The Toast: March 2014

Banner for the Toast: Drinking Well in the Upper Midwest

Readers: What’s your go-to spring brew? Agree / disagree with our findings? Email or tweet @johnpgarland and let us know what you’re toasting this month.  The best tip this month receives a Heavy Table pint glass.

In This Toast…winter’s icy death grip is starting to weaken. Unearthing our light jackets from the back of the closet, we can almost envision (Sweet Lord! Can it be near?) patio drinking season. So we get in the mood with an epic spring beer taste-off, get the lowdown on the new Schell’s pilsner series, and drink a dry aperitif to toast the melting snow. Cheers!

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table
Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Spring Beer Taste Test

Like the swallows flying back to San Juan Capistrano, the spring season ushers in a flock of wheat beers, saisons, lighter pales, and blonde ales. Our friends at the MN Craft Brewers Guild gathered up two dozen current releases for us to sample. So we called in some expert reinforcements: Liz Scholz, writer at The Beer Spectacles, Jeremy Zoss, proprietor of Zoss Media, Andrew Schmitt, lead rabble-rouser at Minnesota Beer Activists, and Tom Boland from Elevated Beer Wine & Spirits, who also brought a few extra beers to the party.

Clockwise from upper left: Boland, Zoss, Schmitt and Schols (Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table)
Clockwise from upper left: Boland, Zoss, Schmitt and Scholz (Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table)

We served them all blind, arranged in flights of more or less similar styles. Opinion on the pale ales (Indeed Let it Ride, Lucid Dyno, Dangerous Man Vienna IPA, ENKI Tail Feather) just simmered to the middle of the pack — lots of light citrus and zesty hops — and all were deemed just fine. The lager, pilsner, and kolsch categories were mild on impact, though Schell’s Maifest was considered a standout (they know something about lagers, see below).

Four beers rose to the top by a convincing margin, and our panel thought each of them to be individually expressive and on point for their style. Four more beers deserved an honorable mention. Here’s what our panel thought of a few fine local beers for spring:

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table
Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Gold: Surly Brewing Co. BLAKKR

Surly’s raucous imperial black ale was appreciated for its complex dark malts, notable fruit character, and well-integrated alcohol (9.99% ABV). The nose suggests an IPA, while the body delivers a similar, juicy backbone before finding a middle ground between sweet and boozy. There’s a lot going on in BLAKKR, and we found it comes together with confidence.

Silver: Indeed Brewing Co. Burr Grinder

Indeed’s Burr Grinder had brilliant brandy / coffee notes on the nose and a light, silky body that drew comparison to cold press. It was well flavored without being heavy — a compelling, focused coffee flavor with a touch of smokiness. If our parking meters hadn’t expired, we’d have drunk it all night long.

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table
Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Bronze: Brau Brothers Brewing Bancreagie Sour Peated Ale

The sour version of the Brau’s Bancreagie scotch ale has stellar tart cherry flavor surrounding a faint nuttiness. “Definitely cherry, but complex enough to avoid being cough syrup.” A lingering vinegar note strikes an intriguing balance where the acids amplify the sugars. The peat profile is greatly muted, taken over by a surprising, nuanced sour. “There’s room to explore this beer for a long time.”

Just off the podium: Summit Brewing Co. Frost Line Rye

We’ve previously enjoyed Summit’s new spring rye, and this blind tasting just confirms our opinion. Beginning with a mesmerizing citrus / pine nose, the spice on the body strikes us as outdoorsy, with juniper, spruce, and herbal character coming through. We could drink a lot of this.

Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table
Brenda Johnson / Heavy Table

Honorable Mention:

Bent Brewstillery Nordic Blonde Ale

A beer that makes me want to seek out this brand.” The Nordic Blonde bends the blonde style to allow some amber in its makeup. It has a beautiful color, an assertive malt presence with a tart finish, and it’s packed with grapefruit citrus that sets off a sweet-sour tug of war.

Finnegans Blonde

This blonde was a most welcome surprise. Our panel admitted to some brand bias when it comes to Finnegans, but a blind taste of the blonde made them reconsider. It had strong green fruit on the nose and a distinct yeast character (some smelled the esters, others found it gave a Belgian slant to the sip). This was light and crisp, a well done spring beer.

Fulton Beer Expat

Sour apples, apricots, and mellow sweetness among some Belgian notes endeared us to the Expat. It had well-rounded spice character in a smooth and straightforward sip.

Lift Bridge Brewing Co. Irish Coffee Stout

The sweetness of the body mixed with the roast and smoke of the coffee. It’s a rich, familiar coffee stout. “Luxurious and silky.” As opposed to the daytime coffee feel of Burr Grinder, this is your dessert coffee.

Norseman Distilling in Minneapolis - equipment
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Distillery Parity

Last week, members of the Minnesota Distillers Guild testified to the House Commerce and Consumer Protection Finance and Policy Committee in support of HF 2200/SF 2014. The proposed legislation would allow our growing crop of micro distilleries to sell bottles and run cocktail rooms at their distilleries.

As for upcoming local booze: Far North Spirits’ rum is on the horizon and Loon Liquors is currently firing test batches, looking to zero in on their Loonshine blend at the end of this month.

John Garland / Heavy Table
John Garland / Heavy Table

Cocktail Endorsement: Campari Spritz

As the thaw sets in and puddles begin to grow on our sidewalks, I can’t help but think of Venice, Italy (above), the city built in a puddle. My last visit involved a thorough education in the Campari Spritz, and this weather is perfect for that bittersweet aperitif. You could just add Campari to club soda, drop in an orange wedge, and call it a day. But try this version: It’s light, refreshing, and low in alcohol. It’s ideally paired with a game of bocce:

1 oz Campari
1/2 oz dry vermouth (Dolin Blanc would be nice)
splash Prosecco (or other dry sparkling wine)
splash grapefruit juice

Add the campari and dry vermouth to a large red wine glass with a couple large ice cubes. Splash grapefruit juice and Prosecco on top. Garnish with a grapefruit wedge. Some citrus flavored bitters would be a good addition.

John Garland / Heavy Table
John Garland / Heavy Table

Schell’s 30th Anniversary Pilsner Series

We’ve always known the August Schell Company to have a way with certain styles. Their Oktoberfest makes us actually want to drink Oktoberfests. And when we’re draining 2-for-1s at Liquor Lyle’s, it’s usually Schell’s pilsner — we’ve long considered it the finest pilsner in the state. In this craft brewing climate where the oakiest, hoppiest, and booziest draw so much attention, it’s a perfectly balanced respite.

So we were excited to learn that Schell’s is curating a special pilsner series. They’ve brought back the 30-year-old recipe (1984), and then experimented with rye additions (Roggen) and citrusy hops (Mandarina) to round out a sampler 12-pack with the current version (2014). It’s in stores now. Below are our quick tasting notes:

1984: lazy carbonation, distinct sulphur note to the yeast, cereal grains, round, robust, old-school.

2014: clean, more acidic, bracing malt backbone, supremely balanced, crisp, lemony, lingering.

Roggen: bright nose, touch of spice, more resinous, peppery, bounce on the finish. Compared to 2014: same frequency, more amplitude.

Mandarina: citrus early and often, distinct dry hop note, oranges, clean finish. Wouldn’t peg it as a pilsner, but enjoy the mountain of hops all the same.


  1. Chip Walton

    Thanks for including Frost Line Rye. We could (and do) drink a lot of it as well! Cheers, Chip @ Summit Brewing Company.

  2. Jason Walker

    Schell’s continues to impress. I can’t wait to try those Pilsners. Now if they just bring back Hopfenmalz and their stout, I’ll really be a happy camper.

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