Spring wasn’t the only thing in the air Saturday afternoon at the Happy Gnome‘s second annual Firkin Fest.
Between Tea-Bagged Surly Furious, Bell’s Hop Slam and Dark Horse Double Crooked Tree, the floral aromas of super-hopped India Pale Ales were the theme of the day. Their scents floated through throngs of craft beer lovers enjoying cask-conditioned ales served up from hand-pulled firkins, a small vessel roughly equivalent in volume to half of a keg. And no wonder, according to Jason Alvey, proprietor of The Four Firkins craft beer store in St. Louis Park, as the Twin Cities is one of the fastest growing markets for IPAs in the nation.
“Forget Chicago or most other major Midwest cities when it comes to craft beer,” Alvey said. “Beer drinkers in Minneapolis and St. Paul know their stuff, and are more akin to craft beer strongholds in Oregon or Washington where people have traditionally sought bold, flavorful offerings, many of which are locally produced.”
Dustin Brau, CEO and head brewmaster at Brau Brothers in rural Lucan, Minnesota readily concurred.
“We’re looking at producing nearly a dozen hop varieties on our very own hop yard to keep pace with the tastes of craft beer drinkers in the Upper Midwest,” Brau said. “More control over our ingredients means more innovation in our recipes and better beers for our customers.”
For those looking for their hop fix amongst the more than 30 microbreweries represented at this year’s event, most didn’t need to look much further than Surly 16 Grit Double IPA. One of the Brooklyn Center-based brewery’s latest limited release offerings from the artisan mind of brewmaster Todd Haug, 16 Grit delivered a penetrating 115 international bittering units (geek speak for hop potency) that left even the most ardent hop head begging for palate-mercy. Summit Brewing in St. Paul also provided two nice twists to its standard year-round IPA offering with its copiously dry-hopped Amarillo IPA, a citrusy rendition balanced with nice caramel sweetness, as well as its earthier and more rounded dry-hopped Kent Golding IPA.
But hopped-up ales weren’t the only storyline at FirkinFest. A vocal minority of fantastically complex and malty imperial stouts and porters elbowed their way through the crowd, including several unique barrel-aged offerings such as Harviestoun Ola Dubh (Gaelic for “black oil”), a densely smooth and peaty imperial porter from Scotland aged in 12-year-old scotch whiskey casks from Highland Park Distillery. More locally, Wisconsin-based Tyranena Brewing’s Dirty Old Man Imperial Rye Porter, aged in part in rye whiskey barrels, offered a rich nose of chocolate, roasted barley and oaky notes complemented by a smooth and creamy finish that made you forget just for a moment that the masterfully balanced malted beverage you were enjoying wasn’t in fact a potent 8 percent ABV.
Innovative Belgian-style ales were relatively underrepresented at the event, save for Stillwater-based Lift Bridge and its Kimono Girl Saison, an interesting spin on the brewery’s flagship Farm Girl offering that infuses lemongrass and longan fruit to provide a yeast-forward, spicy aroma followed up by a relatively delicate maltiness and nicely puckering mouthfeel.
At the end of it all, most taste buds were pleasantly numbed, and craft beer appetites sated. But only long enough until the next craft beer event comes around, according to Alvey.
“We have so many fantastic, innovative brewers in our own backyard putting out great stuff, and more and more people are taking notice,” Alvey said. “Celebrations like Firkin Fest are helping to build in the Twin Cities what is arguably one of the best craft beer cultures in the nation.”
Aaron Masterson is the author of local craft beer and homebrew blog, The Captain’s Chair.