This past weekend was Winterfest, the sister festival to fall's Autumn Brew Review. Where ABR is generally packed and outdoors, Winterfest is a bit more austere, hosted in the beautiful Minnesota History Center, and limited to 700 tickets.
The real story at this year's Fest is all the new Minnesota breweries who came out in force. New since last year were: Lucid Brewing, Mankato Brewery, Third Street Brewhouse, Big Wood, Boom Island, Carmody Irish Pub (Duluth), Leech Lake, Castle Danger, Staples Mill, Harriet Brewing, and Steel Toe. Quite a list. This has been a history-making year or so in Minnesota beer for sure. I think the question in the back of everyone's mind is "Can all these breweries co-exist?" but it seems be generating a lot of interest and excitement and I haven't heard much backlash. Perhaps some will succumb to market forces etc, but so far, it seems, so good.
Old stalwarts like Surly, Town Hall, Barley Johns, and Fitger's all had excellent beers on show. Barley John's won the award for best beer (Dark Knight imperial stout) again after doing so with that beer in 2007. I'm glad to see them getting some recognition because despite making award winning beers, they still seem not to generate all that much attention. That's probably for the better, as far as I'm concerned, since their tiny pub can only seat 30-something people anyhow. The stand-out beer for me was Mankato Brewery's "Mankato Original", a delightful, drinkable Kolsch with a haylike aroma and a surprisingly authentic bready, slightly honey like malt base. It's chewy yet easy to digest with enough grassy, lemony hops to balance things out. Kolsch is something shamefully missing from the craft beer industry which has been so busy not following "beer styles", that this type of beer has almost ceased to exist here. I can't applaud Mankato Brewery enough for doing something as brave and unexpected as breaking the rules by not going out of their way to break them.
Other worth mentionings were Lucid Brewing (from Minnetonka) who had great beers in "Air" and "Cammo". Leech Lake I was pleased to see, but their ESB was a bit sour and not all that good. Third Street Brewhouse I had not heard of at all. Their brown ale was quite nice and toasty and bread-crusty with a good bit of caramel and hops in the American Brown Ale style. Their business cards say "Cold Spring, MN" (home of the dreadful soda factory and part time beer brewers, Cold Spring Brewing which recently gave the shaft to Lift Bridge who are all some of the nicest guys in the industry). When I asked for some clarification, the Third Street brewmaster was a bit obscure and pointed to a picture of "the new brewhouse they're building" and then said "they said we couldn't do it!". I got the impression this line is stock and had been given out all night. When I googled around, their address is in fact listed exactly the same as Cold Spring Brewing's, so they appear to be the "craft brand" under Cold Spring's ownership - something they seem to want to hide. I wouldn't even mind as much aside from the fact that they've obviously tried very hard to obscure this fact. Very "big beer" of them. With as many new breweries as there are, I'll be happy to drink from the guys who can really use the business. Regardless, the website is pretty nice.
All in all, Winterfest was a great event and I look forward to next year.