Monday, February 15, 2016

Minnesota Breweries One by One #12: Maple Island Brewing, Stillwater

It's Saturday the 13th, and it's time to find a new city to drink beer in for this project. That lucky city was Stillwater, often called the birthplace of Minnesota, and considered one of the first cities in our state. Why Stillwater? My trusty companion in this endeavor, guide and driver, Jason was going to Dave's BrewFarm for the birthday celebrations of our friend Val, and I just so happened to have that day off. On BrewFarm visits past, we'd driven by the city on our way to Wisconsin, and J. would wish that Stillwater's Lift Bridge Brewing was open on Sundays (Sunday being my day off, when I was most often available for a Wisconsin trip) we could stop in on the way. When we discovered Oliphant last year, it became a more urgent pre-Brew Farm stop. Nothing against Lift Bridge, it's just that the Somerset, WI brewery puts out a lot more beers, often very compelling ones.

This project though demands an occasional change in that routine, as I strive to check off every Minnesota brewery in my attempt to say that I've seen them all within the 12 months of 2016. I sacrifice the chance to pop into a place I know to be brewing rewarding ales and lagers, sometimes spending time and money in a taproom unworthy of our attention. J. mentioned Maple Island, situated in the historic downtown district, and offered up that he hadn't heard good things. Neither had I, but check it out we must.

The chalkboard that met us at the door marked
the first time, but not the last, that we were
assured that our minds would be blown. Dude.
Stillwater is home to about 18,000 people, only 95.1% of them white. It sits near the St. Croix river, which separates Minnesota and Wisconsin, and they are connected by a thousand-foot long vertical "lift bridge", which opened in 1931 and sees over 18,000 vehicles crossing over on a daily basis.   It is the county seat of Washington County. The city is known as a tourist destination to the citizens of the greater Twin Cities metro region, for all of it's quaintness and historical-ness and the overall loveliness of the valley and the river and all that. Lot of antiquing gong on. Not me, I've got it all in the City of Lakes. Who needs to go anywhere else?, I ask myself on a regular basis. Well, I do if I want to drink ALL of the BEERS, and that's what found us driving down Main Street in search of Maple Island Brewing. Lots of parking and a beautiful view of the surrounding hills and the river nearby. So much promise. A sidewalk chalkboard sign promised that our minds would be blown, but looking back it seems more like a threat, or at least a challenge.

Once we walked in the door, an anomaly presented itself that baffles me still. Just off the right, a hand washing station, with no drain, per se, but a sloped surface and a slit through the wall for the water to pass through. The rest rooms were on the left. There's something slightly disturbing about a restroom without a sink or washing area. It just screams bad planning and I kind of don't want to touch the doorknobs.

From the parking lot, a view of the St. Croix and
the famous bridge.
I did a little research by scrolling through the website and watching a video the night before we went to this taproom. The beers had strange descriptions and odd names, and in the video the brewers, one Nic Brau, a cousin of the Brau brothers of Brau Brothers, told of the fun he had writing those descriptions and coming up with those names. Sometimes, he said, the owner, Frank Fabio, "squashed" his ideas. If this is true, it makes me wonder what he didn't get away with.

A glimpse of the room from the bar, an area just off to
the left from the entrance to this spacious taproom.
Before getting into the beers themselves, let's examine these names for a minute. The first one in my flight was a kolsch called Burlesque. Now, a lot of beer names use devices like alliteration or rhyme, or some local landmark, or personal connection to the brewery. "Burlesque Kolsch" has none of those things, unless the connection is that the brewer thinks that burlesque is awesome, and as a name it doesn't sing. It's clunky. The word "burlesque" ends with a thud, and there is an awkward pause before saying "kolsch." Next up: White Butt IPA. What? Why? It's a White IPA, you could think of a White Anything, why "butt"? Because the brewer owns one? Did he want to call it White Ass, but Fabio squashed it? When Leinenkugel has a doppelbock called Big Butt, it's clever because goats, the animal associated with bocks, have horns that they can "butt" against one another. But naming it after a part of the human anatomy is kind of immature. (Kind of? )Another: Cup of Joe Freak Show, is said to have been named by the brewer's son Joe. Which part, Cup of Joe, or Freak Show? Why is it called a "Freak Show" rather than a stout? Does he consider himself a freak, and needs to throw the word "freak" everywhere? (Other beer names refers to circus themes,  like Bearded Lady IPA, Sword Swallower Lemon Shady, Throw Down Hop Clown, Belgian Belly Dancer, and others).Then: Freaky Fresh Baked Brew. Let me just give you a second to wonder what "baked" refers to. (We overheard the barman describe the brewer as a "surfer dude." Some kind of dude, certainly.)

I own a few of these prints. You should buy some, too.
So, we're in the taproom, and it's a nice space, with grain bags hanging from the walls, a nod to Minnesota's milling history, I assume, and works from local artists on display, including one of my favorites, David Witt, aka DWitt, of St. Paul.
There's a small spot where musicians perform on weekends. Big windows. TV to watch last week's Super Bowl. (really, that's what was on, a re-run of the Super Bowl.) A small book, with beer descriptions tucked into plastic pages, told us about the beers. And then some. I decided to start with a flight. There was a choice of the first five selections on tap for $10, or the Rockstar Flight of all 10 beers for $20. I didn't want to spend $20, so I went with the former. And here come the notes.

My flight: L to R, Kolsch, Maple bock, White Butt IPA,
Orange Cream Sickle, Cup of Joe Freak Show.
First up, Burlesque Kolsch, "light, clean, delicate, with moderate bitterness. Not bad, but not great." Doesn't give what I really want in a kolsch, but few American versions do.19 IBU, 5.2% ABV. Next: Maple Island Bock. Strangely named. Plenty of maple syrup, but not a bock. Very light golden in color, but that would be a blonde bock, and this didn't taste like one. Sweet, with a long lingering maple flavor, but perhaps a bit more than I needed. On to the third, White Butt IPA, 7% ABV, 60 IBU, and it starts with a delightfully hoppy nose. Once in the mouth, though, it's not working. Flavors are off, and the chamomile ("hard to spell, fun to say", I remember the website saying) doesn't really go with the wheat malt and mosaic hops. I assume it was tossed in ("just for fun" it said) to replace the coriander in a witbier, but it didn't fit. Not fond of this one. Didn't taste good at all.

Fourth in the flight was a wreck, the oddly named Reaper Orange Cream Sickle. My notes, verbatim: "Ack! Bad! ooo! Ugh! Band-Aid! Infected? Orange plastic scabrous badness. NOT GOOD." This was so bad, I couldn't conceive of anyone tasting it and finding it good enough to serve to anyone. What's up with adding ice cream to beer? You can add beer to ice cream that you make, or pour it over ice cream when eating, but adding ice cream to the brewing process? It isn't done for a reason. It doesn't work and adds nothing to end result. Whatever it did to this brew, it came out undrinkable.
Brewing equipment, seen from the bar.

The name "Reaper Orange Cream Sickle" seemed a weird choice, and the description in the book, which I'd read on the website the day before had a bizarre rambling bit about the Reaper and what he'll do to you when you drink this, ...or something. But, here's where things get a little strange. I went back to the site, and found that it had been edited since our visit. It says this now: "Sit back, text a friend and let them know what the heck you’re sippin’ on… A beer made from oranges and vanilla ice cream!" Severely edited from the psychedelic babble that was there two days ago. {Edit: Checked ratebeer, where the original description is posted verbatim: So the Brewmaster Nic Brau has been dying to make this brew for the longest time, so sit back, relax and tell your friends that you are sipping on a beer made with orange and vanilla ice cream! Now that we blew your mind with that get a pint or four before the reaper gets word this brew is out and come for yours bawhaha."}

Graham Cracker Slacker, bro.
Some general information. Of particular note is
that Maple Island has a different term for
"batch" than every other brewery in America.
Same goes with White Butt IPA which now reads: "This IPA has yet to see the sun! This butt has plenty of kick due to the generous amount of mosaic hops." The original went on to greater lengths about the pale ass of the title. I had every intention of highlighting the bizarre stoned-out ramblings here, so I didn't quote, copy, or take pictures of those freaked-out descriptions (although Jason and I did riff on them from memory after we left), assuming they'd still be there when I needed them. I have one good pic. Take a look. "Graham Cracker Slacker" "Whaaaaat did you say you put Graham crackers in the mash tun while brewing this beer, that's right I did put boxes and boxes of those sweet little crackers in this brew! We also added a bunch of specialty malts to give this one mega awesome flavor so sit back and slack. " On the website currently: "Sit back and slack with a brew made with lots of real graham crackers. Specialty malts give this even more unique flavor."

Let's step back and return to the beers once more, with the fifth in the flight, Cup of Joe Freak Show. Big coffee in this, prominent espresso notes, and then along came peppers. Why? Jason tasted it, too. What kind of an off-flavor is this? Where did the peppers come from? This is supposed to be one of their best sellers, how did it get like this?

Jason with his cask-conditioned raspberry kolsch.
The smile was gone once the beer went past
his lips.
I managed to finish all the samples in the flight but for the Reaper Orange Cream Sickle, which was god-awful, and decided to pick a full pint to finish out our stay. Why not the Graham Cracker Slacker? No reason. I'm tossing the dice here, hoping for better beers. Malty nose, bread-y/malty flavors, a little sweetness, and a bit of herbacity, little hops. The biggest problem is that there's nothing here. Falls flat, delivers nothing tasty, just an empty set. Misses the mark. This "unique flavor" is not enjoyable. And it definitely isn't mega awesome. Certainly not getting any particular essence of Graham cracker, if that's possible.

I wasn't having any fun with these beers at all. Meanwhile, J. did a little gloating that the pint he picked was fine, and delivered exactly the flavors it advertised. This was the Freaky Fresh Baked Brew, and the website now describes it thus: "A festive holiday brew made with raisins, candi sugars, specialty malts and spices." It had all the flavors it promised, and nothing else, and was inoffensive. His next choice was a cask of the kolsch infused with raspberries, and it was not good, in the least. The same off flavors from the orange and ice cream beer. Unpleasant.

I have no comment here. Say what you will about a brewery
that wants you to ask for a Butt Cream, or a Cracker Butt.
There was one final thing that left a bad taste in our mouth, although we didn't drink it. A sign on the wall advertised "Staff Custom Blends." We are told that they recommend a blending of the White Butt IPA with Orange Cream Sickle, with arrows connecting parts of the names. Are we being told that we should ask for something called a "Butt Cream"? And second suggests we'd enjoy the pairing of a pour of White Butt IPA with Graham Cracker Slacker, which might go as "Butt Cracker"? Do these terrible beers really taste good together, or did someone think these names are just so hilarious to say that they couldn't help themselves?

From the website, the brewer boasts "I am proud to say that in our first year we brewed some of the craziest concoctions in MN using ingredients such as Crunch Berries, ice cream, pretzels and hand peeled citrus for our brews. " We got a feeling of a stoned-out, immature slacker at this brewery throwing wacky ingredients into beers "just because" and to "blow your minds", regardless of how good the end product may be. If they're putting this out and unaware of how bad it is, I can only hope people catch on. I can't imagine a taproom full of people actually drinking this, and fooling themselves into thinking it's quality beer. Creating that picture in my mind only brings on an unbearable sadness, and that's just not why I'm involved in craft beer. I want to see happy beer drinkers with their hands cupped around quality ales. It's my simple dream.

The fact that someone edited all the nonsense from the descriptions on the website means that someone at Maple Island understands that there is a problem there. Or did they bug Jason's car and listen as we mocked M.I. all the way to Dave's BrewFarm?


Jason B. said...

I noticed the altered descriptions as well*. That made me sad, because I wanted to read them again, only as if Nicholas cage were reading them - especially the parts about "having your mind blown!" Maybe they should try clickbait descriptions next ("This beer used 9 popular snack foods! You won't believe what #3 was!", and "What we did with Good 'n' Plentys and Sun Chips will BLOW YOUR MIND!").

Once again, I was hoping to play the contrarian, a ploy that has failed in the past when I thought I'd try to pretend like, say, Staples Mill's beers, but couldn't pull that off. Unfortunately, I'd prove more earnest if I tried to convince one that Gigli was a criminally underappreciated, clever movie that tapped into the zeitgeist than say Maple Island is the place to while away the time enjoying pint after pint. Even the beer I had (no, I would not consider mild enjoyment of the spoils of luck of the draw "gloating") was not one someone would drink pint after pint. It was a competent beer, one you may say "I'm glad I tried that" before going back to your usual.

I wanted to enjoy Maple Island. I liked the Wonka-esque spirit, the desire to forge new flavors in beer. However, there is a difference between wanting to do this and succeeding. Nothing is inherently wrong with attempting to be off-the-wall, but if that feat of derring-do turns unto something you'd only drink on a dare, you Don't. Do not serve that. I get the feeling that not a lot of dumping goes on here, that we're likely having a majority of the experiments, no matter the result. I'm sure that's kind of related to what I see when a brewery first opens, where beer that may have fallen short of the intended finished product is served, since making bank after months of expenditures is preferable to adding more sunk costs or shuttering. These Island of Dr. Moreauvian experiments likely are not inexpensive, so, here we are, drinking fizzy Band-Aid water.

I know it's not sexy, that it does not fit the "throw Velcro balls against the wall, see what sticks" ethos of Maple Island (you said "balls", uh-huh-huh), but I think they would really benefit from honing in on a few base beers, get those locked down, and then use those as a jumping-off point. If the base beer is solid, then the addition of wacky, crazy, non-traditional ingredients and permutations with other likewise wacky shit may work, and if it doesn't, it won't be because of infection or overheating or some other flaw; it will be because these ingredients are considered non-traditional and wacky for good reasons (see: cheese beer, why Wisconsin has not).

* - Now you have me paranoid. Maybe, like Richmond Valentine in Kingsman, nanobot trackers with recording abilities were placed in the second round, our denouncements and deriding duly noted. Or, since you brought up the odd layout of the place, maybe the brewers office shares a very thin wall with the bathroom (on purpose of course because I imagine "fart sounds are funny!").

Anonymous said...

For future reference Lift Bridge is now open Sundays, usually from Noon-6pm

Jason B said...

Yes, Lift Bridge is open on Sundays now, but back when that wish was being made, it was not (not their fault - it was still against the law in MN to sell growlers on Sunday, so there was not much incentive to be open on Sundays).

Anonymous said...

I live in Stillwater and am a craft beer lover. I could not agree with you more about the failings of this brewery. I would rather go in and buy nails, as it was a hardware store of yore. I had a mess of a iPad there and a completely awful beer called Cherry Bomb.

AL MCCARTY said...

It's been a few months since your comment, but I've finally realized that you meant to say that you had a mess of an IPA there, not a mess of an iPad.

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