Throughout one’s life, there are many memorable journeys. Whether it is a job, a relationship, or in this case, the evolution of a beer palate, the destination is immaterial. However, there is an enormity of importance in the steps along the way of that journey that stick in one’s memory. As people look back at how their tastes in beer have changed over the years, it can be pleasant and nostalgic to take stock of where they started and how far they have come.
Everyone starts somewhere when it comes to beer. I remember, with a moderate level of fondness, my first encounter with the sudsy siren Busch Light. It was in a dingy basement of a college house over by the University of St. Thomas. It was Halloween and some friends and I were intrepidly going to see if we could get into a house party that we had caught wind of. Dressed to the nines as a woman of the night, complete with hollowed-coconuts to add to my hourglass figure, I was skeptical about getting into this party. I don’t know if it was my plunging neckline or their pity for my appearance, but we were let in, paid our five dollars for a cup, and headed downstairs to the keg. The warm and foamy liquid erupted boisterously from the tap thanks to the stooge who was vigorously over-pumping the keg. As soon as the beer hit my lips, I began thinking that I didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. I guess that back in those days, the main reason to drink a light domestic beer wasn’t to measure it pointedly for taste and aroma, but a necessary first step in a beer journey that has lead me to where I am today. I pondered why so many people raved about beer, and as I choked down the skunky, room-temperature libation, I realized that beer was meant to make one think. As many of the other Halloween revelers that evening, I drank my fair share of Busch Light and there were even some Zimas thrown in at the end of the night for good measure. What I wanted to know after that was where was the good beer? Why did I just pay five dollars for a cup of slightly flavored watery disappointment?
Fast forward to several years later. I was done with college and had a stable job and wanted to get more into beer. Since the Busch Light debacle, I had tried several other beers, mostly domestic, but had really not found a beer that I liked. They say that everything happens for a reason and that good things come to those who wait. I was out in South Dakota for a surprise birthday party for my in-laws and we were hanging around drinking. Someone brought out a 12-pack of beer from a brewery in Fort Collins, Colorado. I had never even heard of this brewery before and was immediately curious. This beer was only available in Colorado and its bordering states: New Belgium Fat Tire. Now, up until this point, the only craft beers I had tried were from Schell’s and Summit. I had also tried other beers and found that I tended to prefer malty over hoppy as a flavor profile. I was offered a bottle of this special beer and I immediately took a swig. Remember that scene in Fast Times at Ridgemont High when Phoebe Cates emerges slowly from the swimming pool in an aura of scintillation and desire while poured perfectly into a red bikini? Well, that was exactly the energy that had captivated my taste buds, olfactory senses and overall mainframe. This beer had flavor, depth, and had aroused my palate. I mentally teleported back to that house party in college and the Busch Light and thought that the flavor present in this bottle of Fat Tire is the reason people drink beer! This amazing example of how beer can be something that can totally blow the doors off your senses ignited a passion for finding more beer like this. I was feverish, my eyes were bugging out of my head, and then a sobering reality hit me, like a bocce ball to the crotch in an America’s Funniest Home Videos first prize submission; this beer was not available anywhere close to where I lived. I only got to try one bottle and I did my best to savor it, desperately trying to commit every taste, smell, sight and feeling to memory. Fat Tire was a revelation and was my gateway beer. It opened a floodgate of yearning to try more craft beers with unique flavors that represented different styles. I felt like Navin R. Johnson in The Jerk, if this is out there, think of how much other great beer was out there. And just like that, I was hooked.
In the summer of 2006, I visited by sister and her boyfriend in Cleveland, Ohio. My first night there we were heading out to get some dinner and my sister’s better half suggested that we try a great local brewery called Great Lakes Brewing Company. I was excited because I had never before been to a brewery. I had consumed a fair amount of beer, but still considered myself a craft beer novice. My beers of choice at that time were Blue Moon, Schell’s, Summit and any random thing that a friend brought over. I thought that it was pretty interesting that a brewery would also have its own restaurant. What I noticed immediately was that there were many things on the menu that paired well with beer. I thought this curious because up until that point, I thought beer was only used to boil brats before throwing them on the grill. Then I began looking at the menu and I became intrigued; there were eight different beers on tap all brewed on site! I felt like I had to try them all so I ordered the entire list that came in the form of five ounce samples of each beer. It ran the gamut from things I was familiar with, to styles I had never even heard of before. If the New Belgium Fat Tire was my gateway beer, this was my craft beer enlightenment! As I worked my way down the list, it was like sensory whack-a-mole, hoppy, earthy, malty, citrusy, and many more flavors and textures. However, there was one that stood out to me above all the rest and cemented itself as one of my forever favorites; the Edmund Fitzgerald Porter. This beer had everything I had been looking for in a malt-forward beer. It was dark, smooth, roasty and malty. I felt like I had died and gone to palate heaven. I remember thinking that it was the perfect level of heaviness for me. As we walked out of the brewpub, I remember thinking to myself that it would be so incredible if they could ever get something like this in MN. It was maybe 2 years later when I was strolling down the aisle at Big Top Liquors on University and Snelling that I saw an endcap display with that recognizable ship in the fog, the Edmund Fitzgerald Porter had finally made its way to MN along with several other of the Great Lakes flagship beers. I grabbed two six packs of Edmund Fitzgerald and one sixer of Elliot Ness and headed home with a smile on my face and drool running down the side of my face,
We have all had a situation where we happen to be at the right place at the right time. I was browsing the local liquor store on a Friday night in the fall and it was shortly after I had tried, Harvest Moon, a pumpkin ale from Blue Moon Brewing Company. I was looking for another pumpkin beer to try and asked the gentleman who was working if he had anything similar to or better than the Harvest Moon. His face suddenly transformed from jovial and relaxed to paranoid and tense. He leaned in very suspiciously and asked, “Would you pay 8 dollars for the best pumpkin beer in the world?” I told him that would be great and he disappeared into the back room. At this point, I was thinking that perhaps that beer that he was about to bring out was either stolen from the same Libyans that sold Doc Brown Plutonium in Back to the Future, or the bottle came with a complementary human head and that is why the salesman was being so weird. To my relief, he brought out a 22 ounce bomber of a beer called Pumking from Southern Tier Brewing Company. I had never heard of the brewery of the beer. The next part of the transaction got very strange and he gave me some very explicit instructions for drinking the beer. He told me that I need to let the beer warm up a bit first or I might as well have flushed my money down the toilet. I should drink it out of a goblet and not just a pint glass. As he kept rambling on in a manner that bordered on hysterical, I started to wonder if this bottle would turn into a Gremlin if I didn’t take proper care of it. I paid for my beer, drove home and began the ritual of preparing to imbibe the Pumking. I found a wine glass in the cupboard that I felt would suffice for a true goblet and set it out on the counter while I watched television for a while. After about a half hour, I came back and felt like it was time. I dimmed the lights, put on some Barry White and wrote my safe-word on the back of my hand just in case I forgot it in the heat of passion. The first thing that I remember about this beer was how absolutely strong the aroma of graham cracker was as I brought it up to my nose. It was like I was about to drink a pie crust or a gingerbread man cookie. Then I took my first sip; my mind began doing somersaults and my palate sang as a myriad of flavors paraded on my tongue. I could not understand how a beer could so effectively mimic the sensation of eating pumpkin pie. This beer was so complex and unlike anything I had ever before consumed. Had I known how hard to find this beer would be, I would have bought more than one. I did not encounter this beer again for another three years. However, that flavor and memory of how much my palate was challenged by Pumking was another highlight in my journey as a beer drinker.
Every year around the holidays, one of my favorite liquor stores does an event called “Beer Geek Christmas,” which is an amazing all-day event and beer sale. They have amazing products that get released for that day and incredible beers to sample in the store. Because of my day job, I wasn’t able to get there until the tail end of things and I got there and headed downstairs to where they had a keg of Surly Five, an anniversary beer that was a wine barrel-aged sour beer. I thought that sour really didn’t seem to be an appealing flavor profile in a beer. I had never had a sour beer before and thought that I would try it and see how it went. Jumpin’ Jesus on a pogo stick, was it ever good! I really liked the tartness and funky flavors that were having a party in my mouth. The more I kept sipping it, the more I liked it. I mentioned earlier in the article that a good beer should really make you think about what you are drinking. A good beer should have your dendrites working overtime as your brain processes what you are drinking. Good beer should not just be something you drink to get drunk because far too much effort and thought went into brewing it to make it just a way to make reruns of Cagney and Lacey more tolerable. The first time I had a sour beer, I didn’t have the beer knowledge to process what I was drinking and yet I enjoyed it because it was a knee to my flavor circuit board. Now, anytime I get a chance to drink a sour beer, I jump at the opportunity and I am almost mentally transported back to my first Beer Geek Christmas, when I hopped aboard the sour beer train.
At Beerploma, we do our best to bring you the news and reviews of what is happening on the local Minnesota beer scene. However, whenever I get the chance, I like to take a beercation to a place with a thriving craft beer scene. Last spring, I spent 10 days tasting my way through 26 different breweries in Colorado. I drank stellar examples of every beer style under the sun out there and was able to check many craft beers off of my bucket list. When most people think Fort Collins, Colorado, they think of the bigger breweries there like Odell and New Belgium, but there was are many up and comers that are etching out their own territory out in the land of craft beer immortality. Funkwerks Inc., is a smaller brewery in Fort Collins, CO that brews mainly Saisons and Belgian-style beers. The beer I had at Funkwerks Inc. that forever changed how I thought about beer was their Belgian Stout. It was a drinking experience that I will never forget because, in one beer, they were able to include everything I love from two completely different beer styles. It smelled like peanut brittle and had a tremendous roasted malt character. Then, in the next split second I was enjoying the distinct yeast properties that are associated with Belgian beers. Maybe you are thinking, “Wait, I have never heard of that style!” and you are hitting on why I love craft beer in this country. There are style guidelines, and in a lot of other places in the world like Germany or Belgium, these style guidelines are ironclad and never deviated from for fear of violating hundreds of years of tradi
tion. Funkwerks Inc. is a great brewery because they brew mostly one style that has been around for hundreds of years and their representations of that style or spot-on. However, it is also their ability to play in the beer recipe sandbox and use creativity to create things that are not commonplace. The Funkwerks Belgian Stout rounds out my list of five beers that have helped me evolve as a beer drinker.
In the US, brewers are not just brewing, they are innovating and trailblazing. They are constantly forging new paths and stepping outside of the style guide boundaries to see what amazing mouth-feels and flavors they can wow our palates with. We are seeing the golden age of craft beer evolve before our very eyes. What will the national craft beer scene be like in five years? What new styles will be created and what old styles will be brought back? Only time will tell. One thing is certain, craft beer will continue to make us think and push the boundaries of taste and style.