Unassuming Olvalde brewery looks to the past for inspiration, often using ingredients grown on-site.
Nestled in the rolling landscape of southern Minnesota just a few miles northwest of Winona is the tiny town of Rollingstone. It’s a blink-and-you-miss-it sort of place, home to just over 650 residents. But this unassuming burg is also home to one of the state’s most interesting breweries, Olvalde Farm and Brewing Co.
Olvalde occupies a red pole barn on a farmstead at the edge of town. From the outside one would never know that it’s a brewery, as it fits perfectly into the rural surroundings. And that’s just fine with brewer Joe Pond. His goal is to take brewing back to the days before industrialization, when beer-making was just another farmyard chore and farmer/brewers took advantage of whatever ingredients were at hand.
Pond is an interesting brewer to talk to. His intricate knowledge of modern brewing technique sits in seeming contradiction to his admittedly romantic view of what brewing should be. He is equally at ease discussing the chemistry of fermentation or explaining the potential uses of native herbs that he tends in the brewer’s garden on the property.
Plants like horehound, rosehips, valerian root and mugwort work in conjunction with hops to provide Olvalde beers with sweetness-balancing bitterness and unexpected flavors. Pond keeps wild hops growing in a tangle of vines on a trellis. Sometimes foraged ingredients such as spruce tips and juniper berries make their way into his beers. He grows some of his own barley and has plans to dabble in malting as well.
But it’s fermentation that really gets Pond excited. The fruity/spicy character derived from yeast is one of the drivers of Olvalde beers. Neither the brewery nor the fermenting tanks are temperature-controlled, meaning that Pond’s brewing schedule is somewhat seasonally determined, a nod to the way brewing was done in the days before artificial refrigeration. Temperature fluctuations affect fermentation flavors. Like a true farmhouse brew, there may be slight variation from batch to batch.
Even the beers’ names have a bit of a romantic skew. Brynhildr’s Gift and Ode to a Russian Shipwright conjure images of an earlier time of tall ships and Valkyries. The flagship beer, the Auroch’s Horn, takes its name from a now-extinct bull, the horn of which was said to serve as a drinking vessel for ancient ales.
If you are looking for the perfect beer to serve with your Thanksgiving turkey, find some Auroch’s Horn. This 10-percent-alcohol golden ale is Pond’s modern interpretation of the type of beer that might have been made 2,000 years ago. Auroch’s Horn is brewed with barley, wheat and local honey. Herbal and spicy notes blend delicately with nectar-like malt. It’s a sweet but rough-hewn beer that manages to be “Belgian-esque” without being Belgian. It’s a style all its own.
The winter seasonal Ode to a Russian Shipwright is a strong, imperial porter brewed with spruce tips and raw barley from the farm. The smoky, roasted-barley flavors of this inky brew are complemented by the spicy edge of malted rye. The spruce adds contrasting high notes of pine resin and berry-like fruit. This is a beer well-suited to fireside contemplation.
My favorite of the bunch is Brynhildr’s Gift, the brewery’s springtime seasonal offering. Extended boiling gives this beer a rich, buttered-caramel base that glides smoothly across the tongue. The caramel sweetness is balanced by rye spice and the gin-like fruitiness of juniper berries. Though it’s a spring release, I’ve seen bottles on the shelves of better beer stores as recently as last month. It’s well worth seeking out.
Michael Agnew is a certified cicerone (beer-world version of sommelier) and owner of A Perfect Pint. He conducts private and corporate beer tasting events in the Twin Cities, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.