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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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Darkness and 16 Grit

Darkness and 16 Grit

The scene at Stub & Herb’s was raucous for Surly Tasting Night. 

Patrons packed into every available booth, standing two and three deep at the bar, and hovering over high-top tables sipping on one of eight Surly offerings on draught — Mild, Furious, Cynic, Bender, Coffee Bender, Smoke, 16 Grit and of course Darkness. It’s not often you’re granted access to such a wide variety of Surly stuff all at once. So when you get the opportunity, you need to take advantage of it. And by the increasingly intoxicated sounds of the pub as the night wore on, people certainly were.

I met my friend Ryan there who had thankfully already secured a booth for us. We perused the formidable craft beer menu, knowing full well we’d both just end up ordering Darkness to kick off our evening anyway. When the waitress arrived, I threw my friend a curveball and opted for the 16 Grit, which ended up being especially tasty on draught, even better than a fresh growler. Nicely hopped, a hefty malt backbone that lent some balancing sweetness, and a smooth finish that made you think for a moment that you weren’t actually drinking what was likely a 9% ABV double IPA.

My friend, a Darkness virgin, philisophically stared at his glass with each slow pull of the imperial stout. He couldn’t get over what a complex ale it was, at the same time mind-bendingly malty while also offering a surprisingly nice touch of hops in the nose. He ordered a second one after he worked his way through the first, just to make sure it qualified as one of the best beers he’d ever had.

We pressed on, ordering several others including Smoke, which seemed to go well with my simple burger and fries, and Cynic, which made my friend quickly realize that his palette had been destroyed by the crushing weight of Darkness. It’s a tough act to follow, no matter what beer it is.

Coincidentally ran into some craft beer-loving high school friends I hadn’t seen in more than a decade, including Brian over at East-Lake.net (nice work on eight years of blogging, by the way). He posted a nice write-up on his evening, as well.

Fun night all around. Darkness made such an impression on my friend we decided to try our hands at brewing our own version of it this weekend. Definitely going to do a double mash on this one to get the gravity as high as I can (this 5 gallon mash tun thing is getting old). I’ll let you know how it goes.      

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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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dsc01592There’s a few Surly offerings out there on draught that have been around a while, but for one reason or another I’ve yet to try (such as my recent sampling of Mild).

Walking in to The Blue Nile at the recent Surly Three release party, I was pleasantly surprised to see they had Smoke on tap, Surly’s version of a Baltic Porter. So in between delicious mugs of Three, I gave it a shot. 

Poured from the tap with a deep, inky coloring and very little head. First thing you notice in the aroma is a healthy dose of smoked malt, but not overpowering like some strong rauchbiers can be with that “beef jerky” quality. I’d say it’s more equivalent to a peaty scotch. Subtle and sophisticated. 

Taste is more of the smoked malt combined with rich coffee and molasses notes. Kind of like a nice imperial stout mixed with a well-balanced rauchbier. The hops don’t come through much in the nose, but you get a sense of them in the taste as there’s a definite bitterness toward the finish (45 IBUs), combined with more of the smoked maltiness. 

Drinkability is pretty good, you don’t even notice that the beer is 9% ABV. But the smokiness did sort of dull the senses after a couple glasses of the stuff. Not a knock, it’s just a very different type of beer that may not be for everyone (which is why they also brew the more approachable Bender and Mild, I suppose).  

Overall, another solid offering from Surly. I’d definitely try it again.

Rating: A-