10-years old and pedaling hard, I rode my bike down the street of a small mountain town in northern California to deliver groceries to an invalid. Eloise, or “Weezie” as everyone called her, had a daily staple: one six-pack of Coors beer. She was 70-years old and had a glass eye. She’d have cash waiting atop her formica kitchen table and there was always an extra quarter for me. But that’s not why I hurried to get Weezie her beer. It was for the stories that ensued once she popped the tab on her first Coors.
Years later it would be a lanky bay gelding I rode, herding cattle. We started out at 5 a.m., crossed the East Fork of the Carson River and rode up into what was called the Barney Riley-a craggy mountain that was legend among Jeep enthusiasts. Rocky terrain, steep gullies and a dusty trail made it a long push. But over the ridge and beyond a couple of canyons lay aspen trees; the eastern Sierra’s sentinels of water. There the cattle had plenty of range to forage for the remainder of summer until we rode this treacherous trail once again to bring them home.
At the end of the day–saddle-sore but proud that I had endured–I was offered a bottle of beer from the cooler in the back of the ranch pickup. I glanced over at the foreman and he nodded his dusty cowboy hat at me. With my first illicit taste of beer I discovered that this cold golden liquid signaled the end of a workday. Weezie had recounted her own adventures on horseback, riding the telegraph lines between mining camps. I thought of her and I as kindred spirits; women able to tackle men’s traditions-cowboying and drinking beer. I never once thought about the taste of Coors. Like many, I became loyal to the brand name passed down to me.
This light brew I came to know is the American-style of beer that dominated the era between Prohibition and the birth of microbreweries. It was different from the old world styles that formulated flavor from malt, hops and yeast. In contrast, American-style beer emphasized glacier water, Cascadian spring water, Rocky Mountain water-ice cold grain champagne. With flavor minimized, it was drinkable by the masses who sought its essence for sociability. Minnesota was no different than the rest of the nation and had its own American-style breweries such as Hamms.
Corn syrup fillers and water-infused beer was exactly what Mark Stutrud protested in 1986 when he founded the Summit Brewing Company in St. Paul. He was one of a growing number of beer-drinkers dissatisfied with the commercial beer choices of the times. Despite skepticism from the business community-it had been 75 years since Minnesota had opened a new brewery-Stutrud converted an auto-parts warehouse into his first brewery and rolled kegs across the road to Johnny’s Bar. Summit quickly found a welcoming audience with its hallmark of consistently balanced craft beer. While Summit Brewing Company has grown beyond microbrewery classification-it is considered a regional craft brewer-it still remains a small group of brewers who use traditional materials and methods. When asked if Summit Brewing Company would ever offer a “light” beer in the American-style, Stutrud is said to have exclaimed, “Not while I’m alive!”
While Summit Brewing Company rose as the rebels 21 years ago, they carved a niche for other brewers to follow. With today’s drinkers accustom to microbrews, Minnesota has a charged audience always scoping something new and different. A dedicated following has already embraced two-year old Surly Brewing Company with its edgy, extreme beer and finesse for marketing. Surly gained its moniker from the attitude beer-drinkers assume when denied a good mug of brew. Owner and brewer Omar Ansari started with a home-brew kit, moved his kegs to the family’s garage and eventually convinced Brooklyn Center to legalize breweries. Like Stutrud, Ansari wanted different choices that go beyond any standard beer styles. Surly lives up to expectation, crafting recipes like Surly Furious that snap with hops. For the Minnesota crowd looking for something different, they won’t be disappointed.
Although, not everything trendy has to be over the top. Sometimes, beer-drinkers are simply looking for uncommon styles. Enter Minnesota’s youngest brewery, Flat Earth Brewing Company. Owner, brewer and chief bottler, Jeff Williamson, fills in the gaps between Summit’s balanced craft beer and Surly’s wild excursions with less produced styles like English porter and American lager. For Williamson it all began with visits back east. Williamson’s wife Cathie, president and official beer taster for Flat Earth, grew up in New England. When the couple would visit they always seemed to be having lunch at a pub that served New England microbrews. Williamson thought, “This can’t be rocket science to make beer and that summer I began making beer on the stove.” Now, with a 15 barrel system, Williamson is brewing 30 kegs at a time for over 200 distributor accounts and 30 draft accounts.
While it is true that Stutrud, Ansari and Williamson all started out kettling brew in their kitchens, home-brewer turned microbrewer is not always the natural progression in crafting beer. In fact, according to local beer expert and publisher of Twin Cities Imbiber, Jeffrey Holverson, most home-brewers are satisfied to stay in the kitchen. That explains the terrific success of Northern Brewer, a haven of knowledge and supplies for beginning to experienced “homers.” Located on Grand Avenue it offers an impressive selection of bulk hops, malts, yeasts and all the necessary equipment to kettle your own beer in your own kitchen.
However, equipment to brew beer on a larger scale than home is another matter. Copper is still king in the beer world, old or new, but stainless steel is standard. Copper is known to provide a chemical reaction that enhances the flavor of beer and has always been a part of the brewing process today. Often, when a brewery closes down or expands, another brewer will pick up its equipment. Williamson secured Flat Earth Brewing Company’s equipment from a San Francisco brew-pub that posted online. Larger breweries upgrade and allow start-ups to get used equipment, including the bottling lines that Summit now uses. When Summit Brewing Company built its current brewery along the bluffs of the Mississippi River, they installed a 300-year old copper brew-house purchased from Ansbach Brewery in Germany. Once construction was completed the German vessels arrived in the same manner as German immigrants 150 years ago-by sea and river.
One such German immigrant to arrive in Minnesota in 1856 brought with him his knowledge of German engineering. As a young man, August Schell machined milling equipment in New Ulm. Like his modern counterpart at Summit Brewing Company, Schell responded to the lack of good German beer by partnering with a brew-master and founding a brew-house along the Cottonwood River just outside New Ulm. Today, August Schell Brewing Company stands as an anomaly in modern beer production. As the second oldest family-owned brewing company in the nation, it survived both Prohibition and the dominance of the mega-brewers of American style beer. August Schell’s great-great-grandson, Ted Marti, agrees that it was the revival of malt brewing in the 1980s that contributed to Schell’s success ever since. Brewing in its historic location, Schell Brewing Company is worth a visit.
In fact, brewery tours are a great way to gain a greater appreciation for beer. Part of appreciating beer is to understand its makeup. While the American-style of beer emphasizes water source, it is corn that makes for the lighter-than-malt style. Most microbrews have returned to malt-brewing in the European styles of Great Britain, Belgium and Germany. Marti, makes an interesting point that traditional malted grains like barley not always available back when American-style recipes were created. Malting is a process applied to cereal grains, in which the grains are made to germinate and then are quickly dried before the plant develops. However, with the quality choices available today, many of Minnesota’s brewers advocate following the Reinheitsgebot-Bavarian’s Purity Laws of 1516 that call for three ingredients: water, malt, hops.
Yeast is arguably the most complex ingredient in beer and was not included in the Reinheitsgebot only because the microorganism had not yet been discovered in 1516. Yeast is what provides stability and alcohol to the brew. Different strains can also imbue different flavors. Think of a bread baker and the difference between dough made for wheat bread and one made for sourdough. In extreme cases, wild yeast strains create a sour beer like the ones from Flemish brew-masters. While startling in taste, many beginning beer drinkers have actually found this style pleasing (see Editor’s Picks for the Non-Beer Drinker).
Water is an obvious element to beer, but not the focal point. Modern breweries use advanced water filtrations of sand and charcoal, making municipal water sources just as acceptable as mountain spring water. Clean water is an important part of the process, but not so much the taste. It is malt and hops are vital to flavor.
One visit to the Flat Earth Brewery Company will demonstrate the importance of malt. Sacks of various varieties line the brewery wall. Williamson easily scoops up a palmful of malted barley to nibble on the grains like a chef would sample fresh ingredients. After barley is malted it is then kilned to different degrees similar to roasting coffee. Like coffee, different varieties and different roasts yield different results, extending flavor in beer from saltine cracker to dark chocolate. Lower temperatures yield paler malts used in pale ales. Higher temperatures create the more caramel-like malts in ambers. The highest temperatures will yield a dark beer with an almost chocolaty essence.
The final ingredient of pure beer is hops. Hops are the female flowers of a vine native to the northern hemisphere. While hops can grow most places, they are most prevalent in the Pacific Northwest. As such the west coast is very found of hoppy beer. Hops can be added in the beginning, middle or end of the brew process. Each time they are added, another layer of flavor is introduced. By adding hops at the end, a brew will take on an aroma of oranges or grapefruit. Hops are often described as bitter-tasting, but a lot of beer drinkers appreciate the pizzazz hops can give beer. Juno Hoi, manager at Northern Brewer, points out that the “rise of the craft beer scene” contributes to a current shortage of hops. While this may mean higher prices for raw materials, Hoi also thinks that it allows for brewers to experiment with other varieties. He says to expect a fall shortage of hops over the next few years.
While everyone is feeling the pinch of a hops shortage this year, one Minnesota brewery half way between the Twin Cities and Sioux Falls is integrating locally grown raw materials. Brau Brothers Brewing Company, owned and operated by three brothers in Lucan, MN, is planting its own 2 acre hop yard. Middle brother, brewer and CEO, Dustin Brau, feels that being a rural brewery gives them an advantage of access to farmland. They plan to start growing their own barley, too.
It seems that beer in Minnesota has a lot of diversity despite the short list of traditional ingredients and methods. Organic beer is relatively new, but given the simplicity of raw ingredients, easy enough to incorporate. Flat Earth Brewing Company recently launched its organic Angry Planet American Pale Ale. Organic or not, brewers in Minnesota seem less inclined to be defined by emphasizing one ingredient or another. West coast microbreweries are known for hops and east coast microbreweries tend to refine European malt-styles. At national brewing events, Williamson has observed that “Minnesota has gotten the best of both coasts.” What we seem to have here is a good mix. And, a good heart.
Finnegan’s Irish Amber is the only beer company in the world to donate 100% of its profits from the only beer it brews. So far, Finnegan’s Community Fund has given back over $100,000 to the local community. The idea came to co-founder Jacquie Berglund after working in a local brew-pub and realizing how frequently the business was ask to donate to local causes. “Creating the wealth in the community and giving it back” she says, seemed to be a sustainable solution. Volunteers flock to assist with Finnegan’s event fundraisers and many do their part to live up to the company’s catchy slogan, “drink like you care.” The recipe was developed by the James Page Brewing Company (just over the border in Wisconsin) and is brewed by Summit Brewing Company using a hint of potatoes.
I can attest to doing my part fighting poverty while swilling Finnegan’s Irish Amber at my local which is Celt’s in Rosemount. In Ireland, the pub you frequent is called your “local” and garners as much loyalty as many give to their brand or styles of beer. Breweries represent just a portion of the rich Minnesota beer scene. We have great brew pubs that create and serve both food and beer, and an amazing array of bars that serve the local taps alongside the best imports. For a great read on Minnesota brewing history read Doug Hoverson’s new book, Land of Amber Waters and keep track of the best beer experiences locally, keep up with www.twincitiesimbiber.com.
While trends will always be changing, those early beer lessons still hold true. Beer will always have a social element with stories to tell and days to close. In Minnesota I have awakened to the diversity of beer and I can only wonder what Weezie would think of Surly. I know the name would have at least cracked a smile.
Editor’s Picks for the Non-Beer Drinker (for Michelle, who didn’t like beer until…)
If you truly want to know beer, get infused with beer excitement at the Happy Gnome in St. Paul. Partner Weston Seifert has enough enthusiasm for the new horizon of beer to get even the non-beer drinker drinking. Seifert and his passionate staff are able to talk about beer in terms that make sense. Upon learning that Edibles TC editor, Michelle Hueser did not like beer, he advised, “To enjoy good beer, take the time to appreciate it.” We were all surprised and delighted that our editor discovered four beers that she actually liked. Here are her picks:
Rodenbach Grand Cru Belgian Red Ale
Â This sour beer will be a startling surprise at first sip, but one you’ll want to experience again.
Ommegang Chocolate Indulgance
Beer that tastes like swilling dark chocolate. Need we say more?
Unique to the Happy Gnome (Seifert assures us he bought it all) this tangy beer tastes like cherries.
This Belgium amber is fruity and slightly sweet with a nice balance of malt.
As Seifert tells us, “A lot of artistry goes into these beers.” As a non-beer drinker who is curious, ask for singles at your local liquor store and take notes. Invite a few friends to bring singles and share. Our favorite pick is to visit the Happy Gnome and satisfy your curiosity among the experts you can easily talk to.
Originally published in Edible Twin Cities.