HopCat in Downtown Minneapolis

Paige Latham Didora / Heavy Table

Michigan’s famous beer bar HopCat recently expanded into Minnesota, and they’re making a local impression. The company, owned by Mark Sellers, a native of Grand Rapids, Mich., now boasts over a dozen locations.

Rather than pass themselves off as local or small, HopCat states on the menu that it has several locations and strives to avoid a cookie-cutter approach; the hope is that each location will stand on its own as a reflection of its environment. The original space in downtown Grand Rapids is cozy and quaint, with warm wood, copper, and ample Michigan beer. The Kansas City iteration has more than a hundred taps plus a basement Tiki bar. And the Minneapolis location, along the Light Rail in Downtown East, already feels comfortably broken in.

Paige Latham Didora / Heavy Table

The space is neither kitschy nor industrial but instead feels similar to Red Cow or The Freehouse inside, with a comfortable, loungelike patio on Nicollet Mall. The location, which no doubt will capitalize on Super Bowl foot traffic, sees competition from nearby Mercury Dining Room and Rail as well as Eastside, but the beer-forward restaurant is unlike its neighbors.

In fact, the combination of proper beer service and an exceptionally large tap list, alongside standard bar fare and a full liquor license, is somewhat rare. Locally, this model could be compared to the growing New Bohemia empire. In terms of national chains, HopCat is perhaps a less-stuffy take on California-based Yard House (which has a branch in St. Louis Park’s West End) or a more refined version of the Flying Saucer beer bars of the southeastern states.

HopCat features about 80 draft selections, including 50 local choices. Thirty of the Minnesota beers seldom change. On the whole, the out-of-state beers are somehow more intriguing, with rare offerings from The Bruery and Cascade Brewing Company, among others. Prices are reasonable, and afternoon and late-night happy hours make several of the beers a steal.

The most impressive element of the downtown newcomer is the attention to detail in the presentation of craft beer. There is an explanation of sizing that includes a visual of the glassware with precise volumes (meaning the term “tulip” will be less likely to lead to disappointment). Glassware is clean, and the menu is updated regularly. “On Deck” beers are listed, so there’s no reason to fret about turnover or freshness.

Paige Latham Didora / Heavy Table

Food selection is downright yawn-worthy. The menu reads like a chain restaurant that feeds kids for free on Tuesdays. The pan-style vegetarian pizza was heavy on the bread but crisp around the edges, drawing mixed reviews. Choices are more substantial than at most bars, and prices are about as expected.

HopCat, 435 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis, 612.276.5555; Mon-Thu 11 a.m.-midnight, Fri-Sat 11 a.m.-2 a.m., Sun 10 a.m.-midnight.

Pils Continental Pilsner by Fulton

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

This story is a product of Heavy Table’s first Listening Session, underwritten and hosted by the Lakewinds Food Co-op. On May 23, we interviewed 15 local food artisans over the course of eight hours, with a goal of taking a snapshot of the vibrant Minnesota food scene.

These are the salad days of beer writing. Barely a week goes by without the release of something new and beguiling: High-end coffee beers! Barrel-aged sours! Cross-brewery collaborations! Beers infused with (insert local/seasonal/rare ingredient here)!

Local craft beers increasingly come out with a ready-made hook or handle to grip into: It’s super spicy! It’s hoppy beyond belief! It’s loaded with real blueberry flavor! It’s a re-creation of a (domestically) obscure German style! Some of these angles are gimmicks, some of them are delicious and brilliant, and some are unquestionably both. And many of them are routes for the brewer to boost the price (to, say, $12-$18 a 750 milliliter bottle) and compete head-to-head with wine in terms of depth of flavor and prestige.

Therefore it’s interesting and noteworthy when local craft brewers head in the other direction with their product — putting it out in cans, simplifying the flavor profiles, aiming for sessionability and accessibility without losing the “craft” balance and quality that they’ve become known for. Many local brewers with sophisticated barrel-aging programs have begun a simultaneous surge into the everyday thirst-quencher market, and Fulton has been right in the mix with the launch last year of its Standard Lager brand.

Now Fulton is doubling down, with the addition of a no-frills Pilsner to its roster of perennial beers.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

“Everything we do at Fulton is to make sure we’re covering the basics and releasing a really quality, solid product before we branch out and do some of the crazier stuff,” says Fulton brewer Jeff Seidenstricker. “The Pilsner style is an extremely classic recipe. The vast majority of the malt is Pilsner malt, and the same thing with the hops. We stuck with the noble hops, the Saaz hops specifically, characteristic of the Pilsner style. And that’s it — just letting those ingredients shine.”

Pils is among the most balanced beers we’ve tried, with subtle, earthy noble hops and a malt backbone that offers depth of flavor, plus a bold, fruity, “hey, am I back in Milwaukee in the 1980s?” yeast bite that brings the package together. If there’s a platonic ideal of “beer,” this might be it. There’s no lavender nose, no palate-scorching astringent finish, no barnyard funk — just straight-up, balanced, refreshing brew. The impression of moderate sensibility that Pils imparts is supported by its numbers: 5.3 percent ABV, and 30 IBU, comfortably hanging out at the median for a contemporary craft-beer release.

“It’s very true to the style, as far as fermentation process and the yeast that we’re using,” says Seidenstricker.

If you’re looking for a break from overhopped booze-bombs, or if “classic and balanced” happens to be your thing, Pils represents.

Editor’s note, June 15, 2017: This story was edited to remove an inaccurate reference to esters.

Imperial Kvass by Bent Paddle Brewing

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

It’s possible we’re at Peak Weird Beer right now, and we may never again return to this era. Every week, it seems, a Minnesota brewery puts out some mind-bending concoction that flirts with the edge of plausibility and known flavor profiles. Look at these recent reviews on our site: Fulton’s remarkable Culture Project Two, a coffee lager from Modist, and barrel-aged Cherry Dust from Indeed.

In that spirit, here is another bottle for your consideration (and, hopefully, your physical intake): Bent Paddle’s Valve Jockey Series Imperial Kvass, a 6.5 percent ABV, 10 IBU take on what is sometimes a less than 1 percent ABV, northern-European fermented beverage often made from rye bread. The beer’s humble, folksy roots remind us of Sima, a lovely and refreshing fermented beverage from Finland that we sometimes make along with Finnish crullers.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Bent Paddle’s kvass-inspired beer (we paid $10 for 750 milliliters at Elevated Beer Wine and Spirits) is a light-but-malty ale with spearmint, raisin, and lemon-peel flavors. The nose is bready and sweet, evoking Boston brown bread, and the body boasts rye spices, low acidity, and a retiring-to-the-point-of-bashful hint of spearmint. The finish is moist and clean, and the overall effect is a beer that’s both malty and refreshing, not your typical one-two punch. This is a beer that could complement anything with a honey or maple component, and there’s a gentle earthiness that would make it a good fit with ramen and / or mushroom-forward dishes. Is it a bit weird? No doubt. But it’s lovable, and it’s different. It’s a sign that anything goes in this glorious era of brew.

Schell’s Tropical Stout

James Norton / Heavy Table
James Norton / Heavy Table

How terrible is it that we were hoping that the new Schell’s Tropical Stout would be redolent of pineapple and coconut to the point of essentially being a piña colada? Yes, that’s the cold weather talking, and no, the Tropical Stout isn’t tropical in that obvious of a way.

Instead, the 10th edition in the Stag Series collection is mildly bitter, malty and chocolaty, and it evokes dark rum’s molasses-like depths. The inclusion of no fewer than eight malts (pale, Victory, Extra Dark Crystal, Light Chocolate, Midnight Wheat, Extra Special, brown rice syrup, roasted barley) no doubt contributes to the layers of flavor.

Like so many beers, the application of room temperature warmth brings out whole new dimensions. We started drinking Tropical Stout quite cold, coming as it did from our uninsulated back porch. At fridge temp, Tropical Stout is mostly notable for its supple texture and relatively mild flavor. But the warmer it gets, the more it reveals chocolate and coffee notes and starts to hint at pineapple around the edges — or maybe that’s just wishful thinking provoked by the dark rummy taste and the brutal Minnesota winter working together on our snow-addled brains.

This is a beer for sipping, not chugging. It’s got depth and a slightly bitter aftertaste, reminiscent of tobacco smoke, that makes it a joy to contemplate in both the present and past tenses. And at 8.5 percent ABV (as per Ratebeer), sipping is a good strategy.

Lucid and Badger Hill Beer Dinner at Bar Abilene

Beer at Bar Abilene
Sarah McGee / Heavy Table

Bar Abilene is in the midst of reinventing itself. “We’d like to guide people on what beers should be had when,” says Assistant General Manager David Paradeise, who took on his position in July. He’s been working to transition the restaurant from 12 to 24 taps, meeting with lots of local breweries, and designing a revolving list of craft beers to suit the seasons.

As part of the transition, on September 26 Bar Abilene hosted Lucid and Badger Hill breweries for a beer dinner that just pulsed with the kind of camaraderie that can bring out the best in many. Lucid and Badger Hill’s alternating proprietorship over their 10,000-square-foot brew space in Minnetonka is the kind of fledgling relationship that makes you hold your breath (we spoke in depth with Lucid in 2011 and Badger Hill this summer). But so far, so good. And with Chef Angel Campoverde’s menu as a travel guide of sorts, we finally tested their unique flavors side by side.

Within their partnership, you could call Lucid “The Dabbler” and Badger Hill “The Rock.” Lucid’s arsenal swings from an energetic IPA to a light, session-worthy beer, while Badger Hill is slowly establishing itself as a master of balance.

Brewers and Chef at Bar Abilene
Sarah McGee / Heavy Table

“We talk about it [our brews] in advance and we never butt heads,” says Lucid’s Jon Messier, who first met the Badger Hill crew at Barley John’s one famous St. Patrick’s Day. Like a good friendship, the two groups complement one another. “And we drink a lot of beer together,” says Messier.

At Bar Abilene, Badger Hill’s Three Tree rye arrived with the chef’s buttery salmon carpaccio. “This was a big risk for us,” says Badger partner Brittany Krekelberg. “A lot of people do really hopped-up ryes, but we wanted to do something different.” Brewed with seven grains, Belgian malt, and 23 percent rye, Three Tree comes off as a pleasant, non-aggressive beer that opens up as you sip. Its hoppy side is balanced with a gentle maltiness, and the beer slipped in perfectly between bites of the soft, decadent salmon.

With beef tenderloin and roasted Brussels sprouts, we drank Badger Hill’s flagship beer, Minnesota Special Bitter. Despite its name, MSB is even-tempered and played a supportive, palate-cleansing sidekick role to the hearty meat and nutty sprouts. As one fellow diner put it, “It’s not extreme in any way. It’s a go-to ale.”

Bar Abilene beer dinner
Sarah McGee / Heavy Table

Lucid brews bookended the meal. Their new pleasantly bitter IPA, called Foto, cut the somber attitude of an earthy, throat-warming lentil soup, and played well with a wonderfully tangy and crunchy quinoa and jicama salad. For dessert, Lucid Air was the obvious companion to Chef Angel’s swoon-worthy take on tres leches cake. A gland-zapping drizzle of passionfruit puree energized the cinnamon-spiced cake. There was lime zest too. And Air was refreshing enough to wash it all down, as well as citrusy enough to keep you drinking after the last bite.

“I’m hoping after this that we can start looking at the menu,” said Paradeise. Chef Campoverde, who infused the night’s menu with good, warm spices characteristic of many Hispanic cuisines — like cumin, chiles, and epazote — doesn’t often get to stretch his talents. According to Paradeise, the restaurant’s menu rarely changes, and they only feature two or three specials a week.

Thirty plus people left Bar Abilene feeling good. The amicable partnership of two distinct breweries, who lent their goods to a restaurant in transition, is a true snapshot of Minnesota’s growing craft beer community, and the sort of eating and drinking going on in the Twin Cities. “Celebration over competition” is one way to describe it. Bar Abilene’s General Manager (also David’s father) Francois Paradeise takes it a mouthful further: “People with passion and fire in the belly — they are the ingredients of success.”

Tres Leches cake at Bar Abilene
Sarah McGee / Heavy Table

How to Use a French Press

Jeremy Pieper
Jeremy Pieper / Heavy Table

The French press is one of the most basic yet intimidating methods of brewing coffee. The name alone frightens people into thinking that it is some form of elite French coffee brewing that requires extensive knowledge and an artistic touch. The reality is that the French press is one of the simplest ways to brew a high-quality cup of coffee.

The idea behind it is basic: You immerse the coffee fully in water and then press out the grounds. Before the press was invented, coffee was brewed by fully immersing the coffee beans in water and then using items like an egg, slices of cod, or some other ridiculous additive to create a reaction that would make the grounds sink to the bottom of the container.

The creation of the press allowed mankind to properly brew coffee without making it taste like egg yolks or fish. It opened up the door to nuances and flavors that are part of the natural make up of the bean.

The four key variables to consider are coffee quality, grind, water, and time. You must first select a whole bean coffee. Coffee that is pre-ground is most often ground for drip-style brewing unless it is stated otherwise. Selecting whole bean coffee will allow you to grind it to the desired coarseness for ideal extraction.

The grind for a French press is the coarsest grind of any mainstream brewing device. The grind should not feel powdery in your hand; it should feel crumbly and have a uniform look. A grind that is too fine will result in an over extracted coffee that tastes bitter and astringent. Too coarse a grind will result in an under extracted coffee that tastes weak and thin.

Jeremy Pieper
Jeremy Pieper

Water is one of the most important aspects of properly brewing in a French press. If the water has a poor taste before brewing, it will be present after brewing. Some coffee shops use filtration systems to create an ideal mineral content for brewing coffee. At home, it is important to trust your palate and experiment with your water. If your water has been softened too much, it can result in a weak and flavorless cup. If you have water with a high mineral content it might taste great, or it might detract from the taste of the coffee. A Brita water filter can be a quick and affordable fix that can greatly improve the quality of your coffee.

The water should be heated to 195-205° F. Simply taking a pot of water off of a boil for a few minutes will allow you to reach the ideal temperature for brewing your coffee.

Coffee should be ground after the water has been heated. The Specialty Coffee Association of America recommends that 8 oz of water be used with 14.5 grams of coffee; this translates into about 2 tbsp of coffee for every 8 oz.

After the water has been added to the coffee it should be stirred. The fresher the coffee, the greater the “bloom” will be. The bloom is when the coffee expands rapidly, forming a crust on the top of the press. If the coffee is old there will be little or no bloom. The coffee should be stirred at the beginning of the brewing process to ensure that all of the grounds can come in contact with the water.

The brew should take about 4 minutes. The brew can be shorter or longer depending on the desired taste. When the coffee is pressed, it should be done slowly and steadily such that the screen seals with the side of the press and all of the grounds are pressed to the bottom. The coffee should then be poured into cups. If coffee is left in the press, it will continue to extract flavor from the coffee grounds, resulting in over extraction.

If done properly, the French press will deliver a cup that is bold and beautiful, preserving the integrity of the terroir and diminishing the acidity of the cup so that the nuances of the coffee can be tasted and enjoyed.

Animal Processed Coffee in Minnesota

Courtesy of Paradise Roasters
Courtesy of Paradise Roasters

If an animal chews, spits, or digests a coffee bean before it is roasted should it automatically cost more? Does the digestive track of a palm civet have a King Midas touch or does the saliva of a monkey actually have a positive effect on the taste of the coffee?

To many, Kopi Luwak is notorious as the most expensive coffee in the world. This reigns true at Coffee and Tea Ltd. in Linden Hills where Jim Cone sells Kopi Luwak for $420 a pound. Cone usually sells the coffee brewed for $10 a cup or in small quantities, a quarter pound or less. This rare brew is the most popular of all animal processed coffees. The coffee is eaten and partially digested by a palm civet, a small cat-like mammal. Cone uses a direct contact on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia to bring in the coffee. “I’m happy with it because of its authenticity,” says Cone. He makes sure that the coffee he gets is 100% Arabica beans rather than Robusta beans, a lower grade of coffee. The coffee is a heavy, full-bodied cup that has a prominent spice and lingering aftertaste.

Another animal processed coffee, known as Monkey Parchment, was brought to the United States for the first time by Paradise Roasters in Anoka, MN. The coffee is processed by rhesus monkeys in Chikmagalur, India (southeast of Goa). The monkeys eat sweet coffee cherries and spit out the seeds, which are collected by people who dry and process the beans. The monkeys eat the fruit of the coffee bean leaving the parchment, a thin layer of mucilage, on the bean. This is different from the Kopi Luwak where the parchment is digested by the palm civet. “The un-roasted coffee has a grayish tint with visible teeth marks on a fair number of beans,” says Adam Palmer of Paradise Roasters. The coffee is sold for $320 a pound and is sold in four-ounce packages. The cup is full-bodied, sweet, and tastes of unsweetened cocoa powder with an aftertaste that lingers like the Kopi Luwak. Due to its popularity, Paradise Roasters plans to bring in the coffee again this year.

Heavy Table / Eric Faust
Heavy Table / Eric Faust

For those who want something even more exotic than civet or monkey processed coffee, you have to roast it yourself. Aaron Boothe of Duluth has roasted Jacu Bird coffee from Brazil in a modified, computer-controlled popcorn popper located in a lab at the University of Minnesota Duluth. This coffee passes through the digestive tract of the jacu bird, but unlike Kopi Luwak, it remains in the parchment, like Monkey Parchment. Sweet Maria’s, a green coffee bean supplier for home roasters, made this variety available to coffee nerds like Boothe who roast at home. Green, the cheapest of the animal processed coffee, costs a mere $13.60 a pound. The cup has a heavy body, with a sweet nuttiness.