Beer Bars/Stores


Tracy'sThings were hopping at Tracy’s Saloon in Minneapolis for the SurlyFest bar release party. Great beer, good food, and very nice company. I covered the event on behalf of Heavy Table, so be sure to check out the story here.

While I’ve hung out in the Seward neighborhood on numerous occasions (usually stopping in to check out the selection at The Blue Nile), I’d never been to Tracy’s before. It was clear to me that this little neighborhood bar, which has been around since 1979, would be a great place to spend a few hours sampling their nice selection of craft beers on tap (a quarter of their offerings are Surly).

Most of the food we enjoyed at the SurlyFest event is not generally offered on the regular menu, but it was a good sign, in my opinion, that Sanjaya and company at the establishment were branching out and experimenting with some bolder dishes. Could mean some great things to come. 

Be sure to check them out if you’re in the area.

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My time this afternoon tippling a few at Stub & Herb’s, just a stone’s throw from the gleaming new Gopher football stadium on the U of M campus, greatly reinforced my perception that the place is one of the best craft beer bars in the Twin Cities.

DSC02871The saloon was nearly empty when we arrived around noon, save for a few souls in a quiet booth in the back that, unlike most of the state’s populous, didn’t have the Fair on their minds.

Amazing that a college bar — stereotypically filled with macro swill, plastic cups and crates of Red Bull — has such a fantastic draught list, including nearly every Surly offering (Hell and 16 Grit just recently ran out before I got there!), a number of other locals like Lift Bridge, Flat Earth, Summit and Schells, and a dozen other notables from across the country. And it’s not just the stuff on tap…the staff are actually friendly and, get this, knowledgeable about what they’re pouring, a seemingly tall order in most bars around the city. Our bartender Benji offered some nice recommendations, including our lunch fare which included a Surly Bender French Dip, a great sandwich made with beef roasted in the oatmeal brown ale.

I tried a number of beers while we were there, most really hitting the mark.

Great Divide Hercules Double IPA
Probably not a great idea to start my afternoon off with a 9% ABV double IPA, but what the heck, it’s Sunday. A very aromatic IPA, but more on the dank side of the hop spectrum than protoypical, bright West Coast-style DIPA’s like, say, Pliny the Elder. Very bitter taste even for the style, almost a little too much for me. But fairly smooth throughout considering how boozey it is.   

Rating: B+

Lift Bridge Minnesota Tan
I’ve enjoyed nearly everything I’ve tried from Stillwater-based Lift Bridge, including their flagship Farm Girl Saison (I’m actually sipping a snifter as I write this), and their Minnesota Tan, a Belgian triple, was no different. Kind of nice to see a local brewery leading with a couple Belgian styles, but this one has certainly veered from the “traditional” path with an interesting pinkish coloring thanks to the lingonberries they brew with. A bit yeasty in the nose, a bit tart in the taste, leading to a nice sweet finish. Very enjoyable. And at 8.5% ABV, another one that’ll sneak up on you if you allow it.   

Rating A-

Flat Earth Sunburst Apricot Belgian Pale Ale
This is another pretty solid local offering. A light and refreshing aroma of apricot up front, fairly unique (although I think Town Hall has done an apricot wheat before). Taste is relatively similar to their regular Belgian Pale Ale, which is what I’m assuming is the base beer…more of the light tartness from the apricot coupled by some malty sweetness, leading to a dryness in the finish. 

Rating: B

Lagunitas Lil’ Sumpin Sumpin
Wow…this is everything I’ve heard about this beer and then some. It’s classified as an American pale wheat ale, but it screams IPA to me. Actually, very reminiscent in the aroma to Surly Furious, likely some combination of Warrior, Amarillo and Simcoe hops. Also got a little bit of citrus in there, grapefruit or lemon. Taste was not really what I’d expect for a wheat beer…far too much of a sweet and malty backbone, which did help balance the bitterness. You also get some of the honey they apparently use while brewing. Our bartender informed us that when this ran out, they were tapping Lagunitas’ Lil’ Sumpin Extra, a double IPA, which I can only assume builds on the success of this beer. 

Rating: A

Sierra Nevada Tripel
Never had this one before, and was frankly a bit surprised to learn Sierra Nevada has delved into the Belgian brewing tradition (to my knowledge, they’ve done a saison before, but that’s about it). Certainly reminiscent of a nice tripel like Chimay Cinq Cents, but kind of a Chimay “light” quality to it. Some American hops in the nose as well as yeast and clove, but overall a much lighter, more airy characteristic to the aroma (sort of how New Belgium is to Belgian beers). Taste is sweet and alcoholic, a bit dry in the finish. I guess I understand why they haven’t done more Belgians in the past.      

Rating: C+

Dark Horse Too Cream Stout
Ah, Dark Horse…one of my favorite breweries out of the Midwest. This is the last of their holiday stout series that I’ve tried, which also includes One Oatmeal Stout, Tres Blueberry Stout, Fore Smoked Stout and Plead the Fifth Imperial Stout. Loads of deep roasted malt notes in the aroma, along with milk chocolate. Tons of distinctive dark bitterness in the taste, presumably from the black patent malt I’m assuming they use in the grain bill, but expertly balanced by lactose to give it a silky smooth mouthfeel and wonderful overall impression. Probably the best beer I tried all day.

Rating: A

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Dark Horse Too Cream Stout

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Surly mural on the Stub's patio

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Soon-to-be-filled TCF Bank Stadium

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[previously…]

Saturday afternoon rolled around, and the sweet smell of booze, malt and hops poured out of our pale and yellowed skin as the three of us sat cooking like fried eggs on the aluminum outfield benches of the brand new Yankee Stadium.

I choked back the occasional involuntary puke belch, my stomach churning like a laundromat washing machine. The Vice Blogger repeatedly wiped flop sweat from his brow, squinting in the piercing sunlight to catch a glimpse or two of the game when his jackhammer of a headache would allow. And my brother-in-law spent nearly two full innings on a zombie-like expedition to find a cold bottle of water…anything to relieve the dehydration-induced misery we were all feeling after a hard day and night of serious craft beer appreciation.

This was no place or time to drink good craft beer. It was the furthest thing from our minds. This wasn’t even a place for a bit of macro hair of the dog. No, we were detoxing, and hard.

A chorus of cat calls erupted from around us, depending on the flow of the game. Nomar Garciaparra stood in the batter’s box, five years out of a Red Sox uniform yet still drawing the heated ire of diehard Yankees fans surrounding us. Compared to the Metrodome, where the worst thing you may hear coming from the mouths of Twins fans was some type of Lutheranized insult (“I tell ya, what an ooooverpaid jerk he is”), these Bleacher Creatures weren’t messing around. I was amazed at their continued need to have a one-way, lengthy conversation with players that clearly couldn’t hear them, and if they could, wouldn’t care. 

DSC02578“Sid dawn ya fuckin’ bum! Oh yeah? Well why don’t youse suck on deez!”

“Whaddya think dis is? Triple A ball?!! Do your fuckin’ job you freagin’ pile of…”

And this from the old women and children.

The Oakland A’s were easily handling the Yankees, so we cut our torture short in the seventh and caught a cab out of the Bronx and over to Harlem, home of Dinosaur BBQ. Most people that know me also know how much I love good BBQ. I used to work at a BBQ joint for several years in college, have been learning to use a smoker this summer, and am always the guy who loves taking over a grill, even when it isn’t my house or party. Now, one normally doesn’t think “New York City…good BBQ”, but after seeing this place on some Food Network television show a couple years ago, I made a mental note to visit the establishment the next time I was in town. I was excited to check it out.

DSC02586For those familiar, Dinosaur is somewhat reminiscent to Famous Dave’s, Minnesota’s answer to pulled pork and smoked brisket, minus the faux antique wall ornaments and servers in goofy pit crew uniforms. The greatest feature, of course, was the impressive draught list at the bar, something most BBQ juke joints fall down on. Allagash, Troegs, Stone, Dogfish Head, Brooklyn Brewery, and Ommegang, just to name a few.

I perused my options, and quickly settled on a Smuttynose IPA, a small brewery out of New Hampshire named after a small island off the state’s coast. The brewery distributes as far west as Wisconsin, yet I’ve never seen it on my various road trips out to Hudson. The IPA poured with a great building head filled with pine and intense citrus hop aromas. I could already tell this was going to be a winner. The taste was extremely unique, about as bitter of an IPA as I’ve ever had. The interesting part was how the hop bite slowly strengthened, similar to the growing heat of a habanero pepper, dancing off the taste buds long after the beer had gone down. I was very impressed, an A- kind of beer.  

DSC02582The beer also went very well with the heaping plate of both regular and garlic chipotle pepper sauce hot wings we ordered as an appetizer. These weren’t your average, puny wings…they were nearly full-size wings (and legs) with a quarter pound of good meat hanging off each of them. And the sauces they were smothered in were nothing short of amazing. Embarrassingly, we ate so many of the wings that by the time we got to the bottom of the plate, all three of us were stuffed to the gills, with no room left for a main course. So having been to Dinosaur, I still have not tried any of their other more popular regular offerings. Next time. 

After a much needed afternoon nap to digest the BBQ and sleep off the last bit of hangover, we saddled up and made our way down to Greenwich Village and The Blind Tiger Ale House, one of NYC’s finest craft beer bars. Compared to Rattle n’ Hum and The Ginger Man, which were both relatively spacious by New York standards, The Blind Tiger specializes in cozy. The place was wall-to-wall craft beer lovers when we walked in, with only one empty seat available at the bar. We quickly grabbed it, and within a few minutes the folks around us took off, making room for our small group.

Blind Tiger’s draught and bottle list was fantastic. Nearly three dozen different taps, and tons of vintage stuff like Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout 2007 (on draught!), several J.W. Lees Harvest Ales from years gone by, Thomas Hardy 2004, Scaldis Noel 2007, and many others. They also serve up a handful of ever-changing casks, which if you sit there even for a modest length of time will change before your very eyes…everyone in the bar pauses when the bartender climbs up the step stool to erase the old offering from the chalk board and etch in the new one, like gamblers watching an oddsmaker at the sports book in Vegas. And as if fantastic beer weren’t enough, the bar also partners with a fine cheese shop down Bleecker Street to offer a number of pairings, something we didn’t get to try this trip but something I’ll definitely make a point to do next time around. 

We started in with Aventinus Doppelbock on draught, something I’ve had before in the bottle, and was as equally impressed by its presentation from the tap. It’s about the smoothest, easiest 8% ABV wheat beer you’ll find anywhere. We also tried River Horse Hop-a-Lot-Amus Double IPA, one of the cask offerings available. A nice beer, expectedly ultra-hopped, and unique in the sense that it was a “real ale”, unfiltered and unpasteurized, which lent its own set of taste, aromatic, and mouthfeel nuances.

The crescendo of the evening was popping a bottle of Brooklyn Black Ops, which in addition to being a bourbon-barrel-aged imperial stout adventure in a bottle, may be one of the most difficult beer bottles in the history of beer geekdom to photograph. Not as much of the bourbon notes as I expected with this, which differed in opinion slightly from my drinking cohorts, but I did get a nice nose of chocolate, coffee and a tiny bit of banana. They apparently use champagne yeast to bottle condition, but it didn’t emit the kind of frothing head you might imagine. Taste was that of roasted malts, espresso coffee, and a bit of vanilla from the bourbon barrel. Mouthfeel a little thin compared to others in its category, but overall a very fine beer, likely an A-. And a very nice way to end what was a great trip to a city that should certainly be counted as one of the great beer destinations in the country, if you know where to look of course. 

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Some days are better than others.

Most days, I wake up, head to work, and if I’m lucky, I may cap off my drudgery with a nice beer or two. Usually a homebrew, but maybe even something highly rated on the Beer Advocate “Best Of” list. While spending a long weekend in New York City, I may have completely outdone myself, reaching heights not likely to be attained again any time soon. Some may not immediately think of NYC as a beer town, at least compared to other locales out West. But after hitting up Brooklyn Brewery, a few of the best craft beer bars in America, and a stop at one of the tastiest BBQ joints I’ve come across north of the Mason-Dixon, I think NYC should be near the top of every beer geek’s list of places to go.

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Westy 12 & Rochefort 10

Along for the ride and serving as our very gracious tour guide of the city was my good friend Aaron over at The Vice Blog, New York’s favorite beer blogger, who joined my brother-in-law and me at our hotel to kick off the weekend with your average, run-of-the-mill tasting that included a few beers you may have heard of…Westy 12, 8 and Blonde; Dark Lord 2009; Lost Abbey Angel’s Share Brandy Barrel-Aged 2008 and Bourbon Barrel-Aged 2009; and Rochefort 10. Just standing in the presence of these assembled beers, I almost didn’t want to ruin the moment by cracking the first bottle open. But that of course would be ridiculously stupid. 

We started off with a blind tasting of Westy 12 and Rochefort 10 (which some deem to be nearly identical), and surprisingly showed that not only was Westy 12 the significantly more desirable beer (much maltier and sweeter, in our collective opinion) than Rochefort 10, it made Rochefort 10 seem more akin to a poorly concocted homebrew than a finely crafted Trappist quadrupel. Really…I’m not trying to be insulting or funny, the beer smelled faintly like vomit or rancid cheese, which completely surprised me. The taste was OK, though.

DSC02511The Angel’s Share bottles were excellent in their own right, certainly both A-level beers. The Brandy Barrel-Aged version, from my understanding, is the one that gets knocked for its lack of carbonation, but it didn’t bother me in the least. Both versions poured with a huge, full-frontal assault of booze and dark malts, very reminiscent in that regard to Goose Island’s Bourbon County Stout or Founders Canadian Breakfast Stout. Burnt malt and coffee notes with both, and a medium mouthfeel. I really enjoyed both of these beers, tough to say which is better.   

DSC02535After a phenomenal afternoon session, I felt a little like Han Solo emerging from his cell of carbonite as we stumbled out into the blindingly sun-drenched streets of Manhattan. We pushed on to Rattle n’ Hum, a fairly new beer bar a block from the Empire State Building that immediately makes any beer lover feel like they’ve hit the big leagues. Nicely appointed, warm wood throughout, and arguably one of the most impressive tap and bottle lists I’ve ever seen this side of Belgium. A true beer oasis.

DSC02530After sampling a handful of great beers including Stone Russian Imperial Stout, Sixpoint Northern Lights, Dogfish 90 Minute and Weihenstephaner Hefeweiss on draught, we asked the bartender if she per chance happened to have an extra bottle of Alesmith Yulesmith floating around somewhere behind the bar. Not seeing it on the menu, but hearing rumors that it had recently been on the premises, we figured it was worth a shot. Lo and behold, she emerged from the depths of the beer cooler with a nicely chilled bottle and plunked it down in front of our bulging eyes.

DSC02542This being my first ever Alesmith tasting, I didn’t have much to compare it to when it came to the brewery itself, but Yulesmith really knocked my socks off. It’s a double IPA billed as a holiday beer, which like Sierra Nevada’s annual Celebration Ale series always makes me scratch my head a bit. I guess out in California, hops equal holiday cheer.

Poured with a nice billowing head bursting with citric hops and spiciness. Beautiful malt backbone, a great balance between the sweet and bitter. Slick and oily from the hop resins, leading to a lingering bitter finish. Really a nice example of a very well put together West Coast IPA. I’d give it at least an A.   

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Nicely pickled, we continued the beer parade by catching a cab for Brooklyn Brewery to check out their happy hour and sample some of their finest. After a long and winding drive through several very hip Brooklyn neighborhoods, we arrived and walked in to an amazing scene. Tons of craft beer lovers (and a few folks who clearly didn’t realize how good they had it) packed into a very cool warehouse space amidst an ambience-inducing bottling line and handful of bright tanks. Right up front, they also had a great display of antique beer bottles, most of which were from former breweries in the city. A great touch from what I assume is the consummate historian and renaissance man himself, Garrett Oliver.

DSC02555We sampled a handful of their stuff on draught including Blanche de Brooklyn (a yeasty witbier), Sorachi Ace (a very peppery saison, part of their Brewmaster’s Series) and Intensified Coffee Stout (one of the best coffee beers I’ve ever had, in league with Surly Coffee Bender and Great Divide’s Yeti). The single line to get a beer at the pouring station was a mile long, but somehow we were able to bypass all of this by making friends with the bartenders. After a few beers, we decided to share a bottle of Local 1, a Belgian pale, having recently favorably reviewed their Local 2. Very nice, a delicate use of malt and hops, but nothing too mind blowing. Probably a strong B-level beer.  

After getting our fill at Brooklyn Brewery, we somehow found a cab, which was a bit of serendipity given our location in a somewhat desolate part of Brooklyn, and made our way to The Ginger Man, another highly regarded New York craft beer bar. I’d provide some pictures from the experience, which like Rattle n’ Hum was jaw-dropping in the number of hard-to-find and vintage stuff on hand, but I was frankly too mesmerized with a snifter of Goose Island Night Stalker to pay much mind to the camera. Deep chocolate nose, booze in the back end from the hefty 12% ABV, and a very full, solid mouthfeel throughout. Certainly an A-level kind of beer, if only for the fact that it lasted approximately 2 minutes before I’d guzzled it all down.

Later this week: Dinosaurs BBQ and The Blind Tiger

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Brooklyn Local 1

dsc02017(previously…)

Saturday morning couldn’t come fast enough.

I’d spent the night on my buddy’s couch, which really wasn’t all that uncomfortable, but still didn’t do any favors for my ailing back. The weather forecast for the day didn’t look real good…very windy with a high probability for rain mid afternoon. Luckily we’d brought some rain gear just in case considering we were most certainly going to be outside most of the day. But part of me almost wanted it to downpour to keep some of the non-diehards away from the event (unlikely), leaving more potential beer for the rest of us. So after a quick breakfast of donuts and juice for that all-important base, we packed up the car and hit the road to Three Floyds in Munster, Indiana.

As we got off the highway and approached the brewery, I luckily got a call from Stu at Friday Night Beer informing me that the parking situation near the brewery was a  nightmare, and we should try to find a spot at a nearby city park. When we pulled into the lot, I saw a childrens’ soccer game taking place at a nearby field, with happy little families of soccer moms and kids running about enjoying the day. I prayed that this wasn’t some kind of all-day tournament, considering that several blocks away was one of the largest beer release events in the country, and within hours there would be streams of beligerent drunkards staggering their way back to the park with bottles of Dark Lord in hand. I envisioned frightened parents swooping up their children and scrambling to their cars or hiding behind bushes as the zombie horde of Dark Lord fanatics passed by, vomiting on everything in their path.

We walked the several blocks to the brewery, Surly beer in tow, and saw the extraordinarily long line in the distance. Wow. There had to be at least a few thousand people there, much larger than I remembered from Surly Darkness day. We started walking to the back of the line, and I heard someone calling my name…it was Stu and his friend John, who offered to let us cut in with them. As I stood there for a moment, I wondered “why in the hell are we standing in line if we have the so-called Golden Tickets?” It didn’t make any sense to me…I was under the impression that possessing the Golden Tickets gave the bearer the luxury of simply walking up to the brewery at any point between 11 a.m. and 6 p.m. and buying your bottles, sans massive line. I decided to check out the situation. I journeyed up to the brewery to the head of the line, and after talking to a few folks quickly realized that everyone in line actually had a Golden Ticket. So this wasn’t just the Golden Ticket line…it was the ONLY line.

I trudged back to where I’d left my friends, but they were nowhere to be found. I glanced ahead in the line, and was delighted to see that in the five minutes I’d been assessing the situation they had moved about 100 feet or so. My spirits lifted, as things seemed to be progressing along pretty darn fast. Within an hour, we’d moved at least another block or so, and had also made friends with the folks in line around us. Beer was flowing freely…we shared my Surly stuff with folks from all over the country, some of which had never heard of the brewery, and got to try some other stuff we weren’t familiar with as well. It was a really cool vibe…everyone was just happy to be there, knowing full well that they were guaranteed to get their Dark Lord, and in the meantime they were happy to share their wares, talk beer with fellow craft beer lovers, and enjoy the day, regardless of how windy or rainy it was.

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When we finally got to the front of the line, we were in the middle of what could only be described as a beer circus. There were mobs of people walking every which way, making it nearly impossible to determine what was a line and what was just a string of people standing around. When we finally did get up to the front of the line where security guards checked our ID’s and Golden Tickets for authenticity, we were ushered into a warehouse area where dozens of workers waited to hand out bottles of Dark Lord. I plunked down my cash and got my four bottles, giving my other ticket to my brother-in-law who did the same. It was a big feeling of joy, relief and satisfaction…we’d driven many hours to get to this place, and we had our beer in hand. I felt very grateful to be able to not only sample, but actually own multiple bottles of the stuff.

Once we got out of line, my brother-in-law cracked a bottle of Dark Lord for the group to sample, and it was heavenly. Seriously the most viscous, gloppy beer I’d ever experienced. The smell was incredible with huge chocolate, prune, cherry, port and molasses notes coming at you. A pretty intense hoppy quality as well in the aroma, which was far different than what I recalled from the only other beer I can justifiably compare it to, Surly Darkness. Not as overwhelmingly sweet as I expected, very nicely balanced. The malt also did a nice job of balancing the alcohol heat, which only slightly came through in the finish. To quote the reviewer from my earlier post, I did indeed feel a sense of shock like someone had just shoved a sandwich in my mouth*.

As we tippled our Dark Lord, I noticed a long line of people on the south side of the brewery waiting their turn to get inside the Three Floyds brewpub where they were pouring special stuff like Vanilla Bean Dark Lord. Based on the amount of time it was taking people to get in there (I’m assuming one in, one out) I opted not to waste my time with it. We spent the rest of the day hanging out on the nearby grassy knoll with all the other Dark Lord fans, sharing beer, making some trades, and generally having a good time with like-minded craft beer lovers.

My buddy Stu eventually decided it was time to head back to Madison where he was staying, so we parted ways. Unfortunately for Stu, he left too early, as we ended up sticking around until 6 p.m. when the brewery opened the doors up to anyone who had cash in hand and wanted to buy more Dark Lord. So the three of us sprinted to the ATM and pulled out as much money as we could. We each walked away with a dozen bottles, my brother in law had 16. My entire trunk was filled to the gills with Dark Lord, Pop Skull, and other phenomenal craft beers I’d traded for like Kentucky Breakfast Stout. The entire day was really more than I could have hoped for.

But we weren’t done yet.  

dsc02056On our way back into Chicago, we decided to stop off at the original Goose Island Clybourn brewpub for dinner and to sample some of their rare stuff on draught. I ordered their Willow Street White Ale which was far too yeasty for my liking…looked like an extra-pulp glass of orange juice, and tasted rather weak (4.2% ABV). During dinner, I moved on to a bottle of their Sofie, part of their Reserve collection and a very nice Belgian-style farmhouse ale full of spice, carbonation and citrus notes. Really very enjoyable, so I picked up an extra bottle to take home with me. Unfortunately, they were fresh out of their other Reserve offerings including Juliet, but by this point in the evening I wasn’t in need of any more beer.

We left the brewpub and headed home, pleasantly sated with a day filled with outstanding beer and great fun at what is sure to become an annual tradition for me. My hats off to Three Floyds for putting on what was a very well-organized and enjoyable event. 

* I’ll do a more thorough review of Dark Lord in the weeks to come.

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And for those that know me and my fiance, it’s not the obvious…

In the spirit of their successful Belgian Beer Festival, The Muddy Pig is hosting their first annual Festival of Hops from January 22-25. According to the organizers, they’re planning to have 40+ hopped up beers (pale ales and up) on tap throughout the weekend, rotating through 55 or more different beers in four days. If it was anything like the recent Belgian event, it’s sure to be a fantastic and enlightening time.

alvey1Remember the pure joy, anticipation and excitement you had as a kid walking into an amusement park? That’s pretty much how I feel every time I visit The Four Firkins. Tucked away in a mini-mall off of Minnetonka Blvd. and Texas Ave. in St. Louis Park, the Firkins opened its doors early in 2008, and has since gained a loyal following and strong reputation as one of the Twin Cities best craft beer stores. On the numerous occasions I’ve been there, I’m continually amazed at all of the fantastic brews the proprietor, Jason Alvey, is able to offer up. 

Recently, I had the chance to chat with Alvey, and discuss his thoughts on craft beer, the Twin Cities beer scene, and how to handle pissed off Bud Light drinkers.

The Captain: First off, you don’t sound like your typical Minnesotan…where are you originally from and how’d you find your way to the Twin Cities? 

Alvey: You’re right. I’m not from around here. I hail from Australia. I met a lovely young American girl called Heather on a trip to Ireland in 2000. We got along so well I moved here to the states and married her. I’ve been here almost eight years now. I love the Twin Cities, so much going on and such a good beer scene. 

TC: When and how did you get the craft beer bug?  

A: Sitting at Pizza Luce on Lyndale Avenue in 2001 somebody bought a pitcher of Summit EPA. I’d never had anything like it before. Couldn’t believe how tasty it was. That was it, I have been hooked on good beer ever since. 

TC: Your craft beer store, The Four Firkins, has been met with much fanfare here in the Twin Cities. What sparked the idea to start your business? 

A: Long story. I had been working for Erik’s Bikes since I moved here in 2001. That’s my other passion, road bikes, mountain bikes, all kinds of bikes. I discovered that mountain bikers in particular tend to like good beer. I can’t tell you how many times we watched the sun go down in the parking lot at Lebanon Hills after a day of mountain biking with a variety of craft beer. Everyone would bring something different.  

Eventually one of my fellow mountain biking mates, Phil, asked me if I’d like to record a podcast with him. Phil was a computer guy and wanted to record a podcast for fun, about anything. We eventually decided to do a podcast about beer as I thought at the time I knew enough about said subject to host a show. I was very wrong… 

The podcast was called “What Ale’s Thee” and is still up on the site. You can go to www.whatalesthee.com and still listen to the shows if you like. Be warned the first few are pretty bad. We really didn’t know what we were talking about at that point. 

After a ton of emails telling us exactly that, I decided to really start studying beer and that’s where I learned most of what I know today. 

When we recorded the show about New Belgium Brewing coming back to Minnesota, we saw that huge line of people outside of Surdyks all lined up to get Fat Tire and realized there was a huge, virtually untapped market here in the Twin Cities for craft beer. 

Soon after that I decided to quit the podcasting and begin work on this store. 

TC: Did you run into any challenges opening the store?  

A: Many challenges. I’m not even sure where to begin. Liquor licenses, location, zoning, city officials, politicians, banks and bankers, the list is endless. I would say that getting this store open was without a doubt the most difficult thing I have ever done in my life. It seems like everyone is against you and every little step is a battle. It really blew my mind, if I had known beforehand how difficult it would be, I maybe would not have pursued it. Luckily I was very naive about such things, as this is my first business, so I put my head down and did whatever I had to in order to make it work.  

TC: How many different brewers, or beer making regions of the world, are represented on your shelves?

A: About 750. That doesn’t seem like much, however that is 750 craft beers or European imports. You will not find ANY “Budmillercoors”, Corona, Stella, Blue Moon or anything else mass produced with zero love. 

TC: How do you source some of the beers in your store? What is your criteria for offering a particular beer, or saying no to some others?

A: All my beers are sourced through Minnesotan distributors. This is the law. Very often I get asked if I can get New Glarus or Dogfish Head, or some other beer that is not currently distributed to Minnesota. The answer is I cannot. I have to buy beer that my distributors already have.  

Having said that, there is a LOT of beer available here in Minnesota that other liquor stores simply CHOOSE not to stock. They either think there is no market for expensive beers or just plain don’t know what the stuff is. Because of that I have a ton of beers here that you won’t find anywhere else. 

My beers have to be brewed with care. That’s the only prerequisite. 

TC: What beers are you asked most about by customers? And what beer would you love to have in your store now, but are unable to get? 

A: Number one without question is Dogfish Head. I get emails every week about that brewery. The next most often requested beer is New Glarus, followed by Russian River, O’dells, Alaskan Brewing, Deschutes, Great Lakes, Oskar Blues. I would love to carry all of them, but alas, I cannot. 

I get a ton of crazy requests too. It’s quite amazing what people come up with. For example, “My husband and I were in France back in 1976 where we visited a little mountain village. It was very remote at the end of a ten mile long dirt road, I think. Anyway, they had a local guy brewing beer there in a mud hut. I can’t remember what the beer was called but it was the best beer I’ve ever had, it was so smooth! The man who brewed it had a beard and red pointy shoes. Can you get that beer?” 

Seriously, I get requests like this almost on a daily basis!

TC: Anyone ever ask where you keep the Bud Light?

A: Yup, it took a while. It doesn’t happen very often because I don’t have a huge sign on the building screaming “Liquor store!” But it did happen just recently. 

The guy came in about 7 p.m. and by the look of him he’d already had a few. He asked where I keep my cases. I said “cases of what?” and he said “Budmillercoors” or something like that. I told him I was sorry I don’t stock any “domestics” but he could buy a case of pretty much anything he liked in six packs. 

The guy screwed up his face, clenched his fists and literally screamed “Fuck!” as loud as he could. I couldn’t believe it, I was so stunned I didn’t know how to react. He stormed out the door, so luckily I didn’t have to say anything. Pretty funny.

Usually if people tell me they like “Budmillercoors” I show them a good pilsner and explain to them the differences. I certainly don’t try to be elitist about it. I want everybody to enjoy good beer!

TC: Aside from screaming Bud Light fans, what’s the mix of customers like…mostly beer geeks, or your average Joe that may not know the difference between a Saison and a Schwarzbier? How do you work with both ends of the spectrum?

A: We get a huge mix, hardcore beer geeks make up about 20% of my customers I would say. By far the majority are just regular people who want to try something different. It’s a lot of fun working with them and hearing feedback as to what they liked or disliked last time. Listening is the key. It’s very simple really, I just listen to what they tell me they like and I suggest beers based on that.

TC: In designing the physical set-up of the store, were there any considerations you took in ensuring an optimal environment for beer display and storage? 

A: Yes, we only have about 500 square feet in here for display space so we had to be very creative with the layout. Beyond that we put UV filters on all our lights so that we reduce the chances of beers getting skunked or light struck. We also keep the store cold. Even in summer, if you’re going to be in here for more than a few minutes you better have a jacket! 

TC: What’s been the impact on business given the economic downturn?

A: Almost none. People love good beer and they seem to like this place and how we do things.

TC: Any lessons learned, unexpected surprises, or interesting experiences you’ve had along the way in opening and operating The Four Firkins?

  • Don’t ever assume that just because somebody holds a position of authority or power that they will be honest and professional.
  • If you have a good work ethic, don’t mind working extremely hard and are not afraid to go outside your comfort zone, you can achieve pretty much anything. 

TC: If you had to pick, what are a couple of your all-time favorite beers? Or styles?

A: Surly Furious, Flat Earth Belgian Pale Ale, Cantillon Kriek, Jolly Pumpkin Calabaza, Victory Brewing Prima Pils, St. Somewhere Saison Athene.

TC: When not talking about beer, what other things are you interested in or passionate about?

A: Bikes and cycling. Traveling. Any intelligent conversation on religion, politics, the universe and why we’re here. Ignorance and blind faith is very dangerous.

TC: What’s your take on the beer scene in the Twin Cities?

A: The beer scene here is amazing! I’ve seen a lot of the U.S. and I have to say we have it pretty bloody good here in the Twin Cities. I’d go as far as saying we have one of the best beer scenes in the world, right here!

There are more micro breweries in the U.S. today than has ever been in any country of the world, in the entire history of humanity. We have access to these amazing beers, as well as most of the European classics.  There aren’t too many other countries that can say that.

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