The Toast: Summer Beer Taste-off 2015

Banner for the Toast: Drinking Well in the Upper Midwest

In This Toast: We sip 32 beers from 21 Minnesota breweries to determine the best local summer seasonal.

Which local beers are in season? Well, heat equals wheat, so we’re into hefeweizens right now. But we also love those thin summer session ales for pounding after a bike ride. Oh, and saisons, and pale lagers, and weird fruit beers, and firkins infused with stuff like tea and lemongrass and mint.

To help us separate the wheat from the chaff, once every few months, our friends at the Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild harangue their member breweries to send us beer. This time, they delivered the biggest bounty to date: 32 local summer seasonals.


Helping us sort through them, was our expert tasting panel: Sean Cooke, Certified Cicerone with the Better Beer Society; Paige Latham, Heavy Table’s beer correspondent; Andrew Schmitt, director of MN Beer Activists; and Frank Haataja, host of The Minnesota Skinny.

All beers were tasted blind in flights of more or less similar styles. The judges were presented with a final flight of consensus favorites for more in-depth tasting. Here are the best beers for summer.

Kate N.G. Sommers / Heavy Table

Kate N.G. Sommers / Heavy Table

Gold Medal and Best In Show: Schell’s Hefeweizen

Heavy Table’s official summer beer is the ideal hefeweizen. Everything about Schell’s Hefe feels balanced — just enough malt sweetness, just enough fruitiness from the yeast, and it finishes clean. Our panel compared it to the Franziskaner, one of the style’s gold standards. Pair it with the warm sun shining on your face and the contented feeling that you’re drinking the best summer beer in Minnesota.

James Norton / Heavy Table

James Norton / Heavy Table

First Runner-Up: Schell’s Starkeller Peach

Schell’s grabs the top two spots in the tasting thanks to its latest entry in the Noble Star series of Berliner weisse interpretations. The peaches add a fleshiness to the Starkeller that helps round out some of the more acerbic tartness. The result is a cloudy, smooth sour with a true depth of flavor.

Second Runner-Up: Mankato Brewing Kato Beer

Mankato has delivered our preferred patio pounder. Their Munich-style helles lager is reminiscent of a fine cream ale — a subtle, corny sweetness balanced by a crisp lager finish. It’s light and bright and clean, and it was our consensus favorite pairing with food from El Taco Riendo, our judging fuel for the evening. Runner-Up: Bauhaus Brew Labs Hairbanger

The hop-head’s beer of summer is this new Belgian-style pale ale from Bauhaus. It sports a somewhat herbal aroma before bashing in with piney hops in a rounded Belgian-tasting body. The bitterness comes on late, and the dry finish begs a return sip. A proud, enlivening beer.

Honorable Mention:

Blacklist Brewing Imperial Hefeweizen

All kinds of hot, fusel alcohols on the nose, but it then mellows into a burly, aggressive, caramel, honey-tinged, complex monster. A lot to wrestle with, and we’ll happily do so.

Fulton Beer The Randonneur

Fulton’s summer saison has a great banana-coriander thing going on, with great color and clarity. And the hop balance is spot-on. A crowd pleaser, a laid-back winner.

Kate N.G. Sommers / Heavy Table

Kate N.G. Sommers / Heavy Table

Tin Whiskers Watts Wheat Wine

An impressive pineapple-and-banana Runts candy aroma leads to a full-bodied, sweet, and boozy monolith of a brew. Would make for a terrific nightcap after a Saints game.

Sarah McGee / Heavy Table

Sarah McGee / Heavy Table

Tin Whiskers Wheatstone Bridge

Tin Whiskers’ more approachable wheat beer is a stunner: balanced and smooth, with lovely notes of jasmine and citrus. Alongside Schell’s Hefe, this is our everyday wheat beer of the year.

Town Hall Brewery Apricot Summer

Our favorite flavored beer of summer comes from Town Hall. It was called “mellifluous” by one tipsy taster, but we understand the sentiment: light, fruity, and pleasant.

Notes from the Rest of the Tasting (by style):


56 Brewing NE Nectar Honey Kolsch

Kind of awkward. Honey on the nose, but also paint thinner. Good pale malt flavor, but the method doesn’t taste dialed-in.

Kate N.G. Sommers / Heavy Table

Kate N.G. Sommers / Heavy Table

Town Hall Brewery Wedding Kolsch

Fine enough malt character, but we couldn’t get past a whiff of intense Styrofoam staleness on the nose.

Sidhe Brewing Señor Sol Victorious

Faint caramel, some sweet malt, very little on the finish, and not much carbonation. This Mexican lager could have used a squeeze of lime.

Tin Whiskers Parity Pilsner

A gorgeous pilsner. Clean, pleasant, and straightforward. Proudly boring, perfectly beige.

Sessions / Summer Ales:

Beaver Island Brewing One Speed Belgian Single

Nice grainy, malty finish, a little tennis shoe rubber flavor. A light, uncomplicated sip. 4.7 percent ABV.

Kate N.G. Sommers / Heavy Table

Kate N.G. Sommers / Heavy Table

Beaver Island Brewing Fabulous Armadillo Summer Ale

Some smoky phenols, along with apple and citrus aromas, some malt complexity, assertive hops. Light and easy. 4.7 percent ABV.

Brau Brothers Hopsession Super IPA

Smells like those speckled white Easter egg candies, tons of grapefruit, not much body or carbonation. Nothing much but hops. 4.2 percent ABV.

Summit founder Mark Stutrud

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Summit Summer Ale

Cidery aroma, nice mineral finish, pure and light. 4.4 percent ABV.


612Brew Mary Ann

A consistent punch of ginger. Long lasting and memorable.

612Brew Radler

Menthol aroma. Juicy, though incohesive. Flightworthy more than pintworthy.

The Freehouse No. 24 Earl-Grey-Tea-Infused Honey Wheat

Mulled potpourri spice on the nose. Earthy, peppery body. Black tea flavor shines.

Excelsior Brewing Sunburn Cherry Wheat

Interesting tea flavor, not much fruit flavor. Wheat-forward, though not memorable.

Indeed Mojito Shenanigans

Not sure what shenanigans were up when this one was brewed. Tastes the way a mint Mr. Sketch marker smells. Stick with their far superior original version.

Other Light Ales:

Bent Paddle Paddle Break Blonde

Light and grassy, squeaky clean. A hammock pounder.

Mankato Brewery Duly Noted Pale Ale

Too bitter, too simple, lacking aroma. A pronounced plastic flavor wouldn’t quit.

Waconia Brewing Pontoon Pale Ale

We picked up acetone on this one. A bone-dry finish leaves flavors of pepper and earth. Unbalanced.

Wheat Beers:

Blacklist Brewing Makrut Wit

Big, bold, and sweet. Warming. Sweet honey and orange blossom. Hot and full bodied. This is your summer evening nightcap by the pool.

Daniel Murphy / Heavy Table

Daniel Murphy / Heavy Table

The Freehouse No. 11 Belgian-Style Witbier

Really nice. Light bodied, flavorful and bright. It tastes as if it should be enjoyed on a beach with grilled fish.

Mankato Brewery Ceres Summer Ale

No flavor up front. Alkaline-tasting. Hints of apple. Awkward, bitter finish.

Third Street Hunny Do Wheat Beer

Smells and tastes like cider. Fruity-sweet, easygoing, apricot, pear, ginger, and lemon. Convert your favorite Angry Orchard drinker with this one.

Tart / Sour:

Day Block Brewing Berliner Weisse

Pleasant, cloudy, and wheaty. Great on its own (without the accompanying raspberry syrup). Effervescent, and just tart enough. Balanced. Drinkable.

Excelsior Brewing MinneGose Gose Style Ale

A pungent, saline tang in a durable, wheat-filled body. Simple, a little funky, but palate-cleansing. This is your raw oyster beer of the summer.

Urban Growler Berliner Weisse

The woodruff syrup was a very nice addition to what was a mediocre Berliner Weisse. The beer had a strange Red Hots aroma and a chemical-tinged finish, and it really needed a viscous syrup to cancel the off flavor.

Past Heavy Table Seasonal Tasting Winners:

Spring 2015 – Town Hall Brewery One Simple Pale

Winter 2015 – Lift Bridge Silhouette

Autumn 2014 – Schell’s Black Forest Cherry

Summer 2014 – Badger Hill White IPA

Spring 2014 – Surly BLAKKR

Oktoberfest 2013 – Schell’s Oktoberfest

River Rock Coffee in St. Peter

River Rock Coffee in St. Peter, MN

Katie Cannon / Heavy Table

If you’re heading south of the Twin Cities on Highway 169, you’ll eventually arrive at the town of St. Peter. This beautiful old town along the Minnesota River has a lively downtown — (all of which is on the National Register of Historic Places) with a good mix of shops and art galleries. It also has a far-better-than-average eatery: River Rock Coffee. River Rock is right on Highway 169 (or, as it’s also called at this point, Minnesota Avenue), and is a congenial community gathering spot. At a recent visit, we saw people working on laptops, gossiping over coffee, and having a planning meeting for a new veteran’s memorial to be built in the town, and there was even one man who didn’t think twice about singing along with the music playing overhead. (For the record, no one even glanced his way, and he wasn’t a bad singer.)

The name is somewhat misleading. Yes, River Rock has a full complement of coffee and espresso drinks, but it also has a cafe menu. While limited in scope, it’s made up of a well-chosen selection of items that changes with the seasons. River Rock sources locally and organically as much as it can, buying fresh items from several local farmers and tinkering with the menu according to what is available.

River Rock Coffee in St. Peter, MN

Katie Cannon / Heavy Table

During a recent visit, we tried the salad sampler ($7.75), a plate with all three of the day’s salads. It would be difficult to pick a favorite. The mixed greens were raised above the usual by being sourced from one of River Rock’s local producers — as were the peppery radishes — and topped with toasted breadcrumbs instead of croutons. The breadcrumbs provided a gentle crunch that worked well with the delicate greens. There was an udon noodle salad with kale and a sesame-soy dressing — flavorful but not spicy. The server said that a week earlier this salad had asparagus instead of kale, and we can only imagine how good that would have been. Finally, a grain salad containing brown rice, more of the peppery radishes, carrots, and a generous serving of fresh dill was tossed in a tahini dressing — a perfect blend of flavors. It was easy to see how these salads could change with the harvest.

River Rock Coffee in St. Peter, MN

Katie Cannon / Heavy Table

The sampler came with slices of sourdough bread baked on site, with a hard crust, a chewy interior, and a tangy sourdough taste. The cafe offers loaves ($5) for sale on baking days (Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday), but they go quickly; a Thursday morning visit found the Wednesday loaves gone. River Rock provides other house-baked items, including its signature hermit cookie ($2), made of rolled oats, chocolate chunks, and whole wheat flour — a sturdy, yet chewy cookie that is not overly sweet and is made for a substantial afternoon snack. Other pastries are baked in rotation. A caramel crunch bar ($2.25) that appeared one day just about put this reviewer into rhapsodies. The caramel was thick, dark brown, and almost chocolaty in texture.

Heavy Table Hot Five: June 26-July 2


Each Friday, this list will track five of the best things Heavy Table’s writers, editors, and photographers have recently bitten or sipped. Have a suggestion for the Hot Five? Email

James Norton / Heavy Table

James Norton / Heavy Table

1-new - oneKebab Dinner at Al Amir Bakery
We have tasted many dozens of dishes on our encyclopedic trip from 694 to Broadway Street via Central Avenue in Northeast Minneapolis, but few if any have touched us as deeply as the kebab at Al Amir Bakery. Skewered by swords and cooked over high yellow flames, the meat and tomatoes that make up the core of this dish are rich in flavor and thoroughly charred with soul. Everything about this simple Iraqi dish is beautiful.
[Debuting on the Hot Five | From an Instagram Post by James Norton]

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

2-new - twoThe Nashville Slammer created by Jackson O’Brien of Peace Coffee
Jackson O’Brien, head barista at Peace Coffee’s Wonderland location, created this refreshing, tasty drink during our Summer Cold Press Lab. Combining cold press concentrate, sparking water, simple syrup, basil, and lime, the Slammer is a coffee lovers’ answer to iced tea and the perfect drink for summer barbecues. Read our story on the Cold Press lab for the recipe.
[Debuting on the Hot Five | Submitted by Joshua Page, from our Cold Press Coffee Lab]

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

3-new - threeFish Provençal at Le Town Talk
The Fish Provençal at Le Town Talk was amazing. Fresh fish, smoky tomatoes, perfectly tender confit potatoes, olives … stewed to perfection, all topped with a bit of crème fraîche. Oh là là! C’était très bon.
[Debuting on the Hot Five | Submitted by Brenda Johnson]

Paige Latham / Heavy Table

Paige Latham / Heavy Table

4-new fourTaiwanese Style Stir Fried Rice Noodles  from Evergreen Chinese
This noodle dish is good enough to make you forget you’re eating in an fluorescent lit basement. Without too much umami or the essence of trying too hard, these noodles are addictive and authentic.
[Debuting on the Hot Five | Submitted by Paige Latham]

Joshua Page / Heavy Table

Joshua Page / Heavy Table

5-new -fiveTuna Crudo at Piccolo
Ultra fresh fish topped with mojama (cured tuna loin), summer truffle, slightly cured quail eggs, and herbs, the balanced and beautiful dish pops with flavor, flavor, and more flavor. Chef Flicker’s creation gets my vote for dish of the summer (though there’s still time for competitors to vie for top spot).
[Debuting on the Hot Five | Submitted by Joshua Page]

Ambitious Cactus at Bradstreet Neighborhood Craftshouse

Daniel Murphy / Heavy Table

Daniel Murphy / Heavy Table

Bradstreet Craftshouse, the cocktail haven late of downtown Minneapolis, has completed its migration to Lowry Hill. The new location, now with “Neighborhood” in its name, opened quietly two weeks ago.

A recent, sudden flurry of construction ended a year-plus of dormancy for the space and fully exorcised the ghosts of Rye Deli from Hennepin Avenue. The new interior is moody, sleek and versatile: The bar is flanked by a row of cozy, high-backed booths. A long row of tables morphs into a plush lounge. There are berries in cocktail glasses at the bar, and the fries are crisp and dusted with togarashi. The patio faces out toward the cityscape.

Daniel Murphy / Heavy Table

Daniel Murphy / Heavy Table

And the cocktails are still top notch. Bar manager Jennifer Boutell has taken the original Bradstreet feel and loosened its tie. She’s built an engrossing drink list of classics spun with the right dose of whimsy, helpfully arranged by principal spirit. Like the food menu, the drink menu contains elements of both Japanese and Moorish cuisine (a nod to the design legacy of John Scott Bradstreet). A shishito pepper here, some Moroccan spice there. The Shoji Squares, for example, pairs green-tea-steeped Prairie Vodka with a pistachio syrup for an invigorating vodka sour.

We also dig the signature Bradstreet cocktail, a whiskey sour with jasmine and ginger syrups adding the spice to keep the sweetness in check. But the drink you’ll find in our hands on the patio all summer long is the The Ambitious Cactus, a remix of the strawberry margarita.

Daniel Murphy / Heavy Table

Daniel Murphy / Heavy Table

“A lot of people who order tequila are looking for something a little spicy, too,” says Boutell. “Honey and tequila go really well together, and then, I thought of cinnamon and strawberry — the Fee’s bitters are very cinnamon-y. And the vinegar in Tabasco rounds everything out and gives it a little background heat.”

And good news for the night owls of Uptown: $6 Hemingway daiquiris and sangrias (and more), plus a menu of cheap bites from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. daily.

Ambitious Cactus
1 muddled strawberry
2 ounces blanco tequila (Bradstreet uses Lunazul)
¾ ounce honey syrup (see note)
¾ ounce fresh lemon-lime juice
2-3 dashes Tabasco
2-3 dashes Fee Brothers Whiskey Barrel-Aged Bitters

Shake all ingredients with ice and strain into a lowball glass with fresh ice. Garnish with a strawberry.

Note: For honey syrup, mix equal parts honey and boiling water until smooth. Let cool.

Bradstreet Neighborhood Craftshouse, 1930 Hennepin Ave S, Minneapolis, MN 55403; 612.871.1200

Daniel Murphy / Heavy Table

Daniel Murphy / Heavy Table

The Weekend Starts Now: Michael Rand and Chef Shack

Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table

Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table

The Weekend Starts Now taped its fourth show at the Chef Shack Ranch on Monday, June 8. (Above: guests from shows 3 and 4.)

This weekly podcast is a joint project of the Heavy Table and Secrets of the City, and it covers art, music, food, drink, culture, and more in the Upper Midwest. If you’d like to join us for the next taping, we’ll be at Marin Restaurant on Monday, July 6 and the Du Nord Cocktail Room on Thursday, July 23. Tickets: Marin | DuNord

You can follow and listen to the show on Soundcloud, or play the show (or individual segments) by following the links below. And you can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes.

Becca Dilley Photography

Becca Dilley Photography

Our podcast is brought to you by Annie B’s Popcorn and Caramels. Annie B’s has been handcrafting caramels and popcorn in small batches since 1978. Their products are all-natural, gluten-free, and made in Minnesota. Get a onetime discount of 20 percent off any order at with the promocode “Weekend.” Offer expires 8/31/15.

Hear the whole episode here … (We’re no longer breaking the show out into individual segment files, but we’ll keep listing them so you can preview what’s on tap.)

Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table

Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table


Taylor and James get serious and talk cellphone / driving safety. It’s pretty heavy stuff. Guest Michael Rand chimes in.

Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table

Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table


Star Tribune Digital Sports Editor Michael Rand talks about running marathons, his multiple sclerosis diagnosis, and the tragic hilarity of FIFA.

Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table

Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table


The women behind the two restaurant, one food truck empire that is Chef Shack talk about their roots, their plans, and the glory of cooking with fire.

Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table

Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table


Aaron from Nice Ride Minnesota swings by to talk about the popular bike-sharing program and the #gnarlyride tag that’s making the rounds.

Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table

Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table


Honkytonk Fest, the Northeast Beer Mile, and watching The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology should dominate your weekend plans.

Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table

Isabel Subtil / Heavy Table