Burning Brothers

I’ve been intrigued by Burning Brothers Brewing since I first heard about their concept.  The brewery was founded by Dane Breimhorst and Thom Foss, two friends (not actually brothers) who were professional fire eaters prior to getting into the brewing business.  Then homebrewer and chef Dane developed Celiac Disease–an autoimmune disease where the body reacts to gluten (found in wheat and several cereal grains) with inflammation.  This can range from mild to severe and results in the necessity of removing all gluten containing foods from the diet–which can be quite restrictive and difficult.  This is a true medical diagnosis and has a strong genetic component.  There are also rare people with wheat allergy which works in a different fashion, and a few who have some other form of gluten sensitivity.   I will say here that a lot of the current “all gluten is evil” craze sweeping the nation is much overblown.  That being said, I’m a physician in my day job and have several patients who have Celiac and have watched them struggle with dietary choices.  For a brief time I actually thought I might have it and despaired that my love for beer and homebrewing would have to be scrapped!  Luckily I discovered that it was only lactose intolerance so just have to avoid dairy–way better than leaving behind beer!  On the other hand, for those less fortunate, there aren’t a ton of good beer options out there.  Burning Brothers is the only brewery in Minnesota (and possibly the entire Midwest) putting out only gluten free beers, and are filling this growing niche of the craft beer market.

The Brewery

Burning Brothers Brewery is located in St. Paul at the edge of a light industrial/residential area in what looks like an older warehouse.  There is some street parking around the brewery, so this isn’t a problem.  The taproom itself is pretty small, hosting 2 large and 3 small light colored wood tables as well as 7 seats at the short bar.  Chairs and stools are sturdy and have backs, which is always nice.  The walls are orange, mustard and tan painted cinderblock with little in the way of decoration.  A few framed photos of fireswallowing/breathing and a Darth Vader clock add a hint of character to the otherwise Spartan decor.  I was happy to see a shelf filled with nerdy board and card games as well as some hanging cloth sacks of Renaissance Festival style games to keep patrons entertained.  For those who need a little something sustenance, there are some limited snack options of popcorn, chips, sodas, and even cupcakes!

A few small groups were already hanging out at the taproom and seemed to be having a good time.  Several of these folks were regulars and I talked with one guy (with gluten problems) who comes out frequently all the way from Hugo!  Several people came and went for growlers during my visit as well.

The Beers

So here’s where I have a bit of trouble with reviewing Burning Brothers, and why I’ve held off a bit on reviewing them.  Beer is made with barley or wheat–these both have gluten proteins in them.  So by definition a gluten free beer must be made without these grains.  There are other grains that don’t contain gluten such as sorghum, millet, buckwheat (not really wheat), and a few others.  These grains must then be malted in order to start the process of breaking down the complex carbohydrates of the seeds into smaller carbohydrates that yeast can ferment into alcohol.  Most of the color and different flavors of various beer styles comes from the kilning (roasting/drying) of grains, and these above non-gluten options are not typically treated in this way.  All of this puts a gluten free beer at some disadvantages right off the bat.  Sorghum tastes different than barley.  Adding color and flavor is going to be different from in a regular beer.  I want to be up front about this, but also honest of my impressions as a beer judge and lover of craft beer.

They had six different beers on tap during this visit and I bit the bullet and ordered them all so I would be sure not to miss anything!  I do this for you–my readers!  Here’s the line-up at that time and what I thought of them.  Unless I mention otherwise, these are all sorghum based.  My rating scale is 0-5 with 3 being an average beer that I’d drink a pint of, 4 being amazing, and 5 being one I’d hoard and never share…

  1. Pyro:  Obviously named after the fire-swallowing antics of the founders!  This is an American Pale Ale.  The web site says, “Three years in the making, our APA stands strong against any other APA on the market.”  39 IBU, 4.6% ABV.  Appearance: Light gold, fairly clear.  Very little head to it. Aroma:  I get a hint of butter and some pretty mild hopping.  Flavor: A bit sweet up front.  Slight chemical flavor that I do not like.  A little citrus hop presence but overwhelmed by a bitter and astringent rough finish that lingers for a long time after the drink is done.  To my palate, it does not really live up to the hype and I would not place this near say a Summit APA.  2.75
  2. Fused:  Pyro infused with orange blossom honey (one of my favorites).  Same stats and appearance as Pyro.  Aroma: Does not have the buttery aroma I got from Pyro.  Hint of citrus.  Pretty benign.  Flavor: Sweeter than Pyro–from the honey–which results in more balance in this version.  More citrus comes through on this one, but some raw/waxy unfermented honey character.  Finish is less astringent, but still present.  3.25
  3. Parched Lime: This is a shandy version of Pyro, with lime juice.  Same stats and appearance as above.  Aroma: Strong lime.  Smells like Sprite!  Flavor: Strong fresh lime right up front with plenty of tartness.  Alternates seeming sweet and sour.  Finish seems a bit more like the lime juice from the plastic lime shaped bottles of my youth, and is still a little astringent.  The lime is strong enough to cover up most of the taste of the base beer though.  3
  4. Cranberry Shandy: Another version of the same base beer, but with cranberry.  Appearance: Very light pink/orange in color.  Very little head.  Aroma: Cranberry, malt present in this one, hint of sulfur that I get in a lot of cranberry products.  Flavor: Sweet jellied cranberry flavor that makes we want to have a turkey sandwich.  Hint of tartness, but not enough for my palate as the middle is pretty candy-like.  Finish still has that astringent end.  3
  5. Raj- Agni: This is the IPA!  Made with sorghum, millet, and buckwheat.  60 IBU, 4.8% ABV.  Appearance: Deep gold to almost amber in color.  This one has some off-white head that is actually persistent.  Aroma: Just a hint of citrus American hops.  Some malt character present.  Intriguing.  Some orange?  Flavor: Initially very sweet with a smokey chemical phenol flavor that puts me in mind of liquid hickory smoke.  Medium body.  Harsh chemical and burnt fuse flavor that overwhelms any hops in this beer.  Uggg.  I had high hopes on this one after the appearance and aroma but was very disappointed in the flavor.  2.5
  6. Roasted Coffee Ale:  Made with cold press coffee that goes through the fermentation process with the base beer.  22 IBU, 7.7% ABV.  Appearance: Deep amber to almost brown.  Fine white head lasts the longest of the bunch–especially since I finished with this one.  Aroma: Mild medium roast coffee with a small amount of caramel.  No hops.  Flavor:  BOOM–Coffee!  Has enough sweetness to even out the bitterness of the coffee.  Some caramel notes from aroma present in flavor as well.  Decent base beer tastes like a strong brown ale.  My favorite of the bunch and certainly tastes like a decent coffee beer.  4

So, the results were less than impressive.  Part of this issue for me is starting with a base beer that has some flavor flaws and then using this as the palette for most of the other products.  So my big question was this: Is the harsh and astringent flavor I’m getting in most of these beers from the sorghum? Or is the grain not to blame, and instead this is a fermentation/recipe formulation issue?  Is the beer not good because it’s “not really beer” or is it just not “good beer”.  I know which way my gut tells me to go on this answer, but I think it deserves a little more research.  I’m a scientist at heart and like some facts and tests to give me a better view on things.

I don’t want to be mean here, and I really appreciate that Burning Brothers is filling a much needed niche in the beer market, but I just didn’t really like the beers much.  The fans of the brewery seem really happy to have this local option for gluten free beer and I don’t want to rain on their parade here.  If you like it keep drinking it!

In order to really feel like I’m doing the brewery review justice I’ve started writing up a second piece to attach to this blog entry–I’ve been tasting other commercially available gluten free beers and reviewing them in order to be able to compare apples to apples!  I’ll be posting that in the next week so tune in for the follow-up!