Remember how innocent the first one was? It was just my mother-in-law and myself, “beerin'” around Hudson for eight hours or so. We liked beers, we disliked beers, we overate, maybe we slurred words a bit, maybe we shed a few tears. Who knows. I’m getting old and my memory doesn’t work like it used to. We would have never thought it had grown into this: a total of 11 people, in three cars, spanning two states and over 60 miles, trying 75 beers.
That’s what happens when friends catch wind of adventure. Least, that’s what should happen. In that sense, you could say my mother-in-law and I were merely doing our duties as friends.
We bucked tradition this year, and began in St. Paul. We finished where we usually start, and drank our shining stars where we usually finish. It all seemed so backwards at the start, but sometimes you’ve got to do that to keep things moving forward. Another new wrinkle was the introduction of score books for tracking our beers. Every panelist scored every beer. While the scores will be kept out (the Internet is more than adequately congested with beer scores, methinks), we will reveal which one we enjoyed most.
This year, our path to conquering St. Paul began at her throne.
I’ll never forget the way the sun didn’t quite shine over St. Paul that day. It was beautifully overcast, radiantly gray. Party members re-introduced themselves, posed with the Summit Brewing Co. entryway sign with IDs stuck to our foreheads, and stood outside in such a way that others thought we were waiting in line to get in and senselessly stood out behind us.
Inside Summit’s school cafeteria style beer hall, the West London-style ale was the first to turn heads – in the academic sense, if nothing else.
“Which one is this,” asked a second-year tourist, a redhead from Vermont, examining her glass of West London.
“It’s the next one on the list!” said her brother, The Gentleman; who, shortly afterward, asked in jest if the Hopvale organic ale was “glutton free.”
It was Miss Vermont and her brother who inspired this trip to begin with. They spoke very highly of the craft beer coming out of the Green Mountain State, and offered my wife and I lodging should we elect to visit someday (which we’re definitely taking). On a funny side note, at our last company Christmas party, I bought a six-pack of Magic Hat IPL as a white elephant gift. I told the cashier as I purchased it, “Whoever gets this will think it’s a fancy beer, even though a six-pack is $8.” I dusted the bottles off before putting them into the bag.
My boss’ boss got that gift.
Where were we? That’s right, gluttony. One beer was about to awaken that, in everyone.
Summit was peddling a special summer beer that day, one that smelled pleasant and tasted much like a mojito. Its name: Havana Pub Mojit-ale. Nobody was giving this one up quickly. Had it been passed any slower, I’d have thought it was in the fast line on I-94. One friend of my mother-in-law was especially keen, and admired it in her hand before drinking. From under her blonde bangs and out through her glasses came such a grin, you’d swear she’d just snuck it into a movie theatre.
“It’s super smooth, no bitter aftertaste,” she said. “It tastes like … yum-yum.”
Next year, I’m making them type these on BeerAdvocate boards.
Technically, any beer is “approachable”; but what set this beer apart is, from my typically beer-averse mother-in-law to the seasoned redhead – and even the hack hosting this thing – everyone enjoyed this beer and nobody needed any explanations for it. Knowing more beers like this could be out there energized the group a great deal.
There were, in total, 9 beers enjoyed at Summit. We made a quick stop in the gift shop and fled out to Seventh St., where my mother-in-law learns the fine art of suddenly enjoying a beer because everyone else was.
Get comfortable: Bad Weather Brewing often has 12 or 13 beers on tap! Luckily, the panel was taking notes.
Bad Weather, if you didn’t know, but I’m sure you do know, has become a lock-and-load must among not only breweries in St. Paul along 7th St. but businesses in general. Can’t miss it. Don’t miss it. Iconic artwork. Welcoming atmosphere. Smoooooth criminals working the bar. Don’t miss it.
Tap lines at Bad Weather that day were dominated by patio pounders – goses, radlers, wheat beers, etc. – to the delight of this year’s rookie. When I asked what she thought, she replied with a soft smile and a hard nod. Around the table, however, these featherweights were being met with lukewarm reactions. It was time to amp it up a bit, and how do you do that?
NITRO, that’s how! Enter the Dark Mild.
Miss Theatre Mischief up there had brought her husband along this year, and tasked him with keep track of her scorecards. The Dark Mild was his easiest write-in that day. This beer had come straight out of his dreams, a true “thought bubble-to-glass” wonder. He nearly fell back off of the bench, and set off a domino effect as it was passed around. With no hop sucker punch, a subtle flavor of chocolate, and the oohs and ahs of watching it settle, the Dark Mild might as well be renamed “Wonderful!” It’s what our table called it thereafter.
“If it makes it to me, I’m gonna finish it!” Said my wife.
“Yum yum yum!” said the blonde after she slammed the last of it and set the empty glass down before her. I had to explain that no, growlers couldn’t be taken to go.
The tragedy of the day was Potter’s Pasties, a top-tier food truck that went untouched by the gang. Feeding time was close at hand, but we were doing that at Minnesota’s premier craft beer bar. It was our next stop.
How do you fit a group of 10 into the Happy Gnome bar? It’s easy. All you need to do is fill the booth next to the wall at the front of the bar, and all three of the tables nearby. Then, you talk really loudly. Then, you order three servings of poutine so you can hog one yourself and take the remains of one other one home. I believe Gary Coleman would have called that “lifestyle requirements.” In all, eight or nine appetizers were ordered.
You already know about the poutine, but you also need to know about the Happy Gnome’s tater tots. Not that the Happy Gnome makes a bad appetizer; I’m just saying, these would single-handed put a whole pot-legal state into siesta. The wings, also fantastic. What’s even more fantastic is when you skim the meat off a wing, plop it into your poutine, scrape some buffalo sauce into it, and hey, don’t judge me!
With only eight of us drinking, and one very lightly, our flights of five were filled by a bartender’s choice and our waitress’ choice. What did we get?
Our server, Helena, who rocks, dialed up Castle Danger’s Red Hop Rising. From the bartender came Ballast Point Watermelon Dorado.
Miss Vermont and I bonded over Sierra Nevada chapstick, like lovers do. I applied some, then put my slimy snail-track lips all over the sample glasses when the flights came. Mmmwah!
My mother-in-law much enjoyed her Passion Fruit Kicker, saying it tasted like lemonade (but with less wine mixed in). The Rook drank her hail summer and all she really had to say was, “Eh, well, it is light …” Personally, in the absence of Victory at Sea, I was more than okay with The Commodore. Coffee, with a little bit of chocolate, is how I start everyday. This is a beer that says, “Attack!”
When Yamma Jamma was given middling grades by the majority, my wife pounded the table and said, “Well, everyone’s wrong!”
Table-pounding is how things get across with this group.
Helena nailed every order and didn’t give our table the murder eyes. Not once.
I’m elated to announce that entry into Flat Earth Brewing Company no longer looks quite like the backdrop for a post-apocalyptic zombie first-person shooter game. You still wouldn’t put this building on your Boardwalk in a game of Monopoly, but it’s coming along nicely on the east side.
The addition of an additional taproom means guilt-free flights. No more getting hammered on free samples before buying one growler (well, I mean, I suppose you technically still could). The throne is still in the front entry, so the 15 minutes of glamour shots are still part of the getting-in process.
Ya know what else is part of the process at Flat Earth? Porters!
Cygnus-X was flowing! Smores Porter was flowing! This insane imperial porter called Big Money was flowing! Also flowing was … Ovni?!
Yeah! The Bier de Garde surprised me by getting high marks from a group not accustomed to that style of beer. Mister Theatre Mischief and The Rook bought growlers of it to go, but the Smores Porter – which tasted exactly as magical as you’d expect given its name – got the most praise and required an extra pint for the table.
On a random side note, a man rockin’ a biking shirt walked by me and gave me a coney. No introduction, no explanation, just here, have a coney, bye.
Given the calorie crowd we just trampled at The Happy Gnome, I’d say we moved through our subjects quite well. We had to. White Bear Lake was a long way away.
I never did eat that coney.
Big Wood Brewery has this back room behind a hallway, behind the main room. If the entire taproom is full, but this room is completely empty, it’s just far enough-removed that you could convince your group that you arranged for this using your local celebrity status. I didn’t do this, but it crossed my mind.
With 10 beers on tap, Big Wood gives you plenty of work. The Morning Wood stout is a dependable standout, part of a balanced breakfast, and the Big Black Wolf was the rare “IPA my mother-in-law didn’t hate.” That’s high praise. It just doesn’t sound like it.
We doodled on the whiteboard, played ping-pong, and caught up with our first cameos of the day. My aunt-in-law swung in to say hi, but she was really just here for cocktails at The Alchemist. Gabby Ribbon Tha God appeared out of thin air, and stuck around for the finish. We got a lot done in a short period of time.
It was a fairly impersonal visit, since we were so far removed and I did the ordering solo. The staffers at Big Wood that day may have never known we were back there, except I told them we were back there, because they’d reserved the room for me, because do you know who I am?!
Last year’s winner was served up at Oliphant Brewing, a silky lil’ glass of seduction called Mary Porter. It entranced so wholly, we were heartbroken when she wasn’t here to greet us this time around.
The rest of Somerset was, though! We dropped in right in the middle of Oliphant’s two-year anniversary party. We came for their anniversary last year, too, but that time we rolled in around noon. There was, as you could surmise, a considerable difference in traffic. Last year, we had a picnic table to ourselves. This year, we were crammed around a tiny high table in a back room filled with VHS tapes.
In front of me, an old-timey movie introduction played in a loop; behind me, our group got a snippy “Beer tasting is serious business” from some douchebro in a filthy ball cap. I still had enough baked beans to be singing out both ends that night, Milkman Manbaby was a more than adequate substitute for our dear Mary, and Oliphant’s beers as a collective body of work are a can’t-miss experience. Can’t get to Somerset? No problem! Oliphant is muscling their way deeper and deeper into Minnesota as we speak.
That day, sadly, our party was just too big to stick together and we got out in a hurry.
How do three cars, which left at the same time for the same destination using (ostensibly) the same route, because how many routes really are there from Somerset to New Richmond, arrive at Point B at such different times? We should know: this is exactly how we arrived at Barley John’s. On the plus side, Miss Vermont and her car got a great tour of Wisconsin’s soybean fields. On the minus side, it will likely happen again next time we come out here.
Barley John’s offered the best customer experience we had that day, and possibly on any trip. A dashing young man who looked vaguely like Seth MacFarlane (I want to say his name is Cameron) expertly explained and sold every beer to us with using such hooks as “even if you don’t like porters, you’re going to like our Old 8 porter,” and offered us the first taste of Barley John’s Oktoberfest.
Look at those flights. Notice the copper name tags on each glass. The Oktoberfest was an excellent representation, but Old 8 rose up to meet expectations, dwarfed them (gnomed them?), and crushed them. It helped that our group was partial to porters anyhow, and Old 8 featured flavors that had been successful all day. It was big and bold. My mother-in-law, who at this point was starting to suffer from sensory fatigue (I think everyone was), took to this with ease. Of our day’s docket, Old 8 might have been the best year-round offering we’d had. The Wild Brunette turned back the standard assumption that brown ales were boring or beginner-level. That’s not to say you should avoid it if you’re a beginner. That’s to say never avoid it.
We ordered food. All of it. We’re talking three charcuterie boards, four appetizers, and an audience with the chef. I don’t usually do charcuterie boards, but I’ll do these ones! Take a bread slice and get to stackin’! Cheese. Meat. Cheese and meat. Awesome cheese, too, none of those curiously-symmetrical cubes or thin strips. Cheese, meat and mustard. Cheese, meat, mustard and grapes! Maybe just grapes by themselves. More cheese. More meat. Cheese sauce. Mustard on cheese sauce. Cheese on cheese sauce. Cheese on meat, over mustard, on cheese sauce. Cheese and meat. Cheese sauce. Strawberry. I need some time to myself.
I relaxed on the couches in front of the fireplace while the gang caught up on old times. You might not know this about them, but they were quite the troublemakers back in the day. I can’t remember the name of the bar they claim to have thoroughly disturbed as youths, but that’s probably best left untold anyhow. We were at Barley John’s for quite a long time, out of traffic’s way, relaxing in New Richmond. And to think, you could be out here in less than an hour from the Twin Cities. I sank into the leather, kicked my feet up at the table, and had a nice little heart-to-heart with a pint of Oktoberfest I’d dialed up for myself.
Slow sips. Great lacing. I didn’t even set it down. The brewpub was half-full, perfect level of ambient noise, perfectly distanced away from me. Barley John’s Brewpub feels like what home ought to feel like. I rested my head against the top of my backrest, checked out the neatly-painted logo sign poised on the mantle, exhaled, and sipped slowly. I don’t remember what music was playing, which means the perfect music was playing. I was almost lifted off to Dreamland itself when —
Remember that scene in The Odyssey when Odysseus and his men are seduced by sirens for one day, but it was actually five years, and Odysseus freaks out because his ships are suddenly buried in five years of tide? Did you notice he starts trying to dig them out with a knife? Stupid, huh? This almost happened to us here, but I looked at the clock and realized we were suddenly cutting it really close.
“Just stroll on by,” says Gabby Ribbon melodically as I stroll into an empty men’s bathroom while three women stand in line outside the women’s room.
“Just use the men’s,” I say. “It’s individual bathrooms. Nobody’s going to care. This ain’t North Carolina.”
She laughs and says no. I do my business, step back out, and a woman rushes into the men’s room behind me.
With only 30 minutes remaining before people have to go, the final eight beers are set before us.
It was another exercise in consistency for Pitchfork Brewing. If you’ve ever seen Mike Fredricksen’s setup or heard him describe his process, you know how close an eye he keeps on his product and the rigidity with which he judges it pre-market. It shows. Everything ranked either ‘good’ or ‘great.’ The gothic blood orange IPA was a pleasant surprise at the end of the journey.
“It was as if I turned my headphones on and a rap song played,” said Miss Theatre Mischief, before a sip turned into a long drink.
Drivers for panelists met us at Pitchfork, and someone must have let the cat out of the bag of our plans. When the last sample was drank dry, it was set down to a rousing applause. Seventy-five up, seventy-five down.
And the winner?
2014: Pitchfork Barn Door Brown
2015: Oliphant Mary Porter
2016: Summit Havana Pub Mojit-ale
It eked past Bad Weather’s Dark Mild by one measly point. I don’t know how often Mojit-ale will be on tap, or if it ever will again, but it’s a summery twist beer enthusiasts would enjoy while thrilling those new to the craft. The sample was argued over, and the second pint of it we ordered was barely enough to satisfy everyone.
Finally, a salute to The Gentleman’s wife and my sister-in-law, who were kind enough to drive despite how much fun we were making it look being drunk. Real American heroes.
I won’t drop any dimes on what next year’s mission will be, and what breweries it will involve, but this was the end of beer-count goals. To go any higher than 75 would just exhaust everyone. Had we not ended at such a familiar brewery, 75 might have been too many.
We’ll seek to push other limits, introduce new blood (er, suds?) into the mix, and enjoy them without the sense of urgency. Distance will be lessened. Beer lists will be lessened. I trust the experience will be heightened.