The Twins are booking flights direct from LaGuardia to Cancun International. Politicians are spewing more venom than a knotted cobra. And department stores are running pre-holiday holiday sales like they’re afraid we’ll all forget what Christmas is really about. It can only mean two things – fall is officially here, and a bevy of fresh-hopped beers are starting to hit the market.

Twin Cities beer drinkers are blessed in that a variety of fresh-hopped beers – ales made with undried whole hops usually picked days, and in some cases minutes, before they’re used in the brewing process – are readily available on the shelves and in favorite pubs. Sierra Nevada’s Harvest Ale Series is solid. Great Divide’s Fresh Hop Pale Ale is impressive. And Founder’s Harvest Ale is heavenly. But beyond these beers, brewers in our own backyard have a handful of phenomenal offerings that arguably lead the way as some of the best examples in the country. And true to form…local means they’re fresher than the rest.

I rounded up the first few local fresh-hop beers out of the gates from Brau Brothers, Minneapolis Town Hall, and Surly, and subjected myself to some brutally wonderful palate punishment.  

Brau Brothers 100 Yard Dash Fresh Hop Ale
This beer completely bowled me over when I tried it at Autumn Brew Review, likely my favorite of the day. The Brau bros pick their estate-grown hops just a short sprint away from the brewhouse, and toss them in minutes after they’re off the bine, literally as fresh as it gets. Beautiful light gold coloring, with a creamy, building off-white head following the pour. Not exactly certain when this batch was brewed, but even a week or so after packaging it’s evident the aroma is beginning to fall off, not nearly the West Coast-style punch in the nose I remembered. However, Centennial, Cascade, Mt. Hood, Sterling and Nugget are used through all stages of the brewing process to deliver what, in my opinion, is the most bitter beer of the selected bunch, a shocking bite that really impressed. At 6.8% ABV, a slightly alcoholic finish, leaving a dry, prickly sensation on the tastebuds.  

Rating: A- 

Minneapolis Town Hall Fresh Hop Ale
This is Town Hall’s annual Fresh Hop Week, and they came out swinging with this year’s version. Poured from the growler with a rich amber coloring, the darkest of the group. Thoughtfully garnished with a whole Citra hop cone that surprisingly emerged from the growler as I poured, a very fun touch. The aroma is potently dank, with strong notes of fresh green onion. Slightly sweeter than the offering from Brau Brothers, but a smoother, more mellow bitterness throughout. The beer finishes full and rounded, the most balanced of the bunch.    

Rating: A

Surly Wet
Probably one of the most anticipated releases from Surly since…well, they’re all anticipated. But this is the first time they’re offering this in cans. And I can assure you, if you don’t have any in your grubby little hands by the time you’re reading this, odds are you’re already out of luck. The lightest coloring of the bunch with a straw-like appearance, Wet greets with an intensely aromatic combination of balsam, lemon and cut grass, with more of the green onion (and no wonder it’s intense, as this beer was canned earlier this morning). More bitter than Town Hall’s version, with a highly attenuated, dry finish. The 7.5% ABV sneaks up on you. This is what I think of when I think of a West Coast-style IPA.

Rating: A

The kegs have run dry, my bottles are dwindling, and the carboys stand empty. 

I’m definitely overdue for some homebrewing.

After chatting with a few fellow homebrewers at the recent Twin Cities Beer Blogger Summit at Stub & Herb’s (thanks again to Stu for coordinating), including Eric at Bearded Brewing, Derek at Beer This!, Don Osborn, Eric at Lucid Brewing, and Michael at A Perfect Pint, I was reinspired to kick my homebrewing efforts back into full gear.

It’s been a little while since I’ve brewed a batch, and I’ve  been mulling over a few recipe ideas lately, including what I think will be a very interesting use of a local Minnesota ingredient (Sumac Saison, more to come on that). But for my first beer of the new year I’ve decided to brew up a pretty straightforward IPA using all Centennial hops, shooting for something close to Founder’s very tasty version, as it’s always nice to have a sessionable beer on draught.

To keep it even more manageable given my tight schedule these days, I made a game time decision as I walked into Midwest Supplies and opted to use extracts for the bulk of fermentables in the recipe. Here’s what I went with:

Boil volume: 6.5 gallons
Batch size: 5 gallons

OG: 1.053
FG: 1.013
ABV: 5.2%
IBU: 65
SRM: 12

6.6 lbs Gold LME
1 lb Caravienne (steeped at 152 for 30 min)
0.5 lb Crystal 60 (steeped at 152 for 30 min)
0.5 lb Belgian Biscuit (steeped at 152 for 30 min)
1 oz Centennial (60 min)
1 oz Centennial (30 min)
1 oz Centennial (2 min)
1 oz Centennial (dry hop)
Wyeast 1056 (1000 ml starter)

The batch should trend to the sweeter side, thanks in part to the Caravienne and Crystal malts, but the hops should balance that out. It’ll also have a bit of toasty flavor from the Biscuit. I’ll keep everyone updated on progress.

Surly’s latest creation…sounds fantastic.

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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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Skipping your honeymoon to brew your first batch of commercial beer usually isn’t an auspicious way to start your marriage. But for Brian Dunn and his wife, co-founders of the very successful Great Divide Brewing Co., it seems things have worked out just fine. 

The welcoming aroma of toasty malt immediately struck me as I wandered up to the brewery, discretely tucked in an unassuming brick building that at one time housed a 1930s-era dairy. Just a cut-off throw from Coors Field in an industrialized area of downtown Denver, one might miss it if not for the small lighted sign perched on the corner of the facility, or the cluster of GABF attendees and regulars crowding the small sidewalk patio outside while I was there.

DSC03108The brewery took shape in 1994 when Dunn, after traveling the world and earning a graduate degree in environmental studies, realized he wanted to take his passion for homebrewing to the next level. He set about writing a business plan and securing funding from investors. But after coming up about $50,000 short on financing for the business, he made a deal with the city that enabled him to make up the difference in return for ongoing job development and cleanup of the surrounding neighborhood, a relatively destitute segment of the downtown district.

“It was a creative way to get the initial funding we needed, something I didn’t realize was an option going into things.”

The brewery itself is a gritty, cavernous labrynth of rooms, leading from the main brewhouse up front complete with a tangle of pipes connecting mash tuns and fermentation vessels, through a dark, low-ceilinged passageway to the bottling and packaging area, and finally into the cool warehouse lined with pallets of kegs and bottles ready for shipment.  

The brewery’s tap room, a relatively recent addition, greets visitors with some incredible beers like their Hoss, a Marzen-style lager brewed with rye that delivers a spicy, dark-fruit malt character, or the brewery’s Fresh Hop Pale Ale, made with fresh whole hop cones shipped overnight from the Pacific northwest. And according to Dunn, freshness is something he and his staff take very seriously.

“We invested about $100,000 in printing technology for the bottling line to stamp born-on dates on all the beers leaving the brewery,” he said. “Not all of our beers are necessarily meant to be consumed right away, but our customers will be better informed and able to decide whether they want to age the beer, or enjoy then and there.”

The brewery’s sixteen GABF medals (including three this year) are a testament to the quality of their beer, and indicative of their enormous popularity in Denver and markets like the Twin Cities with readily available year-round and seasonal offerings like Titan IPA, Hercules Double IPA and The Yeti.

“Running the brewery hasn’t always been easy…there’s been some very lean years where we weren’t sure if we were going to make it,” explained Dunn. “Our revenue is up 60 percent so far this year, so we’re feeling very fortunate. We’re very excited for what the future holds.”

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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+

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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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