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The intimate story behind BlackStack Brewing’s ephemeral Soul Lao’d IPA

"At first I was kind of nervous about how the flavors would taste if we added lemongrass, makrut lime leaves and chili peppers,” said Sabrina Boualaphanh

"At first I was kind of nervous about how the flavors would taste if we added lemongrass, makrut lime leaves and chili peppers,” said Sabrina Boualaphanh instagram/ @blackstackbrewing

There is no beer more polarizing than the India Pale Ale. While loyal hopheads swear by the IPA, others keep a safe distance from that week-old tangerine peel funk parading as a beverage. 

Jokes aside, regardless of which camp you find yourself in, there’s no denying that IPAs dominate– you’d be hard-pressed to find a taproom without a couple on the menu absolutely anywhere in the country. 

Not only are IPAs hopelessly ubiquitous and an easy fallback for the uninitiated, they’re also the juggernaut of the industry. Once the unofficial libation of the British East India Company, and then a catalyst of the stateside craft beer revolution, brewers both large and small rely on IPAs to get by today– and drinkers in the United States can’t seem to get enough. From ales built with the classic columbus, centennial, or cascade hops (the Three Cs), to smooth and creamy milkshake IPAs balanced with lactose, America’s appetite for IPAs shows no signs of diminishing. 

But the rules of the local IPA game changed with this past February’s release of a collaboration between BlackStack Brewing and Soul Lao. Their Soul Lao’d Lao IPA was for the adventurous, a beacon in a beerscape overcrowded with lackluster, bleached brews. Forget conspicuous dank and barely-there citrus– Soul Lao’d was all blaze and bright flavor, delicately tempered by herbaceous aromatics. While it flowed freely in the BlackStack taproom, Soul Lao’d was the unexpected magic that happens when a garden variety pale ale meets imagination, creativity, and cross-cultural resonance.

“When we first started ‘Wing Wednesday’ with BlackStack we were so excited they wanted to make a spiced Lao IPA. At first I was kind of nervous about how the flavors would taste if we added lemongrass, makrut lime leaves and chili peppers,” says Sabrina Boualaphanh, co-owner of Soul Lao, along with partner Eric Photisanh. “But we wanted to use ingredients that are prominently used in Lao cooking.”

If only because of their somewhat shared provenance, it’s tempting to consider Soul Lao’d alongside Beerlao, the crisp rice lager that enjoys over 90 percent market share in Laos, and is now consumed widely in Southeast Asian establishments in the United States. 

But that would be a lazy comparison. 

Although both brews go well with piquant foods, Beerlao functions primarily as a complement, Soul Lao’d can stand alone. Built with piney mosaic and simcoe hops and rounded off with a brief but potent chili burn, it was a strong, personal expression of Lao flavors– in beer form. 

And Boualaphanh, Photisanh, and the BlackStack team’s search for ingredients to bring out those flavors was a dedicated one. It took them everywhere from Hmongtown on the Eastside, to the Photisanh family residence.

“The only place you can get clean, tall, and big stalks of lemongrass is at the Hmong market. We went to Hmongtown market to buy the ingredients and introduced the brewers to the local farmers. The brewmaster, Bob, was looking for dehydrated chili peppers and fortunately they had it dried and hidden on the top shelf.” Boualaphanh offers, reminiscing about the process of creating the beverage. 

“The most exciting part for us was to feature our own lime leaves… we went to Eric’s family house where there is a huge makrut lime tree that welcomes you when you walk in the front door. The family tree was passed down to his aunt and has been standing tall ever since... We brought gallon bags of leaves back to the brewery.”

The beer, bolstered by a vibrant flavor profile only heirloom lime could provide, was a massive success. On days that the Soul Lao food truck was parked outside BlackStack serving up delectable treats, Soul Lao’d sang. It became a taproom favorite– not least because that’s the only place it was (ephemerally) available.

“Seeing our uncles enjoy it with their friends, pouring more around and being able to share the product we made with our elders was special. It’s the perfect beer for drinking food like our O.G. Oyster Wings. It’s refreshing and amazing to taste how different all these flavors come together even in beer,” says Boualaphanh. 

“We would get guests who come for food then fall in love with the beer and take a growler back home to share with their family. It made people come together and enjoy great beer and food again. I think the next time we collaborate again we would love to share it beyond Minnesota, [to] other Lao communities... In this business, we learned that money is just a tool and inspiration is measured by the change you effect on others.”

While Soul Lao’d may have started off as a wild idea, it quickly took off, winning acclaim and the admiration of diverse Twin Citizens. BlackStack may decide to brew the beer as late as next fall or winter, but in the interim, why not give them a call and plead for it sooner? Your palate will thank you.