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“Are you in line?”

“Is this the line?”

“Are we in line?”

“Do you see a line here?”

Not sure if it was more crowded this year, or if the heat was messing with people’s ability to discern the pouring lines. But once everyone actually figured out how to get beer, this year’s Autumn Brew Review held at the old Grain Belt Brewery in northeast Minneapolis proved to be another success.

Don't think she's a fan of accordion

Don't think she's a fan of accordion

I was happy with the day on at least two fronts. The weather generally cooperated (even though it was jungle hot and the skies opened up at the very end), compared to last year’s event which was blustery, overcast, and cool. Also, my brother, who’s normally a strict brown ale kind of guy (I told him I’d make him a beer called Cry Baby Brown soon), surprised the hell out of me by willingly venturing into the depths of some very hoppy IPAs and DIPAs. Bell’s Hop Slam turned out to be his favorite of the day, so I hated to break it to him that the beer’s seasonality made it one of the tougher ones to find every year.

As for me, after trying about 40 different offerings, a few certainly stood out in my mind.

First, there’s a reason why the line at the Surly booth was 100 deep all afternoon. Surly head brewer Todd Haug certainly knows what he’s doing, and the brewery’s Jesus Juice, their Three anniversary braggot aged in a pinot noir barrel, could be the best beer I tried all day. A superb combination of sweet caramel, spice and honey notes, matched with a vinous wine-like characteristic that makes for a hugely unique and complex beer. I could have stood there getting refills all day, but at more than 10% ABV I likely wouldn’t have made it past 3 p.m. A definite A+ in my book.     

Furthermore’s Thermo Refur was also unbelievably good. According to co-founder Chris Staples, they brew with a boat load of dark malt, organic red beets in secondary, and a medley of five different yeast strains that give it a distinct barnyard mustyness. Love the actual beet flavor, which leads to a slightly bitter finish and puckering twang. I’m not even going to try and classify the beer, other than to say it’s some sort of sour ale, but it all seems to work very well together.     

Brau Brothers’ Purple Sting with Lemongrass also proved very unique, and very enjoyable. Dustin Brau described it to me as a buckwheat honey rye ale infused with lemongrass, and you certainly get a nice mellow rye characteristic that blends into a mildly citric, dry finish. Compared to Jesus Juice and Thermo Refur, this one is definitely more of a session beer that I would love to see in bottles at some point.      

The day’s entire line-up, in order of imbibing:

  • Southern Tier Unearthly IPA – the name speaks for itself
  • Bell’s Hop Slam – yep, still awesome
  • Tyranena Hopwhore – nice and hoppy, kind of reminiscent to their Scurvy
  • South Shore Nut Brown – not that familiar with these guys, but a very nice, biscuity brown
  • Brau Brothers Fresh Hop Lager – really enjoyable, a combo of about four or five fresh hops straight from their hop yard
  • Brau Brothers Purple Sting with Lemongrass – phenomenal
  • Ommegang Biere de Mars – love this beer, great example of a biere de garde 
  • Surly Brett – wow, the brettanomyces is potent in this one, might need some time to mellow
  • Surly Jesus Juice – an A+ for sure
  • Surly Bourbon Barrel-Aged Smoke – fantastic beer, much smoother than one might expect
  • Surly Darkness 2009 on cask – nice roasted notes, not as sweet as I remembered, looking forward to Darkness Day in October
  • Dave’s Brew Farm McAnderson Scotch Ale – have heard alot about this small brewery, but wasn’t too impressed, a little too much husk-like graininess in this one that turned me off
  • Moylans Hopsickle Imperial IPA – didn’t care much for this, almost TOO bitter, if you can do that in a DIPA
  • Two Brothers Cane & Ebel – not bad, could drink a few of these
  • Two Brothers Triple – very nicely done, sweet and smooth
  • Furthermore Thermo Refur – awesome
  • Lagunitas Lil’ Sumpin Extra – a winner
  • Victory Wild Devil – another winner, love the combo of Brett and hops
  • Victory Yakima Twilight Dark IPA – kind of reminded me of an IBA, nice dark malt and Yakima hops in here
  • Bell’s Old Ale – very impressed, definitely more on the English-side of the style spectrum
  • New Holland Ichabod Pumpkin Ale – much better in my opinion than most others out there
  • Summit Oktoberfest – a nice example of the style
  • Summit Oatmeal Stout – love this beer, wish they’d bottle it
  • Ommegang Chocolate Indulgence – dark fruits, some chocolate  
  • Ommegang Rouge – to this point I’ve been on the fence with sour ales, but this is a great beer, Flemish red aged 18 months in French oak
  • Tyranena Chocolate Imperial Porter – roasty and some coffee notes, pretty nice 
  • Tyranena Scurvy – tried this before at the brewery, and still enjoyable, nice citrus notes
  • Magic Hat #9 – a decent pale ale, not sure what the “secret ingredient” is in this one but I didn’t pick up anything too noticeable
  • Magic Hat Lucky Kat IPA – not bad, maltier than I expected
  • New Belgium Hoptober – at first thought this was going to be a Marzen, but not in the least. A nice blonde with some mild hop spice
  • New Belgium Sunshine Wheat – not a fan, too light for me
  • Brau Brothers Sheephead on cask – decent pale ale, fresh hopped and you can definitely tell the difference 
  • Rock Bottom Intoxicator Rauchdoppelbock – beechwood smoked malt in the aroma, pretty solid
  • Rock Bottom Bastogne Blonde – pretty nice, yeasty Belgian nose
  • Fitger’s Blue Label Grande Reserve – a nice Belgian dubbel with toffee and dark fruit flavors
  • Barley John’s India Brown Ale – very smooth
  • Barley John’s Wild Brunette – a great brown ale, love the wild rice
  • Granite City Duke of Wellington Pale Ale – plain, not much going on here (or my palate is fried)
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Magic Hat

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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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dsc015931Birthdays and anniversaries are two occasions you need to pay special attention to. Not that I’ve ever forgotten my wife’s birthday (april 23…april 23…april 23) or anything stupid like that. But you generally need to put forth a little more effort than usual to acknowledge these types of milestones.

Which is why when I got home from work Wednesday evening, generally fatigued, and a little brain-dead from a long day of PR meetings, I knew what had to be done…for tonight was the anniversary release of Surly Three. I wouldn’t entertain any excuses from myself about “how early I had to get up the next day” or “how much my liver still hurt” from the weekend. Forget it. I was going to the Surly party, and there wasn’t anything I was going to do to change it.

After picking up one of my more reliable tippling buddies, we walked into the Blue Nile in Minneapolis a little after 8 p.m. and found throngs of Surly faithful taking up every last square foot of available space. Great to see alot of happy faces enjoying alot of quality beer. We elbowed our way to the bar, and ordered ourselves a couple glasses of Three.

I actually had no idea what kind of beer Three was before I got to the place, and after slowly enjoying my first glass, I was still having a hard time placing it. After chatting with some folks, I came to realize Three is a braggot, half mead and half ale, a style I’d never had before. Poured with minimal head, dark brown coloring with a nice malty sweet aroma. Not much in the way of hops, but fairly yeast-forward which immediately brought Belgian to mind. Also a hint of spice in the nose, possibly even cinnamon. Taste was also sweet and very complex, definitely honey and dark fruits in there. At 10% ABV, it’s an extraordinarily well-balanced ass-kicker. Very nicely done Surly. 

Rating: A