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.

 

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.

Alluvial Brewing

One our way across Iowa last weekend, we stopped in at a place just north west of Ames called Alluvial Brewing. This is a beautiful little taproom that sits among vineyards and organic farms. You feel like you’re truly out in the country as you drive up to the front door.

IMG_1133.jpgWe went in and I ordered up a flight of beers to try. We then decided to sit outside and soak in nature while I enjoyed my brews. The biggest standout for me was the coconut porter. It was smooth, with a wonderful coconut flavor, and rivaled some of the best ones I’ve ever had. I could see drinking many of these on a cold winter night. Another brew that caught my attention was the gooseberry sour. I had never had gooseberry in a sour beer before (that I am aware of) and it was a unique taste. At first I wasn’t sure what to make of it, but as I drank it I came to enjoy it more and more.

I enjoyed all the beers in the flight that I had, and found no brewing flaws in any of them. What really made Alluvial for me though was the setting. It was an amazing place to sit and enjoy some beer, and it’s the kind of place my wife (who doesn’t drink) has even commented that she’d love to own. Giving people a beautiful setting in which to enjoy good beer is a great mission in life. I’m glad to have gotten a chance to try Alluvial and enjoy both in one spot.

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The amazing evolution of Minnesota brewing

As all readers of this blog know, I’m a huge fan of beer. I’ve been drinking craft beer since the only game in town was Old Chicago and their Beer Tour. However, for many decades the only real craft producers in Minnesota were Surly, Schell’s, and Summit. There were a few small brewpubs around, but in general, if you wanted Minnesota-made craft beer, those were your choices.

Oh how times have changed. The introduction of the Surly Bill in 2011 completely changed the landscape of Minnesota brewing. No longer were breweries locked into the rigid three-tier system of producer, distributor, and retailer. Finally, breweries could sell their beer direct to the public, mostly through the creation of taprooms that are quickly taking the place of the ‘local bar’ in many neighborhoods.

This allows a brewery to start small, sell direct to the consumer, and if they so desire, grow their business to expand distribution and market share. Some breweries have done just this, while others have taken advantage of the new interest in craft beer to push their product onto store shelves. What this means for the consumer is that we now have an amazing amount of choices for Minnesota beer that rival some of the best beer coming out of the more traditional craft beer meccas.

IMG_057610K Brewing is a perfect example of a brewery taproom that is quickly becoming the ‘neighborhood’ place to hang out in downtown Anoka. Their beer is fresh and interesting, and they have a solid set of local regulars that keep them constantly brewing more. Similar to Dangerous Man, which pioneered the local brewery scene in NE Minneapolis, 10K Brewing caters to people who want to try something new and different every time they stop in.

3C1D1349-3163-429E-B06E-C4A366363EEFFulton is an example of the smaller brewery and taproom that has expanded into a full scale production empire. They got in early to the boom of development in the North Loop neighborhood of Minneapolis and have become a staple hangout for many people before and after Minnesota Twins games. They’ve since expanded to build a production brewhouse and now distribute all over the state.

1B17F805-748C-4881-A2A8-E5C490F91015Bent Paddle and Indeed started as production brewhouses but they’ve taken advantage of the interest in taprooms to help boost their recognition. Despite this, they’re still mostly restaurant taps and retail beers, and they’ve taken up residence next to the big “three S’s” of Surly, Summit, and Schell’s. They’ve each become a staple beer of mine when I hit the liquor store. I love the seasonals that Indeed does, as they are some of the most unique and well-made specialty beers around.

What all this goes to show is that Minnesota been can now hold it’s own against many of the larger, more well-known, breweries from other states. I no longer feel like my best choices are Deschutes, New Belgium, New Holland, or Alaskan. I have real local choices that taste good and make me proud to be a Minnesota beer drinker.

Next time you’re in a liquor store see if you can find some Minnesota beer, especially from some of our newer players. I think you’ll find that we’ve got a lot going for our beer community, and it’s only getting better every year.

Voyageur Brewing Company

This past weekend the wife and I took a trip to the north shore to get away a bit before the holidays hit. As luck would have it, Minnesota got socked with a snowstorm the day before we were supposed to leave. We kept an eye on the forecast, and snow reports, and decided to give it a go. As it turned out, the driving was fine and the weather ended up being perfect for some winter hiking fun (more on that in future posts). It was also perfect weather for checking out a new brewery we had never been to before.

Voyageur Brewing Company is a cozy little brewery and restaurant in Grand Marais, MN, right off of 61 through town. We checked their website and saw that they opened at 11 on Sunday and arrived right before 11:30. When we got there we found a sign on the door stating that they weren’t opening until 11:30 and we quickly found out why. Since it was only a minute or two before 11:30 I tried the door and we walked inside. What met our eye was a bunch of studio lights and a camera crew filming some type of program. They saw us come in and motioned us to a table off the side and the waitress came over and explained what was going on.

Apparently, Voyageur Brewing was being featured on a pilot for a new show on the Travel Channel about a British gentleman touring America one brewery at a time. She informed us that they were just finishing up and we simply had to keep our voices down for a few minutes while they completed the interviews. I ordered a flight and listened in as they put together the a few different takes with a few different questions about local brewing and ingredients. It was actually really interesting to listen to the conversation as the brewers talked about using Minnesota ingredients and the differences in American beer from British brews.

img_0141Soon the filming was done and returned my attention to the beer. Voyageur has a nice staple of regular beer, and their flight comes with their standard four, plus a choice of two seasonals. Overall, every beer I had was well made. One of my favorites was actually their IPA, despite the fact I’m not a huge IPA fan. Their balance of hops was spot on, and made for a really easy drinking beer. I could easily see drinking that one again.

The only beer I had an issue with was their porter, and not because of the flavor. I actually really enjoyed the brew, but it was more akin to a Schwartzbier/black ale than a porter. It was very easy drinking and smooth, which isn’t what I usually expect from a porter. I wanted a bit more chocolate and toasty overtones. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the beer; I love black ales, and this was a really great one. It just wasn’t a porter in my mind.

After my flight I got a chance to talk with the star of the pilot show and hear about how much he was enjoying getting to see America beyond New York and Vegas. I got to talk with him about our new Major League Soccer team and the differences with American Football. As I was chatting I was also enjoying my final beer of the visit, their Imperial Stout imbued with oak chips. This beer weighs in at over 9%, which puts it outside of my usual comfort zone. However, this beer was so smooth and flavorful, without the harsh alcoholic burn, that I really, really enjoyed it. I was told they only bring it out a few times a year, and I was honored to get to try it on our trip.

Voyageur Brewing is a wonderful place that we loved visiting. The taproom is comfortable and inviting. The walls were adorned with artwork from the local art community, and it even motivated us to visit a local gallery and buy a few prints to bring home. The staff was welcoming and really made us feel at ease despite showing up during an important event for their company.

img_0143I haven’t even talked much about the food which was really great, and worth the visit alone. The cheese curds were actually from a family that runs the cheese curd stand at the county fair where my wife grew up. One of the owners of the brewery was from her hometown. My pork sliders, on brew bread, were really tasty and just the right portion size. My wife enjoyed her Thai tacos, and we left feeling satisfied with both food and beer.

If you’re ever up in Grand Marais, Voyageur Brewing is worth the visit. It’s a great addition to a wonderful northern Minnesota town.