Castle Danger Brewery sits high on the west end of the relatively empty main drag of Two Harbors, with a view of the Moose Lodge from the front and the American Legion out back. While the new, pine-scented patio was relatively empty the day we visited, the inside had a scattering of people: some beer-loving locals sporting local brew gear, some clearly visitors.
The large taproom, with an auxiliary bar to the side, had an open, clean, and authentic feel — an “up North” vibe without canoe-shaped bookshelves or bear carvings. The bartenders were knowledgeable and accommodating; we overheard them offering visitors suggestions of other local breweries to try.
After ordering two four-beer flights, tasting everything the menu had to offer, we found the notable beers to be the George Hunter stout and its variations (which came along with the flights in small tasting glasses). George Hunter is an American stout — made so by the use of domestic grains and a light, late hop character — with a light creaminess and medium-alcohol warmth at 8 percent ABV. It was slightly sweeter than expected but delightfully straightforward. Poured on nitro, it maintained a solid, cream-colored head that stayed as we sipped, increasing the smooth mouthfeel.
The beer is named for the founder and brewer’s great-great-grandfather, who brewed in the years around 1900, and proves to be a good jumping-off point from which to experiment. We thought of the original George Hunter beer as being in the neutral position on a toggle. We tried two George Hunter variants that belong to the brewery’s rotating Freestyle Series — Gentleman George Hunter and Sommelier George Hunter — and are on either extreme of the same toggle: one in high gear, and one in low gear.
The high-gear version, Gentleman George Hunter, is available for the first time since early 2013. After aging for 10 months in Jack Daniel’s whiskey barrels, the original George Hunter saw its molasses tones morph into something bolder and warmer, with a strong caramel and vanilla nose. The roasted notes are more pronounced, as is the distinct, and expected, alcohol finish – more astringent than the straight George Hunter but not imposing. The beer brings a familiar comfort, like a big glass of Irish coffee — rich, round and full.
The low-gear variation, Sommelier George Hunter — aged in a Napa Valley red wine barrel for 6 months — tasted off balance. It reminded us of ChocoVine with a shot of the heavier stuff in it, or of out-of-date Bailey’s. While it was an admirable attempt at a variation on a theme (others include Indulging George Hunter and Dark Chocolate George Hunter, each with different additions, but without barrel aging), the flavor was accented by sour raisin notes in the body and an oily texture like an oaty Russian imperial stout. We would have liked to see this barrel-aging technique used on a less-bold beer, like a nutty brown ale, or a Belgian dubbel, where the alcohol hotness contrasts kindly with the woody, portlike flavor wine barrels impart.