It's quite the accomplishment as August Schell Brewing Company of New Ulm celebrates 150 years of beer making this month. Consider this: In 1875, Minnesota boasted 123 breweries. A hundred years later only four remained. By 1983 there were only 51 brewing companies nationwide. Prohibition and competition sunk the rest. But through tenacity, ingenuity and a bit of luck, August Schell survived to become the nation's second-oldest family-owned brewery.
A major reason for Schell's longevity is the beer itself. The company recognized early that its future lay in full-flavored, craft-brewed beers. By the 1980s Schell's helped pioneer craft beer in Minnesota with a line of specialty beers inspired by their German heritage.
One of the earliest was Schmaltz's Alt, a malty, German-style ale. That is now part of another first, with a version aged in French oak pinot-noir barrels. This inaugural beer in the brewery's new Stag Series, a collection of experimental, limited-release beers, was introduced this year. Its barrel-aged version blends toasty, caramel sweetness and hints of chocolate with oaky vanilla, vinous fruits and light acidity. Unfortunately, it is a blend that for me doesn't quite work. All the parts are there -- malt, wood and wine -- but they seem to be doing battle instead of forming a harmonious whole. It's a worthy experiment that just missed the mark. But I'm looking forward to the next Stag Series beer, a wild-rice saison, that will appear in October.
To celebrate the anniversary, Schell's released eight limited-run beers beginning in 2008, and asked beer drinkers to vote for their favorite. Hopfenmalz won the most votes -- and the designation as the official 150th anniversary beer. The name translates from German as "hops and malt." That's exactly what this beer delivers. Rich caramel and bready malt are matched by an assertive but not overbearing bitterness with complementary herbal and tangerine hop flavors. This beer is made for food. It would go equally well with grilled meats, roast turkey or a caramel crème brûlée.
For something lighter, try Pils or Zommerfest. Schell's Pils is a German style pilsner lager featuring bracing, spicy hops supported by a background of grainy, sweet malt. It is crisp, clean and a classic example of the style that gives authentic German brands a run for their money.
Zommerfest is a Kölsch-style ale, similar to a pilsner, but softer. Its gently sweet-malt character is balanced by herbal hops with faint notes of licorice and blackberries. Fermentation with ale yeast rounds out the sharp edges, leaving a delicate, soft-spoken beer, but one that is not without intrigue. Zommerfest's time is running out, though, since it's a summer seasonal.
Schell's Stout is a departure from the brewery's German tradition. First brewed in 2006 for the Snowstorm series -- winter releases that change style every year -- Stout proved so popular that it was added to the year-round lineup. Don't expect the intense ashy, burnt flavors of Guinness. This is a London-style sweet stout with plenty of chocolate and coffee to make it appealing to those who think they don't like stouts. Try this with dessert or add a scoop of vanilla ice cream for a stout float.
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.