This marks my first official regular Wednesday post, and I’m very excited to be able to tell you all about my experiences at The Autumn Brew Review (ABR)! As I begin to write this I am enjoying Rush River’s Double Bubble Imperial IPA, a very piney hop flavor with some floral aromas, which worked well with the spicy Thai inspired dish I had earlier. But without further adieu, here’s the recap of the best beer festival held in the state of Minnesota all year.
First of all, you should know that this was the 11th annual ABR and it is put on by the Minnesota Craft Brewer’s Guild which is an organization of brewers, brewery owners, and folks dedicated to supporting all that encompasses Minnesota craft beer. They host two events annually, The ABR and Winterfest (check the website for ticket details for Winterfest) which showcase both Minnesota and national craft beers. In short they are a wonderful organization comprised of highly talented, passionate, and dedicated people that truly love Minnesota craft beer. We are fortunate in this state to have a lot to love, and The ABR did a great job of showing off our craft breweries. (For a couple of other great reviews on the event that will supplement what I post, check out this one, and this one)
This year’s event was split into two sessions to accommodate more attendees (close to 6,000), as past ABRs have sold out. The morning session ran from 10AM-2PM and the afternoon session was from 3PM-7PM. I attended the afternoon session, which sold out within weeks of tickets going on sale in July, but there were still tickets available for the morning session on the day of the event, and as far as I am aware it did not sell out (perhaps just too early to get drinking for some folks, though there was a substantial turnout). I have heard that the morning session started out quite cool, but most participants warmed up quickly with the rather high alcohol content that many of the beers featured and with the addition of a bloody mary token for each attendee featuring locally produced horseradish-infused vodka from Referent. I’m quite OK with having missed the morning session, because by the time my girlfriend and I arrived in Nordeast at 2:30, the day had warmed up to a very pleasant beer drinking temperature in the mid 60s with a stiff breeze.
Both sessions began with bagpipes and at least for the second session, the pipers were lead in by Surly Brewing owner and MN Craft Brewer’s Guild President, Omar Ansari, waving a brewer’s paddle. Lines of eager beer lovers stretched well around the block as the gates opened at 3PM. Once inside, I was on a mission to get a taste of what was the most eagerly anticipated beer of the festival (based on my own interactions) Surly’s bourbon barrel aged version of their once a year release Darkness, which is a Russian Imperial Stout. Though the line was several hundred feet long, we waited and were able to enjoy some Great Lakes Brewing Dortmunder Gold in the process thanks to some crafty and well timed pours from the Great Lakes rep. The wait in line was too much for many attendees to justify, but I am certainly glad I waited because the beer was nearly beyond words delicious. A highly complex blend of vanilla, chocolate, roasted malt, coffee, and bourbon came together to produce one hell of a beer to say the least. I was also happy to have gotten some of this beer right away since the only cask of it was empty within 45 minutes and I was threatened with violence in my nether regions by a co-worker if I did not make a point of trying some.
Once the Darkness had been savored, the pace of the afternoon slowed and we casually made our way to as many local and national brewery tents as we could to sample the amazing offerings and socializing with the jovial crowd. When I said that this is the best beer event in the state, this is an example of why: local Minnesota brewery Brau Brothers brought with them 4 of their regular offerings served on tap via keg, but what makes it special is that they also brought 3 casks of special recipes of their brews, one was a fresh hop version of their pale ale (which means the hops were picked from the bines minutes before they were used so they were ultra fresh. This type of beer can only be had once a year during hop harvest, more about fresh hop beers in the weeks to come) and two versions of their oatmeal milk stout. One with cocoa nibs and coconut added and the other with fresh Sumatran coffee beans from Paradise Coffee infused (this proved to be my favorite of the festival). So with many of the breweries, not only did they have their usual great beers but they had special and limited release beers available in casks. A beer in a cask is very different than out of a bottle or on tap at a bar. The beer is allowed to referment in the cask and giving it a natural carbonation and creating a fresh flavor profile that is difficult to get any other way. It is one of my favorite ways to drink a beer.
So what else caught my eye? There were a plethora of bourbon aged imperial stouts (pitch black, complex tasting, high alcohol content beers that are aged in barrels that have been used to hold bourbon) from the Bell’s Blacknote, Odell’s Bourbon Barrel Stout aged in Kentucky Bourbon barrels, Goose Island’s highly touted Bourbon County Stout (which I sadly missed) and Barley John’s Brew Pub’s Dark Knight (another wonderful local brewery, and sadly another one I missed, though I will surely try it in the near future to make up for it). That’s a lot of huge excellent beers. But even though the big bourbon stouts threatened to steal the show with all of their complexity and frankly from putting people on their asses (the average for these beers is solidly over 10%ABV), it was some of the newest Minnesota craft breweries that blew people away.
Both Steeltoe and Olvalde breweries (which are in order the two newest Minnesota breweries) had people talking during and well after the festival. For them, the buzz is really picking up now, and you would be wise to jump on their bandwagons. It isn’t because they are brewed by really awesome guys, Jason Schoneman from Steeltoe and Joe Pond from Olvalde, though they really are great; and it isn’t because they are new, though again they are; it’s because they are making damned good beer. From Steeltoe, they are currently offering a golden ale called Provider, a dark stout-like ale with oats called Dissent, and their biggest hit, Size 7 IPA clocking in at 7% ABV and 77IBUs is a terrific IPA that I will be writing about in the near future. All three are excellent and are available for growler sales on Friday evenings, and though bottles were available last Friday, they sold out very quickly. Keep your eyes open for them. As for Olvalde, Joe’s only current offering is quite a delicious one called the Auroch’s horn. The name references the extinct wild bull whose horn was used to drink ancient brews in central Europe which the recipe is based on. The barley, wheat, and honey provide a golden ale with lots of honey aroma and a mild sweetness, really an excellent beer and I’m excited to try more from him in the future.
Other local breweries that made an impression on me were Harriet Brewing, which released it’s beers publicly at Winterfest this past February and Fitger’s Brewhouse out of Duluth which has has been brewing great beers for over 15 years. I also had the chance to sample some beers from Castle Danger, another recent addition to the Minnesota craft beer scene, and enjoyed their Nestor Grade Amber.
At the end of the event, rather than lamenting all of the incredible beers that I didn’t get to try, and for the few spots I meant to stop by (sorry Liftbridge, I still love you and can’t wait to try your oyster stout) but forgot about; I was just filled to the brim with joy, pride in the local breweries, and delicious craft beer. This year’s ABR really showed how lucky we are here in Minnesota to have such high quality craft beer made by high quality people that really care about the art of brewing and appreciate their consumers. It’s refreshing to see this type of community so visible in a culture that seems to no longer value high quality craftsmanship in favor of bland mass production.
As I finish, I have moved on to drinking an Alaskan Amber, which is their flagship beer based on the German Alt style beer. It has a rich malty sweetness with no noticeable hop profile and has mild fruit flavors of raisins and some caramel.
So there you have it, my long-winded rundown of an incredible beer event. They really don’t get much better than that, so if you get a chance to attend next year, do it! In the meantime attend any beer festival you can, like this weekend’s Rauchfest (rauch is German for “smoke” so be prepared for their smoked beer and smokey foods) put on by Harriet Brewing is sure to be a blast.
If you were at ABR or if you will be attending a beer event, please let me know, I’d love to hear your feedback. Check out my pictures from the event on my flickr account (link on the right).
Next week: Oktoberfest! Munich is abuzz right now with clinking steins and many liters of bier being swilled, so I will give you my opinions on several U.S. and German Oktoberfest beers with some history attached. Until then, drink well.