Winterfest 2011 reveals trends for Minnesota beer

The 2011 Winterfest beer festival sponsored by the Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild took place last Friday night at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul. As beer festivals go, Winterfest is an intimate and elegant affair, if you can call 800 people flooding the halls of the History Center intimate. It's an opportunity for Minnesota brewers to show off their best efforts to an eager and supportive crowd.

As does every Minnesota beer festival, Winterfest kicked off with bagpipes played by Dennis Skrade and Thom Nolan. Throughout the evening, upbeat melodies of gypsy jazz from the Twin Cities Hot Club could be heard beneath the roar of festive beer fans. Twenty-two breweries offered nearly a hundred brews for sampling, ranging from straight-up pilsner to spiced-up porter with cinnamon, cocoa, and chili pepper. Through it all, a couple of trends emerged that may say something about the direction of craft beer in the state.

The rapid growth of the state's beer scene was on display at Winterfest. Two brand-new breweries, Harriet Brewing Company and Big Wood Brewing Company, had their debut at the festival. While Harriet's development has been on the radar and in the news for some time, the appearance of Big Wood, in Vadnais Heights, was a complete surprise. Three new breweries from up north, Duluth's Carmody Irish Pub, Boathouse Brewpub from Ely, and Leech Lake Brewing Company out of Walker, made their first Winterfest appearances.

While there were a huge number of hoppy pale ales and IPAs available, brewers brought a surprising number of wood-aged, smoked, and wild beers to the fest. That mirrors a broader national direction in craft brewing. I counted three beers fermented with wild yeast, eight smoked beers, and a whopping 13 beers aged on wood or in barrels. That last number is equal to the number of highly hopped beers being poured. While my numbers may be slightly off, I think this definitely suggests a trend. That was reinforced when a wild-fermented beer, Surly's Pentagram, won the Great Snowshoe award for best-of-fest beer.

Finally, festival attendance demonstrated a growth in the number, passion, and knowledge of local craft beer consumers. The fact that tickets sold out in under a minute by itself spoke volumes about Minnesota beer fans. By and large the people that came to the festival seemed in control and eager to learn.

Cheers, Michael Agnew Certified Cicerone A Perfect Pint

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