There are plenty of bad-to-horrible fruit-themed novelty beers out there; it’s easy to choke a fruit beer with sweetness and contaminate it with shrill notes of artificial flavor. But the Blueberry Blonde from Ely’s Boathouse Brewpub & Restaurant is not among them. It has a gentle, balanced blueberry nose and finish, a clean but not empty overall body, and none of the cloying sweetness that can doom a fruit beer to the rubbish bin of novelty drinks.
“I’ve seen four guys in full hunting gear drinking that and the little lady on the end [of the bar] will be drinking a porter,” laughs Boathouse brewer Ben Storbeck (above). “We’ve had people walk in, look at the board, and say: ‘They’re out of the blueberry, should we stay?’ So we’ve got to make it year-round. My hand was forced on that one.”
The Boathouse is one of those brewing establishments that carefully walks the line between tedious “drinkability” and in-your-face extreme brewing. We ran the table of its winter offerings and found that they had in common a mellow approachability that ranged from the bland (the almost too-easy-to-drink but appropriately named Entry Point Golden Ale) to the politely sassy (the Ginger Binger and the Rye Fish at All Pale Ale).
Knowingly or not, the brewpub is part of a increasingly visible and informal campaign in small-town Minnesota and Wisconsin to migrate local tastebuds beyond the 100 percent consistent and largely characterless offerings of macro brewers into the more unpredictable world of craft beer.
“I came on board in 2009 and that’s when it started to take off,” says manager Joseph Tome (above). “At that point, people weren’t for craft beer — as soon as you said you couldn’t get a Bud Lite or Miller Lite, there were crickets in here. Then we started brewing stuff like the Entry Point and the blueberry, and people would come in for lunch and say: ‘Oh, I could drink that!'”
The restaurant is situated in the middle of town, and it’s big without being sterile. Populated by a hard core of regulars the few times we visited in January, it’s easy enough to imagine during the summer rush, swamped with hikers and canoeists pounding back mellow beers and crunching away on fried fish or big burgers.
Many brewers pride themselves on delivering a rock-solid consistent product, each beer much like its predecessor, correcting for variable ingredients and the quirks of the brewing process. Not so much the Boathouse.
“We’re not much for [consistency,]” says Storbeck. “Our core group of regulars is here frequently and they appreciate variety, and our other type of customer is only through once a year or so.”
The result is a beer menu that meanders with the seasons. The restaurant offers most pints for $4.25, and four 4-oz. samplers for the same price.
“I make the final gravity a little higher in the winter so it’s a little heavier,” says Storbeck. “I have ingredient availability issues, particularly hops, that force that with other beers. Then there’s my own whim. ‘I thought the last one was sweeter, so I want this one to be drier,’ or whatever.”
“Because we’re only making three-and-a-half-barrel batches, and because we have a tight-knit little group, we’re able to respond very quickly to Ely. We brew what we want to drink. If that something from Belgium or the West Coast, so be it.”
That roll-with-inspiration approach works well in an environment where longtime drinkers are picking up new tricks and younger drinkers are getting started on surprisingly flavorful stuff.
“It blew my mind when I was at some other restaurant and underage dishwashers were talking about drinking beers and they were talking about drinking Summit,” says Storbeck. “When I was under 21, Summit was not on my radar. I can’t imagine going to a high school kegger and it being an IPA.”
Sophisticated drinking, however, seems to stop at glassware.
“This double IPA packs such a wallop that we need a smaller glass,” says Storbeck. “We have 10-oz. tulips and that would be a more suitable glass… but there are a lot of guys who just. Won’t. Drink. Out of stemware!”
The sprawling menu at the Boathouse is stretched a bit thin — skip the nachos, for example. But there are some notable high points, including a novel poultry appetizer and a thoughtful twist on fried fish.
“Being in Ely, you have to have a broad array [of menu options],” says Tome. “As far as the restaurant here, we go from breakfast in the summer time to burgers to wraps. You have to serve healthy because a lot of people up here are health junkies.”
Fried duck wings ($9) are probably not a health junkie’s first choice, but any gourmand with his or her salt should zero in on them.
“Up here a lot of people are big duck hunters,” says Tome. “It’s a domestic duck.” The flavor of the moist meat is pleasingly aggressive and a bit gamey with an assertively crunchy exterior; a side sauce brings sweetness and heat that helps lighten up and focus the overall flavor package.
Friday nights (and on Tuesdays during the summer), the Boathouse offers a walleye fish fry ($14) that lacks the soggy, sad, forgettable results that so many fish fries offer up. “Nobody does walleye like we do walleye,” says Tome. “We do it by hand.”
The crunchy, assertive, flavorful batter on the fish helps contrast and contain the oily fish, which is tender under its beer-fortified armor.
“The flavor of the breading is important — we’re a brewpub,” says Tome. “So why wouldn’t we beer-batter it? We use our hoppier beer to beer batter it. It gives it a little more of bitter flavor, and it adds to the taste of the walleye.”
For Tome and Storbeck (who picked up brewing experience at the Lake Superior Brewing Company in Duluth), the key to the success of the Boathouse is making that hand-to-hand connection with customer, whether through food or beer.
“I came from the world where we sold it to the wholesaler and we never got to see the customer,” says Storbeck. “But now, I’ll bartend, and I get to hand [the beer] to them.”
Boathouse Brewpub & Restaurant
Brewpub in Ely
47 E Sheridan St
Ely, MN 55731
OWNER / CHEF: Mark Bruzek / Joseph and Brian Tome
Starting May 1: 6am-10pm (summer breakfast hours may change or be dropped)
Starting Oct 1: 9am-9pm
Starting May 1: 11am-1am
Starting Oct 1: Mon-Fri 4pm-1am
Mon-Sat 11am-10pm (growlers go for $17 initially, then $12 refills)
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED?: No
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / With effort
ENTREE RANGE: $7-30