Saving Minnesota lakes from pesky zebra mussels might just be a pint away.
On Lake Minnetonka, Excelsior Brewing Co., just launched an ale made from zebra mussel shells and Eurasian milfoil — taken fresh out of the big lake.
That’s right, a keg of aquatic invasive species.
“Whenever people talk about it they say, ‘What, really?!’ ” said John Paul Awad, one of the brewery’s leaders. “We’ve had some raised eyebrows and people really skeptical about it. We wanted to push the envelope with this one.”
Touting it as a way to save the lake from “aquatic hitchhikers,” the brewery just started pouring the Milfoil Lakehouse Saison Ale with its “exotic, invasive flavor.” It’s all local, with Minnetonka honey, local hops, Minnesota wild rice — and a dash of those lake pests.
The novel, bizarre ingredients even surprised state officials Friday.
“To my knowledge, I haven’t heard of it,” said Heidi Wolf of the Department of Natural Resources about using zebra mussels and milfoil in recipes. “It sounds really unusual.”
Experts say fingernail-sized zebra mussels are edible but can accumulate pollutants because they are filter feeders, so federal agencies don’t recommend people eat them. But Awad said they used minuscule amounts of the milfoil and zebra mussels’ shells — all the meat from the tiny shells was taken out — cooking and boiling them. And as part of the filtering process, beer drinkers won’t have to fear finding any trace of the ingredients in their glass.
“Neither of them add a lot of flavor; it’s more of the novelty of it,” Awad said.
True to the lake life
The brewery came up with the idea at Grumpy’s Limited Action Beer Fest this month, which challenged breweries to come up with brews using only Minnesota ingredients. As the first Lake Minnetonka brewery and the only one allowed in the small lakeside town of Excelsior, Awad said they wanted to play off their lake life.
“We thought, ‘We’re going to take this to the extreme,’ ” he said.
The brewery already had beers that nod to the lake, such as Big Island Blond Ale, and 1 percent of their profits go back to support the lake through organizations such as the Freshwater Society. Now, they’re really living up to their motto, “lake life distilled,” pitching a way to help the lake by bellying up to the bar.
“It ended up being a really great beer,” Awad said, adding that it tastes like a lot of Saisons with fruity, spicy notes.
Zebra mussels are one of the numerous aquatic invasive species in Minnesota, proliferating by the millions and infesting nearly 200 waterways such as popular Lake Minnetonka. It can damage everything from lake ecosystems to boat motors, prompting state and local officials to try some innovative measures — from mussel-sniffing dogs to new biopesticides.
Now, enter the beer drinkers.
“There’s some breweries out there trying some crazy things,” said Ryan Anderson, who runs MNbeer.com.
Across the country, he said craft breweries are getting more creative, trying ingredients from a fish bladder to the dried yeast from a brewer’s beard. Seaweed, he added, is becoming more common, and oyster shells have been used in dark stouts.
“It’s definitely a kind of interesting thing,” Anderson said of Excelsior’s new creation. “But stranger things have happened.”