Big Wood Brewery might be the most decorated Minnesota beermaker whose product you've never tasted. Without often hard-to-come-by tickets to the Twin Cities' biggest beer festivals, it's unlikely that a Big Wood brew ever has passed your lips.
"We kind of did everything backwards," said founder Steve Merila. "We got our brand out there, we won awards, but we didn't have any beer on the market."
That's about to change. Last week the Vadnais Heights-based brewery officially launched its flagship Morning Wood, which snagged best beer prizes at the past two Autumn Brew Review (ABR). Merila said within a month the light-bodied coffee stout will be in 20 metro bars, and the Uptown Republic (3001 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls., 612-886-2309 www.republicmn.com) is hosting a tapping party from 5 to 8 p.m. Friday.
Aside from the ABR wins, Merila's beery brainchild respectively claimed best in-state and overall brewery awards at this year's St. Paul Summer Beer Fest and the Beer Dabbler Winter Carnival. The accolades seem all the more fortuitous, considering Big Wood's accidental entry into the local festival scene.
"I showed up at my first [Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild] meeting and, I was so dumb, I wanted to get tickets to Winterfest," Merila said of the association's popular beer-tasting bash.
By the end of the meeting, Merila scored more than tickets to the annual event. Guild brass invited him to showcase his Big Wood beers at the St. Paul suds sampler. But the beer-fest awards didn't start accumulating until he and partner Jason Medvec brought on current brewer Ty McBee, who created the recipe for the euphemistic Morning Wood.
"The first [ABR], I probably didn't sleep the week before," said the home brewer turned pro. "Then to find out we won the damn thing; that was just crazy."
Unlike many in its style, Morning Wood is an easy-to-drink stout, which carries its coffee-bean taste and aroma with subtle oatmeal notes in an effectively waiflife body, making the highly carbonated brew approachable for those put off by heavy beer. While stouts are an atypical way to sway domestic drinkers to the craft movement, Merila said the beer scored well with the blue-collar Bud swillers he once worked with at a wood floor distributor. Big Wood brews in the same building as his former employer (hence the name), but Merila has a spring opening planned for a new brewery and taproom in downtown White Bear Lake.
After two years of casual brand-building on the beer-fest circuit, the northern Wisconsin native admits it's been frustrating not having a ready-to-sell product until now.
"It's been really tough, because every single day I get an e-mail from either a consumer, a liquor store owner or a restaurant owner saying 'How do I get your beer?'" Merila said.
Finally, he can answer his clamoring customers-to-be.
Rockin' the East Side
As of last week, St. Paulites have a pair of new bars to belly-up at. Gastropub Ward 6 opened its doors on the city's East Side, with 20 mostly Minnesotan tap beers and a food menu helmed by chef Elizabeth Olson, a Pat's Tap/Barbette alum. Beer history fun fact: Co-owner Eric Foster said the space once housed a bar opened by Hamm's Brewery in 1903.
858 Payne Av., St. Paul 651-348-8181 www.ward6stpaul.com
St. Paul sports bar
The now-open Bullpen Sports Saloon looks to plant its sports-bar roots in Lowertown ahead of the new Saints stadium, slated to open in 2015. Although the Minnesota Association of Bloody Mary Bars (OK, that's not a real thing) could not confirm its claims, Bullpen boasts that it has the biggest bloody bar in the state (weekends from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.). Let the research begin.
395 N. Robert St., St. Paul 651-340-0583 www.bullpensportssaloon.com
Name change on Hennepin
The Bullfrog Cajun Bar, from the folks behind the Uptown and St. Paul Bulldog bars, is going through an interspecies transformation. Effective Monday, the downtown Minneapolis beer bar will become another Bulldog location, ditching its Cajun food menu and lager- and pilsner-leaning tap lineup to fall in line with its canine counterparts.
1111 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls. 612-339-0638 www.bullfrogcajunbar.com
Michael Rietmulder writes about bars, clubs and nightlife.