What is a spring beer, anyway? Spring is a strange time of year for beer. We’re done with the barrel-aged monsters of winter but not quite ready for the paper-thin ales of summer. Spring means a hodgepodge of styles: Maibocks, hoppy IPAs, Belgian-inspired wheats, fresh Pilsners, floral session beers, and everything in between.
Every quarter, our good friends at the Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild ask their members for samples of their most recent brews. This time around, they gathered 28 current releases from 21 Minnesota breweries.
We needed an all-star panel of tasters to sort it all out: Andrew Schmitt, co-host of MN Beer Cast and the director of MN Beer Activists; Jeremy Zoss of Zoss Media; Sean Cooke, certified Cicerone and bartender at Tamarack Taproom; and Tom Boland, vice president at Elevated Beer Wine and Spirits.
Reminder: tickets for the insanely popular All Pints North are on sale now. Reserve them now to join the festivities in Duluth’s Bayfront Park on Saturday, July 25.
Here now, our picks for the best in Minnesota spring beer:
Gold Medal, Best In Show: Town Hall Brewery One Simple Pale
If ever there was a name that fit a beer, our grand champion is just that. Brewer Mike Hoops and company win our tasting with a paragon of a pale ale. Aromas of tropical melon and fresh pine, followed with rich, balanced malt and a clean finish. Aroma-forward, very little bitterness lingering. So drinkable. So simple. A impressive background player — like the world’s best bass guitarist, only this one deserves the spotlight.
Gold Medal, 1st Runner-Up: Freehouse German Bock No. 9
We at Toast HQ love seeing improvement and having our expectations confounded. We’ve been sour on beers from the Freehouse so far, but it looks like the revolution begins with Number 9. It’s Oktoberfest flavor in skinnier Lederhosen. It’s Aprilfest. Not sugary like a Märzen, with layered malt, herbal hops, and raisin, caramel, and coffee notes at the end. It’s nice to have these robust autumn flavors in a mellow spring beer. Astonishing.
Gold Medal, 2nd Runner-Up: Badger Hill High Road Everyday Ale
We hereby crown High Road the king of local session ales. Passion fruit, honeydew, pineapple — a whole tropical fruit basket on the nose from the Southern Hemisphere hops. Absurd amount of flavor for such a light body. Bright and direct, while balanced, at a thin 5 percent ABV.
Gold Medal, 3rd Runner-Up: Brau Brothers Village Prude Big Belgian Blonde Ale
As if Lift Bridge Farm Girl had a baby with a Belgian Tripel. Burly and direct, with that luscious, banana-peel-bubble-gum thing perfectly in check, contributing just enough sweetness to balance the 7.6 percent ABV. Really wonderful application of aroma. A powerful beer that’s light on its feet.
Excelsior Brewing Maibock
This one’s a patio pounder. A pure though restrained hop character followed by satin-soft malt, off-dry start to a very dry finish. A tad underattenuated, but a mild bock we’ll gladly stash in our first cooler of the season out on the lake.
Serviceable, light and fresh. Floral hops on the nose, then lemon peel and apricot in a wheat-forward, ethereal sip. An ideal hammock beer.
Lift Bridge Hop Dish IPA
Not a “seasonal,” per se, but this year-round IPA is hitting the spot in spring. A balanced IPA with pristine grapefruit citrus on the nose, some exceptional pear-apple-melon on the sip, and a crystal clear finish. Enough bitterness for the hop-heads, with enough malt to back it up.
612Brew Laudenbock Maibock
Rich on the nose, a distinct apple bite, well-tamed yet complex. This one’s a crowd pleaser. Beer geeks will appreciate the nuance of flavor, entry-level craft drinkers will love the approachability.
Lucid Duo Double IPA
Malty for an IPA, a little sweeter than the aroma lets on, but a great mouthfeel with a fine spice note. A wonderful alternative to citrus-forward IPAs.
Summit Hopvale Organic Ale
Faint aroma, pillowy soft body, grassy with citrus and a pinch of spice. We wanted more hop presence up front, but a pleasing, resinous bitter taste has some good staying power. A solid session.
Bent Paddle Paddle Break Blonde
It’s a little one-note, but we like that one note a whole lot. Yeast is the star flavor, giving a slight Belgian character to a honeyed roundness over some grassy malt. Mild, dry and consistent. Easy to like.
Fulton The Expat Rye Saison
Solid and stately. Middle of the pack. Peppery malt, red fruit aromas, hints of biscuit; begs a return sip. Another fastball down the middle from Fulton.
Urban Growler “Plow To Pint” Lemongrass Wheat
Delicate and enjoyable. A zip of ginger and citrus around a toffeelike sweetness. Mild fruit flavors linger. Pint-worthy.
Bemidji Brewing Belgian Saison
Malty and simple, with a subdued hop flavor and some easygoing apple and pear fruit. It didn’t strike us as saison-like, but props to a smooth, straightforward ale.
Thoughts on a Trio of Sours:
We liked the mild tartness of Fair State Lactobac 2 Sour Hibiscus Saison and the dry lychee, rose hip, wild strawberry flavors are seasonally on-point. The Bank Brewing Sour Bomb Tart Wheat Ale is more of a firecracker than a bomb of sour, with a hayloft, dried grain, vinous quality that went down smooth. And the Joseph Wolf Berlin-Style Weisse had some sweet biscuit and honey flavors, but an unfortunate dose of wet dog and funky basement as well.
The Rest of the Tasting:
Bemidji Brewing IPA
Underhopped for an IPA, but a solid ale. Thin and crisp with a citrus tang. Not a unique beer, but a good one for the heat.
Bank Brewing Hop Lab Dry Hopped IPA
Juicy Fruit, Life Savers, and pineapples in syrup are all present, but the sip is surprisingly dry. Funky, with wet straw and apple on the finish. Interesting, endearing and a little awkward, like a Steve Carrell movie (pre-Foxcatcher).
Jack Pine Ice Out White IPA
Inviting sweetness on the nose, then pithy, astringent grapefruit peel leads the sip. Could have used a touch more malt. A successful, inside-the-box IPA.
Bauhaus Brew Labs Copper Pop Hoppy Red Lager
A touch of caramel in a straightforward sip. Like a hoppy Maibock — malt forward with spicy hops in play. Missing that well-integrated graininess of a good lager, but an easy-sipping red for the spring.
Boom Island Saison
Tons of grapefruit and Big League Chew flavor. More bitter than you’d expect from a saison, but a nice sweet nose and some pleasant fruit on the sip.
Excelsior Brewing “Framblond”
We couldn’t get past a weird prune note with this one. Cloudy, funky, and a little chalky, with a sweet-tart orange peel thing on the finish. Like a firkin of Samuel Adams Cold Snap on stone fruit.
Joseph Wolf Brewing Golden Belgian Strong
Lots of booze, here. Sweet Belgian fruits up front, yeasty and overripe by the finish. Big, aggressive, and hot.
Dangerous Man Cream Ale
A little hop, a little malt, a little sweetness, and a little bland. We caught a hint of diacetyl, though nothing out of bounds. Fine for the style, but we can’t see this one ever cracking our list of favorites at Dangerous Man.
Dangerous Man Imperial IPA
We doubt there will be too many tastings where Dangerous Man puts two entries near the bottom. But their IIPA was just too much. Grapefruit soaked in vodka on the nose with a sugar-rich body. Boozy-sweet. A hot mess.
Indeed Haywire Double American Black Ale
Bitter coffee, roasted malt, discombobulated, acrid, fumbling through a weird minty hop flavor. It tastes well-crafted, but the chosen flavors didn’t mesh the way they should have. A rare misfire from Indeed.
Lift Bridge Getaway Pilsner
Green glass Eurolager. Campfire in an old tire. Diacetyl, for sure. Crisp finish, but not our cup of Pils. We much preferred their Pathway over the Getaway.
Past Seasonal Tasting Winners:
Winter 2015 – Lift Bridge Silhouette
Autumn 2014 – Schell’s Black Forest Cherry
Summer 2014 – Badger Hill White IPA
Spring 2014 – Surly BLAKKR
Oktoberfest 2013 – Schell’s Oktoberfest