I’ve been a little radio silent on my blog recently due to life getting in the way of writing, but I’m ready to write again in a new incarnation. I’ve recently been asked to join the staff at Beerploma to share my particular brand of beer geekery with the group, and this is my first post here!
While on a rare trip out to St. Paul (I live way out west in Waconia) to pick up geeky board games at The Source, I decided to test out my cryptozoology skills with a swing by Lake Monster Brewing. While not exactly close by, it was still a lot closer than from back home!
Lake Monster started around 2013, initially contract brewing their beers through Sand Creek in Wisconsin while gaining a name and looking for a local brewery site. The brewery was founded by Matt Zanetti, Jeremy Maynor, and head brewer Matt Lange. In December of 2015, after extensive work on the site, Lake Monster moved into an old railway exchange building in an industrial area of St. Paul. Since then, most of the draft beers have been brewed on site, while bottles have still been brewed in Wisconsin.
Driving into the area, I recognized this as being very close to Urban Growler and Bang! Brewing, making this a nice brewery trifecta to visit. Just past some office and light industrial buildings, the brewery has a huge parking lot for easy access–a big plus in my book as I hate trying to find parking in areas I’m not familiar with! To one side of the brewery is the large and somewhat decrepit Vandalia Tower Building–the old King Koil mattress factory. That building hosts varied tenants like a coffee roastery, theater, glassworks and a yoga studio. Just in front of the brewery entrance, standing like some rusty metal sentinel of old industrial St. Paul, is the Vandalia Water Tower. A cluster of umbrella-shaded tables out front provide plenty of patio seating, as well as even more in the shaded spot between the factory building and and the brewery. A colorful painting of the tentacled Lake Monster logo adorns the front of the building, inviting one to come on in and explore the depths if you dare.
Entering the building, one is struck by the sheer size of the place. Enormously high ceilings and broad open spaces make this one of the more spacious taprooms I’ve seen. A large rectangular bar made of light colored wood (maple?) sits in the center of the space, providing a good focus. Plenty of heavy tall tables scattered about offer loads of seating, including a small space furnished with some toys and books for entertaining kids in the corner. Past the bar is the 15 barrel brew system and a bunch of shiny stainless steel conical fermenters filled to bursting with fresh beer. The heavenly aroma of malted grain and hops from a current brew ( a session IPA) wafted to my nostrils as I was drawn toward the bar.
Setting down my book and camera case on the bar, I proceeded to take a few shots of the space for the blog, gaining the attention of a man who looks like he may be a bearded doppleganger of comedian John Oliver. It turns out that this friendly fellow was the head brewer, Matt Lange, just finishing up a brewing shift by drinking a pint of stout. Since taproom manager Dave was busy at the time, Matt poured me a sampler of the beers and sat with me for a few minutes whilst I starting tasting though them. Matt used to be the Assistant Brewer at one of my favorite Wisconsin breweries–Ale Asylum–before moving to Minnesota, switching right around the time when that brewery moved to its new larger facility. Matt filled me in on some other brewery details as well, such as their brand new fully operational canning line, set to package up the flagship IPA, session IPA, dark lager, and Pils over the next couple of months. He was excited to have all the production of beers moved to this facility, with no more off-site brewing. Matt was very personable and passionate about his beers, but wouldn’t be pinned down as to which was his favorite!
Not long after Matt headed home for the evening, I overheard Dave talking with another fellow at the other side of the bar about the cask beer and was soon in conversation with them. This other friendly guy was Matt Zanetti, one of the owners! This Matt also came over and talked with me about the brewery. Growing up in Orono, but with family ties to wine country in California, he got into the craft brewery business after working in the construction/building industry. Initially he and his wife had discussed opening a winery (after a fun trip to a local winery) but realized that grape growing in Minnesota is very difficult. One thing I’m excited to check out is the upcoming wet hopped beer made with hops from Matt’s family farm!
So lets talk about the beers. I’m going to be honest here, my previous experiences with Lake Monster beers have been mixed, which is part of why I wanted to give them a bit of time in their new location before getting all “judgy” on them for the blog. Having been open now 8-9 months, I figured they should have things in hand. In tha past I’ve had one bottle of the IPA that I liked, but also had a whole 6 pack that seemed somewhat buttery and sweet. The first Lake Monster beer that I tried was the pilsner and I was actually pretty impressed, but the second time I had it I was not happy. So, trying to keep an open mind, here are my impressions of the current line-up. I score beers on a 0-5 scale with 3 being a decent beer I’d drink; 4 I’d search out in a store or pub; and 5 I’d add to my dragon’s hoard of special beers.
1) Calhoun Claw Pilsner: 5.5% ABV. Based on a Bohemian pilsner recipe this one promises a higher hopping rate than most domestic lagers.
Aroma–Taking a whiff I can certainly pick up on some noble and citrusy American hops in this.
Appearance–Excellent clarity and fluffy white head.
Flavor–Clean and lager-crisp with some decent malt to it. Finish is a bit sharp and bitter. Refreshing and well done, just a bit over the top in bittering for the classic style.
2) Berliner Wiess: ?% ABV. A take on the German light sour ale.
Aroma–Very mild malt with a hint of lemon.
Appearance–Slightly hazy light yellow color. White head that fades quickly but sticks around the edge of the glass.
Flavor–Initial malt redolent of crackers, fades to a slight plastic phenol that is fleeting, then finishes with mild tart lemon. That finish is bright and zippy but not nearly as sour as most Berliner Weiss beers. Subtle beer without a lot of kick. Might be a good base for some experiments with fruit.
3) Kelly’s Red: 5.3% ABV. A red ale.
Aroma–Up front aroma of plenty-o-hops. I get mild citrus hop (Cascade?) and some earthier hops in it. Malt sweetness present but not sugary.
Appearance–Deep amber color with good clarity.
Flavor–Up front fruity hop and deep caramel and biscuit malt balance. Fades to an orange rind bitterness and slightly dusty hoppy finish that is somewhat astringent. Tastes very fresh. Strangely mellow and aggressive at the same time!
4) Empty Rowboat: 6.9% ABV. IPA.
Aroma–Mellow citrus (tangerine).
Appearance–Persistent off-white head.
Flavor–A bit sweet, like an orange caramel candy of some type. Finish gets a bit more bitter but the balance on this beer is still to the sweet side. A minute after my last sip I get a lingering bitterness on the back of the tongue. Initially way too sweet for me, but does grow on me a little as I sip it. Still fresher and better than the last bottle I had.
5) Cask Empty Rowboat with Cypress Wood. 6.9% ABV. A cask version of the IPA that’s been infused with cypress wood spirals (I believe from The Barrel Mill–a local MN company).
Aroma–Pretty much the same.
Appearance–Slight haze. Very fine bubbles in an even more persistent head.
Flavor–Orange pith and fruity outer rind battle it out for supremacy! Less candy in this one as the wood has added tannin to balance out that sweetness. Much better balance and a smooth cask mouthfeel to this one.
6) Murmur: 6% ABV. A milk stout served on nitro.
Aroma–Roasty, smoky with dark chocolate and dark roast coffee.
Appearance–Deep brown to nearly black color. Dark tan head with fine and tight bubbles that sticks around for ages.
Flavor–Sweetness up front. I feel as if a thick tentacled pseudopod tasting of malted milk and chocolate is slithering around inside my mouth. Lactose sugar must be present in this one (glad I brought my Lactaid!). This is a malt bomb, but actually has a fairly roasty finish that dries out the end. Not overly bitter or astringent, however. Lots of chocolate flavors despite a lack of actual chocolate involved.
Score–4.5. My wife would love this one!
Overall, I was more than happy with the beers at Lake Monster. I found no glaring flaws in any of the beers with everything being above average on my personal taste scale. Color me pleasantly surprised! I was very happy that my timing worked out so well that I was able to meet and talk beer with both Matts and with Dave. The taproom is easy to find, easy to park in, and has an enormous amount of space both inside and out. They have room to grow in terms of brewing space and are ready to unveil that canning line any second now. I have the feeling that the inconsistencies I found in the previous bottles stemmed from contract brewing in another state, with storage and travel issues potentially impacting the final product. I will whole-heartedly recommend that my readers take a trip to the area and check this place out. Go on a Saturday and stop at Bang! and Urban Growler as well–this area of St. Paul becoming a mini-Nordeast in terms of close-by breweries. Thanks to the folks at Lake Monster for being so friendly and making my visit a happy and longer-than-expected one!