This week’s Toast is a Minnesota beer road trip, from the Southwest to the Northeast. Follow along for a visit to Waconia Brewing Company, as well as peeks at Bank Brewing Company in the tiny town of Hendricks and Voyageur Brewing Company in Grand Marais.
Bank Brewing Sour in Bottles
Within walking distance of the South Dakota border lies a small town called Hendricks. Until recently, this corner of Minnesota was flyover country for craft beer. In the past year, though, Brau Brothers headed west to Marshall, and Take 16 Brewing recently established itself as the beer authority in the state’s southwestern corner.
So while Bank Brewing might seem new to readers in Minneapolis-St. Paul, founder and brewer Jason Markkula has been contract-brewing under the name Bank Beer since 2008. The beers have been in the market with the trademark Beer for Wildlife and were once produced in Cold Spring. Since last summer, Markkula and head brewer Richard Drawdy have had their own beer playground.
According to Bank’s website, “ales will dominate and hops will be used to extreme proportions.” Despite the unavoidable eyeroll at the notion that this is a radical new concept, the two bottled beers currently in distribution, a sour and a smoked ale, are in fact unusual.
Bank took part in Winterfest this past weekend, surprising many with both the quality of their beer and their presence at a major festival despite being less than one year old. Their opening was very quiet.
If a trip to Hendricks is not part of your spring road trip plans, the Sour Bomb (classified as a Berliner Weisse) is joining the sour beer department at local liquor stores. It is crystal clear and straw colored, with high carbonation and a champagne-bread aroma. Its tartness is more pronounced than Lucid Goslar but less so than Schell’s Dawn of Aurora. The beer would take well to the traditional German service method of adding fruit syrup, but is also palatable on its own. Those expecting the funk or barnyard notes of a traditional Berliner will be disappointed, however, as the entire package is very clean.
Bank Brewing Company, 200 S Main St, Hendricks, MN 56136; 612.309.2513; Fri-Sat 4-8 p.m.
Waconia Brewing Company
As the Midwest gradually thaws and minds turn from icehouses to speedboats, the appeal of a day trip to a historic, waterfront town becomes irresistible. Breweries are often the beneficiaries of this surge; just look at Maple Island, Enki, or even Canal Park Brewing, which survive in winter but positively thrive in the warmer months.
The newest to cater to lovers of lakeshore is Waconia Brewing Company, with its sailboat-dominated logo. Arriving in downtown Waconia echoes the experience of approaching Excelsior Brewing in Excelsior. Both towns have a water-sport focus, and the breweries have a similar array of beers as well as buildings that mix modern elements with a quaint, cabin-like nostalgia.
The drinker who loves to loiter around a taproom for an afternoon will fall hard for Waconia. The decor suggests a modern interpretation of the hull of a ship. The brewery is visible through a wall of windows, and the descriptive menu offers another kind of window into the beer.
Head brewer Tom Schufman maintains four year-round beers plus multiple rotating and seasonal selections. When we visited, offerings were in line with the brewery’s mission of “approachability” without falling into the realm of boring. Flagships include the WacTown Wheat, Carver County Kolsch, 255 Amber Ale, and 90K IPA. The lack of dark beer in the group may suggest a focus on beers for the warmer months or the questionable notion that beers that are lighter in color are more approachable.
Most impressively, each beer stood on its own two feet; there was no common house flavor or off-flavor, and no two beers were similar.
On the negative side was a major tendency toward both underattenuation and undercarbonation. The lack of effervescence was appropriate for some styles but not for others, and suggested a housewide issue, whether in brewing or service. The beers tasted green overall, like unripened fruit, which is frustrating to experience. This could be due to rushing the beer out too quickly, yeast that is not able to keep up, or a temperature problem.
In the good-to-very-good category are the Kolsch and the IPA. The distance between brewing an average and a phenomenal Kolsch is not much wider that a single grain of barley: the possibilities for error abound, and flaws are impossible to hide. Forget dark, roasty, imperial-strength beers — if you want to judge the skill of a brewer, taste the cream ale, pilsner, or especially, the Kolsch. A cereal and Hallertau hop aroma arises from the glass immediately, and the elusive element of the style — an ale that has been cold-conditioned like a lager – is also not overpowering. The fair body and brief ester finish make this an appealing pick for new and seasoned drinkers.
For more bitterness and body, go with the 90K IPA, which displays pleasant floral, tropical, and citrus aromas. The taste is slightly less complex, with resin being a dominant note, but taken all together, the glass is a cohesive snapshot. It is moderately bitter but has a substantial malty backbone, which is often lacking in the IPAs and pale ales from new breweries.
Improvements could be made to the amber and brown ales, but neither was a total bust. Try the amber for a sweeter red ale, if you enjoy Fulton’s Libertine. It is a malt-forward choice with interesting cherry and toasted biscuit flavor. More hops, however, would bring the entire composition into balance. The Laketown Brown, a seasonal release, suffered from a similar problem, but also didn’t live up to its description as an English style at heart. None of the esters typical of a British yeast presented themselves, and some smoke flavors seemed out of place.
Food is not offered as the 7-year lease is for a taproom, not a brewpub. Outside food is welcome and encouraged, as are children and sports fans.
Waconia Brewing Company, 255 West Main St Waconia, MN 55387; 612.888.2739; Mon-Tue CLOSED, Wed-Thu 2-9 p.m., Fri 2-10 p.m., Sat 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Sun 11 a.m.-6 p.m.
Voyageur Brewing’s Trailbreaker Belgian Wheat
Heading to the North Shore for beer has taken on greater meaning — and mileage — now that Voyageur Brewing has opened its doors to the public. Located in Grand Marais, it takes second place for northernmost breweries in the state, behind Ely’s Boathouse.
Owners Mike Prom, Cara Sporn, and Bruce Walters have deep roots in Grand Marais, which is considered one of the key gateways (along with Ely) to the Boundary Waters and the Lake Superior National Forest. Their decision to create the area’s first production brewery was born out of their love of the outdoors and a desire to bring hospitality and community to those fishing, hiking, and paddling.
The 20 bbl brewhouse is led by Jason Baumgarth, formerly of Carmody Irish Pub, and the 80-seat taproom is managed by Sporn. Anders Johansen and Craig Nicholls undertook the consulting on recipes and the brewhouse build. Voyageur also serves a modest assortment of appetizers, from charcuterie to Reuben bites, and may expand its menu in the future.
Flagship beers include the Trailbreaker Belgian Wheat, a growler of which recently made it into our hands. The aroma of this nontraditional wit is predominately phenolic, with notes of black pepper, corriander, faint banana, and clove. Cardamom, which is added to the beer and is not a result of the La Chouffe yeast, arises on warming. In addition to reeling in the drinker with its aroma, the beer’s texture is a huge strength. The beer makes a place on the tongue and doesn’t budge. Effervescence, slickness, and smoothness of character come beautifully into balance in the glass. A trifecta of malted barley, wheat, and oats drives the mouthfeel.
The growler was empty before we were satisfied, a disappointing event that seldom occurs during tasting and evaluation. Don’t miss the chance to sip this one, along with the Boundary Waters Brunette, Palisade Porter, or Devil’s Kettle IPA.
Voyageur Brewing, 233 W Highway 61, Grand Marais, MN 55604; 218.387.3163; Thu-Fri 4-11 p.m., Sat noon-11 p.m.