IN THIS TOAST…we do a blind tasting of 24 summer beers from 17 Minnesota breweries. Readers: Agree/disagree with our findings? Any favorite summer beers we didn’t try? Be sure to comment below or tweet us @heavytable.
What do you drink when the heat is on? Do you regress back to the lightest golden ale or do you shock your tastebuds with hops? Do you long for a mellow lager or pair humidity with a hazy witbier?
Winter drinking is easy – it’s all about fortification. Whereas summer drinking is strategic. It’s active. It happens at odd hours. It revolves around activities, so cans get points for portability. But what happens when we neutralize all those summer variables and consider the beers on their own? Which summer sixers are most worth your coin?
We asked the MN Craft Brewers Guild member breweries for samples of what they’re brewing this summer. And because they’re awesome, they came through with two dozen current releases. And because Elevated Beer Wine and Spirits is awesome, Tom Boland brought a few to the party as well. Joining him on the tasting panel were two Heavy Table staffers, editor James Norton and beer writer Paige Latham, and our good friend, beer marketer Jeremy Zoss.
All tastings were conducted without taster knowledge of the brewer, brand, or style.
The Blue Ribbons: These beers were “terrific for its style, perfect for summer, and a beer I would actively seek out drinking any time.” Strangely enough, all three of our blue ribbon beers contained some measure of orange (zest, peel and blossom honey, respectively). Maybe it was all those Blue Moons we drank freshman year.
The judges were entirely split on which of the three blue ribbons deserved top honors (the ranking came down to a decimal point difference in average score). All three deserve equal credit as massively tasty beers.
Best In Show: Badger Hill Brewing White IPA
Badger Hill is a brewery with momentum. They’re building a large new brewery in Shakopee with plans for a greater out-state presence. And they’re slowing building a repertoire of beers to complement their flagship Minnesota Special Bitter – which just took home a gold medal at the US Open Beer Championships.
We hope their stunning White IPA will see many happy returns to our fair weather months. Crisp and balanced with a lemony aroma and mild spice, it made our judges want to sit next to a waterfall in a stiff breeze. A clean, bright and memorable beer, refreshing as a summer storm.
First Runner-Up: Lift Bridge Farmgirl Saison
This is why we do blind tastings. We throw out labels to re-discover something about our tastes. Last time, we were shocked to remember we liked Finnegan’s Blonde. Once again, we’re smitten with an old favorite. Farmgirl Saison, why did we ever break up in the first place?
True, it’s a year-round release. But we think saisons are in season and Farmgirl is tops in the field. It’s creamy, luscious and complex – a cloudy mix of citrus and more Belgian elements. It’s remarkably soft on the palate for the flavor it delivers. We wanted to be outside with this beer immediately.
Second Runner-Up: Indeed Brewing Mexican Honey Imperial Lager
There may not be a brewery in Minnesota that executes seasonal beers at the quality of Indeed. This lager touched us right away with a huge dose of honey on the nose. It evolved as it warmed, developing a mercurial melange of fruit, pine, and bitterness. Just splendid. A beer we could sit and ponder for hours – but doubtful we could make it last that long.
The Red Ribbons: These beers were given honorable mention for being “better than similar beers in its flight, and exceptional for summer drinking.”
Lucid Brewing SILO Saison
Solid from top to bottom: an inviting smell, a smooth body and a clean finish. We love the boisterous fruit character in concert with a piercing, peppery saison twang. We want to pair this beer with grilled chicken and vegetables from the farmers market.
A hefeweisen so textbook it’s worthy of Webster’s. And from Schell’s, who has been brewing the style for 30 years now, we’d expect nothing less. Those banana-Belgian esters pop up in a really nice way, and as it warmed we wanted to drink more and more. “Like Premium, with more heart,” wrote one judge. An absolute crowd pleaser.
Lift Bridge Getaway Pilsner
A traditional pilsner from a brewery that has a strong handle on the style. Biscuit-like with some mineral sourness and some dry spice on a very soft finish. The balance is impeccable. We want to go kayaking with this beer.
Summit Brewing Co. Summer Ale
This beer prompted a discussion of what a good summer ale should be. Brewers have to sacrifice some measure of bold flavor to achieve hot weather drinkability, and Summit found the sweet spot. Extremely light with a straw aroma and endearing, albeit faint, honey and apple notes about it. A perfect post-lawnmowing beer if there was ever one.
The Yellow Ribbons: These were awarded third-place trophies for “a solid beer, good for its style, and one I’d recommend.”
Third Street Brewhouse, Spotlight IPA
A mild caramel note defines this IPA. Very pleasant aromas and a crisp, dry finish earn it an confident thumbs-up.
Bang Brewing, Good Real Ale
As the name suggests, just a solid, good, real ale. Wonderful biscuit malt with a floral-honey note throughout.
Indeed Brewing, Shenanigans Summer Ale
Shenanigans smells like summer. Faintly grassy with a underlying citrus layer, it’s crisp and clean but rises above the bland thanks to a mellow hop character.
Summit Brewing Co., Southern Cape Sparkling Ale (Union Series)
Funky! Like a pile of citrusy grass clippings strewn on a honeydew melon. A light summer ale that does a great job of delivering aroma and flavor while keeping a svelte profile.
Bent Paddle Brewing, Bent Hop IPA
The hoppy ales didn’t float our canoes in this tasting, but the Bent Hop did alright.
Surly Brewing, Bitter Brewer
Significant and bitter with a broad maltiness. An everyday beer we can get behind.
Bent Paddle Brewing, Venture Pils
A pleasant mix of lemony acids with a clean finish. We pegged it as a less distinct version of Lift Bridge’s Getaway Pilsner, and a touch under-carbonated, but one we’d happily drink.
No Awards: These were all over the map – from the just OK, to the supremely indifferent, the forgettable and the offensive. The rest of our tasting:
Boathouse Brewpub Blue Berry Blonde
All of our judges loved the blueberry aroma, but the taste came across feeling artificial. The body was on the thin side, but that wasn’t a deal breaker. It struck a nostalgic chord with our judges who grew up on Leinenkugel’s Berry Weiss.
Fulton Beer, The Randonneur Summer Saison
Thin, truncated and restrained. Very balanced, but awfully meek. Lots of hops on the nose, but the flavor doesn’t follow suit. Just fine, not magical.
Mankato Brewery Duly Noted
A slight smokiness was noted by a couple of our judges. Mild and middle-of-the-road.
Bent Paddle Brewing Paddle Break Blonde
We called it “picnic-evocative” and “grapefruit-ish” but couldn’t come to a consensus reason for wanting to drink it again. Decent for sure, but a touch flat in the flavor department.
Brau Bros Brewing Hop Session Super Pale Ale
A rush of sweet hops on the nose, but lacking depth and complexity.
612Brew Mary Ann
Ginger all over the nose, with cereal grains dominating the rest of the sip. Affable but not alluring.
Big Wood Brewery Amigo Grande Pale Lager
Hollow, empty, soulless, under-attenuated and bland. Unremarkable in just about every respect.
Boathouse Brewpub Katzenjammer IPA
Confounding. Frustrating. Marked by an unpleasant minerality. Said one judge: “It doesn’t seem like somebody achieved their dreams with this beer.”
It’s important to note that Boathouse’s Brews probably suffer from transport fatigue all the way from the Ely taproom (we think the vessels weren’t sealed for the long haul). Ultimately, they’re beers judged outside of their natural habitat – coming off a mile long portage, or a day on Burntside, or a long snowshoe through the woods.
Boom Island Brewing Co., Witness Witbier
A thin body coupled with some strange, overabundant phenols sunk this witbier from the get-go. Potentially a bottling issue at play. Unsubstantial, off, unmemorable at best.
Big Wood Brewery Wheat Bear Lake Strawberry Wheat
The most unfortunate sip of the tasting. Two of our judges arrived at a “pink pencil eraser” tasting note independent of one another. From sweet bad to sour bad. If “lack of sincerity” were a flavor, it would taste like this.
Past Heavy Table Beer Tastings: