Beer During Covid Times
It has been a while since I’ve written anything for Beerploma.com. I tend to write when I’m feeling happy and want to share my enthusiasm for craft beer, but recently–like the rest of the country–I’ve been feeling less than stellar. I usually visit 2-5 breweries a week this time of year, more if I take a special trip to do so. This year I’ve been hunkering close to home and sticking with mostly places I know and love, trying to support some of my favorites during this dark time for the restaurant and service industry. Many Minnesota breweries have been struggling during this time, trying to find ways to remain in business and to conform to the state guidelines. I felt it would be interesting to write a little about our experiences at a few of these local taprooms.
My wife, Sarajo, and I love to visit taprooms. We like old favorites as well as trying new places. With the opening up of taprooms again, we feel like we should be back to our forays across the state, but at the same time don’t feel like doing this at all. Why the dichotomy? First off, I’m a physician, and have very real concerns and fears about being in public and exposing ourselves to potential Covid 19. Secondly, I’m more likely to be exposed at work and want to protect others that might come into contact with me. For Sj, and myself, the few places we’ve been willing to visit have good policies in place in order to make the experience as safe as possible. Others, who seem to pay lip service to the rules, are quite low on our list of places to visit. Luckily, we’ve seen less of this in craft breweries, but more in bars and pubs.
Town Hall Family
Town Hall Brewery and Town Hall Station. Long time readers of my best-of lists will know that Town Hall falls into my top 2 Minnesota breweries nearly every year. Being a brewpub, they were hit hard with the shut down and have been unable to distribute their beer in liquor stores. They did manage to get the ability to sell crowlers at their offshoot sites like Town Hall Station and Town Hall Tap, which at least helped a little. Town Hall was the first brewpub (or any restaurant) Sj and I ate at after things opened up. They have a nice patio, with a strong reservation policy, as well as mask-up order in the building (even before the state mandate). We’ve been back a few times since this made us very comfortable. I’m still not in a personal place where I feel comfortable eating inside a restaurant. When Minneapolis went with a close-down of across the bar sales, Town Hall Station was quick to institute these amazing busts to both advertise and stop people from sitting at the bar. Smart!
Steel Toe Brewing in St. Louis Park is one of my favorites. They have opened their outside patio up by adding part of the parking lot, and work on a first-come basis for seating. I’m less of a fan of this as opposed to reservations, since we drive in from Waconia and don’t want to drive all the way into town and be turned away or have a long wait. Our visit to Steel Toe was still very easy, with only a few minutes wait until someone else left. The poor server taking orders and doing seating at the front of the patio was also in charge of cleaning tables, sanitizing drink menus, etc. They were having you buy beers when you checked in, giving you a ticket, and then filling them inside (with mask). With the recent across the bar mandate, I’m guessing this has changed. Our time here was nice, relaxed, quiet. Almost too quiet! With social distanced tables and smaller groups, all of these taproom visits just seem a little surreal and not quite the same as the old days.
Indeed was our first taproom to visit and set the bar high for us. With masking indoors, reservation times, and strong cleaning of tables and menus, they were ahead of the game. Using plastic cups to prevent need for cleaning glassware, and potential exposure risk, this was not quite as nice as sipping from the appropriate glassware. But I get it. We did see them allow the table behind us to stay past their reservation block since it was not busy, but when people showed up to get seating, they did roust them. Service was very polite and plenty of postings explained the policies in a fun and non-confrontational way.
Indeed also has a good humor about their signage! We have returned to the taproom since I wrote the first bit and things have changed a bit since then. They are now only able to do tableside service, but still are doing a great job of social distancing. And real glassware is back!
Indeed also has a new walk-up crowler and swag shop to limit people wandering around in the brewery!
A couple of weeks ago we stopped at Shakopee Brewhall for the first time since last winter. A group of bars/pubs like the brewhall and Turtle’s has chipped in to put up a large festival tent right in the middle to the street allowing them to have outdoor seating. There was a server just inside the brewery, checking patrons in and seating folks inside and outside. We were quickly seated out in the tent and had a beer in hand within minutes. The Helles lager was fantastic and refreshing for a day in the 80’s.
Interestingly, we noted a very different vibe in this more rural town than in our trips to Mineapolis and St. Louis Park. Very few people walking by were wearing masks, people were smoking (both tobacco and some pungent marijuana) somewhere under the tent despite signs forbidding it. Many of the locals clearly were not accustomed to wearing masks and we saw several people walk into and out of the local businesses without them, or with them dangling uselessly from their hands. There were also larger groups under the tent than the 6 people recommended–though these were other people joining previously seated groups and had not been seated that way.
Unlike other local spots, the brewhall has several signs outside and on the doors, and the staff were very good at practicing and encouraging mask use. I could tell they were fighting an uphill battle to get patrons to wear and keep on masks though.
We met some friends recently in St. Paul for an early dinner at Waldmann Brewery. We haven’t been there in a while but have always had a good experience. This was no exception. They have a very nice biergarten outside and excellent service. We had some very nice lagers (German pils and Dunkel) and some hearty German style dishes. They were enforcing masks inside the brewery and had tags on the floor for where to stand when waiting to check in (and to go to the restroom.)
And right across the alley from Waldmann is Bad Weather Brewing, so we had to go there right? They were tight on the walk-in front since they had already filled all their outside reservation spots already–on a Tuesday early evening! We were able to get a seat inside, which was the first time I’ve really had my mask off inside a taproom and made me a little wiggy. We were at a table with a lot of separation and windows were open. The outdoor drinking area is fantastic–but this place is very popular so you really should call ahead for reservations! We had another good lager here, and I’m impressed with the quality of lagers these days in Minnesota!
When picking up some mead to judge for the Valkyrie’s Horn Mead competition, we decided to stick around for a beer at Broken Clock. This was our first visit here so I have nothing to compare it to with changes due to COVID. The place was pretty busy out in the back patio space where they had a lot of plants and flowers set up as well as a mister to help with the oppressive heat.
The patio was full at the time (from reservations) so we took one of the well-spaced interior spots since there was only one other couple inside the brewery. They only had one person tending bar, and he was having a hard time keeping up with the line and growler fills. We were in no hurry though.
I had a Hazy IPA that was pretty bitter for a NE style, but not bad. Sj had a pecan brown ale that was OK but didn’t have a lot of nutty character. Overall, not our favorite visit, but times a strange. I’d like to try it again some time.
And the last of our visits was Lake Monster Brewing, where we stopped in after getting some new scratching and climbing equipment for our 3 semi-feral cats at Cat Purrniture just up the street. We did not have a reservation, but being early on a weekday they were able to seat us on the large and fairly well shaded patio area. Even before COVID this was a great patio space, they did not have to do much to change things up. Again, they did a great job with masking and seating. Ordering beer was at the bar, but across plexiglass.
Overall, it’s still nice to get out of the house and support some of the local breweries you want to stay in business. On the other hand, the experience is a little strange, reminding you of how different things are in the world. Being around other people can be nice, but has a certain element of suspicion and concern added to it. Sj and I found we tended to talk more quietly and maybe drank faster to get on our way, rather than wait around and hope someone we know happens to stop in to join us.
I know that the taprooms are hurting with being able to serve so many less people with these new measures, but appreciate the ones who are trying to emphasize safety. The ability to expand into alleys, streets, etc has been a boon to restaurants and taprooms, but we do live in Minnesota, and as Ned Stark would say, “Winter is coming.” Please support your favorite spots with take-out orders, buy crowlers, cans, shirts, etc. Keep our blossoming MN brewery business from dying on the vine come the long dark Covid winter. I’ll do my part!