Beer of the Week: Brewing Projekt WISCoast

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Brewing Projekt WISCoast.

I am proud of the brewing scene in Northwest Wisconsin. Breweries are relatively sparse over a large area spanning from the Chippewa River to Lake Superior, but most of the dozen or so make great beer. Some are among the oldest microbreweries in the Midwest—South Shore in Ashland and the one and only brewery in my county, Valkyrie. More recently, Hudson, Hayward, Superior, Menomonie, Somerset and other towns have become home to some skilled brewers serving beer in distinct spaces with great character. Oh, and there’s good old Leinenkugels.

Soon, the region may have its first mid-size craft brewer. After months of negotiating terms with the City of Eau Claire—without little evidence of progress—The Brewing Projekt reached an agreement to move into a larger, vacant space across the street from its current site in the heart of Eau Claire. The news came after a rally attended by more than 500 people, including myself. What a fun affair, with music, great weather and a dozen style-shifting, flavor-packed beers on tap.

It had been an extra-long time coming for these brewers, who had to cut through a considerable amount of red tape just to be licensed to brew, in large part because owner William Glass also owned Fire House bar in Eau Claire.

But where there’s a will there’s a way. Now, the Brewing Projekt envisions its new space as a destination brewery. It is my hope that the “Projekt” will be a stepping stone to making Eau Claire a destination city for beer lovers. Though much different than The Projekt, a block down Oxford Avenue, Lazy Monk Brewing makes superb representations of classic Central European styles—more about that here. Further, K Point Brewing is growing on the south side, Brewster Bros. and, of course, good old Leinenkugels up the road in Chippewa Falls. There are many more within 30 miles of Eau Claire, all serving beer on par in quality as that of most breweries in Madison, Milwaukee or the Twin Cities.

Eau Claire also offers other amenities prized by many beer lovers—an extensive system of paved trails and singletrack for bikers, good paddling waters, Ice Age hiking trail, challenging disc golf courses and a fantastic music scene highlighted by the Blue Ox and Eaux Claires festivals.

But let’s get back to the beer. My first from The Projekt, and a delight during the dog days of summer, WISCoast Pale Ale is a good introduction to the brewery’s distinct lineup.

First of all, having grown up on a Wisconsin dairy farm, I’ll drink anything with a cow on it. Citrusy hops and wheat make this an incredibly fruity, refreshing beer. The Brewing Projekt states, “Crafted to be wickedly crisp and totally refreshing.” Agreed.

Don’t wait for the expansion to visit The Brewing Projekt. Make a day or weekend of it. Eau Claire is very cool.

Rating: Glass – GROWLER – Case – Keg

 

 

Beer of the Week: Summit Keller Pils

 

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Summit 30th Anniversary Keller Pils.

Oh, the sizzingly dog days of summer. As I write, it is hot, humid with a strong south wind that warns that a thunderstorm is coming. Not good weather for doing much, except perhaps cooling down with a refreshing pilsner.

I’ve found none better this summer than Summit’s 30th Anniversary Keller Pils. It is one of four anniversary beers the St. Paul brewery is releasing this year. Given the brewery’s legacy of producing a variety of flavorful, easy-drinking beers in its regular lineup—like the summer-ready Pilsener—I find this one most appropriate and welcome to my taste buds.

Given the rarity of kellers or zwickelbier on American shelves—a damn shame in my opinion—I can only compare this to the excellent occasionally-released Yokel or Zwickel from New Glarus.

German-style Kellerbier is traditionally akin to classic Pilsners in taste, but differs with its hazy appearance and low effervescence. There is also more of a yeasty character and, overall, is bigger on aroma and flavor–seriously, why are there not more kellers?

This beer’s ingredients are somewhat foreign to me, but produce amazing results. The base malt is a traditional Barke Pilsner, which creates a very full body and flavor in this beer. The noble Tettnang and Hallertau Melon hops produce noticeably spicey, floral notes. Summit brewer Damian McConn explains more here.

For me, Summit’s Keller Pils goes down incredibly easy with a satisfying full, zesty finish left tingling on my tongue with every sip.

The heat has ruined my appetite, except for this sweet, crisp, complex lager. I just have to crack open another can.

Rating: Glass – Growler – Case – KEG

 

Beer of the Week: Bent Paddle Black

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Bent Paddle Black Ale.

A rare summer day in Duluth–upper 70s balanced by a cool, gentle breeze off Lake Superior. This after quite literally 8 months of mainly cold weather.

Really a shame I wasn’t paddling a kayak, shredding trails on a mountain bike or hiking to an overlook of the Great Lake on the Superior Hiking Trail.

But I was doing the next best thing, sipping a few cold ones with friends in the taprooms of the Twin Ports. We were in town to celebrate the marriage of two good friends after all.
Home to eight breweries, Duluth has quality and variety that does not disappoint. There are distribution only Blacklist and Borealis Fermentery. Carmody and Dubh Linn add Irish pub options. Founded in 1990, Lake Superior harkens back to the early days of the craft beer boom.

In this most recent visit, I enjoyed quality food, beer and atmosphere at Fitgers (quirky, cool historic building) and Canal Park (beer around a campfire near the lake after dark).
The only better option might have been a deep dish pizza and any number of flavor-packed brews at Thirsty Pagan across the St. Louis River in Superior, Wisconsin.
But that’s a story for another post.

Given the recent expansion of distribution into my home state, I’m highlighting a Bent Paddle beer this week.

Set apart from other Twin Ports breweries, but following the no-food, taproom-first, distribute-second philosophy common to many breweries today, Bent Paddle frankly has a good thing going.

Tucked into a somewhat-shabby part of town in an unremarkable warehouse building, Bent Paddle’s street parking draws many a Jeep/Suburu with a kayaks/bikes on the rack. Inside, a mixed crowd gets into games of cribbage, marvels at a myriad of shiny tanks, all the while filling the ample industrial, yet rustic space with a dull roar of conversation.

The beers share the liveliness of the taproom and the bold, adventurous spirit of the North Shore—e.g. Roof Rack Lager, Harness IPA, Venture Pils and 14º ESB–a two-time medalist at the Great American Beer Festival.

The lineup is solid top to bottom. But needing some dark beer in the fridge as a contrast to many summer lagers and pale ales, I grabbed a sixer of the Black Ale on the way home.

Bent Paddle says, “This Black Ale drinks like a porter but is opaque like a stout. Brewed with a generous amount of oats to round out the flavor.”

I can’t describe it any other way. It seems neither a stout or porter. Black ale is a wholly appropriate title. The beer is jet black with an easy-drinking body, but full roasty, chocolaty flavor.

Such a satisfying beer, I’m going to burn through this six pack quick, maybe while enjoying a hobo dinner of sausage and root vegetables somewhere along the way.

Rating: Glass – Growler – CASE – Keg

Beer of the Week: Central Waters Cassian Sunset

 

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Central Waters Cassian Sunset.

If Goose Island is #1 in the barrel-aged beer game, Central Waters might well be a close second. This is a common ranking in the Midwest.

In my book, however, Central Waters is #1. Granted, I’ve only had two vintages of the original Bourbon County Brand Stout. Reason: 1. Hard to get in Northern Wisconsin 2. Only released once a year 3. I’m not into shelling out extra cash or trading for beer 4. Goddamn InBev.

Alternatively, I can get better than a half-dozen of this Amherst (WI)-based brewery’s barrel-aged beers in a year’s time for less than $15 per 4-pack. This lineup is all affordable, consistent beers with big barrel character.

Granted, this has changed somewhat with tickets to the brewery’s anniversary releases selling out in minutes and the introduction of $40 per bottle Ardis Insignis.

So, is Ardis Insignis worth it?

Hell, I have no idea. I didn’t even bother to enter the raffle because I’m not paying $40 for 22 oz. of beer. Hey, I gotta draw the line somewhere.

No, rather I’ll be reviewing another recent release, Cassian Sunset.

Central Waters says: “A bourbon barrel aged imperial stout with local Emy J’s coffee, whole vanilla beans and cinnamon.”

First thought: “YAASSS! A new Central Waters beer!”

Second thought: “Oh no, they’ve taken a perfectly good BB stout and ruined it with spices and shit.”

You must understand, beers jam-packed with vanilla and/or coffee have almost always ended in disappointment for my taste buds.

Well, I bought some anyway. After all, I could attest to the fact that Emy Js has great coffee, having spent 4 years in college in Stevens Point, Wisconsin. And, Central Waters’ Brewhouse Coffee Stout is a rare exception to my “coffee beers suck” belief.

After my first glass, my suspicions seemed correct. I was ready to give away the other three bottles.

But, the first taste was from a shaker pint glass at a cold temperature. I felt I had done an injustice. So, a week later I had another from a tulip/snifterish glass at the proper temp. Big improvement.

Yes, the coffee, vanilla and cinnamon is there, but remain subtle enough. I still can’t say I’m a fan of these additives, but there is good balance in this beer. I certainly can’t fault Central Waters for trying something new with its tried-and-true barrel aging project.

This beer is, ultimately, another testament to the fact that Central Waters is one of the best in the business.

Too often beers are made extreme for extreme’s sake. Central Waters has certainly jumped in on the popular trends of incorporating barrel aging or huge amounts of sexy hops, fruit, peppers, spices, etc. But the brewery has also shown enough restraint and skill to produce flavorful beer that is also easy-drinking. I was surprised how quickly I finished my glasses of Cassian Sunset.

This supped-up bourbon barrel stout is decadent, like maybe spice cake, brownie and coffee ice cream mixed together. That sounds a little strange and excessive, but damn, I’d be a fool not to try it.

Rating: Glass – Growler – CASE – Keg

Beer Run Episode #5

We had such a great interview with Ryan Verdon of Real Deal Brewing that we couldn’t bear to cut the show down to a half hour. We talk about this Menomonie (WI) nanobrewery’s sessionable English-style beers, as opposed to “Barrel-aged barleywines of death.” Plus, Carl and I review a Porter all the way from Green Man Brewing in Asheville, North Carolina and look back at some classic beer commercials. “It works every time”

Beer of the Week: Surly Xtra-Citra

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Beer of the Week: Surly Xtra-Citra

Disclaimer: I am not a hophead. I don’t go crazy for IBU bombs. I might even say IPA is my least favorite style.

However, every once in a while I get a craving for a crisp, fruity IPA. Such an effect is often created with a good dose of Citra Hops.

A beer company rep I talked to recently referred to the hops as “Almighty Citra” for its popularity and difficulty to obtain in large quantities. Other breweries have had more luck, such as Marz Community Brewing Co.

There are also the hop hanchos at the well-known Minneapolis, Minnesota brewery Surly. Unlike the hop-loving public, I don’t seek out Furious, Abrasive or Overrated often.

But one of the latest releases, Xtra-Citra, had me intrigued. The beer screams summer from its sun-yellow can its sessionably low abv (4.5%) to the obvious fruity, spry Citra flavor.

My fridge void of a light, crisp ale in an adventure-ready can, I picked up four tallboys of Xtra-Citra.

Surly is generous in providing information on the ingredients on its website. The beer pours bright golden with an airy, white head. Fresh fruity, grassy aromas follow. The taste is more of the same. There’s lemon-lime and tangerine fruitiness, and a bitter, grassy, almost-saison like finish, likely helped by the Warrior bittering hops and English ale yeast.

As a showcase for Citra, this ale nails it.

But for this malt man, the citra is a little over-the-top. I like my citra balanced with a fuller body and another flavor/aroma hop like cascade.

Ideally, I’d have this beer on occasions where any fresh, light beer tastes good—on a hot day after manual labor, while fishing, between paddle strokes in a kayak or around a campfire with roasted hot dogs.

Rating: Glass – GROWLER – Case – Keg

Beer of the Week: Ponysaurus Biere De Garde

IMG_1991Ponysaurus Biere De Garde

I have returned from vacation refreshed in mind and body. Helping me remain in this state is trunkload of North Carolina beers procured during a few days in Asheville.

Naturally, I had to feature something from the Tar Heel State on this blog. It is North Carolina Craft Beer Month after all.

I had long thought of visiting Asheville, not only for its reputation for tasty beer, but for its great food scene and outdoor recreation—I had a blast mountain biking and hiking.

I picked North Carolina over other options like Colorado, Montana and Michigan, thinking it would be the warmest option in early April.

But when the time came to leave, news dropped on the state’s new law making it illegal for transgender people to use the public restroom of the gender they identify with. I read up on the issue, and it seemed to me that this law was altogether unnecessary, insensitive and discriminatory.

I considered a sort of protest of the law, by changing course and not visiting North Carolina.

Ultimately, I decided not to hold it against the whole of the state, where there are in fact many friendly people.

Case in point is this plan for breweries to collaborate on a beer called Don’t Be Mean To People: A Golden Rule Saison. This is basically a protest beer of HB 2, the bill that led to the discriminatory restroom law, and all proceeds from its sales benefit organizations supportive of the LGBT community.

The beer will be brewed by Mystery Brewing and Ponysaurus Brewing in Durham, North Carolina. I was nowhere near Durham, but did grab four tallboys of the Ponysaurus Biere De Garde while in Asheville.

Graphics on the can, which are all kinds of awesome (see below), indicate that the “beer to be guarded from thieves” is made from barley, wheat and rye with “aromas of pear, almond, and vanilla, you know, abound.” These statements ring true. The flavor is funky French. Flavors of fig, pear, banana, toast, clove and nutmeg kiss the tongue, while it finishes dry and alcoholic.

This Ponysaurus creation leaves me confident Don’t Be Mean To People, which is set for release in May, will be a forceful beer in flavor and support for this nice cause.

Is it the best beer I had in North Carolina? Hard to say. Further tasting consideration is required—only had 3 days between drives to and from Wisconsin. Sierra Nevada offered a delicious Ovila with cherries as well as two great saisons in Audition and Peppercorn. Highland’s Saw-Whet Saison may be better yet. Burial Beer Company was impressive with its Shadowclock Pilsner and The Rosary Belgian Export Stout. I had originally intended to write about the marvelous Hi-Wire Lager before reading of the friendly collaboration between Ponysaurus and Mystery Brewing.

A big cheers to them. I hope for a chance to drink Don’t Be Mean To People, preferably with some of that great barbecue they have down there. For now, I’ll down this Biere De Garde before some fridge bandit gets ahold of it.

Rating: Glass – Growler – CASE – Keg

Beer of the Week: Base Camp S’more Stout

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Base Camp Brewing S’more Stout.

For those who love beer and love to travel, naturally, beercations are a must.

I’m heading to Asheville, North Carolina this week. I can only hope the trip is as good as the one I took last fall, visiting the Pacific Northwest. I spent most of my time in three legendary beer towns—Bend, Portland and Seattle.

I have many great beer memories from the trip. I watched the sun set behind the Three Sisters mountains—after climbing South Sister earlier that day—with a few hoppy ales and an amusingly drunk mother-daughter combo at Crux Fermentation Project in Bend. I talked politics with an odd duck of an old man at the hole-in-the-wall taproom of Wingman Brewers in Tacoma, Washington over a P-51 Porter.

But the best company I had in my travels was my cousin Bean—real name Jenny, short for Jelly Bean—who lives in Portland. After not seeing each other for 3-4 years, we reconnected in perhaps the best way possible—over beers. We had an absolute blast meeting other people’s pups at the Lucky Labrador, marveling at the $1,500 Dave at Hair of the Dog and enjoying a warm night from the comfort of the Bailey’s Taproom patio—so much in fact we swiped a couple glasses, either just for laughs or for a memento of the many laughs we had that night.

Perhaps the most distinct taproom we visited was that of Base Camp Brewery, themed to recreate the feel of a remote mountainside. Also distinct was the S’more Stout. I had high expectations, but did not expect my glass to have a perfectly roasted marshmallow as a garnish. Given a quick scorch from a blow torch, the marshmallow was a delightful touch on a great beer.

I feel a little strange about this review, having just found out about this incident, but I won’t hold it against the beer. It was also one of the few beers I had on my beercation that I could find in the Midwest—in a sleek, 22-ounce, aluminum, bottle-shaped can no less.

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Despite the badass vessel, having it a second and third time does not compare to the first. Beer is always better in a taproom near where it was made, especially if enjoyed with good company and maybe a toasty garnish.

Regardless, this stout is rock-solid with plenty of roasty and chocolaty notes and a smooth, sweet finish. At 7.7% it is middle of the road for a stout and a good beer to stuff in a backpack on a hike out to quiet spot under towering trees and bright stars. I’ll build a fire and have a cold aluminum cup in one hand and a sticky s’more in the other.

Rating: Glass – Growler – CASE – Keg

Bonus photos from Bend!

Beer of the Week: New Glarus Two Women

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New Glarus Two Women.

Sour beers, IPAs, session IPAs, barrel-aged, pumpkin beers—America has seen a variety of trends in the craft beer boom.

It makes me wonder: What’s next?

If I had it my way: lagers. Full, flavorful, easy-drinking lagers like New Glarus’ Two Women.

By in large, American lagers are still trying to shake off the legacy of the macrobrewers and their wet air they pass off as lager beer.

It’s time craft brewers leave their mark on this broad style. If as much attention was put into lagers as fruit-infused IPAs or chocolate/marshmallow/chili stouts, an enormous class of popular, tasty beers could emerge.

I’m not advocating for gimmicky adjuncts, of course, but rather flavorful, classic lagers that could show beer nerds the wonders of bottom-fermenting beers and divert Joe Sixpack away from all the bright red, white and blue packaging.

A blueprint for such lagers is Two Women–the name a nod to times past when most beer was made by women in their homes. This beer might pass as a red lager, Vienna lager or German Pilsner. New Glarus calls it a “Classic Country Lager brewed with Weyermann’s floor malted Bohemian malt and Hallertau Mittelfrueh hops.”

The brewery, which strictly distributes in Wisconsin, is known best course for its refreshing, easy-drinking fruit beers. But its year-round, seasonal and every-once-in-while offerings carry all the same characteristics: consistent, refreshing, go-to quality beers.

Two Women is a testament to the skill of brewmaster Dan Carey, who simply does not miss with classic styles. Carey apprenticed in Germany, a fact that shows particularly in this beer and other German-style lagers like Yokel, Totally Naked and Hometown Blonde. The Staghorn Oktoberfest is the best Märzen I’ve ever had. One of my favorite beer memories was during a visit to New Glarus when Dan himself served me the first pour of Staghorn from a wooden keg in the biergarten. He took great care to manage the foaminess and give me a full pour. Best beer I’ve ever had.

Anyway, I can’t get a fresh pour from Dan every day, so thankfully I can rely on finding Two Women in stores year-round. Two Women has smooth, bready maltiness paired perfectly with bright, earthy hops that leave a lasting tingle on the tongue. There’s distinct German character and a full body that is satisfying any time of year.

Makes me want to throw a couple bratwurst on the grill with fresh asparagus. Maybe some lemon cake for dessert.

Rating: Glass – Growler – Case – KEG