Winterfest 2016, a celebration of MN craft beer took place this past weekend at the Union Depot in St. Paul. You will not find a better showcase of all things MN beer. The venue, beer offerings, and ambiance make this the crown jewel of Minnesota beer festivals. The second year of the two-night format might not have seen as many people there on the Friday night, but more than made up for those numbers on Saturday. Whether you are a fan of the two-night format or not, one thing that is certain is that the number of tickets they sell for this event is perfect because it never feels crowded.
As I walked in on Friday evening to get my credentials and start chatting with people, I could feel the lively energy in the building. The Union Depot is a beautiful facility and I am thankful the the MN Craft Brewers Guild selected such a perfect venue for this event. Each year at Winterfest, there are new additions to the program as well as the breweries who have been a part of this festival since it started 15 years ago. Whether it is your first, or your 15th, each brewery brings their A-game in the hopes of keeping up the high standards that Winterfest demands.
It is important to have a plan for a festival like Winterfest if you are to get the full experience. Looking at the program online ahead of time is a must. There was also a really helpful article written by Ryan Tuenge that gave 5 must-try beers for the fest. After arming myself with some knowledge, I formulated a plan. Because of the high quantity of heavy ABV beers at this fest, my plan was to try as many Sour beers as I could get my hands on first. This would allow me to enjoy the refreshing and crisp nature of these beers before overloading my palate with the high octane booze bombs that would certainly be abundant later. About midway through the night, I transitioned to the heavier hitters. This was a modus operandi that served me well both nights. I also recommend dumping anything that doesn’t wow you. Drink the water that is readily accessible because your head will thank you in the morning. Winterfest has food available and it is important to eat so you don’t find yourself too into your cups.
Speaking of the food, I felt that the food this year could have been a bit better. Last year’s food offerings were way more upscale than this year. There was a breaded boneless wing and pretzel station. The concept was great, but the execution of the boneless wings fell short and you were left with dry wings. The pretzel was served with a spectacular and flavorful stone ground mustard and was just the right size. The charcuterie station was ok, but if you use the word charcuterie in the Twin Cities, you better make sure that it is something that will leave a good impression. We have too many places that offer above and beyond levels of quality when it comes to charcuterie. If all you have are sections of flavorful brats, call it that, and not charcuterie or people will be disappointed. Now, I love a block of cheese as much as the next guy, but not if I don’t have any utensils to cut it into more manageable pieces. Unfortunately, that was the case with some of the cheese pieces in the charcuterie baskets. The slider station had pulled pork, chicken and veggie options. They were great, but the sliders were messy and without a fork, hard to eat. The meat-to-bun ratio was also out of whack, which was disappointing. The sliders from last year were more flavorful and in better proportions when it came to the meet and bun. I guess that the food was just ok and I hope that they look at other catering options for next year. If they bring back the beer cheese soup from last year, I will be a happy camper.
Like any fest, it is impossible to try everything so you have to kind of make the choice of what to skip. This is much easier to do at a festival that is much more mainstream like the Winter Beer Dabbler due to the fact that a lot of the beers featured at that fest are readily available elswhwere. At Winterfest, many breweries are pouring things specially made or saved for this fest. I also chatted ahead of time with different breweries about what they were bringing and I knew there were a few special things that I had to try. There are also some of my personal favorite breweries that I will always put high on the priority list.
Aside from the vast array of liquid excellence on display at Winterfest, it is a wonderful time for many brewery owners, head brewers, writers, and beer enthusiasts to come together and chat. I recall stopping to chat with Michael Agnew for a bit and I asked him if he had tried anything amazing. He said that he had not really gotten to try a whole lot because every ten feet, he was stopping to chat with someone else he knew. When I stopped by Fair State Brewing Co-op, I chatted with their President and CEO, Evan Sallee. I asked him what it meant to be selected as one of Breweries that got to be at the event both nights. He said that it is an incredible opportunity and that everyone at Fair State is blown away by how supportive the MN craft beer fans have been to them. As he talked, you could see the joy in his face and his words oozed of pride. Later that evening, Evan, Matt Hauck(Director of Operations), and Niko Tonks(Head Brewer) would be walking up on stage to accept their Golden Snowshoe Award for Best Beer of the Fest for their Raspberry Roselle, A Hibiscus kettle sour with lots of raspberries.
As far as breweries who were making their Winterfest debuts, Junkyard Brewing Company from Moorhead, MN was a rookie at this year’s fest. I got a chance to talk to Dan Juhnke, one of the brothers behind this up and coming brewery. When we last spoke, it was up in their taproom on a 90+ degree day and his wife was VERY close to giving birth. I asked him how being a dad was treating him and he said it was treating him well. He told me that he didn’t get much sleep the night before because he was nervous about Winterfest. Anyone who has tried anything from Junkyard knows that he had nothing to be nervous about. Along with their Free Candy, A Belgian Quad, they brought Peachy Keen, a Peach Sour and a Blackberry Gose, both of which I thought were tremendously well-made.
As I transitioned into the realm of darker and boozier beers, I headed towards Tin Whiskers because I knew that they had an American Barleywine and an Orange Chocolate Imperial Stout. When it comes to Barleywines, I tend to favor the English ones because they are maltier than the American ones, but the Tin Whiskers American Barleywine was pretty smooth. The Orange Chocolate Imperial Stout was ridiculously good and had a striking similarity to the Orange Chocolate balls I used to get in my Christmas stocking. What a beer! Right across the way from Tin Whiskers was Lupine Brewing Company. They have a Three Bandits Coffee Porter that I would love to see go head-to-head with Bent Paddle’s Double Shot Double Black in a blind tasting. The Three Bandits Coffee Porter has a wonderful smoothness to it while still packing a ton of great coffee flavor. A few doors down from Lupine, Brau Brothers had a Blackberry Village Tart, which started out as a Belgian Ale, and was then barrel-aged and soured for 9 months. I have no interest in having a child, but if this showed up at my doorstep after nine months, I would gladly call it my everything.
The time had come for the announcements for the 2 awards of the night, best beer and best brewery. When the announcements were made, Bent Paddle won for Best Brewery and the aforementioned Fair State Brewing Co-op won for Best Beer. They stood up their, hoisting their Golden Snowshoes in the air and smiling ear to ear. Night one was in the books and it was time for me to head home and begin steeling my liver for night two.
Saturday night brought a different brewery line-up, but the same level of excitement. My plan was the same, start with the sours and then work my way up to 2013 Czar Jack and Dark Knight Returns. After doing a once-around, it was clear to me what a big part of my charge would be this evening; visit a lot of places I have not tried yet. Omni, F-Town, Lupulin, and Foxhole would all be new tasting experiences for me. It was also a relief to see a couple of my favorites on the board like Bent Brewstillery, Blacklist, Lift Bridge, and Northgate. To me, it seemed like Friday night had a lot more established entities there, the ten breweries that were there both nights aside, and that made me think that Saturday night was going to be a bit of a wild card.
I got right to it and began making my way around. I noticed that there were not as many sours that really blew me away. Sour beers are very chic right now. It seems like everyone and their brother are not doing at least one kettle sour every few times a tapline opens up. That is good and bad because if a sour is done well, it can be a complex and fun drinking experience, but a sour done poorly is really bad and undrinkable. Borealis Fermentery had my first favorite sour of the night in their Aprikoos, a sour beer brewed with apricots. It had a really nice clean flavor and the apricots were used with a deft hand so as not to overpower the beer. Bent Brewstillery does sours as well as Sophia Vergara does an Oscar Red Carpet walk. Tonight was no exception, for their Currently Cheery was a knockout. Tangy, crisp, refreshing, and not too sweet were the elements that made this beer seem a lot like the Fair State Raspberry Roselle in quality and drinkability.
The crowd at Saturday night’s Winterfest was much larger, but the event never felt crowded or claustrophobic. On this night, I found myself spending more time at the middle island of breweries who were there both nights. Schell’s had an amazing beer from their Noble Star Series called Apricot Vista. It was right up near the top for me as far as my favorite beers from Saturday night. This was also my first exposure to the new Double IPA from Bent Paddle called Hop Forest. This is going to fly off the shelves, if it hasn’t already. Hop Forest is a big juicy DIPA that will satisfy all the hop heads. Next to Bent Paddle was Barley Johns. They brought several amazing offerings, but what caught my eye in the program before the fest was their Dark Knight Returns. This beer had such a wonderful smoothness to it, all the while still having the dark chocolate and boozy notes that eventually got Barley Johns a Golden Snowshoe for Best Beer. It was not time for big boozy stouts. 2014 Barrel-Aged Surly Darkness, 2013 Czar Jack from Town Hall, Imperial Raspberry Truffle from Lupulin, and Whiskey Queen from Indeed all helped me round out the night on a high note.
Tonight’s award ceremony had Bent Paddle winning a Golden Snowshoe for Best Brewery for the second night in a row and Barley John’s Dark Knight Returns winning for Best Beer. Brewer’s began tearing down signaling that another Winterfest was now in the books. This event is truly special and would not run without the folks behind the scenes. This engine is powered by the MN Craft Brewer’s Guild as well as throngs of volunteers who make sure that the breweries have what they need and that things go off without a hitch.
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