The guys over at Lift Bridge have been very busy of late. Earlier this year, Dan and company acquired a site in their hometown of Stillwater which will give them a little over 10,000 square feet of space for a physical brewery. They’re also actively looking for a brew master to come on board and oversee the build-out and ongoing brewing operations. These developments should allow the brewery to expand distribution in the Twin Cities, although I’m unclear if their relationship with Cold Spring will continue as usual. I’m looking forward to visiting when things are up and running.

Lift Bridge just released Chestnut Hill for the first time in bottles, an American-style brown ale that’s brewed with a dash of cinnamon and all-spice. While it’s a limited seasonal release, it’s a welcome addition to their already solid Farm Girl Saison and Crosscut Pale Ale, also found on shelves. From the pour, Chestnut Hill  has a deep mahogany coloring, a very clear appearance, and a dense head of carbonation. The aroma is sweet caramel malt, toffee, brown sugar, and subtle cinnamon. I’m glad they didn’t overdo the spicing, which can get out of hand with some beers this time of year (pumpkin, in particular). The flavor is slightly nutty, and noticeably dry throughout. Brown malt and Yakima hops are evident, with a fairly bitter finish that lingers. If it were any sweeter, I’d say this might border stylistically on a winter warmer. This one comes in at 6.5% ABV, making it a very nice autumn beer for those cool evenings by the fire pit.

Rating: A-

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Collaboration beers are all the rage these days. But I’d be willing to bet not many breweries have so generously offered to brew a beer with about 400 of their closest homebrewing friends.

Surly Brewing was the site this past weekend for the American Homebrewers Association membership rally, and what a turnout! It was pretty cool seeing a few hundred fellow homebrewers standing in line with their empty carboys, buckets and corny kegs waiting to get their 5 gallon share of the imperial brown ale wort brewmaster Todd Haug whipped up for everyone to take home and ferment on their own. Northern Brewer also provided free yeast packets to anyone who wanted it, so I picked up some Safale S-33, what I’ve read is supposed to deliver some nice English ale characteristics (although some say it’s good for Belgian styles, so we’ll see what happens). 

Here’s the breakdown on the recipe Todd used:

82%  Canada Malting Pale Ale Malt
10.8% Fawcett Brown Malt
3.6%  Dark Candi Syrup
1.8%  Fawcett Crystal 85L
1.8%  Fawcett Dark Crystal  120L
Bittering –Columbus
Whirlpool/aroma -Willamette
OG  1.085
IBU 64

After sampling a couple glasses of Surly’s new Wet Hop IPA, I got my carboy home without tipping it over in the passenger seat of my car, transferred to a larger plastic bucket with more headroom, and pitched the yeast. Within hours it was bubbling away nicely. Sunday morning when I woke up, the air lock was completely clogged with krausen spewing everywhere…since I don’t have a blow-off tube at the moment, and to prevent another explosive outcome like my imperial stout earlier this year, I pulled the top off and just let it ferment in the open. I’ve had luck with this before, so I’m crossing my fingers no serious bacteria get in there and screw up the whole production.

Word on the street is that people are going to try and save a bottle or two and bring it to the AHA National Conference next June in Minneapolis. The base wort lends itself well to variation, so should be fun to see how other folks decided to ferment and condition.  

Big thanks to Omar, Todd and everyone at Surly for the time and effort they put into hosting the event.   

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Anyone who’s read The Brewmaster’s Table, Garrett Oliver’s eloquent, foundation-laying book on the relationship between food and beer, already understands that creative pairing can take what is essentially a good meal and turn it into a memorable event.

However, for some of us, how you go about determining what types of foods work well with different styles of beers to provide that eye-opening cuilinary experience can be somewhat murky. Tools like Great Brewers interactive pairing guide are very useful, as well as several other resources including Beer Advocate and the Brewers Association (found on the right side of this page).

But as I learned at this year’s media luncheon at the Great American Beer Festival, all you really need to remember about beer and food pairing are the three C’s, according to Julia Herz, craft beer program director at the Brewers Association and one of the country’s more than 50 certified Cicerones (the beer world’s version of a sommelier).

“Finding the beer styles that either complement, contrast, or cut the flavor profiles of food is the real key,” Herz said. “Matching the strength of the food with the strength of the beer is very important.”

For example, a classic complementary pairing would be a nice, malty stout with chocolate cake, as the rich, sweet flavor profiles work to elevate the experience of each. On the flipside, pairing an earthy bleu cheese with a hoppy, bitter IPA is an example of contrasting flavors, with the beer’s bitterness also helping to cut the fattyness of the cheese.

Beyond flavor, beer is also very useful for cleansing the palate, as the fine bubbles work to scrub the tongue with each sip and prepare you for the next bite, unlike wine which has no carbonation.

To showcase these concepts, we were treated to a fantastic five-course meal that included several expert pairings presented by brewmasters from around the country. As I discovered, it’s one thing to have a nice meal and appreciate how a fine craft beer augments the experience. It’s a whole different thing to sit next to the person who brewed that beer, as I did with Brett Porter at Deschutes Brewery, and discuss their thought process that went into making the beer and how they feel it works with the dish.  

DSC03057Ale-peritif
Munich and Chocolate Malt, Cascade and Saaz Hops
Our meal started off with more of an educational session on the core ingredients of beer, using a handful of malts and different hop varieties to demonstrate how these components impart their flavors in the finished beer. Love the smell of fresh hops. 

First Course
Buffalo Carpaccio with Avocado Tile and Cajun BBQ Shrimp with Fresh Corn Grits

Paired with Manana Amber Lager, Del Norte Brewing and Rocksy Stein Lager, Bend Brewing

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A wonderful combination of sweet flavors from the thinly sliced meat and barbequed shrimp that worked well with both beers, but for different reasons. The Manana Amber Lager from Del Norte cut the Cajun spice in its slight bitterness, and the Stein Lager from Bend Brewing delivered a complementary profile thanks to the caramelized wort, a result of the 300 pounds of red hot granite brewmaster Tonya Cornett dropped into the seven barrel batch. 

DSC03065Second Course
Organic Greens with Macadamia Nuts, Colorado Peaches, Jicama and a White Balsamic Vinaigrette
Paired with Hottenroth Berliner Weisse, The Bruery

The acidic vinegar and fruit were fantastic with the biting sourness of the Berliner Weisse. The intense effervescence of the beer, akin to a champagne, helped to refresh the palate for each wonderful bite.

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Third Course
Hibiscus Flower Granite with Fresh Horseradish
Paired with Long’s Peak Raspberry Wheat, Estes Park Brewery
While the beer was great, I found the food to be somewhat distasteful, what seemed like a raspberry snow-cone gone bad. I understood their intentions in coupling the sharp tang of the horseradish with the citric raspberry of the beer, but the dish didn’t do it for me.

Fourth Course
Three Day Beef Cheek with Mashed Potatoes and baby Root Vegetables
Paired with Black Butte Porter, Deschutes Brewery

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As we savored this expertly constructed dish, Brett Porter at Deschutes entertained us with his favorite English saying, “beef steak and porter make good belly mortar.” The dish was anything but a lead weight in my stomach, perfectly complemented by Brett’s Black Butte Porter that he explained is the country’s best selling porter, even though they only distribute to 14 states primarily in the west (amazing!).

Fifth Course
Molten Chocolate Cake with Hazelnut Brown Ale Gelato and Garnish of Fresh Chinook Hop
Paired with Hazelnut Brown Nectar Ale, Rogue Ales and Maracaibo Especial Brown Ale, Jolly Pumpkin
The density of the cake was amazing, with the gelato elevating the dish with a creamy texture that really worked for me. Sebbie Buhler at Rogue explained that Oregon is the nation’s largest producer of hazelnuts, accounting for 97% of production, and it’s clear they’ve perfected the incorporation of the ingredient in their beer. Both the Rogue Hazelnut Brown and Jolly Pumpkin’s offering were a nice way to cap off what was a very memorable meal.

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Some of the best beer in the world is brewed in the most unassuming of locations. Barley John’s in New Brighton certainly fits that bill. Tucked near the corner of County Road D and Old Highway 8, Barley John’s may not be as prolific in offerings as other legendary brewpubs like Minneapolis Town Hall. But they make up for it in quality.

When I was there over the weekend, I was informed that the brewhouse was under construction, meaning most of their beers weren’t available. A little disappointing, but manageable given the knowledge that they’re planning to double their capacity by adding two new fermentors. Of the handful of beers that were on draught, the two that I tried were more than excellent.

DSC02200Wild Brunette (Wild Rice Brown Ale)
What a uniquely delicious beer, and a perfect way to blend a very Minnesotan ingredient, wild rice, with a pleasing brown ale.

A bit of reddish wild rice residue in the small head ringing the glass. Definite wild rice in the aroma, which one might think would be odd, but it seemed very appropriate with a nice bouquet of earthy almond and vanilla coupled.

Taste was a mix of nuttiness and sweet malt, with some of the rice also coming through. Relatively strong for a brown ale, about 7.5%.

Rating: A-  

DSC02206Dark Knight
Oh, the Dark Knight. I’ve been waiting to try this one for quite a while, as it only makes an appearance very occasionally. For some reason I was under the impression it was their imperial stout, but turns out it’s actually a double fermented, barrel aged baltic porter that comes in at a whopping 13.5%. According to the brewery, they age the beer more than eight months in 15 and 20 year bourbon casks from Old Fitzgerald Distillery. And let me tell you…this beer is no joke.

Not much of the roasted, smokey quality like I expected, given it’s a baltic porter. But it literally smelled like a straight shot of bourbon, incredibly potent up front. One of the most aggressive beers I’ve ever smelled. Taste was complex as could be…lots of dark fruits, almost port-like in its intensity. More of the bourbon in the flavor as well. Big alcohol burn in the finish, but it didn’t turn me off. I had about half of my small snifter, maybe 3 or 4 ounces, and felt completely satisfied with it. Any more and I might have needed a ride home. This could be one of the best ass-kicker style of beers I’ve ever had, top five for sure.

Rating: A+ 

In addition to enjoying a couple incredibly nice beers, I also really enjoyed hanging out on Barley John’s patio flanked by rows of thriving hop plants. A very nice touch.

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dsc017121Had a great time at yesterday’s FirkinFest at the Happy Gnome. Lots and lots of great beers, and very good conversations with some of the local brewers and other craft beer lovers.

I did a short write-up on the event for Heavy Table, which was a lot of fun to do and a nice way to spend a beautiful Spring afternoon.

In no particular order, here’s the full list of the beers I tried that may not have made it into the article:

  • Steamworks Oak-Aged Conductor IPA – nice and oaky, well-done
  • Dark Horse Plead the 5th Russian Imperial Stout – solid chocolate notes, nice finish
  • Surly Bitter Brewer – haven’t had this one before, and really enjoyed it, nicely balanced biscuit flavoring
  • Tyranena Dirty Old Man Imperial Rye Porter – excellent, one of the better beers I had all day
  • Lift Bridge Kimono Girl Saison – very enjoyable, nice and citrusy
  • Dark Horse Double Crooked Tree IPA – a hop blast
  • Brau Brothers Sheap’s Head Imperial Lucan Ale – very nice hop character, could be the best offering I’ve had from them
  • Bell’s Hop Slam – it’s Hop Slam…what else is there to say
  • Big Sky Dry-Hopped Scape Goat Pale Ale – smooth and refreshing
  • Summit Dry-Hopped IPA w/Amarillo – great hoppy nose balanced by caramel malt
  • Summit Dry-Hopped IPA w/Kent Goldings – more earthy and subtle version, enjoyable
  • Rush River Bubblejack IPA – have had this once before, not too impressed
  • Great Divide Yeti Imperial Stout – surprisingly hoppy for the style, enjoyed it
  • Lagunitas Old Gnarlywine – not sweet enough for me, a little too much heat from the alcohol
  • Harviestoun Ola Dubh 12 Year Reserve – definitely get the scotch cask in there, really liked it
  • Surly Tea-Bagged Furious – good, but not as hoppy as I’d expected it to be
  • Surly Oak-Aged Bender – fantastic
  • Left Hand Milk Stout – very enjoyable
  • Furthermore Three Feet Deep Dry Irish Stout – smokey and peatey, pretty good
  • Surly 16 Grit – amazing beer, slightly different than the first time I had it
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Omar expounding on the virtues of his beer

#Winteryspew be damned. No amount of snow and sleet was going to keep me from attending the annual Surly Dinner at the Happy Gnome in St. Paul Tuesday evening.

Despite the dire predictions of icy roads and certain death plaguing the afternoon rush hour, my wife and I actually got over to the pub with little to no difficulty. We met some good friends of ours, and chatted with Omar a bit before the dinner program began, highly anticipating what was to be a fantastically well-done dinner pairing some of the Twin Cities finest beers with the artful creations of head chef Matt Hinman. The menu was incredible, many of the ingredients locally sourced:

First Course
Composition of vegetables with duck confit, red watercress, lemon vinaigrette, herb mix
Paired with Cynic

Second Course
Fois gras soaked in bourbon and cured in smoked salts, brioche, grapefruit supremes, topped with honey and vanilla glazed pistachios and pumpkinseed oil
Paired with Smoke

Third Course
Seared opah with celery root puree, roasted garlic-braised rainbow chard, passion fruit/pineapple reduction, mango and papaya relish
Paired with III (Three)

Fourth Course
Rib eye on mascarpone risotto, roasted wild mushrooms, Minnesota ramp butter, and red wine demi glaze
Paired with Darkness

Fifth Course
Flourless chocolate cake with coffee-creme glaze
Paired with Coffee Bender

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Fois gras on brioche

To say the entire meal was extraordinary would be a phenomenal understatement. This being my first beer dinner, I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect. Sure, I knew the beer was going to be excellent. It’s Surly, after all. And I’d heard good things about the fare at the Gnome. But how well would these two things complement each other? Well, perfectly, as it turns out. Wasn’t forced in the least. Like each course and Surly offering had been German-engineered to go together. The Smoke gently coaxed out the salty character of the fois gras. The hopped, sweet maltiness of Darkness created a perfect entree to the expertly grilled rib eye. And the Coffee Bender helped to cap off what could be the most potent and delectable chocolate cake I’ve ever enjoyed.

What I found even more enjoyable and interesting was the discussion of the beers inbetween each course with Omar and head brewer Todd Haug. Very educational to learn more about the ingredients, stylistic philosophies and thought processes that have gone into crafting each beer over the years.

We left a happy group of Surly loyalists (and newly made Happy Gnome fans), already looking forward to next year’s dinner.

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Untitled-2When I think Friday, I think potential and possibility.

There’s a whole weekend laid out before me, just begging to be enjoyed in whatever way I see fit. And typically, that involves spending time with friends and sampling several tasty craft beers and homebrews. Tonight, all the stars were aligned, and these two worlds came together as several of us had the pleasure of visiting Surly Brewing for a guided tour by the man himself, Omar Ansari.

As many of you who frequent this blog know, I’m an avid homebrewer. It’s my primary hobby. Something I think about more often than I probably should. Let’s just be honest with ourselves and call it what it is…a genuine passion. One of the few things in my 31 years on this earth that I feel has totally enveloped and fascinated me. The perfect combination of science and art. It’s a part of my life that I could absolutely envision becoming a vocation some day. Combined with my nearly 1o years in public relations and marketing, sometimes I wonder if it’s only a matter of time before I get the balls to make a run.

So, braving the bitter subzero Minnesota cold to head out on a Friday night to hang with one of the most innovative and inventive craft brewers in the United States seemed like the perfect way to kick off my weekend. We actually booked our reservation to take part in the tour more than a month ago, as the legion of Surly faithful is strong, growing, and very adept at filling out web forms. You see, this thing usually books up fast. And after visiting the website several times over the past few months and seeing every Friday night booked, I sort of felt like Charlie when he opened up the candy bar and found the golden ticket after my friends emailed to say there were a few open slots coming up. We jumped on it as quickly as we could.

dsc009471We arrived at the brewery just before 6 p.m., and walked into the front lobby where a couple dozen other loyal Surly drinkers milled about, discussing their favorite brews, what they expected to see on the tour, and whether or not there might be some free samples of Darkness at the end of the night. Fat chance, I thought to myself. Darkness isn’t something you just pass out to relative craft beer newbies or uninitiated beer drinkers. It’s liable to kill somebody through pure malt and hop overload to the cerebral cortex. 

After getting our bracelets and drink tokens (five each!), Omar instructed everyone to grab their favorite glass of Surly and follow him to the back where all the magic takes place. After a fascinating background discussion on Omar’s homebrewing experience and how he parlayed it into one of the most successful craft breweries in the country, we mosied on over to the mash tun, fermentors and bright tanks to learn a bit more on the brewing process. I still find it fascinating that, despite the obvious differences in volume, the process of homebrewing is nearly identical in almost every respect to how commercial breweries approach their process. It was also interesting to see the actual tanks where my beloved Furious and Cynic are produced.

During a beer and bathroom break, I wandered up the steps to their control panel on the mash tun, and saw most of the labels were still in Spanish, a remnant I’m sure from the original brewing equipment Omar procured from the Dominican Republic and shipped back to Minnesota more than four years ago. I also found it both intriguing and somewhat surprising that — as I stood there in this vast, relatively spartan warehouse populated with a dozen large stainless steel vessels — the beer that I loved so much was created from such an unassuming set-up. It was masterful in its simplicity. Don’t get me wrong…the skill and craftsmanship required to put it all together is nothing short of amazing. Omar, headbrewer Todd Haug and the entire Surly crew had clearly put their blood, sweat and tears into making the operation a reality over the past several years. But the evening was almost like Dorothy pulling back the curtain, and behind it was a handful of normal guys that just really loved putting out fantastic beer. No frills, no fuss. Just good beer. The beautiful uncomplicated nature of it all really impressed me, if that makes any sense.

We capped off the tour by contributing to the future wellbeing of the business (aka spending lots of money in the merchandise room), and left a very happy group of Surly loyalists. Thanks to Omar for taking the time to share his vision with the rest of us.