Recently, Jim Stroner, myself, and my wife Sarajo (Sj) took a long weekend to travel to some out-of-the-way breweries in Northern Minnesota. In this issue we will cover our trip up to the Canadian Border! Now, your results may vary on some of these places, but this is our experience on this particular trip. When I talk about beers I’ll usually give them a score of 0-5. My personal scale is a 0 is equivalent to ingesting runoff from a hog slaughterhouse, while a 5 is equal to Founders Canadian Breakfast Stout. Since I’ve got a lot of ground to cover, these will be shorter reviews. My Brewcred: I’m a BJCP National Ranked beer judge, have been homebrewing for 29 years, and have visited 123 breweries in Minnesota as of this writing.
Our first stop on our drive north from Minnetonka was Pantown Brewing in St. Cloud. Named after the local early 1900’s Pan Motor Company, this new brewery is located in a small industrial park. The place is very new, with clean lines and a wide open tap room. Walls are gray, while burned pine signs and and tabletops add interest. There is a nice looking secondary seating area upstairs, overlooking the taproom proper–making for a decent amount of seating overall. A small patio area out to the side parking lot provides some more seating options. Beers ranged from classic options like IPA and brown ale, to fruited kettle sours and milk stout. Pantown’s brewer, Nick Flies, is an alumn of Enki, Waconia Brewing, and Lynlake Brewing, but this is the first time he’s taken the reigns in a new brewery. I knew Nick before he was famous!
Despite having a very long bar to hide behind, a server (Nick) came out to our table to talk about the beers and take our order. He was very pleasant and attentive–something I’m not neccessarily used to at brewery taprooms, where most of the time you order at the bar. Bonus points for great service!
The beers were pretty good overall, especially for a new brewery. The regular 1917 IPA was a fair West Coast IPA, but a bit astringent on the finish for me (3). The Wild Thing Northeast IPA, was right on style with lots of pineapple and tropical fruit flavors (3.75). Where Pantown really shines is the kettle sours. People who know me well are aware that I tend to be a kettle sour hater, so when I say this I REALLY mean it! The Hackamore Strawberry Rhubarb sour was solid, with big rhubarb tartness and jammy strawberry to sweeten the pot (4.25). And the Bluemound Road Mulberry sour was equally fascinating with a lot of fruit flavors (4). Sj and Jim both liked the Bluemound more than the Hackamore, but we all agreed these were really good examples of fruited sours. Overall a good place to visit when in (or through) St. Cloud. Keep up the good work Nick!
Our second stop was also in St. Cloud: Beaver island Brewing. I’ve been here 3 times now, and each time have a great experience. The beers are very good here, and they have won a couple of GABF medals for lagers. Featured below are the wonderful Octoberfest (4.25) and the spot-on Check Pils (4.25 better than most we had in the Czech Republic last year).
Our next stop was in Baxter, near Brainerd. The last time we all visited Jack Pine was the opening day celebration of their current (then new) location. That time the place was a crazy zoo, so it was nice to have a relaxing drink on the patio on a beautiful Thursday afternoon. I’ve covered Jack Pine in the past so I won’t go too much into detail here. Suffice it to say that I contributed a small amount to Patrick’s original Kickstarter for the original brewery based on my knowledge of his homebrewing skills. See I knew him before he was famous too!
We tasted through two samplers of beer here, all of which were very good. The favorite among all of us was the Jacktober (Octoberfest style) which Jim and I gave a 4.25. This is also the first time we had tried the infamous Neon Pink cotton candy cream ale–which tasted exactly like it sounds. This beer is not something I want a lot of, but is one of the most unique beers I’ve had (4). And then the perennial favorite of ours (and GABF winner) was Vengeance! the spicy jalepeno cream ale (4.25). I went home with crowlers of Vengeance! and Jacktober for later.
We next drove to Nisswa where we had planned on having dinner at Big Axe Brewing, but the kitchen had just closed down (an hour prior to what their website said) so we let it go and went down the road to a new restaurant and beer bar the Main Street Ale House. The food was good and the beer list very well curated. By this time it was getting late and we needed to drive another hour or more up to Jim’s cabin in Remer for the night.
The next day after some canoing and a good breakfast and lunch we headed out for our next small town brewery.
Our next visit was Klockow Brewing in Grand Rapids. This was my first time in Grand Rapids (MN) and at the brewery. The brewery was opened at the tail end of 2017 by Andy and Tasha Klockow. Andy had been a homebrewer and then worked brewing with Hammerheart for 3 years prior to opening the brewery.
The brewery sits under the shadow of the city water tower–this helps with navigating toward it! There is plenty of parking available as well, which can always be problematic in the Twin Cities breweries. There is a huge mural along one wall, lots of wooden tables, a couch, and large stage. The bar itself is pretty small and mostly for serving beers and not sitting at. The tap handles were pretty unique as well. Our beertender was pretty funny and entertaining, while pouring us some drinks.
The Supply Line hazy IPA was really nice and citrusy on the aroma, but the finish was pretty astringent and hard to get the flavor off the tongue–I’m guessing this is related to water (3). The Song of Susannah DIPA (Stephen King reference?) was a bit too boozy and a bit like burn oranges on the finish, but still fair (3.25). The best of the beers for our group was the Smoked Chocolate Stout–something that would be right at home back at Hammerheart! This one had plenty of smoke in the aroma and flavor, with bitter dark chocolate on the finish (4). Overall the beers were good and without major flaws, averaging in the 3 to 3.75 range for us. I’d certainly come back if I was in town, and some of the locals certainly seem to enjoy the place!
Our final destination for the evening was International Falls, home of some of the coldest temperatures in Minnesota! Once checked into our hotel (a suite with a large jacuzzi in the main room and a musty smell), we headed out in search of food. We ended up in the nearby town of Ranier at the Rainy Lake Grill. This was a cute little restaurant with a couple of decent beers in cans and one on tap (Oscar Blues Little Yella Pils), and a fantastic prime rib sandwich. I recommend the place.
From here we took a field trip to the edge of Voyageur’s National Park, just about 15-20 minutes by car. We passed so many deer in the road, next to the road, walking across the road. We probably saw 20 or more deer in just that drive! We took a few shots of the end of sunset and then had to drive back in even darker conditions–with even more deer to dodge! Let me tell you, I was ready for a drink after that white knuckle death-driving!
Right across the street from the Rainy Lake Grill, as well as an under-construction distillery, is yet another small town Minnesota brewery: Loony’s Brew. This is a small building just a bit back from Rainy Lake, with a good view of the lake from the small patio. By the time we got there it was dark out so we didn’t really have a view. A fellow was playing guitar for a small crowd of people just outside the main entrance to the bar. We could see the very small (1 barrel?) brew system through some windows near the front of the building.
Once inside, the place had loud music playing, and lots of boisterous locals drinking mostly macro lagers and talk/shouting loudly to be heard. The bar is ecclectic with kitchy wall hangings, quotes printed on curling paper tacked to the walls, and a tiny one-man sized stage with a bunch of guitars on the wall behind it. This has the feel of a beat-up old fashioned drinking-man’s bar in a small town–not a typical brewery.
Our server was very nice, but had lost her voice, so hearing and communicating over the din was difficult to say the least. We bought 2 samplers of beer so we could try it all. We found a small table out on the patio where it was quieter, so we could try out the plethora of beer options. We were excited since they had a wee heavy and two barley wines on tap–who does that?
For those who think I’m too Minnesota Nice about my brewery reviews these days: pay attention here. The beers at Loony’s Brew were frankly a colossal mess. Every single one of these was undrinkable. The light lager was probably the best of them, but had serious issues–tasting more like a Woodchuck Granny Smith cider than a lager. The porter was so metallic that it felt like I had been gargling a mouthful of corroded pennies in my mouth. The 15.5% Maple Syrup Barleywine was inadvertantly sour, heavy notes of Brettanomyces and funk overwhelmed even the overly sweet and underattenuated finish. One tasted so strongly of soap that I felt like someone had squirted some Dawn in with the wort when starting this beer out.
I feel bad, and like to be positive about the breweries I visit, but these beers were terrible. Between the three of us we couldn’t finish a single one of them–Jim pouring them cautiously over the railing behind us to hide our shame from the earnest server inside when we returned the (now empty) taster paddles. Normally I try to focus on one issue a brewery has and see if I can help them to improve, but we literally tasted through 9 beers that ranged through virtually every off-flavor in the BJCP tasting guide. I presume that sanitation is probably the biggest offender here, but honestly, I don’t know how this array of disaster could happen. This is hands down the worst beer I have paid for at a commercial brewery and would not recommend it.
Having “finished” our beers, we drove back to our hotel and played some board games (Red Dragon Inn) and drank some good beers we had brought with us for just such and emergency.
Coming Up next time: Lake of the Woods, Disgruntled, Drastic Measures, Cuyuna