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For those of us with prior responsibilities, Midwest Gaming Classic was not an option. What could be more tempting than a room full of free pinball? Craft beer, of course! While many of you were traipsing around the Milwaukee area soaking in all things geek, I went to the 2nd annual Firkin Fest beer festival at the Happy Gnome in St. Paul on March 21st, accompanied by my wife and sister-in-law. I even brought my camera this time!
The first thing one has to think about when going to a beer festival is getting home. So we rode the bus there, ensuring we would be extra hungry for the event by getting a contact high at the second stop. We also arranged for my sister-in-law’s boyfriend to pick us up. The kids were at Grampa’s house, so we were set for a day and night of nonstop drinking of great beer.
The first thing I noticed while approaching the site at 2PM was that the crowd was noticeably larger than last year. I had also heard that there were going to be around 50 firkins (a firkin is 9 gallons, or 1/6 of a hogshead) this year. There were 30 craft breweries attending, as opposed to maybe 10 last year.
Upon entering, we found out that you could buy 20 tickets for $20, each ticket getting you a 4oz beer. You also were given a souvenir glass with the Happy Gnome logo. Also included in a 20 pack were two additional bonus tickets: one red and one blue. Those tickets would respectively get you a taste of two special beers, Ola Dubh 30 and Jaipur IPA. Ola Dubh 30 is an ale aged in 30 year Highland Park Scotch barrels. I have an 11.2oz bottle in my beer fridge that cost me $20 about a year ago. Jaipur is an IPA from England (which is ironically not commonly made in England anymore).
I tried the two special beers before my palate was destroyed, and both were very good, although I was a bit let down by the Ola Dubh 30. It was a bit musty and not enough scotch came through. Jaipur was very good, but I didn’t see why it was one of the special beers. It wasn’t anything that I would have tried a second time, though I did like the mango and citrus flavors coming from it.
In the back of the tent was bar food; burgers, brats, wings, pulled pork. For a few tickets we grabbed some food and then got back to the main event, which was tasting as much craft beer as we could handle.
I was impressed that the Happy Gnome learned quite a bit from last year’s festival. There were plenty of pitchers of water, which was essential for rinsing of glasses and hydrating. They had a lot more seating and food this time around. I could have done without the music in the background, which made conversation difficult. The setup of each brewery was easy to access and the food tent was in a separate area that allowed for easy ordering.
On a side note: it was entertaining when I had to leave for the port-a-potty, since upon my return it was inevitable that some random guy would be trying to strike up a conversation with my wife and sister-in-law. I was the proverbial turd in the punchbowl… the ultimate griefer. On one trip I noticed a clever person penciled in, “used beer dept” over the urinal.
Another fun person I saw at the fest was Todd, the head brewer at Surly. This guy is awesome. He has long graying hair and was wearing a shirt that stated, “Fuck you, you fuckin’ fuck.” To cap it off, he was wearing Slayer (yes, the METAL! Band) Converse hightops. That guy knows how to make beer.
I did make it to just about every brewery that day, and I had to buy a second set of tickets for myself. 4oz of beer is not a lot, but multiplied by 40 it is. On top of that, most of the beers were in the craft beer tradition of 6% or higher ABV. I’m not going to do any full reviews here, but some of the standouts were:
Surly 16 Grit. This is what I have been known to serve out of my trunk. It is an awesome beer, similar to Furious but with lighter roasted malt and more tropical fruit flavor in the hops.
Surly Tea-Bagged Furious. This is Furious, but they take a bunch of hops, put it in cheesecloth, and let it soak in the firkin. Intensely spicy and hoppy and fresh.
Lift Bridge Kimono Girl Saison. Lift Bridge is a brewery in Stillwater, MN that I hadn’t heard of before Firkin Fest. I will have to keep an eye out for them. This beer was great, and I believe it won the gold medal people’s choice award at the fest. I had a few of these. It was slightly fruity, had biscuity overtones, and was satisfying to drink.
New Belgium La Floie Love. I think that New Belgium is a bit overrated, but they certainly do make some good beer. This one was amazing. A sour beer is not a common style, and I like my sour beer puckeringly strong. A good sour beer is akin to good blue cheese… most people don’t like it because it’s too funky. You could smell this beer 3 feet away after having 10 beers. The taste was amazingly powerful, and as my wife put it, “like drinking vomit.” Now, I wouldn’t go and say anything negative about this beer but I can see where she’s coming from. Crazy acidic with lots of funk through and through. The best surprise of the fest for me.
Lagunitas Olde Gnarlywine. This is a barleywine that was very sweet and full bodied. I believe it was the only barleywine at the fest, and it was a real standout with a great flavor profile.
Left Hand Milk Stout. This is a beer I’ve had before, and I love it. It’s a very smooth and sweet stout that’s made with milk sugar. From my understanding, milk sugar does not ferment (at least not with beer yeasts), and so it gives the beer a very sweet flavor. It’s great for dessert pairings and for people who don’t like traditional beers.
At the end of the fest, we had one more go at the wings under the food tent and then went to the Muddy Pig, another great bar down the street. If you go, try their Cuban Sandwich and the Wings. The wings are grilled and are the only ones I will admit are better than mine. I ended the evening with two more beers, this time full sized and both weighing in at over 8%.
Lagunitas Sneak Release Undercover Investigation Shut-Down Ale. This is an awesome super hoppy beer. I tried it for the name alone and stayed for the taste. Highly recommended, and available now in bottles for a limited time.
Furthermore Thermo Reefur. This beer is made with tons of stuff, including beets. Brett (wild) yeast is used and this was very interesting. My palette was pretty dead by this time, but I liked this a lot for what it’s worth. Very earthy, fruity, dirty, funky.
Well, we had a good time. If you have a beer festival in your area I would say give it a shot. Where can you find out about them? Well, beeradvocate dot com has event listings. It is a great way to try new craft beers and it’s very affordable. See you next time!