of a brewery

Today the news broke that local brewery NorthGate has ceased operations. I only recently learned that they had sold the business to an investor, and it appears that the new owners decided it was time to shut it down. This is a sad day, as this was one of my favorite breweries in the metro area. They brewed English style beers, and actually knew how to brew them well. My wife, and my Beer & Bikes group has been there many, many times. They were also big soccer fans and you would see dozens of scarves on the wall from teams around the world.

IMG_5043.jpgRunning a business is hard, and the world of small breweries is still somewhat unknown for many people. The level of competition in a growing market such as the Twin Cities, the level of distribution, location, and a host of other factors make for a complex environment to do business. Many of us have wondered how many of the new breweries would make it, long-term, and amazingly only a couple have closed so far. I just wish this wasn’t one of them.

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Blue Wolf Brewing

The nearby suburb of Brooklyn Park has gotten its first brewery, Blue Wolf Brewing. Their grand opening was Thursday, so I decided to swing by and check them out. After having a hard time locating their building (behind Broadway Pizza), I went in to see what was up. That’s when I discovered that opening day is the wrong time to visit. The place was so packed and crowded that I turned around and left.

The good news is that I had time tonight (Friday) to try again. The wife and I ordered up some take-out from Broadway Pizza and headed over. Sure enough the crowds had toned down quite a bit and we were able to get a seat with ease. One of the first things that’s unique about Blue Wolf is that they have servers who wander around to take your order. I’ve seen this in only a couple places, and in general I’m not a fan. I don’t like having to wait for someone to take my order to get my beer, however the bar area at Blue Wolf is small enough that I can see why they don’t want big lines at the bar.

Our server was pretty cool and easy to like, so it wasn’t that big a deal to have him wait on us. He got us the beer menu, which right no consists of three beers. They’ve decided to start small, before expanding to 6-8 beers in the future. This is a good plan for any new brewery. I’ve been to so many breweries lately that are tremendously mediocre when they open that I love it when I can have some beer that doesn’t suck.

I ordered up a flight of three beers; an IPA, a Rye Ale, and an “American Bitter”. The American Bitter was the first one up, and frankly I found it a bit weird. It was a cross between a British bitter and an American pale ale. It was tasty, but I’ll be honest, my taste buds weren’t sure what to make of it. There was an English maltiness to it, along with some earthy hop character, but it wasn’t very strong. It mingled with the American malts and mellow hops to create something that is certainly unique. But, as I said, it was still quite tasty.

The next beer I had was the Rye. This beer was very well done, and I really liked the smooth finish alongside the nice rye bite. It was very drinkable, and a solidly made beer. Finally, there was the IPA. Of all three, this one was my least favorite. It had an earthy hop quality, and was mostly balanced with the malt, but I felt like it needed some kind of brightness to perk up the flavor. Something fresh and piney as a dry hop would have perked up the nose on this beer and helped to make it feel nice and fresh. Despite this complaint, the beer didn’t have flaws, and was still quite drinkable.

Once I finished these three I noticed a sign that they were also doing Radlers. I assume that with the lack of beer options, putting in some Radlers was a way to expand their menu.  I ordered up their Rye beer with orange soda, and the two went together quite nicely. I could see this Rye beer going well with many different types of mix-ins as well.

The atmosphere at Blue Wolf was nice and quaint. It’s not the biggest tap room out there, but it didn’t feel too cramped. We were able to find a place to sit just fine, and we were able to have a conversation without shouting. Overall, a pleasant place to have a drink. I’m excited to have another brewery so close to home. It’s nice to have options that don’t involve having to drive down in to the city. Plus, it’s good to get more craft beer options out to where the majority of places serve Bud Light.

I’m hopeful that Blue Wolf can make a solid go of it and continue to develop their beer flavors into some amazing beers. They also seem to really have an interest in wolf populations, and they are supporting places like the International Wolf Center in Ely, that helps support and maintain wolf populations. It’s nice to see a place that takes a stand for something that they believe in. I’m certain that I’ll be back.