The Toast: All Pints North 2016

Banner for the Toast: Drinking Well in the Upper Midwest

This week in the Toast, the city of Duluth is invaded by craft beer fans, while other North Shore businesses, like Vikre Distillery and Duluth Coffee Company, are establishing themselves as part of the landscape.

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The Toast is a monthly feature created by the Heavy Table and underwritten this month by Aviv Vodka.

Paige Latham / Heavy Table
Paige Latham / Heavy Table

The Best of All Pints North

Known by those in the brewing industry as the most anticipated beer festival of the year, All Pints North brings a craft beer wave to the shores of Lake Superior. Because of its reputation, members of the Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild as well as favorite breweries from around the nation present their best beer at this giant party. The entire weekend is a collision of brewers and drinkers, combined with music and other special events.

Courtesy of Kutzky Market
Courtesy of Kutzky Market

About 120 breweries were represented July 23 at the the 5th annual festival. Each tent was serving multiple selections to crowds even bigger than in years past. Samples ranged from variations on the classics to exclusive one-offs. Bent Paddle, for instance, is becoming famous for a multitude of variations on its Black ale, while unusual infusions and casks from breweries like Forager (above) were brand new to all.

Several favorites came from brewers within walking distance of the park. Fitger’s offered several successful beers and excellent variety. The Blood Orange IPA was a memorable version of a familiar style, the West Coast IPA. Using five hop varieties with the oranges created an authentic fruit flavor with enough bitterness to maintain the style. Despite its 7.6 percent ABV, it was crisp and thirst quenching.

Blood orange, by the way, was an undeniable trend at the event; it seemed that about one in 12 breweries used the citrus in some way.

Becca Dilley / Lake Superior Flavors
Becca Dilley / Lake Superior Flavors

Also from Fitger’s was a successful use of the unpredictable yeast strain, Brettanomyces. Their classic Belgian wit was rested in wine barrels with the yeast, giving it both a white-wine characteristic and the hallmark earthy funk that Brettanomyces is known for. The success of this beer was obvious at first sip. The farmhouse notes do not dominate; orange and spice flavors from the wit are present, while the barrel-derived flavor merely plays a supporting role.

Breweries closer to the Twin Cities were also well represented. The relative newcomer, Birch’s on the Lake, was not well known to the crowd but had a solid roster including two killer fruit beers. The passion fruit witbier again struck a delicate balance. The fruit was easy to identify but it didn’t render the glass too sweet, and the spicy phenols of Belgian yeast were pronounced.

Paige Latham / Heavy Table
Paige Latham / Heavy Table

In a risk that paid off greatly, Eastlake Brewery poured a pale pink beet Gose into the tasting glasses of hesitant drinkers. The Gose style, a nearly defunct German wheat ale resurrected by a handful of American brewers, is a summer favorite due to its use of salt, which falls shy of brine but adds perceptible tartness. The sour program at Eastlake (dubbed the Kirby Pucker Series) has been largely successful, and the beet Gose is no exception. It combines the root vegetable with pickling spices and the aforementioned salt, and is ideal as a palate cleanser on a hot day.

Finally, the winner in the dark beer arena was NorthGate‘s Bourbon Barrel stout, a surprise, given the history of NorthGate and its tendency to brew moderate and sessionable beers. Because of a rest in Breckenridge bourbon barrels, the beer is intensified and enhanced by the flavors of the spirit, taking on dark chocolate and oaky flavors. The most shocking feature of this beer is how smooth it is. There is no alcoholic heat or unincorporated flavors. The result is so harmonious that it is difficult to imagine the unaged beer. Look for bottles in liquor stores this October.

Becca Dilley / Duluth Coffee Company
Becca Dilley / Duluth Coffee Company

Miel at Duluth Coffee Company

For a city with relatively few independent coffee shops per capita, Duluth contains an impressive roasting company with a small coffee bar and retail space. Since launching in 2012, Duluth Coffee Company has established itself as a habitual gathering place for locals and tourists alike.

Alongside the pour-overs and Chemex methods that have become ubiquitous among third wave coffee shops, a few classic drinks are well executed behind the counter at the downtown shop. One favorite is the Miel, made with steamed milk, espresso, and honey.

Unlike some misguided coffee sweeteners, the honey in this glass is present for flavor rather than mere sugar. It is sourced from Lake Superior Apiary and adds an intense wildflower honey flavor that contrasts perfectly with the bitter espresso and complements the warm latte foam. The attention to details like serving temperature and proportions set this classic coffee drink apart.

Duluth Coffee Company, 105 Superior St, Duluth, MN 55802. Mon-Fri 6:30 a.m.-5 p.m., Sat-Sun 8 a.m.-3 p.m.

Mike Mommsen / Heavy Table
Mike Mommsen / Heavy Table

Vikre Distillery’s Summer Cocktails

Craft beer can be found at the source every few blocks in Duluth. Breweries dot most neighborhoods in town and continue like a constellation along the Lake Superior shore clear to Canada. Distilling, though, is another story, as are craft cocktails that go beyond the mundane.

With few exceptions, the Duluth cocktail situation isn’t promising. A few restaurants, like Zeitgeist Arts Cafe, make a strong effort, while others, like Black Water Lounge, truly deliver something special.

Enter Vikre distillery, which opened its cocktail room in November 2014 after putting multiple varieties of gin on liquor store shelves earlier that year. The cocktail room has been a huge success, and the place is often very busy on weekends. It’s not only the spirits themselves that draw a crowd; it’s the specialty drinks not found elsewhere.

Unlike Minneapolis, which has a reputation as a cocktail destination, Duluth doesn’t have the same depth of assured clientele. We inquired how the team at Vikre develops a menu that is appealing enough to keep the doors open while being innovative at the same time.

The classic Old Fashioned and gin and tonic never leave the menu. But the rest of the 10 or so drinks change seasonally. Esteemed head bartender, Nicolas Pascuzzi, explains a brainstorming process by which ideas are generated then narrowed down. From there, explains Pascuzzi, “we then have to produce all the ingredients, the various syrups, bitters, liqueurs, and amari that go into each drink.”

Co-founder and president, Emily Vikre, points out that even these individual ingredients go through many recipe variations until perfection is achieved. Occasionally the team falls in love with a particular ingredient that is hyperseasonal, like garlic scapes, for example. Due to the brief availability, these ingredients are used in drink specials rather that for an entire season.

Ultimately, being approachable but special isn’t easy: “We try to include a cocktail on the menu that everyone will at least approach. There are broad categories like tart, sweet, strong that we must represent. Beyond that, we don’t serve anything we don’t like. And we all have very different palates,” says Pascuzzi.

The Fjord Life, for instance, presents a significant chili heat paired with the cool sweetness of mango. Boreal Spruce gin adds a botanical intrigue, fleshing out the flavors in the glass without becoming muddy. Grapefruit and lime are reminders of the cocktail’s original inspiration — as a drink to be paired with fish. The tropical fruit is prominent, and though the combination with heat is becoming familiar, the fresh character of this iteration is undeniably tasty.

Taking creativity a step further leads to the most unusual ingredients on the menu. PROFESSIONALISM, made with Boreal juniper gin and Lake Superior vodka, is both boozy and full of the flavors of summer. It showcases the spirits and is alcohol-forward, making it appealing to martini drinkers. But it’s the daring combination of lemongrass riesling syrup, fresh snap peas, and tarragon that places this in the risky category.

“We like to push people a little bit, but we also want people to be able to find something they like or that feels familiar,” explains Vikre. This drink went through many versions, from disgusting to alluring. It absolutely pushes the palate for some, while not becoming gimmicky. The vegetal element is elevated by the lemongrass in a very successful way and was a favorite among tasters.

Vikre Distillery, 525 S Lake Ave Suite 102, Duluth, MN 55802; 218.481.7401. Mon-Sun 2 p.m.-11 p.m.