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With more than 100 different Belgian beers on draught throughout the weekend, beer geeks in the Twin Cities didn’t need to look far to find some fantastic offerings at this year’s Belgian Beer Festival at The Muddy Pig in St. Paul.  

After helping a friend with some home improvement projects at his house just a stones throw from the bar, my wife and I walked over Sunday afternoon to catch the mid-day NFL games and try some great Belgian ales. Compared to last year, the selection seemed much larger and more interesting, a sign that hopefully we’ll be seeing more of these delicious beers on tap around town.

Verhaeghe Echte Kriekenbier
A beautiful Flanders red. Great amber red appearance, bretty and sour, with a nice biting cherry finish. My wife tried a sip, and thought it smelled like a foot. Mission accomplished.

Rating: A-

Saison Dupont
One of the benchmarks of the style. Spicy aroma, coriander and yeast. Nice bitterness in the flavor, earthy but not barnyard. Enjoyable.

Rating: A- 

Poperings Hommelbier
Tried this for the first time at last year’s event, and still pretty impressed. The Belgians have a different approach to IPAs, but it works. Very distinct aroma, smells like a rose bush. Mellow hop bite, with a subtle bitterness in the finish.

Rating: B+

La Rulles Estivale
A Belgian pale, characterized by a yeasty, toasty aroma and smooth flavor. Almost akin to a German pilsner in some ways. A nice beer.

Rating:  B+ 

La Divine
From Brasserie de Silly, you’d never guess this was a tripel from its dark appearance. But this one surprises you with a sweet maltiness, plenty of toffee notes and candi sugar in the flavor. Creamy mouthfeel. Really liked this beer.

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

If you haven’t been over to Kramarczuk’s in Northeast Minneapolis, I recommend you go as quickly as you can.

It’s a fantastic little neighborhood sausage maker, bakery and restaurant all wrapped into one. They’ve been making some of the best sausages this side of the Mississippi since 1954, and have truly made a name for themselves as a Minneapolis landmark. This last weekend, several of us got together for a little spring cook-out, and my friend tossed Kramarczuk’s andouille and curried brats on the grill. It was seriously some of the best stuff I’ve ever had. And paired with two incredible IPA’s and a nice imperial stout,  you couldn’t really ask for a better evening. Here’s the rundown on the beers:

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Houblon Chouffe Dobbelen IPA Tripel

This is a fantastic and unique blend of a Belgian IPA/Tripel from Brasserie d’Achouffe. Pours with a big yeasty head, with all kinds of champagne-like carbonation escaping from the beautiful lemonade colored beer below. The hops are certainly there in the nose, but the yeast also plays a nice role, kind of like each knows their place in the symphony. Some apple and pear notes come through as well.

Taste is magnificent. Unlike the nose, which trends more to the IPA side, you get more of the sweet malty tripel effect combined with some of the yeast and alcohol. A spicy finish that keeps you coming back for more. Really one of the more complex and well-balanced beers I’ve had in a long time. I’m hoping Alvey at the Four Firkins still has some of this in stock.   

Rating: A 

dsc01883Southern Tier Oak-Aged Unearthly Imperial IPA

As if Houblon Chouffe didn’t impress me, along comes Southern Tier with its enormously complex Oak-Aged Unearthly Imperial IPA.

My wine conoisseur friend, who has one of the more finely tuned palates I know of, couldn’t get over how well the oakiness came through like a fine wine. Not too much, but perfectly balanced with the combination of piney hops and caramel malt.

Pours with a great amber coloring, not a big head but you still get a great nose of the oak and hops. Taste is extraordinary, just so much going on. At once you get the big malt backbone, some caramel, maybe a little vanilla. Then the oak coats your mouth as the bittering hops come back in full force. Very thick and dense mouthfeel, something you just want to savor for hours.

Rating: A 

dsc01897Boulevard Smokestack Series Imperial Stout

One of Boulevard’s offerings in their Smokestack Series, and I’d have to say probably not my favorite of the bunch.

Pours with a jet black coloring, not much head, but a chocolately aroma mixed with possibly some licorice or molasses. A smoky quality in the taste, which I didn’t pick up in the nose. The sweet malt balances the bittering hops, but you do get a somewhat dry finish. Mouthfeel was a little thin, considering the style. But a decent imperial stout, nonetheless. I’d like to try it on its own sometime, instead of following a couple other big beers.

Rating: B

I felt a little like we crashed the study party when a handful of us walked into Acadia Cafe on the West Bank of the U of M campus last night for our inaugural First Tuesday Beer Club meeting. Undergrads seated around pub tables with open books spread about, quiet conversations about the day’s lecture. A relaxed and scholarly environment mixed with the faint smell of hops and quality craft beer.

Calling our rendezvous a “meeting” might be a little formal. The small group was really a spin-off from a larger wine tasting circle, consisting of seven guys who realized that they all maybe enjoyed drinking and talking about beer slightly more than they do wine (maybe I’m just speaking for myself). After our last wine event, we decided to meet up at Acadia to test drive a few of their offerings, informally calling our gathering the First Tuesday Beer Club. But unlike the more rigid and structured wine events where scoring and extensive tabulations took place, we were just going to drink good quality craft beer and nod our heads in approval when we liked something. Maybe a few grunts mixed in for good measure.

We started the night with Surly Mild. I’d actually never seen this one on tap before, and was very eager to give it a shot. The menu described it as an English-style dark mild ale that resembled a malty version of iced tea. And that really wasn’t too far off. Given it was Surly, I was very surprised at just how little was really going on with this one. Barely noticeable aroma (save for the small hint of toffee), relatively nondescript taste, and thin mouthfeel. What immediately came to mind after taking a few sips of Mild was “session beer.” At 4.2% ABV, there’s no way anyone was going to have four or five or twelve of these and be in any danger of stumbling home. While this is probably a good stylistic example of a lighter English-style ale, it’s definitely the least favorite Surly offering I’ve had (Rating: C+).

The rest of the night went something like this:

Southern Tier Gemini Double IPA (far and away the crowd favorite – Rating: A-)
Rogue Yellow Snow IPA (so-so, pretty drinkable but compared to Gemini a little lower on the IPA scale – Rating: B)
Anchor Bock (very good…I’m not a big lager guy so I was pleasantly surprised – Rating: B+)
North Coast Old Rasputin (I’d had this in the bottle before, and was even more impressed with it on draught – Rating: A)
Saison Dupont Organic Farmhouse Ale (ick…something medicinal and uninviting about this one – Rating: C+)
Bell’s Sparkling Tripel 2007 (solid example of a Belgian tripel…yeasty up front with a nice, sweet finish – Rating: B+)
Bell’s Cherry Stout (enjoyable, nice way to cap off the night – Rating: B)

We each had our share, and ponied up the $8 per guy to settle the tab (seriously…I think they must have forgotten to put a couple pitchers on the bill). Next stop on the First Tuesday beer tour…The Muddy Pig. See everyone there.

dsc00946If you haven’t noticed, I love Belgian-style ales. In particular, tripels.

I’d been looking for this one for a while, having really enjoyed Boulevard’s Sixth Glass quadrupel and the Saison from their acclaimed Smokestack Series. Both excellent. Their Long Strange Tripel, the third in the series, is right there with them. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it could go toe-to-toe with tripels from Westmalle, Chimay, or Unibroue’s La Fin du Monde. It really is that good.

Poured from a bomber with huge amounts of carbonation producing a perfect billowing head. I sat there looking at the glass for a minute, completely mesmerized by the frenetic activity of yeast sediment and fine bubbles coursing through the beer. Now this is what I want to see when I pour a Belgian.

The nose is fruity, yeasty and sweet, all in perfect harmony. The expected citrus, clove and gingerbread qualities that define a tripel.

Taste is very similar. Very nice, light malt character that imparts a slightly sweet yet dry finish. A little bit of the citrus thing going on combined with candi sugar, but not overly done. 9% ABV isn’t detectable.

With some beers, I look at how quickly I went through the bottle as my final measuring stick of desirability. This one didn’t last long. 

Rating: A

Flat Earth Brewing over in St. Paul has a few new offerings coming out soon, and one of them caught my eye…their Winter Warlock English Barleywine. My last experience with a barleywine, Rogue’s Old Crustacean, left a little to be desired, so I’m hoping this one turns out better. They’re also releasing (or bringing back) their Black Helicopter Coffee Stout, Rode Haring Flanders Red Ale, and Bermuda Triangle Tripel.

Thanks to BeerSage over at BeerNews.org for the heads up.

Many years ago when I was in college, my fraternity brothers and I decided one day that we were going to expand our alcohol horizons and start drinking the “good stuff.” After all, we’d poured through every conceivable macro brew and cheap booze known to man (and some that should have never seen the light of day). So instead of Fratty Natty (Natural Ice Light) or Hawkeye Vodka (we were in Iowa), we started trying things like Bombay Sapphire, and Absolut (yes, we thought that was good at the time). But one alcohol we mistakenly got into was Jim Beam 8 Star. A blended bourbon produced from the dregs and runoffs from Jim Beam’s normally decent whiskey offerings. It’s so bad they don’t even list it any longer on their company website. I think they’re embarrassed. But man, did we love it. We mixed it with everything…Coke, Pepsi, Dr. Pepper, and even Mountain Dew. But we never took it straight. That would have meant immediate death. As this bourbon was toxic. The kind of stuff you’d expect Appalachian mountain men to consume at backwoods gatherings under the cover of darkness. In fact, I’m pretty sure I was drinking this concoction when I was duct-taped in the middle of January to the front porch Corinthian columns of the neighboring sorority house by my buddies, and my pants pulled down for all the world to witness. Oh, and they rang the doorbell too. All I can say is, I was in the pool.  

Approximately 12 years later, enter Allagash Curieux. What a unique beer. My palate must be getting more precise, because even before I really looked at the bottle label I took one sip and immediately thought “wow, this tastes like a really good triple aged in oak barrels.” And I guess I was right.

I have to give Allagash serious credit. Because they pulled off what could be a difficult brewing task…combining what is normally a fairly delicate beer style with a healthy dose of oak. Only an ale with a high alcohol content could handle something like that, otherwise the oak would overpower the whole thing. And this one comes in at 11% ABV, so plenty strong enough to balance the hints of bourbon imparted by the casks. This beer is aged for 8 weeks in Jim Beam barrels (and I’m guessing not the same ones used to make Beam’s 8 Star). The result is a fantastically complex ale. On one hand, you have a world-class Triple, and on the other, a hint of some of the finest bourbon out there.

Poured from a bomber with a small head. Pretty hazy, light golden coloring, seem to be lots of yeast floating around. You immediately smell the oak. It’s great. The website talks about coconuts and vanilla in the nose. I can buy that. Probably more coconut than vanilla as the ale warmed. Before I get into the taste, a warning…sip this one. Cherish it. Because it’ll sneak up on you and knock you on your ass. It starts out with that distinctive triple flavor…very Belgian. Then immediately kicks into the bourbon, providing a very dry finish.

I think Allagash has found a way to put happiness in a bottle. Nice recommendation, Vice Blogger.

Rating: A