In this tepid midwinter, we’re still on in search of bulky brews that tide us over until springtime. The porters that break cabin fever, the stouts we stir into (and drink alongside) our chili, the spiced ales, the oaky and the smoky. To wrap our heads around the very best in seasonal drinking, once every three months we have the good people at the Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild prod their members into sending us beer. They delivered 27 current releases from 19 local breweries.
To help us sort though the array of winter warmers, we called in perhaps our most expert beer tasting panel to date: Kelsi Moffitt, the Better Beer Society director of operations; Sean Cooke, Certified Cicerone and bar manager at the Chatterbox Pub; Paige Latham, from The Four Firkins and Heavy Table’s own beer correspondent; and Tom Boland, our go-to guy at Elevated Beer Wine & Spirits.
All beers were served blind, in identical glassware, in flights of more-or-less similar styles. Only the moderators (who did not rate beers) knew the identity of the beers and breweries in the tasting.
If you want to taste these beers, and many more, secure your tickets for Winterfest, happening February 27 and 28 at Union Depot in St. Paul. Until then, here’s how we recommend staving off the remainder of winter’s chill:
Gold Medal, Best In Show: Lift Bridge Silhouette Barrel Aged Imperial Stout
Our panel festooned the unanimous grand champion with all kinds of flowery prose: voluptuous, luxurious, silky, powerful, artistic, and “unfair to other beers.” One taster simply drew a picture of a dog basking in the sunshine with the caption “happy place.” A waft of bourbon leads off a viscous, balanced sip of dark fruit, molasses, and oaky vanilla. Potent but not alcoholic, burly yet smooth. A stupendous achievement for Lift Bridge.
Gold Medal, First Runner Up: Indeed Stir Crazy
It starts with a distinct nose of vanilla, dark chocolate, and coffee, then transitions to a light, perfectly balanced sip that’s like drinking dried fruit with the wafers of an Oreo. Soft and drinkable (just like Sweet Yamma Jamma), not too sweet, not too heavy, yet bursting with comforting winter flavors.
Gold Medal, Second Runner Up: Castle Danger George Hunter Stout
Our panel found it sharp and significant, closer to a black ale than a stout. But they were no less attracted by its profound hop bitterness and well-integrated roasted character. This is a charming, delicate flurry in a world of blizzard-thick winter beer.
Gold Medal, Third Runner Up: Tin Whiskers Barrel Shifter Porter
A beer that tastes rich, but not expensive. Full, round, and pleasant, with flavors of plum, raisin, and cocoa. Not a unique beer, but delicious and workmanlike — we’d happily stock our entire fridge full of it. Consider this our post-shoveling beer for as long as there’s snow.
Silver Medals: “Remarkable winter seasonals we’d strongly recommend”
Excelsior Shattered Solstice Ale
The most interesting, enigmatic, challenging beer of the tasting. Loads of ginger with support notes of chamomile and lemongrass. Like an alcoholic ginger beer, laced with Bittercube Jamaican #2 bitters. Bold and expressive, while remaining approachable and pint-worthy. We want to drink this with Korean barbeque.
Castle Danger Winter Ale
An intriguing, complex brew. Notes of caramelized orange and passion fruit lead off a powerful aroma, and moments of rye-like spice and caramel emerge when you least expect it. One panelist thought all the citrus notes told a “hop story.”
Indeed Hot Box Imperial Smoked Pepper Porter
Our panel quite enjoyed the new Hot Box formula (now part poblano, instead of all jalapeno as in years past). Meaty, savory, with a tobacco smokiness, one panelist commented: “Like eating a charcuterie board, including the board.” Awfully sessionable for a smoky beer. Nuanced, elevated, and unique.
Fulton Insurrection Imperial IPA
We love the aroma of Insurrection — gooseberry, tropical fruit and Rose’s lime juice. It’s bitter, yet well balanced, with a wonderful sappy tree-resin thing happening throughout. The citrusy bite is almost tequila-like.
612Brew Payback Porter
A dry porter with some berry notes over an earthy, waxy body. A hair on the thin side, but enough cacao and coffee notes to keep us quite happy. A supremely pleasant, standard porter.
Bronze Medals: “Great winter beers, better than many in the same style.”
Fair State FSB Imperial Stout
One of our tasters swooned over this beer. Great depth, with a roasty, almost salty body, full of coffee and hickory smoke. Bold and straightforward.
Fulton Worthy Adversary Russian Imperial Stout
We get some mushroom funk on the nose before a rich and full body of rum-soaked raisins and bittersweet chocolate. An earthy sweetness comes on late.
Bauhaus Jingle Fever Baltic Porter
A pretty nose of violets, honey and maple leads into a complex brown sugar, raisin, caramel-sweet body. Best paired with salty snacks to balance the sweetness.
Mankato Brewery Mint Stout
A refreshing sip of wintergreen and cola flavors with a light and dry finish. Meaningful mint. Transcends a potential gimmick of a flavor with natural confidence.
Blacklist Brewing Cran
Tons of tart apple and honey over a layer of Russian tea and musty funk. It could use more malt — it’s perhaps a tad uneven. Our panel wanted to drink it warm with a cinnamon stick.
Summit Frost Line Rye
None of our panelists remembered Frost Line tasting this way — like toasted Marcona almonds with hints of blonde-roast coffee and an earthy, almost herbal finish. Certainly well made, though somewhat polarizing. Some loved it, others felt it lacked direction.
The Rest of the Tasting:
Lucid Duce Imperial Red Ale
We caught a whiff of olive juice or some other vinegar-like sour on the nose, before a harmonious chord of malt flavor took over for a crusty bread and caramel finish.
3rd Street Sugar Shack Maple Stout
We get interesting, fruity notes beneath the vanilla-maple-brown-sugar sweetness. Comforting. Now bring us some figgy pudding, and serve it with this.
Bent Paddle Cold Press Black Ale
Hints of toast and caramel lurk under the supremely smooth, coffee-forward body. Ganache and even sweet berries pop up near the finish, though the body is quite mild. We like this beer in the can, but downright love it on a nitro tap.
Northgate Maggie’s Leap Sweet Stout
Smells like a pan of toffee and sugared nuts toasting in a hot oven, leading to a scorched-caramel and blonde coffee character on the sip. Quite nice.
612Brew Blue Coat 1916
Like a bowl of Fruity Pebbles: a striking blueberry profile with a cereal-grain finish. Much better suited to summer drinking, but a fun sip, nonetheless.
Waconia Lake Town Brown Ale
No aroma, and some strange, smoky, burnt-rubber flavors toward the finish, but an altogether easy-drinking, middle-of-the-road brown ale. Inviting chocolate flavors carry a solid, if unenthusiastic, beer.
Finnegan’s Dead Irish Poet Extra Stout
Drinkable, easy-going, perhaps muted in volume, but no doubt pint-worthy. Some fine chocolate notes in a satin-like build.
Northgate Fiddle Smasher Scottish Wee Heavy
Tasty but confusing. We get grilled pineapple on the nose, but the flavors on the sip struck us as discombobulated. And the body was wee light for a wee heavy.
LynLake Rye Guy Dark Rye Saison
Some powerful tangerine citrus leads into an Aspartame-Bazooka-Joe fruity sweetness. Very one-note. Very sweet.
Lift Bridge Biscotti Belgian-Style Ale
It’s not the sweet biscuit you’d expect, and that’s too bad. It has some faint apricot and orange-blossom notes, but it’s ultimately thin and lacking flavor. Our panel compared its scent to that of various mammals, which is never a good sign.
Excelsior Brewing Mr. Jimmy’s Baltic Porter
Sugary sweet, with some smoky caramel, but also some wet gourd — a couple panelists detected acetaldehyde. The beer seemed incomplete, like a watered-down Indeed Rum King.
Mankato Brewing Crooked Rook Porter
Not much flavor — what’s there is vaguely chocolate and nutmeg. Our tasters found some chemical notes: chlorine, metal and plastic pool toy. Thin, watery and disappointing. Stick with Mankato’s Mint Stout instead.
Past Heavy Table Beer Tastings & Winners:
Autumn 2014 – Schell’s Black Forest Cherry
Summer 2014 – Badger Hill White IPA
Spring 2014 – Surly BLAKKR
Oktoberfest 2013 – Schell’s Oktoberfest