Thanks to New Glarus for bringing back their Cherry Stout, a past gold medal winner in the Wood and Barrel Aged Beer category at GABF, and the first in this year’s Unplugged Series.

Appearance is decidedly unstout-like. Fairly reddish coloring, not black or opaque as one might expect. Huge head on the pour, loads of rocky bubbles. Aroma is nearly identical to their Wisconsin Belgian Red with a bushel of  sour cherries, backed with a faint note of dark chocolate, maybe even a syrupy Coca-Cola quality. Flavor is impressive, a beautiful blend of the sour cherry with a building flavor of roasted, chocolate malt. Mouthfeel is solid.

Overall impression, there’s a great deal going on here. If you’re looking for a traditional example of a stout, this ain’t it. It’s better. 

Rating: A

Where I Bought It: Casanova Liquors
Availability: Limited Release
Price: $9.99 per four pack

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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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In some respects, one could consider Michelob Anheuser-Busch’s craft brand (if you’d like to take it that far).

Sure, they pump out millions upon millions of barrels of watery, adjunct-laden fizzy beer like Michelob Golden Draft Light, Michelob Ultra (yikes), and the ill-conceived Michelob Ultra Lime Cactus. But, like most of the larger brewers, they’ve flexed their national marketing clout and stolen a page out of the small craft brewers’ playbook to bring out a number of more flavorful beers, catering to what I’d call a transitional craft consumer…folks that reflexively walk into a liquor store to buy their standard case of [insert macro swill here], and instead walk out with a six pack of something like Shock Top. Are they realistically going to sway the 4% of the market that actively seeks out higher quality offerings from small, independent craft brewers? Unlikely, and it’s clearly not their goal. But the sheer volume of A-B’s captive audience makes the marketing proposition for the rest of the beer drinking public a good one for them.

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At GABF, I had the chance to attend a private tasting with Michelob to sample a number of their new and experimental beers, including the recently introduced Michelob Rye Pale Ale, which just hit the Twin Cities market within the past couple weeks. Rye P.A. fits neatly into this oxymoronic category of macro craft, and to my own surprise, I found it to be actually pretty darn good.

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According to Adam Goodson, their head brewmaster I spoke with, they brew with caramel and other specialty grains (he left out what I suspect is the main part of the grain bill…corn or rice), and you certainly pick up a very rich, toffee-like malt flavor that’s complemented by the spicyness of the rye. They also use five different hop varieties including Cascade and Columbus that put it on par with a number of more notable pale ales and IPAs on the market at 50 IBUs. However, I hesitate to call this a straight up IPA, as in addition to rye they also add grains of paradise for a nice pepper note in the aroma, and condition on a bed of juniper berries for a very faint acidic note in the finish. Overall, a pretty interesting beer.

In addition to the commercially available Rye P.A., I also sampled a handful of their experimental beers that aren’t on the market (and likely never will be), including a pear ale and a doppelbock. According to Goodson, at any given time Michelob has between ten to fifteen different beers working their way through the development cycle, with possibly one or two ever seeing the light of day. The pear ale was interesting, fairly light with just a hint of the pear in the aroma, but seemed more like some of their other standard offerings that had been gently infused with pear extract. The doppelbock was a winner, in my opinion, with a nice malty backbone and caramelized flavoring. Of any of the developmental beers, I’m hoping this one makes the cut.

While I perused the beers, I also chatted with Florian Kuplent, an incredibly nice and intelligent guy who leads Michelob’s yeast development group, and learned about the company’s ongoing research that includes a library of more than 300 unique strains, including a handful of Brettanomyces. Interestingly, they used one of these Brett strains for their single experimental barrel of Michelob Brett (seriously), one of the better beers I had at the Denver Rare Beer Tasting charity event during GABF (more to come on that).

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To describe something as a fruit beer is actually to not really describe it at all, considering the extremely wide spectrum within the category. 

Fruit can be added to nearly any base style you’d like, whether it’s a wheat or a wit, a sour or a stout. The history of fruit beers is really pretty interesting, if you think about the 500 year-old Belgian brewing tradition of fruit lambics, spontaneously fermented ales that can come in a variety of forms such as cherry (kriek), raspberry (framboise), or peach (peche). But unlike some of the artificially sweetened, Kool-Aid-like versions you tend to see out there (I won’t name names), true fruit lambics tend to maintain the inherent sour characteristics of the base style with a nicely balanced, supporting role from the fruit.   

Which leads me to my point. Generally speaking, I think the fruit aspect in a beer, whatever that fruit might be, should serve to complement the underlying base style rather than overpower it. Sometimes it works very well. However, sometimes it can completely fail. 

One of those big misses in my beer sampling history was Leinie’s Berry Weiss, to this day my ultimate in fruit beer disasters. More of a non-descript berry assault on the senses parading around as a smooth beer. Then came a few others, including Sam Adams Cherry Wheat, which all things considered is actually pretty drinkable, but compared to something like Founders Cerise, one of the better fruit beers I’ve had in recent memory, is definitely in the minor leagues of the segment.

Founders continues to impress me, whether it’s their very well-done Centennial IPA, Red’s Rye Pale Ale or something more on the extreme end of the spectrum like their Kentucky (or Canadian) Breakfast Stout. Their Cerise, a 6.5% ABV, lightly hopped cherry ale is nothing short of spectacular.   

Beautiful black cherry aroma from the fresh Michigan cherries used at five different stages through the fermentation process (I suppose fruit beer’s answer to Dogfish Head’s continuous hopping process). Reddish amber appearance with a pinkish creamy head. The taste and aroma are fairly similar…a noticeable maltiness that couples well with the sweet cherry, leading to a perfectly balanced tart finish.

Really superb. And definitely a “gateway” kind of beer I would readily suggest to someone who may not be as interested in or familiar with craft beer in general.

Rating: A

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Last time I won a ribbon for anything was during my fourth grade spelling bee, where I placed third after incorrectly spelling the word “restaurant” (I went with restaraunt). In retrospect, I should have at least gotten a blue ribbon for not wetting myself, considering how nervous I was standing in front of my entire school. But that’s a whole different story.

Well, I was very excited to learn recently that my raspberry wheat stout was the recipient of two home brewing awards:

  • Gold medal winner in the Minnesota Renaissance Festival’s Byggvir’s Big Beer Cup, Eclectic – Fruit Beer category
  • White ribbon winner (third place) in the Minnesota State Fair’s Home Brew Competition, Fruit Beer category

I’ve brewed this beer a handful of times in the past, each time making some slight iterations here and there. For this batch, I think the incorporation of wheat in the grain bill was a key factor, helping to smooth out and balance the darker malts for a better overall mouthfeel and texture. The combination of roasted malt and distinctive berry aroma is the clincher, in my opinion, enveloping you right away with its intoxicating perfume.

The objective commentary from the judges in both competitions was really valuable, the sole reason I enter these things in the first place. And interesting to get some insights into the beer that I frankly hadn’t even thought about going into things. For example, many thought the beer had some prominent coffee notes in the taste, which after sampling the stout again I definitely agree with. Also, a few felt the alcohol heat was just a tad on the high side…not distracting, but maybe too much for some tastes. I see what they’re saying, and I’m taking it into account for the next batch I brew.  

It’s just kind of nice when, despite your best efforts as a home brewer to inevitably screw something up, it all comes together.

Rating: A

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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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While they’re still being courted by distributors to determine who will carry them locally, the highly regarded 21st Amendment Brewery out of San Francisco will be hitting the Twin Cities market in the coming months with two offerings from their stable of beers — Brew Free or Die IPA and Hell or High Watermelon Wheat. No…your ears aren’t plugged. I did say a watermelon wheat.

According to the brewery’s representative I met with, their 12 barrel system back home at the brewpub clearly wasn’t going to be enough to handle the volume for this market expansion. So they made a quasi-contract brewing arrangement with Cold Springs here in northern Minnesota. But interestingly enough, 21st Amendment’s own head brewer, Shaun O’Sullivan, has flown out to personally oversee brewing and production of the beers. I’d imagine the boys at Cold Spring likely aren’t used to working with watermelon in bright tanks.

21st Amendment plans to offer their beers in cans, a nice move and a growing trend evidenced by fellow craft brewers like Surly, Oskar Blues and even New Belgium in select markets out west.

Hell or High Watermelon Wheat
Like alot of beers at smaller craft breweries, this apparently started as a homebrewed creation from co-founder Nico Freccia. They enjoyed it so much, it quickly became part of their regular rotation. Poured like a very light hefeweizen, a bit cloudy but a nice fruity aroma of various berries and watermelon. Taste was refreshing, trending a bit more to the watermelon side of the equation as opposed to wheat, but not bad. Somewhat thin mouthfeel, but for the style I’ll give it a pass. I gotta say, quite an interesting beer, and one I didn’t expect to enjoy as much as I did.

Rating: B+

Live Free or Die IPA
This is west coast all the way, with a load of Columbus, Tomahawk and Zeus (CTZ) hops smacking you in the nose right up front. But unlike most super ballsy IPAs that make your eyes water with IBU punishment, this one comes in at a mere 70 bittering points, putting it more in line on the hoppy spectrum with local stuff like Summit Horizon Red. Taste was fairly clean, not as much malt backbone as I’d like, but good overall. It’s a well-balanced beer, dare I say even to the point where one could mistake it for a pale ale in its relatively reserved nature. As I sipped the beer, it immediately invoked past memories of something else I’ve enjoyed…mildly reminiscent of a tamer version of Russian River’s Pliny the Elder in its bright hoppiness, if you’re fortunate enough to have tried that. I’m sure this one will be well received here in the Twin Cities.  

Rating: B+