Minnesota’s bitterly cold March air displayed the gnawing Polar vortex that made meteorologists cringe throughout the entire winter of 2013-14. The chill was so imposing that water droplets froze in less than a minute. Nose hairs felt like brittle icicles with every breath, while two sets of socks and thinsulate-lined gloves gave minimal comfort in the biting elements.
Just a double-day of these freezing temperatures was enough to build up a thirst for a Winter Warmer or Oatmeal Stout. Not knowing the area could be a challenge, but when invited, we eagerly accepted the opportunity to explore the local brewpub scene. We found ourselves at Granite City Food & Brewery in St. Louis Park – a brewpub which turned out to be one among a chain of 30 restaurants throughout Minnesota, North and South Dakota, Wisconsin and Illinois, Iowa, Indiana, Missouri and Michigan, Nebraska, Kansas, Ohio, and Tennessee.
In 1999, the original Granite City Brewery was founded in St. Cloud, Minnesota, by seasoned businessman and restaurateur Steven Wagenheim and brewing chemist Bill Burdick, who was the former President and owner of Sherlock’s Home Restaurant and Pub from 1989 to 2002. Beer Hunter Michael Jackson had often spoken about the talented Bill Burdick and his annual excursions to the brewpub in Minnetonka, expressing a sense of mourning when Sherlock’s Home closed its doors.
But Burdick had another idea. As Brewmaster of Granite City, he developed a trademarked and proprietary process called “Fermentus Interruptus” (an obvious and humorous tribute to yeast reproduction) to allow the cost effective and consistent brewing of wort in one central location, ensuring quality and consistency from brewpub to brewpub. From this nucleus in Ellsworth, Iowa, he could serve the needs of approximately 35 brewpubs. Decoction brewing is used for the lager styles, while infusion brewing suits the wider range of pales, IPAs, and Scottish ales. Unfinished wort is trucked to each brewpub for fermentation, filtering, and, when required for a particular style, a final dose of hops or spicing.
It may not seem terribly artisanal or romantic, but this central brewing is advantageous for purchasing malts and hops, while utilizing the best brewing methods and most sanitized conditions for the initial kick-off of each style. Signature beers are born into an ideal brewhouse, while seasonals are designed and developed by the mature palates of the central brewers. Burdick retired in 2006, leaving a solid process in place for his successors to follow.
As the Beer Fox, my curiosity was piqued, and I began asking about hops, the seasonals on tap, and filtering. Without prompting, our waitress appeared with a sampling of five signature beers, and three seasonals. Manager Jeff Langeland was on hand to introduce the beers; then gave us our own space to explore and comment among ourselves.
The Northern (Light Lager) and Bennie (German Bock) were both crisp and clean brews. While the Northern was crafted as a gateway beer for the light lager lover, Bennie has a sweet malty backbone, while remaining a bit light-bodied for the style. Granite City also serves a Two Pull combination of both lagers, designed at the request of its clientele. Although you may be tempted to call it a black and tan, the gravities of the beers are so similar that no separation of color exists in the glass as eye-candy for the drinker. It remains a crisp hybrid that goes well with pub fare and salads.
For Pale Ale enthusiasts, Duke IPA and Granite City Belgian IPA are able choices. Hopping in both are English-style, leaning on Fuggles, with a slight edge of citrus from American Cascade hops. Hop flavors are clearly not in the style of a West Coast tongue-ripper, but much gentler. Intense hopheads may want to look elsewhere to satisfy their addiction. Broad Axe Stout emerges as a malty oatmeal stout with some softness from the oats, drenched in bittersweet chocolate and a hint of nuttiness.
Aunty Freeze Winter Warmer can knock your socks off (in a good way), with its Chai Tea backbone and warm, malt-balanced base. With the Barramundi Buerre Blanc Australian whitefish and fresh asparagus, it slides in as a symphony to the tastebuds.
To accompany juicy steaks and burgers, the wicked and wonderful Oak-aged Scottish Ale hits the palate with sweetness, infused with Jim Beam whiskey. The higher alcohol is barely perceptible, as it slinks down the throat in concert with beef or cheeses. Malty, but balanced, it can also serve as a wonderful digestif at the end of a meal.
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