Recently Dan Beaubien and I (and my wife Sarajo of course) were invited to the press soft opening of one of the newest Twin Cities breweries: Barrel Theory Beer Company. Located in Lowertown St. Paul, sharing a wall with Dark Horse Bar & Eatery, the brewery and taproom take up the ground and basement floor of an old building that at one point was a magic shop. The Lowertown area is starting to look a little like a proto-Nordeast area for breweries with nearby Tin Whiskers celebrating 3 years in the area and the upcoming 12welve Eyes and Culhane Brewing set to open before too long.
Lindsay Abraham, Brett Splinter, Tim Johnson, and Todd Tibesar are minds behind the beer and taproom at Barrel Theory. These are not just glorified homebrewers throwing caution to the wind. Their pedigree is buttressed with industry experience at one of the larger local breweries in MN. They cut their teeth at Surly Brewing Company and learned the importance of consistency of process and sanitation. They all learned a ton from then Surly Head Brewer Todd Haug. Lindsay Abraham has years of experience that include time at Surly and Four Firkins. She has expertise on both sides of the beer world and that will undoubtedly serve her well in her role as taproom manager. Amidst a plethora of brewing lessons learned, the idea of passing the torch of knowledge is something that Brett wants to carry on with his staff. He mentioned the other day that one of his employees expressed interest in working in the brewhouse. Brett said that he is happy to teach him the ropes and help him learn as much as he wants. I believe it is this type of attitude and culture that will cultivate creativity and quality at Barrel Theory.
Barrel Theory’s Brewhouse & Cellar
Barrel Theory is using a 10 barrel Craftwerk 2 vessel system designed specifically to fit their space. At this time they have four 10 barrel fermenters and two 20barrel fermentors and not much room to expand beyond that. This set size and production is in line with their plan to provide beer locally in the taproom and potentially nearby environs, rather than packaging and distributing.
Downstairs we discovered catacombs made up of several types of antediluvian limestone and thick beams from the upstairs of the building and new Douglas fir. They have space for over 100 barrels down there and plan to use wine, whiskey and virgin oak for future projects. I mean–barrel is in the name right? Now my biggest question is “What ancient tomb or treasure trove lurks behind that old bricked up passageway down in that basement?” And how can you work alone down there without getting the shivery creeps?
Upstairs in the taproom, the ceilings are high, the walls are corrugated metal, and reclaimed wood from the upper levels abounds. The bartop is a shimmery work of art. Overall, the taproom has a pleasant and comfortable feel without being industrial and stark. The place isn’t very large so they may fill up pretty easy once things get rolling for them. They plan to have a pass-through to Dark Horse so food can be ordered inside the taproom–now that is a match made in heaven!
One thing I really like about the beer serving at Barrel Theory is the proper sized glassware. They use English style 20 oz glasses for the 16 oz pour so one gets the full 16 oz of beer with room for the right sized head. They do the same with the 10 oz pours by serving in a 12 oz tulip glass. It is a small thing, but sets them ahead of pretty much everyone who serves beer in a shaker pint. The devil is in the details right?
Shall we talk beer? First off, I want to say that I have a self-imposed rule of not reviewing places until they’ve been open for at least 6-12 months. That being said, I’m starting to notice a bump in starting quality of local breweries in the past year and hope this is a continued trend as we move forward. I feel that Barrel Theory is starting out with a very strong line-up of beers and are worthy of praise even this early on. I rate my beers on a 0-5 scale with 0 being Swamp Thing’s yeasty undies, 3 being an average beer I’d drink a pint of, and 5 causing heavenly choirs and swooping angels.
- Key Sublime: A Berliner style sour beer with fresh squeezed key limes, bourbon vanilla, and Vietnamese cinnamon. I’m not a huge kettle sour/Berliner fan overall, but this may be one of the best I’ve had. The fresh key lime really bumps up the acidity and makes this a refreshing, tart complex beer. The cinnamon and the vanilla give the impression of crust to take this to the next level. 4.25
- Rain Drops: A Northeast IPA using Citra and Mosaic hops. Aroma is filled with amazing mango, grapefruit juice, and mandarin oranges. This is hazy, bordering on murky, with a huge white head. Flavors of intense grapefruit, mango and orange rind. Slight alcohol bite. This is dare I say “juicy?” Bitterness is a bit high for the NE style, but leads to a more dry finish that makes this easy to drink. Dan closed his eyes and remarked that he felt he was back at the Trillium Brewing Co. taproom. A really fantastic beer. 4.5
- Batch 1: The first beer brewed by Barrel Theory, this is a West Coast IPA. We tried this at the same time as Rain Drops to get a good view of the differences between style. This was still slightly hazy but not as much as Rain Drops. More classic west coast hopping of Simcoe, Amarillo, and Columbus hops lead to grapefruit rind and pine tree aroma. Flavor starts with a burst of grapefruit and orange rind (with pith) that quickly burns out to a bitter almost astringent finish. A bit thin on body. I still like this one, but my money is on the Rain Drops. 3.75
- Java Oats: A brown ale/porter with coffee. Coffee is quite strong in this one, but enough body and residual sweetness evens out the astringency of the coffee to make a well balanced beer. If you don’t like coffee you won’t like this beer! 4
- Melon Reasons: This was a preliminary taste of the special Pride Dabbler beer. A version of their base Berliner with rhubarb and strawberry. I hate watermelon. With a purple passion. Yet I have strangely always loved watermelon Jolly Ranchers. This beer tastes like one of those and in a non-artificial way. This is the best watermelon beer I’ve ever had hands down. 4.5
Overall, I think these beers are stellar, especially how young this brewery is. I shouldn’t probably be surprised based on the training of the folks involved. The taproom is comfy and the building is cool. I’m really looking forward to when they get their barrel program up and running (first batch of RIS may already be aging in whiskey barrels as I write this) but wish I didn’t live an hour away!
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