Alive from St. Paul

Great Waters Brewing Company

426 St. Peter St., St. Paul; 224-BREW

A few years ago I saw a short, arty horror film about downtown St. Paul. In it, gorgeous black-and-white footage showed the starkly barren streets of the capitol city on an early summer night: Streetlights changed for no one, streets echoed like canyons, sidewalks were entirely unused, skyways resembled empty glass straws. To enhance this unpeopled footage a classic horror soundtrack shrieked. The audience went wild. It was St. Paul as postapocalyptic bell jar, darkly funny, rather chilling--and accurate. The last word you would have used to describe downtown St. Paul after hours these last few years is alive.

Which is why the Great Waters Brewing Company is such a surprise. People sit outside on the streets of St. Paul eating and laughing, golden pools of light spilling out onto the sidewalk. St. Paul is alive. It's lively--at midnight, no less. And then there's the cask-conditioned ales--they're alive too. "What a live ale is," says brewmaster Jeff Martin, "is --well when you take your standard beer, whether it's a Budweiser or a Sierra it goes through a process of filtering, and when you filter you filter out all the yeast, but our cask-conditioned ales have living organisms in them, have the yeast in them, and the flavor is affected by this yeast, as much as it is by the water, the oxygen, the malt, and the hops." In order to get the clear, grit-free taste we expect in beer, Jeff uses isinglass, a gelatin-like substance used by brewers for hundreds of years, and this is one of the many tips of the hat Martin makes to the ancient art of brewing--his stout, "Norma's Stout," is a bready brew that tastes of oatmeal, and it seems just the sort of drink you'd find a grandma in Wellington's sipping after a long day of bird-watching.

Martin hasn't succumbed to the newfangled trendiness that has entranced so many small breweries--there's no peach weizen or blueberry ale here. The Mississippi Mild is a low-alcohol ale (2.5 percent) once popular in England as a business-lunch drink that Martin is trying to find a new audience for: "You can have one beer and not have the effects," he says. "It's a style I'm trying to bring back, because it's tasty and thirst-quenching--and also I want people to drink all day long." Martin's Bitter is a taut, highly hopped ale with a light body. Martin also brews a variety of more familiar beers--I like the aromatic, lightly stinging Harriet Bishop's India Pale Ale, and the light, bright wheat ale, which are more popular than the cask-conditioned ales, perhaps due to the fact that they're served at a chilly 34 degrees instead of the cask-conditioned ales' warmer traditional cellar temperature of 55 degrees. This saddens Martin: "The cask beers don't sell as well as push beers. Most of the public doesn't know what live ales are, so I think it's a challenge--it's up to us to teach the public what live ales are. When beers are served at 34 degrees it sort of numbs your taste buds. On a hot summer day I'd rather drink one of my live ales and say, 'Hmmm, this is what beer tastes like.'"

And once people learn what real beer tastes like, who knows what could happen. Says Martin: "Today it's almost taboo to have a drink during work, but I typically have at least two beers a day. It's good for me; I bet we could all survive just off drinking beer." Or we could try to, anyway.

For my taste the cask-conditioned ales were perhaps a little too live--the flavors changed over several visits, which Martin attributes to his fine-tuning one recipe, and the others changing due to exposure to oxygen over time. In any event the tastes changed rather drastically--on one visit the Mississippi Mild was flat and tasted like rainwater, on another it was biscuity and delicious. The best approach when you're with friends is to order a sampler--eight small glasses, one of each variety of beer, for $8--and pick which is your favorite. (This also makes it like a party game. Otherwise, standard British 20-ounce pints are $3.50, or $2.50 during happy hour.)

Surprisingly for a brew pub, Great Waters' menu is very strong. Among the appetizers I sampled several were excellent. There is the giant Smoked Salmon Quesadilla ($8.25), a silky smoked salmon generously covering a whole-wheat tortilla spread with chèvre and served with a powerful cranberry relish. There is the Mediterranean Mezze Plate ($6.50), a bountiful array of fresh hummus, baba ganoush, olives, caper-berries, and changing veggies served with a basket of warm pitas. And there are the wonderfully spicy, exceptionally meaty Rasta Wings ($6.25), served with both a coarse mustard and a sweet mango sauce. Any of these appetizers would make a satisfying meal.

As is the case with many new restaurants, when Great Waters hits the mark they're amazing, but when they're off they're truly weird. Witness the wild Mushroom Paté ($6.25), which was not the thick terrine one would expect, but a mushroomy, cream-cheesy pile of dip (which was quite tasty nevertheless); or the Steamed Mussels in Ale ($6.45), which were terribly overdone and served in a broth that tasted far too vinagery. (Most strangely of all, when I told my waitress how awful the mussels were she carried the full plate away and never spoke of it again.)

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