Already an irregular bunch of beermakers, Minnesota craft brewers might have finally come unhinged during these past few freezing months. Or so it seemed during last weekend's Winterfest beer bash at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul, which featured an inordinate number of unusual and occasionally outrageous brews.
Produced by the Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild, the seventh annual tasting event was a fancier but more daring counterpart to the guild's popular Autumn Brew Review. Its ornate setting, jazz quartet and cheese table belied the grittier and dangerous beer offerings. And unlike the fall fest's Colorado-to-Michigan territory, Winterfest is for Minnesota brewers only. Anyone who attended this year will tell you that was more than enough.
The event predictably leaned heavily on the heavy side, with many dark, thick and/or high-alcohol-content offerings.
Some of the best of the more traditional cold-season brews included the velvety-dark but lightly spicy winter ale by St. Paul's Vine Park Brewing Co. and the oatmeal-blended, hops-tinged Cold Snap Ale by St. Cloud brewpub McCann's.
The state's big-kahuna microbrewer Summit renewed attendees' love for its widely available winter ale thanks to a Winterfest-only infusion of Fuggle dry hops served in casks. And the oldest brewer on the block, New Ulm's August Schell, reasserted itself by debuting the fifth brand in its keg-only Anniversary Series, a crisp, malty lager called Hopfenmalz with the aroma of an old German bakery.
Like the Hopfenmalz, the King Boreas Imperial Winter Wit by St. Paul brewpub Great Waters proved that not all cold-season beers have to be as dark as a pothole. Another lighter standout was the Gale Force Cranberry Ale by Duluth's Fitger's Brewhouse, with a tart, dry bite that perfectly balanced its sweetness.
Treats for sipping
It quickly became obvious why no desserts were offered on the Winterfest buffet tables: Many of the beers filled that role. One of the best was the Belgian Biscotti offered by Stillwater's fledgling microbrewer Lift Bridge, a farmhouse ale that indeed tasted like its namesake treat. There were also numerous barley wines on tap that could rival fine sherry for after dinner, especially Lift Bridge's cask-served Facemeltor and the Winter Warlock by another new microbrewer, St. Paul's Flat Earth.
Probably the most-talked-about of the sweet beers was Surly's Three, which hits select bars starting this week to mark the Brooklyn Center brewer's third anniversary. As with most things Surly, Three is wow-inducing but not for everyone, with dark German malt and a honey-steeped sweetness that's mead-like. Less of a wow: Surly won the best-of-the-fest Great Snowshoe Award with its divine first-anniversary brew, Bourbon One, a malty lager aged in a bourbon barrel.
Surly was hardly the only brewer doing innovative/weird flavors, though. Great Waters had two odd brands, a chocolate- and pear-laced porter called Betelgeuse and a ginger-ale-like Yuletide wheat beer, neither of which merited more than one sampling. McCann's fared better with its two odd standouts, the sherry-like, raisin-sprinkled Flame amber ale and the dessert-ready Apricot Coriander Ale. Another sweet gem was Minneapolis Town Hall Brewery's Coconut Milk Stout (way better than it sounds).
The wildest of the wild bunch, though, was Town Hall's Chipotle Wee Heavy -- a just plain evil beer, with a jalapeño-induced spice that lingered on the taste buds for the next hour. Here's hoping the spicy burps were aired out by the time the History Center reopened in the morning, or else our wily local brewers might not be invited back there next year.
The Autumn Brew Review returns Sept. 12 in Minneapolis.
Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658