My wife, Sarajo, and I recently took a trip Up North Minnesota to stay with our friends the Stroners at their cabin on Thunder Lake. Since all of us except Lori are beer geeks, we took a roundabout way up to visit four different breweries! Our first two were in the Brainerd area and are chronicled HERE for those who missed it. The second major stop on our whistle-stop tour was the town of Nisswa, where two breweries have sprung up to support the local vacation traffic. I don’t have a lot of pictures of these two since the light was fading fast, so you’ll just have to check them out yourself!
Gull Dam Brewing
Gull Dam Brewing has been open since October of 2014, making it the first brewery in the Nisswa area and was started by Mark and Barb Anderson. Mark has been a pilot, a State House Representative, and now a brewery owner. The brewery initially started out with Luke Steadman as head brewer, but after he left in 2016 the assistant brewer took over the head duties. Currently the head brewer is Doug Stoffer (who I believe was co-founder of Urban Legend Brewing and Head Brewer at B.J.’s). The brewery was named after the local Dam on Gull Lake and of course results in lots of Gull Dam jokes. In fact our group continued to make these kind of comments all weekend, so the branding really sticks with you!
The brewery building is very picturesque, and is located on a small pond complete with a water wheel. The place is huge, with a goodly portion used as event space. There is some parking space, and the entry to the taproom is actually through the rear of the building. The taproom itself is fairly large, with high ceilings, and some barnwood upon the walls. It was a bit dark in there, and a bit too open for my tastes. I kind of wished the taproom space had more of the north-woods charm of the front side of the building. Our server was an earnest young man who really seemed to want us to have a good experience, answering questions and leading us in our beer choices. I (as usual) ordered the full sampler so I could try everything. The samples were smaller (4 oz) than most, so trying all 8 wasn’t crazy. We took our beers outside to the spacious back patio, where a band was playing on a big stage. Several families were out there enjoying the show, looking the part of vacationers up for the holiday weekend.
Here’s the part of the review where I get to judge the beers based on my BJCP training, homebrewing background (25 years yo), and personal taste. I rate on a 0-5 scale with 0 being Clam Juice, 3 being a fair beer I’d drink a pint of, and 5 being one I’d build a small shrine to and make weekly offerings of lesser beers.
- Light Lager: Hazy appearance is a bit off-putting for style. Flavor is not too shabby though with a crisp finish and light lingering bitterness. Better than expected from the look. 3
- Raspberry Wheat: Light in color with no redness indicates use of extract flavoring. Violent perfume aroma is extreme. This one was pure hideousness in a glass. Flavors of Robitussin, chemical, medicinal bitterness. One of the worst beers I’ve had in a long time. Our whole group tried this and the gagging and retching was notable. 1
- Scotch Ale: 7.2% ABV. Fairly dark in color for the style. Hints of roast that aren’t classic either. Malty flavors are on track though. 3.5
- American Wheat: Yup, an American wheat. Not going to lie, this isn’t my favorite style of beer. This one is a fair representation, but the finish is a bit bitter. 3
- Amber: Why does every brewery feel they need an amber? This one is very much stuck in the mentality and quality of an early 1990’s brewpub. Malty, but nondescript. Could use some more hop to bump up the drama bit. 3
- Hemp Pilsner: This lager is clear! Moderately crisp aroma and flavor. Not a terrible pilsner, but I don’t really get any flavor from the hemp that would set this aside. Is this just a gimick to get folks to buy the beer? 3.5
- IPA: Plenty of orange hop in the aroma. Well balanced classic West Coast IPA with dank hop and bitter finish. Pleasant drinking beer and the best thing I tasted here. 3.75
- Rye Baltic Porter: Pretty light in color for a Baltic porter. Strong flavors of roast malt and bitter zip of rye fight a bit for dominance in the beer. There is some lager yeast character to it which adds interest and keeps it closer to style. Seems a bit thin due to the astringent roast malt and the rye. 3.75
Overall, sharing with our group of 4 people, only two of these small samples were finished–the IPA and the Baltic Porter. Some of the beers had notable flaws and many were just “not quite right” by my standards. That raspberry wheat was a travesty that had me chanting “Kill it! Kill it with fire!!!”
I try not to be mean spirited in my write-ups of breweries, but I also pride myself on being honest with both my readers and myself. When I come across breweries that are having problems I need to talk about it. I feel like Gull Dam has some issues. I have had a few of their beers at festivals over the past few years and have been hoping that they will improve with some age and seasoning, holding me off on reviewing them until they are now over 2 years old. We had great service so I can’t fault that aspect. However, the taproom just seemed a little souless and utilitatian, not evoking the grandeur of the front of the building (that we couldn’t access at all). I didn’t see many folks who looked like locals (they were all at Big Axe apparently) as this place seemed to be attracting the weekenders that might not know any better. I know that Gull Dam has been through a few brewers, but these beers just aren’t that good overall and really need to be improved if they want to compete in the increasingly competitive local craft beer market. I’m sure they pack this place on summer weekends, but in order to take advantage of their enormous 20 barrel brewhouse, they will need to expand production and improve consistency.
Big Axe Brewing Co.
Big Axe Brewing is the newcomer to the area, opening just 2 years ago this May, and this is the first time I’ve been able to try their beers. They’re located right in the historic and quaint downtown area of Nisswa, which I wish had still open for business at the hour we arrived. Small town Midwest at it’s most American! Sunset was nearly over, leaving a dull red glow on the horizon behind the brewery. The air was warm but rapidly cooling with the dropping light. Big Axe is in an old restaurant/cafe building that goes back possibly to the 1940’s, and fits in with the atmosphere of the surroundings. A now empty deck provided plenty of seating outside the shop. They have a small restaurant taking up about a third of the square footage of the small building, featuring salads, sandwiches, and burgers. They were just cleaning up and closing down this area of the brewery as we arrived, so I can’t review the food here, but sources tell me it’s pretty good.
Walking through the dining area, we came upon the bar area–narrow and lilliputian, this area is both tight and cozy at the same time. The small wooden bar was pretty much filled with locals, enjoying a few pints at the end of a fine early summer day. We could see the very tiny brew system and fermenters off to the side of the bar, and frankly I wondered if they have elves or leprechauns doing the brewing here due to the crazy tight quarters in there! At one point we saw someone climb down a ladder from the attic and questioned wether he might have just been feeding said little-folk helpers after a long day shift. Hey this was the fourth brewery of the day and that’s how my mind works. Scattered around the place (bathrooms and such) one could see some of the cool stylized artwork for some of the flagship beers. This artwork and the brewery logo (reminicent of the classic duck-rabbit) were done by St. Paul artist Joe Anderson.
For being such a small and fairly new brewery, they had a lot of beers to choose from. I ordered two samplers so I could try most everything, and still missed one or two! They had a preponderance of IPA to choose from, so why not try them all?
- Vienna Lager: Aroma of appropriate sweet malt. This beer is smooth, slightly sweet, with a crisp finish. Very good lager yeast character and balance. I’m always impressed when a small brewery can put out a good lager. 4
- Maibock: Aroma has a hint of butter to it and malt–coming off like toffee. Flavor is malty, and I pick up that diacetyl butter just a bit. Finish is hoppy. Mild fermentation issue on this one but good base recipe I think. Take some pointers from #1! 3
- Cherry Sour: This one was the surprise hit of the set! Tart cherry aroma and flavor up the wazoo. Mild sourness, hints of cherry skin and almond-like pit flavor. Easy drinking and entry level sour, but complex and well crafted. Duchess meet your match! 4
- Splinter Cat IPA: Hoppy aroma–possible Cascade/Centennial. Flavor is a bit sweet for me. Flabby to use a wine term. Not terrible, just lacks punch. 3.25
- Blood Warrior: “Come out and play-ayyyyyy!” Hazy deep gold appearance. Orange character is pleasant in aroma and flavor. Bitterness could be a bit higher, but still nice with lots of fruitiness. Seems to fit in with NE IPA trend well. 3.75
- Imperial IPA: Darker color than expected. Aroma very sweet and rock candy-like. Flavor as above. Too sweet for me, borders on cloying. I didn’t finish the sample completely. Needs more bitterness to balance, or possibly based on color this has too much specialty malt in it. 2.75
- Axe Kicker Double IPA: Great name. Strong citrus aroma. Flavor bursting with bright citrus and zippy hops. Sweet to bitter balance is very good. The best of the hoppy beers for sure. 4
- Stout: Aroma of roasted coffee and possibly a hint of lactose sugar. Flavor is roasty, light chocolate, light roast coffee. Moderate thickness on mouthfeel. Not bad. 3.75-4
Owner and brewer Chris French was kind enough to answer some questions about the place for me for this write-up. Chris grew up in Nisswa, and his parents started up the local Stonehouse Coffee and Roastery, so he’s a townie for sure! Apparently his parents owned the building that the brewery went into, and Chris felt that a local brewery with focus on quality and service would go over well in the area also. Chris had some skills as a homebrewer prior to opening the brewery, and has since hired Derek Britton (formerly of Northern Brewer and American Sky Brewing) to brew as well. They both work very closely together on recipes and process. When asked his thoughts about having two breweries in such a small town he answered, “…we feel the two breweries compliment each other and hopefully provide more reasons for people to vacation or even move to the area.”
It looks like Big Axe is already expanding production by doubling their capacity with bigger fermentation tanks and also just purchased a small canning machine. They recently released their Coffee Crypt Kicker Bourbon Aged Imperial Stout (I’m assuming made with Stonehouse coffee here) that Chris humbly felt went over pretty well. Sorry I missed that! Coming up is the Agropelter Mosaic Pale Ale that will test out that new canning machine. They hope to have a few cans available around Minnesota soon, so keep an eye out and tell me what you think! I’m most excited about an upcoming sour ale aged in a brandy barrel that should release around the 4th of July.
We were all pretty happy with this last stop on our trip. We found the beers to be overall above average and that Cherry Sour really stood out to the whole group. The clientele was very different from Gull Dam–featuring more locals there for a pint and growler fill rather than the weekend vacation crowd. Based on my visit, I’d certainly recommend checking out this little gem of a local brewery.