France 44 is a whale of a liquor store — when you initially step into the sprawling Linden Hills showroom, your first reaction may well be bottle shock. Saying nothing of the wine and liquor, the store carries well over one thousand beers, ranging from domestic swill to seasonal imports esoteric enough to stump dedicated beer nerds.
Matt Fisher is the store’s beer guy, the man who is paid to help you navigate the shelves, fridges, and big old walk-in cooler that he stocks himself. Like any good gastronomic guru, Fisher’s enthusiasm is palpable and contagious — ask him, for example, about the best beer to serve with a Thanksgiving turkey, and he’ll give you four or five solid suggestions with cogent explanations for each.
Fisher originally hails from southern Georgia, but he was raised in Florida before moving to Minnesota. (“I spent my school years up here and my summers in south Florida,” he says, ruefully. “Completely ass-backwards.”) He started working at France 44 as a wine stocker, in October 2007.
JAMES NORTON: How did you originally get into beer?
MATT FISHER: I joined the military straight out of high school and went into the Air Force. My first posting was in Ramstein Air Base outside of Germany.
I had some friends who had been there for a few years who started taking me around to all these little village fests that are really popular there — it seems like every village has its own little brewery. And that’s how I got started.
But then the revelation happened when we did a little weekend trip to Belgium — that’s when I realized what a beer could be. Compared to everything American I had had up to that point, this was a totally new level of beer, — it was the first time I had a beer with herbs in it, or more than one type of yeast. All of a sudden, you’re getting citrusy flavors, apple flavors that you’d never find in an American beer.
NORTON: Sure, once you get past the purity laws, things get kind of crazy…
NORTON: It becomes a little more exciting.
FISHER: Well, once you get past the purity laws and Budweiser and Miller’s racket, there are beers out there that are cellar-able for 10-25 years depending on what you want to do. It’s like wine or scotch.
NORTON: Did you have a lightbulb moment with beer?
FISHER: For me, it was a Belgian brown or a “brun.” It was just entirely new. It had a lot of malty yeasts, so that malty characteristic was there, but now you’re adding a slightly fruity, biscuity element to it that was just like — when I saw Sideways I laughed a bit because they were asking, what bottle of wine really just opened your world up? It was never wine for me that did that. The first time I had that beer it just blew my mind as to what a beer really, truly could be.
NORTON: Why is being a beer guy such a good fit for you?
FISHER: I’ve always liked the fact that beer was around before wine, but when wine came around, beer was considered the more “barbaric” drink or whatever.
There was never any of the real pretentiousness and mysticism with beer that there is with wine. People are a lot more willing to ask questions, whereas they’re a little bit afraid to do that with wine.
I’m not saying all wine people are snobby… and let’s be honest, there are beer snobs out there, too. But 95 percent of the beer culture that’s out there is just looking for something good to drink rather than where it was bottled or any of that other stuff. And I think that just fits better for me. That’s why I get into the beer crowd, because you’re never gonna get where… I mean, to use an example, like a first-growth Bordeaux. These are wines that are typically bought before they’re even off the vine yet. It gets really ridiculous.
Granted, there are beers out there that are like that, but most of the time the beer customers are more than willing to wait in line just to get excited about getting a chance to try this beer, and I think that’s really cool because it’s more of a shared excitement rather than: “I’m gonna get these twelve bottles and I can go have these at home and tell other people I have them,” you know?
NORTON: How does France 44 stack up in terms of variety?
FISHER: As far as how many different beers we have, I’m almost positive we have more beer than anybody in the city. [The Four] Firkins is our biggest competition for the beer geek crowd, but they’re more of a single bottle shop, whereas we have our single beer sections and though we have easily as many as they do we also carry the big guys -— you know, your Michelobs, your Buds, your Millers, and all that stuff.
NORTON: What do you emphasize when you’re picking new beers to stock?
FISHER: For me personally, I’m looking for a sense of balance in a beer. There are a lot of beers out there that are just huge, kick-you-in-the-face, hoppy monsters. And I appreciate that for all the hopheads out there. I’ll carry those because people really get into them. But when I’m looking for a beer that I’m either going to put my tag on or carry, I just want something that’s perfect for its style. They don’t go crazy or try to put a little twist on it or anything, it’s just very balanced.
NORTON: OK, tell me about this first beer we’re drinking.
FISHER: This is an Urbock style Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier by the Brauerei Heller-Trum / Schlenkerla from Germany. Smoked beers are a really traditional style. This brewery’s been doing this style of beer for almost 200 years. To give you an idea of how big this beer’s gonna be, just smell this one and you’ll kind of get a glimpse.
NORTON: Holy moly. Smells like a barbecue in there.
FISHER: They take malted barley and they roast it over birchwood — then they cellar age it in these really ancient rock cellars. Three months in oak casks through what they call “strong beer season” in Germany. It runs usually through October to December. This is a huuuuge deal in Germany for strong beer season.
One of the main reasons I picked this one is, because you guys are such a food-friendly website, this is a really food-friendly beer. If you just get a whiff of it on the nose, it’s massive, almost like bacon-grease-smoked-pork-kind of thing… to do this with pork? I mean, it smells like a porkchop in a glass. To pair that with something as rich would just be out of this world.
NORTON: What’s the ABV on this?
FISHER: This runs just under 7%, but the gravity is massive. And just a funny little sidenote: it’s called “Schlenkerla,” which in German is a verb for “dangling,” or “swinging.” And you’ll see this little guy that shows up on all their bottles. He was one of the previous owners and the reason they named the brewery that was because apparently he had a bit of a hobbling gait. So they called him — really loosely translated — “the swinger” for the way he would walk.
NORTON: How much does this cost?
FISHER: That runs for about $6 a bottle. It’s only brewed once a year, really small production stuff. It’s such a rare thing that a lot of people don’t know about it. You could see why it would be a little intense for some people, so I’m trying to put it out there as more of a food pairing rather than a session beer.
BECCA DILLEY: It’d really go well with most breakfast foods. Maybe with potatoes and cheese. I don’t usually drink beer for breakfast, but maybe…
NORTON: How do you start someone down the path of appreciating beer? How do you work with someone who knows nothing about beer?
FISHER: I’ll typically ask them if there’s any other spirits they get into, like wine or liqueurs, and I’ll ask them what flavors. If they like something that’s very flavorful or soft, I’ll ask them the venue they’re going to be drinking in, are you having food, you know, just kind of bounce around a couple of ideas.
From what they tell me through that, then I’ll filter it down: are they looking for softer easy session beer? Or looking for something that’s out of the norm that they can wow their friends with that I can give them a little backstory on?
That’s one of my most favorite things to do: somebody who has no idea what they’re doing and just lets me walk around and educate them. That’s a fun part of my day.
NORTON: Do you remember any particularly bizarre requests for beer that people have wanted?
FISHER: Lately, I do get asked more often than not what is the hoppiest thing in the store. And well, it was kind of a divide — I had a fight going on between two of my regular customers — we have one beer that’s called Devil Dancer from Founder’s. They dry hop that beer for twenty-six straight days. So this is sitting in a cellar and they’re dropping hops in it every day. But it was also massive on the alcohol in the malt. So it was more of a balanced huge triple IPA.
If I had to say if you were looking for the straight up hoppiest, piney, most resinous beer we had, it would be the Moylan’s Hopsickle, which is their triple. That is tongue-curdling. If you get into that, it’s awesome, and if you had some really salty fried food it might be able to stand up to that, but that’s just huge.
NORTON: Do you have any favorite local beers? I know that no matter what you say it’s gonna bother people, but I’m curious.
FISHER: Hands down, for local beers: Surly. No question. I mean, I like some of the other guys that are out there doing stuff locally, but as far as getting out there and trying new things, I think Surly’s doing a fantastic job. With their — it’s a horrible name, but — Teabag Furious, that was one of the most delicious beers I’ve ever had. Having the big hops and the nice little malty flavors to go along with that herbal tea bit was just perfect.
And then their Darkness, their Russian imperial, that’s a black hole in a glass. That was so good, I can’t wait to get that here this year. It is a really big beer, but can you imagine doing a monster roasted stout like that with a piece of charbroiled beef? Just really smoked outside, let it out rare, it would be amazing.
NORTON: I really enjoyed their Coffee Bender. I’ve tried 5 or 6 different coffee beers and I thought the Hitachino Espresso Stout was really amazing, but Surly was right up there.
FISHER: Hitachino was the first I’ve ever seen that put coffee in their beer and now it’s made it way over to America. Now you’re finding it a lot more often.
NORTON: Inconsistent application, though. I think Surly made a really good stab at it.
FISHER: A lot of people do coffee stouts, and that’s one of the ways that Surly differed — they took their amber beer and added coffee. Granted, their amber is very dark, but adding that coffee to it gave it a nice, bitter touch that wasn’t hops, which sort of changed it up a little bit. Worked really, really well.
NORTON: They’re not local, but Avery seems to do really good stuff.
FISHER: They get really out there. Their Demon series is a whole new thing that they’re trying. This one I’m pouring, The Beast, is considered a Grand Cru. Flemish beers or Grand Cru beers are traditionally sour, so Grand Cru is usually a label that described a stronger version. Now this isn’t anything close to what I would label a Belgian sour.
NORTON: What is the theory behind this beer?
FISHER: When Jim Koch coined the term “extreme beer” with his Utopias and stuff, he was talking more about beers that aren’t necessarily sit down and have a couple beers. These are beers that are really meant to be paired with desserts or very powerful flavors. When you try this, imagine it with a creme brulee with some fresh fruit, because you’re going to get massive candied pineapple tawny port flavors out of this.
NORTON: Already tastes like a rum drink.
FISHER: Yeah, Caribbean rum is another good description for this. You’re getting a lot of that at the nose, but then you’ll get it in your mouth and it’s got a very silky texture, but you’ll also get that hint of what regular beer is. So it’s just all that added on top. This is an unbelievably complex beer that you can do so many things with. I would love to try to cook with this; I’m just not sure how it would work out. The way you can reduce a wine into a sauce, I’m not sure this would work the same.
NORTON: What I’ve been doing is, I’ve been taking a Belgian dubbel and making beef stew with it in lieu of water. It works out really well.
FISHER: Just let it warm over your tongue for a little bit and then swallow it, and you’ll get little different touches all over. It comes in 70 IBUs, so there’s a hop presence, but it’s really masked a lot by the alcohol. They’re more that slightly citrusy touch rather than being bitter or acidic. It would easily stand up to a baker’s chocolate of some kind, like a tiramisu — that would really work out well with that. Definitely a fruity characteristic to it. With as much alcohol as went into this beer, it’s not overwhelming. It does have definite warming quality, but they put enough in there to really stand up to it.
DILLEY: It’s almost like a port.
NORTON: What’s the ABV and price on this?
FISHER: This one is 15.07% ABV and I think the price goes for $8.99.
DILLEY: It’s surprising, but not in the aggressive way…
FISHER: It’s very soft, it’s very silky, but there’s no one flavor that’s just overpowering. They just made a really nice balance with everything.
NORTON: So when you look at the Upper Midwestern brewing scene these days, you mentioned Surly, anything else exciting that you’re seeing?
FISHER: Actually, there’s all kinds of cool stuff up in our region right now. East Coast and West Coast have a lot of money, so they can do all kind of cool stuff and that’s more of what you’re hearing about, but as far as people getting into making their own beer and then starting their own little breweries up here, there’s all kinds of things happening. Like I’ve heard somebody in the neighborhood is just starting to distribute some new beer.
FISHER: Right. There’s all kinds of that stuff that you hear about happening right now, which I think is fun, because we are in a very wintery sort of place, so you have to have something to do in the wintertime. It makes perfect sense: why not brew your own beer?
NORTON: My last question: Where do you like to go out and drink around here?
FISHER: I love Town Hall Brewery, just because they do their own stuff and I really enjoy that. Happy Gnome is always fun because they’re always changing stuff out. The Bulldog, I really enjoy their stuff because they’re getting stuff that maybe somebody else isn’t getting. Cafe 28, because I am a fan of Surly and they get a lot of other fun stuff on kegs. Also, they’re four blocks down the street.