Brau Brothers, Flat Earth, and Lift Bridge present new school of microbrews

Three young microbreweries try their hand at estate beers, fruit-infused concoctions, and...the "Facemeltör"?

Flat Earth, for the most part, has specialized in Belgian-style beers, which is a bit like saying they've specialized in making a whole lot of really good beer, as the Belgians are known for being meticulous brewers who make hundreds of styles. I like Flat Earth's Belgian Pale Ale, a light but serious beer that isn't nearly as bitter as other pale ales, and which also comes in a seasonal apricot version, which adds a hint of juicy sweetness.

Flat Earth's beers tend to be flavorful but not as outrageous as their conspiracy-theory-referencing names, such as Black Helicopter Coffee Stout; Bermuda Triangle, a high-alcohol Belgian, or tripel, beer; and Element 115, a California-style beer that originated during the Gold Rush but is rarely brewed anymore. The Williamsons named their Cygnus X-1 Porter after a song by their favorite band, Rush, and made it with malt rye—a grain that's as closely associated with Canada as its most famous band—which adds a slight whiskey-like dryness. Although Flat Earth's brewers have infused their porters with raspberry, peppercorn, peppermint, and hazelnut, and even oak-aged them by adding wood chips to the beer, their most unusually flavored brew is probably their Rode Haring Flanders Ale, which is the only sour ale being commercially bottled in Minnesota, as far as I know. It's tart and funky, with plenty of pucker, and it may be the local beer most likely to win over diehard wine drinkers.

Flat Earth's business has grown to the point that the Williamsons are getting investors to help expand the brewery. In the past couple of years they've experienced their share of growing pains, including a substantial setback involving a faulty bottling system and a full recall of bottles from retail shelves. At present, Flat Earth's beers are available on tap or in 22-ounce "bomber" bottles they have to fill manually, but which can encourage buyers to try a new beer without getting stuck with five bottles of a brew they don't like.

Fortunately, Cathie says, the other Minnesota brewers have been extremely supportive, and they stay in regular contact to share advice or lobby for legislative concerns. Instead of viewing one another as competition, most brewers I spoke with seemed to think more microbreweries will only turn more customers on to craft beer. "Everybody keeps setting the bar higher, but it makes our beer better and better," Cathie says.

In September 2008, Smalley's Caribbean Barbeque debuted the first public pint of Lift Bridge beer, brewed by a group of five friends in the Stillwater area. Two co-workers who started home brewing together initiated the venture a few years ago, and today the group is contract brewing a few times a month at Flat Earth's facility.

So far, Lift Bridge has produced two year-round beers. One is the Farm Girl saison, a French/Belgian beer that Lifter Dan Schwarz describes as a refreshing spring beer for farm workers. The beer had to have a high enough alcohol content to keep through the summer, he says, but not be so strong that it kept the workers from coming back after lunch. Farm Girl has a golden glow, a slight sweetness, and a hint of orange-peel bitterness on the finish. ("We see a lot of women like to drink our beer," Schwarz notes.) Farm Girl's sibling, Kimono Girl, is the same saison infused with lemongrass and loganberry to add fruitier, floral notes. While the Lifters have experimented with infusions of hibiscus, rose petals, and even roasted garlic, they want their main beers to be easy drinkers. "A lot of craft brewers tend to go toward the edge or extreme," Schwarz says. "We're trying to make something a little more balanced." (For events such as the Craft Brewer's Guild's Winterfest, though, they reserve the right to serve beers like the Facemeltör, a high-alcohol aged barley wine. "It would warm your whole face," says Schwarz. "It was a fun beer to do—but it's not good to have so much access to it.")

Right now, one thing that isn't balanced at Lift Bridge is supply and demand. They're presently serving about 20 accounts but have received many more requests than they can fulfill. Schwarz insists they're not limiting quantity to lend the beer an air of exclusivity—they're not velvet-rope types. "It's hard for me to say, 'I'm sorry, I can't get you beer,'" he admits.

With Lift Bridge's head brewer, Brad Glynn, recently becoming the company's first full-time staffer, the group hopes to have its own brewery within a year. They've just contracted with Wisconsin's Point Brewery to have them produce Farm Girl in bottles this June, around the same time they plan to release their summer seasonal, a lingonberry-infused tripel whose pinkish cast inspired its name, Minnesota Tan.

And to think this beer could have easily been Wisconsin Tan, had the Lifters decided to cross the border and brew in a state with more business-friendly regulations and liquor laws. (In addition to grocery store and Sunday sales restrictions, Minnesota brewers are frustrated by several more laws, including one that separates breweries and brewpubs, so that brewpubs can't sell to a liquor store or another bar and breweries can't sell pints.) Many see these restrictions as a major reason why Minnesota has been slow to nurture its local craft beer market. Lanny Hoff, an importer of high-end European beers who has spent many years monitoring the specialty beer market, says that in the recent past, Minnesota beer consumers have been further ahead of the curve than their suppliers. "They're ready for anything, but they haven't had a lot of choices for specialty breweries," he says. "In this market, we've had consumers that have been willing to support these beers, and now we finally have beers to offer them."

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