By Adam Estrem
Jesus. What have I gotten myself into? I found myself surrounded by 3,000 craft-beer-crazed fans Saturday morning, all of them drinking like New Years Eve at 10 a.m. I am by no means an expert when it comes to beer, but I do love a great craft brew — and the Minnesota Craft Brewer’s Guild’s Autumn Brew Review was the place to taste them all.
Almost 90 breweries were represented this year as the event took over a parking lot near the old Grain Belt Brewery, just across the river from downtown Minneapolis. There was a chill in the air, and crispness nipping at your face. Maybe it was the temperature, maybe it was the hops, but either way, it made my mouth water.
How do you review a festival? To try and explain the feeling of a crowd, the English language fails me, or maybe it’s me that fails the English language.
The crowd was happy, overwhelmingly thirsty and modestly buzzed. I tried to taste all the beers (believe me, I really tried), but halfway through I had to sit down, eat some tasty food from one of the food trucks on hand and soak in the views.
The Surly Cult was well represented — they always had the longest line. Going to SurlyFest last weekend, I had already tasted most of the beers that they were offering up to the public for samples. Instead, I tried to focus on new and upcoming brewers.
Two of them spent an extended time with me, Fulton Beer and Steel Toe Brewing.
Fulton Beer was started by four guys in a garage in the Fulton neighborhood of Minneapolis in 2009, hence the name. I came to find out that I went to high school with Jim Diley, one of the co-founders, and so I talked with Jim — and Pete Grande, another co-founder — at length.
“We just started getting paid at the end of June, and we’re making some progress. We got the new brewery up and running, just got the last piece of licensing finished up this past week and we’re excited to start ripping out some beers,” Grande said.
Fulton had a nice spread of beers, including their Sweet Child of Vine IPA, and a cask dry hopped version of the Sweet Child, a Lonely Blond and the cask version of Lonely Blond infused with grapefruit. All of them great beers, but I particularly liked the cask version of Sweet Child of Vine. The beer had very little carbonation and allowed me to taste the flavors of strong hops delicately balanced with a sweet bready malt character.
After talking with Jim and Pete, I headed down the line, tasting beers upon beers until one made me stop in my tracks: Steel Toe Brewing. For me, food is my thing. Add wine to the list and create a pairing and life is as good as it gets.
Beer is making its way in there, too. But, to me, much of the craft beer movement involves huge flavors, hops, hops and more hops, and the wacky flavor culture that surrounds it.
I am slowly being educated that the movement may involve all of that, but it really has nothing to do with what the brewer is telling you you should drink. Pairing food and drink is a magical combination that brings flavors out of the food and beverage you may never had expected. Steel Toe Brewing is making beers that not only will pair well with food, but make you want to drink their beers all night, something not possible with the double and triple hopped beers that make your mouth fatigued after two or three bottles.
I have never tasted a hoppy beer that as soon as you swallow, it leaves your mouth feeling clean and refreshed — and all of Steel Toe Brewing’s beers are that drinkable. Jason Schoneman is the founder of Steel Toe, and has all the tell-tale signs of a rock-star brewer.
“We started the construction of the brewery in Feb of 2011, and we sold our first growlers in the middle of August, so this is our fifth week,” Schoneman said.
Though the brewery may have that new car smell, their beers are as refined as a beer from some of the hard hitters in the craft beer market, like Anchor Steam or Rogue Ales.
“I started home brewing back in 1997 due to not being able to buy the type of beer I like to drink. I’ve worked as a professional brewer for about six years before starting Steel Toe Brewing,” he said. “I was out in (a brewery in) Oregon and (on) one in Montana, and we just had a daughter and wanted to be closer to family, so we moved back to the Midwest and ended up in St. Louis Park and away we go.”
As I talk with Schoneman about his beers and start to taste each one with him, his eyes light up and he gets more excited with each sip. You can tell he has trained his chef-like-pallet to truly taste and manipulate, maybe even coax out flavors of his beers.
It’s like talking to a chef about their food and inspiration. There is nothing more a chef, or a brewer for that matter, wants to do more than talk about flavor.
“We have the Provider and it’s a golden ale. The Provider has a very light, bready malt character, so it’s a lot like fresh baked bread,” he said. “We added sprinkling of hops for a floral and slightly spicy aroma. Our Size 7 is a Northwest style IPA, bordering on a double IPA. Size 7 has a big, juicy, citrus hop aroma and flavor. It’s definitely all about the hops in this beer, with very low malt flavors, maybe a slight toasted malt flavor, but definitely a big, west-coast-style hoppy IPA.”
The last beer is the Dissent — a dark ale. Schoneman said it was modeled after an “export-style” stout.
“Then I added some oats to kind of smooth things out and give it this nice silky body,” he said. “But it’s really roasty with notes of cocoa and espresso. There’s also a moderate level of bitterness to balance out the sweetness, but it’s a 6.5 percent ABV (alcohol by volume) beer which makes a really nice luxurious stout.”
Keep an eye on Steel Toe Brewing, in my opinion — they will be huge with Minnesotans.
As the session wrapped up, with the smells of beer and food cooking in the food trucks, I couldn’t help but be proud of my state. People are screaming for great beer and Minnesota brewers are continually delivering what people want.
With the new laws passed this year in the state, allowing breweries to sell directly to the public, we are pioneers for great beer and getting it fresh. Now all we need are more restaurants that specifically pair their food with beer, and the end results will be out of this world.
Adam Estrem is a writer, photographer, foodie and cook. After traveling the world and tasting the cuisines and wines of Mexico, Spain, France and much of Europe and the middle east, he has gone local and focused on restaurants and food producers of Minnesota. When he isn’t working you can find him in his kitchen, creating recipes and entertaining friends. You can follow him on Twitter (@mspfoodie) or email him (firstname.lastname@example.org).