I remember the day I became a hop-head. Just November last, my job as a professional heckler had brought me to San Diego. I was with my old colleague Mike, and, at the moment we were done with a particularly tough day in the studio, he pounded his fist on the table and pleaded, "Why isn't beer coursing down our throats at this very moment?"
We drove to a strip-mall smack in the heart of a keenly Asian community, where sits a square pub called O'Brien's. Decorated like a foreclosure, with chunky swivel chairs stolen from a mid-seventies Radisson lobby, O'Brien's Dri Mark bill of fare offered at least two dozen drafts I'd never heard of. Beers with taunting names like Ruination, Double Bastard, Decadence. At the advice of Mike's young charge Conor I ordered a Pliny the Elder—an Imperial Ale, I was told. An icy honey-colored pint was delivered picture-perfect, and I took a lusty swig.
"You might want to sip it," Conor said, but too late, my head was attacked from the inside by a combination of aromas and flavors I'd never known to emanate from beer. Grapefruit, skin and all, my tongue shouted at me, while my nose hollered Who hit me with the sack of pinecones? Who's burning the incense and stuffing artichokes in my nostrils? My soft palate actually puckered and yeast filled the brain pan the way it does with champagne of a certain quality I can never afford. As I drank, sipping now, the room became brighter, as if it had a sunroof, and I felt an ease, a joviality normally reserved for Hobbits, massaging my soul.
"It's the hops," my friends explained, and I was undone, smitten with the kind of fibrillating trill I once felt back-rubbing the women in my theater classes. I was, and am, a hop-head.
I returned to Minnesota and told my few ale-crazy friends where I'd been and what I'd done, and they smacked their foreheads in incredulity. "You went where? You tasted what?!" Without knowing it I'd fairly stumbled on one of the nation's nexuses of world-class American brewing; people who know such things melt at its mention. Never one to think that any state has anything over Minnesota, particularly not California, I determined to find that flavor, that perfectly distinctive buzz, among the growing brace of very proud local brewers. A quest for hops began.
Cursory research revealed that the Minneapolis Town Hall Brewery has for years turned out an array of beers with luxurious amounts of hops. This was my starting point, and may well be my finishing point.
I stopped going to bars when the big-screen TV's arrived and EZ-Print banners took the place of back-lit falling-water reliefs. The scant few bars that don't pander to the Spectating Life are packed with tense gel-haired business peons and a rail martini costs nine bucks, so what's the point? The point is that a bar is context for its fare, and one that serves a beer meant to be savored like wine or whisky needs no two-for-ones or 24-ounce troughs. The proper brewpub serves its brews without frilly adornment and encourages conviviality to match. It should also serve food that doesn't suck.
Town Hall sits at the crux of the Seven Corners neighborhood, coyly occupying the corner adjacent to the Southern Theater, where it is besieged by the sports bars that fully and shamelessly cater to the maroon-and-gold-clad booster. Only a faded mural depicting a welcoming pub and an entrance difficult to find if you're half in the bag indicate Town Hall's 10-year presence. It's a tall, woody, high-ceilinged place, less like a cozy Irish pub and more like one of the endless ancient inebriating holes that used to line Silver Street in Hurley, Wisconsin. It's charmingly butch, which is to say that there's not a single big-label beer-sponsored banner announcing Ladies' Nights.
The barroom is lively on any weeknight, the adjacent dining room is subdued and chatty. In between, a comfy-looking lounge with a toasty hearth beckons, until you squint at the two recently installed, massive flat-screens glaring down disapprovingly at those with no interest in any sports, namely me.
Happily, the barroom has only two normal-sized TV's hoisted high overhead and out of casual sightlines—you have to seek out the football here. A lonely pool table, lovingly underused, is illuminated by the brew-house itself, a factory behind glass, which always smells of something lovely cooking. Where many a bar bears the stank of its product spilled on the sticky floor, Town Hall remains redolent with fresh grain and sharp herb.
Thanks to the new anti-smoking ordinances, patrons now have the opportunity to actually taste and smell their food, which means a bar's board has to be minimally good or the place will find itself catering to characters from Garrison Keillor and Charles Bukowski stories, with whom conviviality often leads to violence. Here it's fair bar food at a fair price, and not much more. And that's okay, tacitly reminding me that unlike wine it's often better to match the food to the beer rather than the beer to the food.
But leave the food talk to the foodies. We're here for the beer. And damn, the beer is good. Beer here isn't a novelty or a quaint marketing draw, it's the blood of the place. Taken together, the beers—six regulars and two or three seasonals at any time—form a cross-section of the modern brewers' trade, and each is either a decent or splendid example of its kind.
It was helpful to start with the sampler—eight three-ounce servings of the brewery's current output. "Ah, the annoying sampler," one waiter said with rolling eyes, and it's probably true that Mr. and Mrs. Gopher and their kids who wander into this place because the joint across the street is full will sip these things cautiously, determine that they don't taste like Miller, quietly pay up, stiff the waiter, and head back across the street. But for the newcomer, it ought to be compulsory. Start with the lightest, moving on to the most mischievous, and already your night will be rolling along.
The Bright Spot Golden Ale is Town Hall's nod to conventional tastes, but it's handmade from local ingredients and crisper and more aromatic than its Milwaukee kin. On a hot summer day it would be as welcome as a jump in a lake.
But this is winter, and a light ale's no place to get stuck. The West Bank Pub Ale is a dutiful example of a simple English pub ale, with a dominant flavor of caramel, snicked by a little more hop than usual. This Pub Ale is full and refreshing and invitingly drinkable and instantly head and shoulders above any national brand. If you must gulp your beer, please gulp this.
Tasting the house favorite, the Masala Mama IPA, I stopped. I smiled. I ordered a pint immediately. I encountered that theater-class girlfriend thrill that pricked up my neck hair back in San Diego. India Pale Ales have been around for decades now, but in recent years the brave among brewers have been hopping the living hell out of them, pounds of the stuff. At Town Hall, head brewer Mike Hoops (!) has been nurturing and coaxing the Mama from the trademark he inherited when he took the job seven years ago to the uniquely American master brew it's become.
Mike's a mellow soul to chat with, but outward mellowness belies laser focus when he talks about his brews. "It's really cool hearing people's emotions when they talk about our beers," he said during my recent visit. "I absolutely love it, it's why I do it."
Of course he has to keep it interesting for himself, so into the Masala Mama go four different types of American hops in five different stages of brewing, plus a generous extra dose while it ferments, a technique called dry-hopping. They could call it the Miracle at Canna for all I care, because it's the hops that have pushed the already formidable domestic small-brewer to the forefront of an altogether new beer, the American IPA.
Before we continue sampling, a word about hops. Mike Hoops's eyes nearly dilate at the mention. "Yeah, hops have an interesting relative," he says, diplomatically referring to the botanical second cousin of hops, cannabis.
The gooey, fragile bud-like cone of the tall Humulus lupulus plant has been cultivated and added to beer for 13 centuries, totaling—along with water, grain, and yeast—the four elemental components of beer as we know it.
Sure, you can make something like beer without hops: it's called malt liquor. Malted barley and wheat—that is to say grain that's carefully been allowed to germinate—make up the substance of an ale, its backbone, as they call it. But hops add the bitterness, the dryness, marrying the malt and yeast to make the singular aroma that declares beer beer. Push up the hop content and something happens. More acidic qualities arise in the aroma, the grapefruit in the kisser, the sack of pinecones in the nose. Mike boosts that complexity by lavishing a variety of hops into the Mama, all grown on the American west coast, each a bastard child of the intensely inbred Noble hops cultivated in Europe for centuries.
The hops in the Masala Mama also proffer a unique buzz, a toasty warm lightness of the head—a riposte to the typically fat heads characteristic of the dreaded Lites. This is a beer that needs no encore, a beer that can be sipped for a good hour, and actually tastes more exotic as it comes to room temperature.
Not to be outdone—but perhaps to be undone—we head to new glasses and a sample of the Hope and King, a scotch ale that is perhaps the brewery's friendliest brew. My beloved and patient spouse Jane, no fan of the bitter and a longtime friend of Newcastle Brown Ale, loved this beer with its spicy-sweet flavor—a malted root beer, almost. I would call it a date beer, warming and inviting intimacy, and certainly something that helps explain the near-equal ratio of men and women in this place.
The darkest sample is the Black H2O Oatmeal Stout, dark, toasty, and sweet, not as creamy as Murphy's Stout but not as serene as Guinness. I'm not much for the malty stuff, and this to me was like mildly carbonated molasses, so I'll leave it to the brooding Celts in the back, wishing they could smoke. I'll run back to the hops.
Three seasonal offerings round out Town Hall's current line-up, starting with the crisp and smashingly bitter Centennial Pale Ale, made to commemorate the brewery's hundredth brewing this year and a fine introduction to what a highly hopped ale can do for the soul. The Winterstorm seems a bit of a novelty beer, dark but fruity, something you might find Gandalf getting buzzed on.
It's the Festivus that is the most exotic beer of the evening: a stunning, complicated, and immense concoction. It's served cask-style, less cold and only slightly bubbly, very much like a barley wine, but without the attendant "hcchch" factor that mimics frozen orange juice. It's a beer to be nursed along like a good single-malt whisky.
Many of these beers are higher in alcohol than your regular pour, which means that except perhaps for the Golden Ale they ought to be drunk thoughtfully because they are sneaky and the sublime bliss you feel might lead to a court date. On my tasting night I got to the point that while trying to look like a critic and testing the nose of the Winterstorm seasonal, I put a good amount right up my nose. Patient Spouse Jane was my DD, and unless she's also your spouse, you'd do well to line up your own.
But because God is a kind and just God, several of these gems are available to take home, freshly tapped in growlers. These little brown jugs hold half a gallon of brew, and after paying a hefty deposit, you can fill them for around eight bucks. Think of it: Some of the best beer you can buy costs less than a bad bottle of wine and comes in a reusable bottle. Spend a few extra bucks on some good fresh oysters and put on Diana Krall.