With its location now literally set in stone, the usual high demand for tickets and yet another best-in-show win by Surly Brewing Company, Friday night’s 10th annual Winterfest at the Minnesota History Center could have been seen as something of a blasé affair. Never mind the never-gets-old novelty/absurdity of a couple thousand beer nuts being welcomed after-hours into one of the state’s fanciest museums to get gloriously tanked on fine brews.
Thanks to a healthy batch of new brewers, however – including two Twin Cities companies not yet in stores or bars, plus three entries from up north -- the Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild’s cold-season showcase was anything but stale. Just having so many newbies in one year was an exciting development. Even more of a thrill was the popular consensus that these young companies aren’t just brewing by-the-numbers. Some of the best beers I sampled on Friday were by the new kids. And in the case of Ely’s Boathouse Brewpub, the beermakers really did look like they were just kids.
New from the Land of Sky Blue Waters (for real): Set to become the last-watering-hole stop for Boundary Waters trekkers, Boathouse pushed the boundaries on a couple of its beers, especially the Alten Furz, a German lagered ale topped off with batches of wild rice that give it a unique earthy flavor. Boathouse also had a smoked porter laced with cacao vanilla called Camper's Delight, which competed with Surly's Moe Bender as the best new desert-style beer of the night. Walker-based Leech Lake Brewing Co. impressed with its ample variety, including a hearty flagship beer with a sobriety-testing name, Loch Leech Monster Scottish Ale, plus the wonderfully malty Minobii ESB and the widely raved-about 3 Sheets Imperial IPA. And Duluth’s Carmody Irish Pub proved it's not just another faux Irish joint with a nicely spiced red ale and the light-bodied Famine Potato Stout.
New from the Twin Cities: Vadnais Heights-based Big Wood Brewing Co. – insert Beavis and Butthead laugh here – rose to the occasion with a coffee stout (predictably named Morning Wood), plus an excellent Imperial IPA and its truly pine-flavored Forest Ale. Minneapolis’ Harriet Brewing Co. wisely set itself apart with a focus on Belgian brews, led by the Divine Ocultist, a surprisingly accessible strong-golden ale despite its 8.5% ABV.
Best of the rest: Brau Brothers’ Rubus Blackberry Imperial Porter was my first beer of the night, and I could’ve drunk it all night -- though, at 9% ABV, it would have been a short night. I avoided Town Hall Brewery at first because the line was so long, and I eventually found out why: It had the best fruit beer of the night, Pink Eye (its killer honey beer + red tart cherries), along with the best hop-slammed beer of the event, HMF (a strong pale ale), and a decadent Russian Imperial Stout aged in Jack Daniels barrels called the Czar Jack. The latter will be a showpiece of Town Hall's upcoming Barrel Age Week (Feb. 21-26).
Diving headlong into the dark side, Fitger’s Brewhouse introduced a new line of 8.0%-plus 750 ml bottle brews called the Great Lake Series, the highlight of which was the Huron, a cherry-smoked dopplebock that was intense in all the right ways (alas, you can only get it and the others in Duluth). The Herkimer Pub offered a refreshing break from all the muddy pours with its golden Czech Pils, spiked with Czech Saaz hops and probably now the best pilsner in the Cities. And any beer nut that overlooked Summit’s Unchained brews would’ve been reminded of their greatness by the Imperial Pumpkin Porter.
As for Surly: In the midst of its fifth anniversary celebrations (and generating buzz about an expansion), the Cities’ rock-star of a brewer always goes all out for Winterfest. This year, I think it went a little too far out, and I’m on record as an early, avid lover of theirs. I just couldn’t savor the chili-peppered Molé Smoke, even though Mexican molé is a favorite dish of mine. The Abrasive (a double oatmeal, oak-aged, dry-hopped IPA... uff-da!) truly lived up to its name. And I actually saw people wince after sampling the much-ballyhooed Pentagram, a dark ale fermented in 100% Brettanomyces yeast that’s as sour as Glenn Beck.
Pentagram did win the best-in-show award, though, so clearly plenty of people deemed its sourness a sweet success. Funny how Surly's tea-bagged Furious and even the Darkness seemed standard by comparison -- and that's nothing if not proof of just how high our standards are getting for Minnesota beermakers.