Monday, May 8, 2017

Northern Ale Guide, Stop 12 - Wenonah Brewing Company

Stamp Number 12: Wenonah Brewing Company, 4065 Sixth Street, Goodview, MN


After traveling north along the Minnesota-Wisconsin border to check out some sites along the St. Croix River for Nicci's birthday, we all had the next day off as well, so we thought we'd head south down the border, on historic Highway 61 along the Mississippi. Our end destination was Winona, home to one of the out-of-the-way locations in our taproom passport, but in between, we stopped to see some eagles.

Now it's pretty easy to see eagles flying along Mississippi River bluffs in southeastern Minnesota - virtually every time we rounded a corner, we saw another eagle or two soaring on the currents. But we weren't going to see eagles flying; we wanted to see them up close.

From left: Aric, Abby, eagle. Yes, the
eagle had large talons. 
The National Eagle Center allows you to do just that. We walked into a room where we were no more than five feet away from four birds, all of whom were too injured (or blind) to be released into the wild. And it's hard to state just how large eagles are until you're face-to-face with them with nothing between the two of you but a short railing. They looked like they could lift up Abby and fly away with her with no issues. Except these birds couldn't fly. They liked talking to each other, though.

But enough about eagles. This is a blog about beer. And once we took the kids to their fun activity, it was time to let the adults have their fun, so we went down to knock off the next stamp in our passport.

Wenonah Brewing Company doesn't spell its name the same way as the city of Winona, which is probably fine because it's a few blocks outside of Winona in the suburb(?) of Goodview. To make things even more confusing, Wenonah is on 6th Street in Goodview, which turns into 5th Street once you've gone too far and crossed the city border into Winona. It's also located in what has to be a former gas station, giving a picture-perfect definition of what makes something a microbrewery.

Proof of visiting Wenonah Brewing. Pictured is their
Simple F****** Golden Ale. I think the F****** stands for
"falafel," but I forgot to ask to make sure.
It's not easy to spot Wenonah Brewing, even with driving directions, but it's worth it if you like your taprooms small and simple. Inside there's a small stage for a musician, a few chairs and tables, and a six-seat bar. And there's no reason to stare at the menu with apprehension, as they only serve three beers. Might as well just try them all.

This is a place to come relax after work, chat with the bartender about the Twins or whatever else. The kids liked it because they had a giant chalkboard at their disposal; I was happy because I snagged the only couch in the place. Nicci was happy because the beer was good, and because it was a great way to celebrate her birthweek.

After leaving Wenonah, we went to Winona to try Island City Brewing. Though not in our passport, that place was more like what you expect from a taproom - long tables down the middle encouraging large groups, spots at the bar and along the side for those feeling less outgoing, and plenty of menus spread around for local food places. We flashed back to our college days and ordered from Toppers, ordered a High Forest red for me and a Moonlight White weisse for Nicci, and tried to figure out why Winona calls itself the Island City when it is not an island.

It was fun driving down the river to see eagles and drink beer. It was not fun driving back on the Wisconsin side and getting pulled over within two minutes, and then later avoiding a collision with a deer by less than a foot. So if you're gonna follow in our footsteps, go to Wenonah in Goodview and Island City in Winona and skip those other things.

I admittedly didn't major in geography, but that doesn't look like an island to me.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Northern Ale Guide, Stop 11 - Lift Bridge Brewing

Stamp Number 11: Lift Bridge Brewing Company, 1900 Tower Drive W, Stillwater

On a bluff in Interstate State Park, with the St. Croix River and
Wisconsin behind us. I screwed up my knee carrying Abby up and
down that trail, but it was only temporary.
Nicci's birthday was earlier this month, and it coincided with spring break for both her and the kids, so I took two midweek days off and we booked a camper cabin in the middle of nowhere and we fully planned on having a relaxing two-day mini vacation.

And then both kids threw up the couple of days before.

Naturally, we didn't want to take the kids somewhere overnight when there was a risk of further sickness, so we scrapped the cabin idea and decided to have a staycation instead. Because Nicci still wanted a camping-like birthday, we headed up to Taylors Falls and took her favorite hiking trail at Interstate State Park. With the huge river bluffs and the fascinating pothole trail, Interstate is a must-see park, and we all had a lot of fun.

We also got very thirsty.

Lift Bridge was just down the road in Stillwater, and because it was a stamp in our passport and beer we had previously tried and liked, it was an easy decision to head down that way. On our way, we passed Maple Island Brewing, and figured we'd stop in. Unlike Lift Bridge, you can actually see the Stillwater lift bridge from Maple Island. It's right on Main Street, with a huge deck facing the river, so it's going to be a very popular place when Twin Citians return to Stillwater in the summer like the salmon of capistrano. It's a good thing they have a huge interior space and almost a dozen beer choices. Because Minnesotans can't avoid Stillwater in the summer, people will go there, and they'll enjoy it.

We left the lift bridge to go to Lift Bridge, our original destination, and I was surprised at how small it was in their taproom. We've been drinking Lift Bridge forever - I think their Farm Girl is Nicci's single favorite beer - so it seemed odd to me that their taproom seemed almost like an afterthought. Well, maybe afterthought is a bad word, because it was really well done in there. It's just obvious that they've focused on distribution more than their room. But it's still worth going to. And the bonus is that you don't have to go into downtown Stillwater to get there. You'll stay within a stone's throw of Highway 36 without ever having to deal with the potential chaos that is Main Street.

After Lift Bridge, our trip to Taylors Falls and Stillwater was done, but we weren't done exploring the rivers along Minnesota's eastern border. The next day, we headed south along the Mississippi to hit the next taproom on our list...

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Northern Ale Guide, Stop 10 - Bad Weather Brewing

Stamp Number 10: Bad Weather Brewing, 414 7th St. West, St. Paul

Along St. Paul's most well-known street, at the base of the High Bridge, sits a former auto body shop. On a warm spring day, you can drive by West 7th Street in St. Paul, right at the intersection with Smith Avenue, and see the garage doors open and a lot full of cars. But nobody's changing any tires. Instead, they're enjoying the first nice weekend after a winter full of bad weather.

Nicci fired me from taking photos
for my own blog. She took this one
at Bad Weather. It shows our kids,
the outdoor patio, and the Irish
Cream Ale (left) and Migration.
It's a better picture than I would
have taken.
Bad Weather Brewery couldn't have picked a better location when they moved away from the space they shared with Lucid Brewing a few years ago. Located halfway between the former Schmidt Brewery and the Xcel Energy Center, Bad Weather is right on the edge of downtown St. Paul, and they have used the space provided them perfectly. The overhead doors that used to let cars in for repairs can now open up to provide access to the patio. What used to be the tire show room and sales floor is now a nearly separate room where people can hold their parties and get a semblance of privacy. The main bar area is longer than you normally see at a taproom, giving people the feel of a traditional bar, right down to the arcade games that have been rigged to be permanently playable.

The only real complaint about Bad Weather is the parking. It doesn't take much to fill the parking on their triangular lot, so street parking is often the only option. And since the brewery is close enough to Xcel that somebody could reasonably park there on their way to a Wild playoff game concert, the street parking can fill up fast. We tried twice during the winter to go to Bad Weather and cross off another stamp from the passport but gave up when we couldn't find someplace to park quickly enough.

It was a little unexpected, then, when we went on the first nice weekend of spring and found parking on the street right outside the front door. We walked through the patio, which was filled with dogs and people playing bags, and waited longer than normal to get our beers. But it was spring in Minnesota, and the garage doors were open, so there was nothing wrong with waiting a little while extra. The food truck sold burgers and was tempting, but we already had dinner plans.

If you go, the Migration Blond Ale and Windvane Red IPA are the popular drinks; I also had the Irish Cream Ale, which was good, even if I didn't taste the "cream" part of the name. I'd also recommend running across the street to have dinner at DeGidios, a restaurant that is better than the more famous Mancini's just down the road. But be sure to come back to enjoy the spacious patio - I apologize in advance if my kids hit you with a bean bag - or to sneak into the party room and steal some cake when you think no one's watching.

Whether the weather is bad or good, it's worth a trip down West 7th to visit Bad Weather. 

Monday, April 10, 2017

Northern Ale Guide, Stop 9 - Bald Man Brewing

Stamp Number 9: Bald Man Brewing, 2020 Silver Bell Road, Eagan

One of the first things you notice when you walk into Bald Man Brewing – assuming you walked into the correct door, which isn’t as easy as it should be – is the giant barrels off to your right. They’re big and shiny and have the names Page, Hendrix, and Clapton written on them. Honoring those three guitar gods is Bald Man’s way of identifying their target audience: legendary guitar players bald men.

Front: Black Velvet Stout; Middle: Stamp proving
we went to Bald Man, complete with typo; Back:
Heart of Glass Blond Ale
Well, I’m not bald (at least not yet), but I am a man who likes beer. And good rock songs. And with those three names prominently displayed in their taproom, you can imagine what the music selection is in there. There isn’t a stage for live acts, mind you, but they know what to put on the radio to keep me going there.

The best part about Bald Man? The fact that it’s six miles from our house. It’s the closest taproom to us, and it’s not particularly close. That makes it the taproom that rivals Lake Monster as being our most frequently visited. But there are other reasons to keep going to Bald Man, as well. For one, we wouldn’t go back if the beer sucked. Luckily, the beer does not suck. The Heart of Glass Blondie Ale and the Tupelo Honey Brown Ale are regular go-to beers for us, and the newly released Honey Hush Kolsch is a good achievement.

From left: Abby, me and my lazy eye,
Aric, and Nicci. It was our
anniversary celebration at Bald Man.
The location is good, too. The taproom itself is in what appears to be a little-used business park, surrounded by nothing. When you’re in there, you don’t know you’re in a business park, but it’s a little disconcerting when you’re going. But it’s easy to get to, right at the intersections of Highways 13 and 77, and there’s plenty of parking, at least on the weekend when the other businesses are closed. And across Highway 13 is an outlet mall, which is what gives Bald Man such good potential: you can drop in before or after a shopping trip (or during, I guess, if you want to drop off your significant other and run).

But all those perks are bonuses to the simple fact this place is practically in our backyard. If we want to go a taproom but can't decide where, we usually end up at Bald Man. If we want to celebrate our anniversary but don't want to go through the effort to get someone to watch our kids, we end up at Bald Man. We've spent a lot of time there (enough time that when Nicci asked Abby if she wanted to get a special start-of-spring-break treat with Aric, Abby said "Yah! At Bald Man?). We'll spend a lot more time there, too. Perhaps we'll see you there sometime down the road.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Northern Ale Guide, Stop 8 - Bad Habit Brewing

Stamp Number 8: Bad Habit Brewing Company, 15 East Minnesota Street, St. Joseph

There was a beer in my hand, and a slice of greasy, gooey pizza on a paper plate in front of me, and for a moment it felt like I was back in college, hanging out late at night on Water Street in Eau Claire. Then I heard a seven-year-old call out “B6,” and there was my son, holding a peach pop, looking for my response after making another strategically poor play in Battleship. I wasn’t in college anymore.

One sign we were in a Catholic college town. Another was
the monastery right across the street. 
But I was in a college town, drinking in a taproom, wondering why there weren’t more of these in places like this. Beer plus college kids just makes sense, even if the college in question is a Catholic one. 

You can’t get to Bad Habit in St. Joseph without driving past the College of St. Benedict, and you shouldn’t visit any Blazers(1) without stopping by Bad Habit. There isn’t much to the taproom – it was by far the smallest room of the ones we’ve hit so far – but it’s worth the stop if you’re in the area, or just driving past on I-94. And while the majority of the taproom’s customers are college-aged, there were plenty of people in there like us, making a stop while on their way to their final weekend destination. I showed off the passport to one such guy sitting at the bar and got plenty of suggestions for where to go next. If a Northern Ale Guide was ordered online sometime last weekend, I think I deserve a cut of that sale.

Abby and Aric enjoying their peach pop.
I had the Irish Red and the Belgian Dubbel (because I apparently like to identify my beers with a specific European country), and both were well done. I was jealous of Nicci’s IPA, which had only a hint of the traditional flavor you’d expect from an IPA and was otherwise very easy to drink. (Note: there are two IPAs listed on Bad Habit's website, but neither one was the one Nicci had. I don't remember what hers was called, because I'm a bad blogger. Maybe that was a seasonal thing.) Even the “kid pop” was good – I would have had no problem drinking that if I didn’t want beer, and the kids destroyed theirs and looked for seconds.

Also good, and just as important, was the food. Bad Habit doesn’t make their own, but they have takeout menus from area restaurants, all of which are either in the same building or just around the block. We picked the pizza that looked the greasiest, and we weren’t disappointed. Picture the hole-in-the-wall pizza place you ordered from at 1:00 in the morning on a Saturday in college, and that’s the pizza we got. It’s a scientific fact that grease and beer work best together; as an added bonus, the delivery guy brought it right to our table.

We could have stayed at Bad Habit for a while, but we had to get going. Alexandria was calling, and we promised the kids a trip to the waterpark. Of course, if we were giving the kids a waterpark visit, we were going to take a timeout to visit another taproom, so the next day we spent some time at Copper Trail, which has been open for less than a year. This was another small room, though bigger than Bad Habit. We didn’t stay long at Copper Trail – we were already exhausted, our party of nine couldn’t all sit at the same table, and the kids were far more interested in swimming in chlorine than in watching adults drink alcohol.


Copper Trail is hurt a little by being kind of out of the way; there are all sorts of touristy areas in Alexandria, but this place isn’t near any of them. It’s certainly not walkable. But they had good beer and had the nice touch of drilling cribbage holes right into the picnic tables. When in Alexandria, track them down. And make sure you hit Bad Habit on your way up there.

______

1. I had always called St. Benedict's students "Bennies," to match the rest of the MIAC schools, but apparently this was wrong. They're the Blazers. Or at least, that's what their sports teams are called.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Northern Ale Guide, Stop 7 - LynLake Brewery

Stamp Number 7: LynLake Brewery, 2934 Lyndale Avenue South, Minneapolis

Uptown has always been one of the busiest places to visit in Minneapolis. Taprooms are the trendy place to go for an afternoon or evening out. So it's no surprise there's a taproom in Uptown. Also, because it's Uptown, the taproom isn't in an abandoned warehouse like so many others are, but rather in a historic theater.

The marque in front of LynLake, advertising that the building
is not, in fact, a movie theater. Blatantly stolen from their
website via screencap.
The taproom in question is called LynLake, named because it's located at the intersection of Lyndale and Lake in the heart of Uptown. It's located in the former Lyndale Theater. I don't know anything about the Lyndale Theater, except that it's NOT the Uptown Theater (where I saw an advance screening of The Blair Witch Project before people started realizing it wasn't actually a documentary) or the Lagoon Theater (where Nicci and I randomly saw Juno one summer night in the early days of our relationship).

Here's the thing about LynLake: I don't think we gave it a fair shake. They advertise an amazing-looking rooftop patio ... but the patio was closed for winter. They're located in a very cool old theater ... but we made no attempt to tour it. They're in an always-hopping neighborhood ... but we didn't make any other stops in the area.

Part of that was circumstances. We had our kids with us, and Uptown isn't a neighborhood for kids. The only spots available were at the bar at the window, which gave us great views, but wasn't ideal for the kids since they had to sit in tall chairs. And our son accidentally knocked a glass over and it shattered, which really killed the mood for us.

Another problem with LynLake was that it was our second taproom of the day, after we first visited the newly opened Utepils a few miles away. And Utepils might just be our favorite taproom.

There's no exaggeration here; I asked Nicci if she wanted to say anything about Utepils, and her response was "14 heart-eyed emojis." (She didn't text me a bunch of emoji; she actually said the words "14 heart-eyed emojis.")

Utepils is Norwegian for "cold beer," but they specialize in all the German-style flavors you could ask for. We tried a pilsner, an altbier, a hefeweisen, and k├Âlsch, and all of them were great. The interior of the place was designed to look like a German beer garden, and they nailed it; large windows make it seem like you're sitting outside even if you're not. There's also a large outdoor space that will eventually become a beer garden.

A view of the Utepils taproom, blatantly stolen via screencap from their website.
I didn't bother trying to remove the words.
We're going to go back to Utepils, probably multiple times if Nicci has any say over the matter. The kids were fine there, but we were lucky to grab a low table. Many of the tables were higher up, and I wouldn't want to have them sitting there, as I'd spend more time making sure they don't fall out of their chair or pull a "LynLake" rather than actually enjoying myself. But as far as a combination of good beer and good atmosphere, it'll be hard to beat Utepils.

As far as going back to LynLake, I'd like to go back in the summer time to get a better feel for the building and the area. But then again, I kind of hate Uptown, so it might be awhile before we end up back there.

......

So the next taproom I'm going to write about is ... to be determined. I've caught up to all the ones we've seen so far. We're going to at least one more this weekend, so I'll have something to write about next week. In the meantime, I'll either write about ones that we've been to in the past, or I'll do nothing. We'll see what choice wins.


Saturday, March 18, 2017

Northern Ale Guide, Stop 6 - Lake Monster Brewing

Stamp Number 6: Lake Monster Brewing, 550 Vandalia Street, St. Paul


The Lake Monster water tower
from below. It doubles as a handy
landmark when trying to find
the place among the warehouses
and train tracks.
The following exchange is an actual conversation we've had with our kids, more than once:

Parent: "Hey kids, what do you want to do today?"
Kid(s): "Go to Lake Monster!!"

And that's it. Nicci and I have succeeded as parents. We ask our kids what they want to do prepared to do anything - go for a nature walk, take them to the zoo, go to a movie, whatever. And, more than once, they have picked going to Lake Monster.

It makes sense, though. The brewery has a huge open courtyard for them to play in, dominated by an abandoned water tower. There's tons of open space for them to run in any direction, and nobody really cares if you let them go. For when it's too cold to use the courtyard, Lake Monster has a dedicated kids area with all sorts of toys, so we don't have to throw the normal board games at them. I honestly think they'd sit there all day if we'd let them.

Us grownups could sit there all day, too. Whatever you want from your taproom atmosphere, Lake Monster has it: a nice public outside seating area, an area to still be outside but away from the crowd, and a truly bar-like inside atmosphere. 

And I don't think we've ever gone to Lake Monster without there being a food truck in the parking lot. We've seen craft fairs set up in the courtyard. We've seen adult birthday parties (my own) and kid birthday parties (not our own). We've seen people inexplicably sneak in some Coors Light in their backpack, because some people don't deserve nice things.

Oh, and the beer is good, too. That's kind of important, I guess. I've liked most of the beers I've had there, and we've been there enough that I've had most of them. The Calhoun Claw is probably what they'd call their flagship beer, and it's one of their best, but the Beastie Bock and Irish Red are good too.

Lake Monster is everything you'd want in a relaxing day out. If you haven't gone to a taproom, this would be a good place to start. And when you go, give us a call ... as long as you don't mind us dragging our kids along with us.