With 150 years of experience, the August Schell Brewery ought to produce a stellar anniversary brew. Hopfenmalz was the worthy beer tapped by fans as Schell’s 150th Anniversary Beer, and it could signal a new dedication to craft-style production by the New Ulm mainstay. It’s a fitting choice for a brewery that, like its hometown, never strays far from its German roots.
A malty, bready first sip of Hopfenmalz definitely takes you to Lowenbrau country, but then up pops a perfectly measured dose of hops and some ever-so-slight citruses. The hops don’t hit you over the head like Surly Furious or even carry a mild bite like Bell’s Two Hearted, but that’s obviously not the point, and the seamless malt-hop blend is what makes Hopfenmalz so damn refreshing.
It’s not that Schell’s makes crappy beer, but they certainly don’t have a reputation for delivering near-first-class stuff. It’s the opposite of the Surly high-expectation problem: I want every new Surly to absolutely knock my socks off, and when it is merely excellent, it’s slightly disappointing. Hopfenmalz starts out subtle and keeps growing on you, to the point you realize it may be the best everyday beer in Minnesota.
France 44 Wine & Spirits beer manager Matt Fisher said my reaction to Hopfenmalz wasn’t surprising, because it’s clear the brewer is redoubling its high-quality creative efforts, like Hopfenmalz and its recent (and very solid) Snowstorm. Plus there’s the wonderfully clear-bottled Schell’s Dark, the dark lager which had been far and away their best beer and stands up against most anything Europe can offer.
It’s unclear whether Hopfenmalz will be a permanent addition to the Schell family. But Fisher says it should, because in Hopfenmalz Schell’s has found a recipe that rejects the trend of microbreweries trying to out-shock each other, making highly anticipated batches that, by walloping your tongue, throat, or both, aren’t really drinkable long term. Schell’s made a much-needed decision to go against that grain and strike a balance that even non-beer geeks can embrace.
“They did something that was really original,” Fisher says. “It was more than I was expecting. The day we tested that in the store, everybody was an instant fan… it’s flying out the doors.”
Let’s hope Hopfenmalz signals a new commitment by the brewer to expand into a more quality-driven, risk-taking model, because that’s probably what it’s going to take for the brewery to stay relevant in the crowded Minnesota / Wisconsin market. And, in hindsight, perhaps it’s not so shocking that Schell’s can make a damn good beer.