The ancient battle at Troy may have ended a little differently if, instead of a giant wooden horse, Odysseus and his army had rolled into town with a twenty foot long beer barrel on wheels outfitted with a disco ball, stereo system, and several draught lines pouring craft beer.
While Deschutes Brewery’s intentions here in the Twin Cities are far less nefarious than those of the gift-bearing Greeks, the crowd that turned out last week at Longfellow Grill’s patio in Minneapolis to welcome the newest craft brewery to enter the local market appeared to be willingly overtaken with what was pouring from Deschutes’ mobile bar, affectionately named Woody.
“Woody is mad genius, a party on wheels,” said Deschutes lead cellar operator Ryan Schmiege (below). “There’s only one in the country, and there will never be another like it.”
Founded in 1988 in Bend, Oregon, Deschutes is the sixth largest brewery in the United States by barrel volume according to figures from the Brewers Association, pumping out more than 200,000 barrels annually to fifteen states primarily on the West coast. Minnesota is as far east as Deschutes has ventured to this point, and during the Longfellow event the brewery showcased several of its year-round and limited release beers now available in the Twin Cities on draught and in 22 ounce bottles. The beers included Mirror Pond Pale Ale, a nicely balanced American-style pale ale that took medals last year at the World Beer Championships and Great American Beer Festival; Black Butte Porter, the best selling porter in the country and considered by many to be a standard bearer of the style; and Hop Henge IPA, part of Deschutes’ Bond Street Series (an homage to its original brewpub) that gives the term “heavy handed” a wonderfully bitter new meaning.
“We’re sort of known as a hop-forward brewery, but we really run the full gamut in the wide variety of beers we produce,” said Schmiege. “We have a very highly educated brewstaff, and a tremendous brewmaster who helps us innovate and push the boundaries in all sorts of directions, including oak-aging and sour beer production. We like to do a little bit of everything.”
Local beer sleuths may still be able to find bottles of Deschutes’ more limited Reserve Series offerings that haven’t yet been snapped up in the two weeks since they hit shelves, including Jubel 2010, an American strong ale aged in pinot noir oak barrels; Black Butte XXI, a souped-up version of the brewery’s flagship porter infused with cocoa nibs, coffee and aged in whiskey barrels; and Mirror Mirror, an oak-aged barleywine. Deschutes also has plans to eventually bring in its newest hybrid-style, Hop in the Dark Cascadian Dark Ale (also known as a black IPA), as well as its Twilight summer seasonal and the highly coveted Russian Imperial Stout called The Abyss.
“The Abyss is a great example of how many of our beers have started off experimentally at our brewpub and evolved into broader production,” said Schmiege. “Initially, we probably brewed six or eight batches using lots of different ingredients to make a higher alcohol, heavier bodied stout, and we took bits and pieces from all of those to create what we now know as The Abyss. We were very fortunate to win a gold medal at GABF the first year we developed that beer, and over time it has evolved into something we’re very proud of.”
With the addition of Deschutes to the coterie of local and national craft brands dotting the Twin Cities beer landscape, there is a growing list of high quality offerings available in this market. The trend is reinforced at a national level with craft beer sales in 2009 growing by 10.3 percent year-over-year despite overall beer sales dropping by 2.2 percent. Clearly, the craft segment continues to slowly chip away and gain ground. This could be good news, bringing a dazzling wealth of new choices for the local craft beer lover.
But it could also represent a mild cause for concern. For many, craft beer’s appeal has in part been about its fiercely local nature. And similar to what happened here in the 1990s when an influx of brands such as Dogfish Head and Three Floyds led to a craft beer bubble, we could see a glut of potentially neglected labels withering away on shelves as consumer attention span is spread too thin, or worse, some are turned off to the entire category by dated product.
Today however, with aggressive craft sales growth in the state and strong support for upcoming events such as Minnesota Craft Beer Week, there appears to be little to worry about vis-a-vis demand remaining high. And according to Schmiege, the Twin Cities is beginning to resemble more well-known craft beer havens like Portland in the knowledge, passion, and discerning palates consumers have for their beer.
“I went to school here for a short while, but haven’t been back in some time. Quite frankly, the craft beer scene here is awesome,” said Schmiege. “The tap handles I’ve seen at the local bars are very impressive, and people really care about what’s in their glass. The Midwest is ready for craft beer, and the Twin Cities is ready for Deschutes. We’re very glad to be here.”