Noon: Under the shadows of the Historic Grain Belt Brewery, thousands of craft brew fans and aficionados spend a few hours soaking in the best of Minnesota craft brew. This is Autumn Brew Review, and while it features a good selection of national craft brands, it’s first and foremost a celebration of Minnesota beer culture.
It’s noon, and we’re standing in line. This is standard operating procedure for Autumn Brew Review. There are thousands of people here, and none of them are interested in letting you get to what you want. Lining up early helps ensure up to an extra half-hour of sampling and hobnobbing with brewers, distributors and Minnesota Craft Brewers Alliance royalty.
(Though, let’s be honest. If you’re waiting in line at noon, you’re not there to go talk to a beer rep or brewer - you’re there to grab rare cask beer before someone else grabs the rare cask beer.)
While we don’t have anything quite this big in Sioux Falls, it’s worth checking out our own local beer festivals - this weekend’s Beervana comes to mind - because the combination of great friends, a beautiful day and delicious beers can’t be beat. Standing in line, you can feel a buzz rise up. There’s a bagpiper making his way to the front.
Curious how important Autumn Brew Review is to the Minnesota craft brew community? The first round of tickets sold out in minutes.
The second round sold out in seconds.
The line’s moving. Time to go in.
1:00: If you do it right, you’ve got your book and you’ve made some early choices. I’ve circled some weird beer from Schell’s and some offerings from Ommegang Brewing, but for the most part I’m willing to ride the wave where it takes me.
Like a kid who knows the far side of the amusement part is going to be more secluded upon opening, I wander across the field and start going at it. Grand Teton Brewing has brought an Oktoberfest - Fest Bier Marzen - that I like a lot. Ommegang is next with Biere D’Hougoumont, which is a wonderful limited edition Biere De Garde. I grab a sample of Schell’s dry-hopped Deer brand, and it tastes like dirty feet.
Surly Brewing’s line is a two-headed snake, one serving a combination of standard drafts and old favorites, while the other releases special offerings every hour. I skipped their lines the first few times I walked by because I don’t hate myself enough to spend a half hour staring at the back of some guy’s Schell’s hat, but since I now realize I might miss out on the always popular fresh-hopped Surly Wet, I take a chance.
The line’s running smooth. It’s fast. I got some Wet (it is wonderful) and now find myself in the second line, where I finally get to try Surly’s yearly numerical-themed big beer, S≈∏X. Syx is also wonderful, except now I’m saying “wonderful” like someone might offhandedly say “sure” to a new car or a million dollars. Syx is beyond wonderful. It’s complex, tart and delicious.
At the Great Lakes booth, I sample the Rye of the Tiger - a rye beer that’s classy and fresh. I love it. It’s getting hot, and I’m impatient. I want to try something they’re tapping at 2:00, so I jokingly ask the guy behind the booth if he could tap it a bit early. He reminds me that the festival’s only been going for 50 minutes.
I realize what this means. I go look for some food.
2:00 I’ve hit a bad spot, here, people, because none of these beers are very good anymore. I mean. Seriously. This is horrible. After the brilliance of Odell’s Deconstruction 2012, I’m stuck in a rut of beer sadness, where everything is starting to totally bum me out. A quick recap of the past hour:
- Summit Brewing’s Unchained #10: Belgian Style Abbey Ale is too watered down, which makes me sad.
- Surly’s Brettwagon - a version of their Target Field exclusive Bandwagon with that Brettowhatever yeast - just reminds me of Surly Furious, a good beer but nothing I haven’t had a billion times.
- Lucid Brewing’s Foto is generic, which is to be expected from a new brewery, I guess.
- Odell’s Mountain Standard Double Black IPA is usually very good, but I don’t like this dry hopped version.
My issue, I suspect, isn’t with the beer - it’s with the context. I’m standing in a dusty field, surrounded by sound and bands and food and beer, and my senses are ready to give up the ghost. The comparison between different beers is a wonderful opportunity to collect favorites and sample rare breeds, but it also hurts the overall experience - styles are mashed together in a soup of “what you like,” “what you’re in the mood for,” and “what other people like.”
As I’m complaining, I overhear someone talking about Surly S≈∏X. They hate it. I think they’re wrong. And there’s the rub - no one I spoke with had the same opinions. Some said that my favorites were awful, though I suspect some of that is an overreliance on being picky and contrary. Yet, here I am slagging Odell’s Mountain Standard, which is a beer I usually love - a beer that my wife says she still loves.
Even when you get to taste everything, there’s still no accounting for taste.
3:00 Discovering new breweries at this point is much easier than at the beginning, but that’s because I’ve been drinking long enough for my most tenderest of emotions to kick in. I truly feel bad for the breweries that don’t have many people stopping by, so I wander around to chat.
I stop by Tallgrass because they’re kind of local and because I love 8-Bit. I tell them this. They don’t seem impressed. I swing by two smaller breweries - Millstream, where I try a pretty okay Oktoberfest, and Keweenaw Brewing, who give me something called a Widow Maker Black Ale, which I like an awful lot.
21st Amendment tapped this red ale called Zambo about half an hour ago, and I’m not crazy about red ales, but I do like this one, and I can’t tell if I’ve just stopped being particular or if this is for real. Deschutes and Bell’s are totally packed, but I go there too. I already forgot what I got at Bells by the time I get to Deschutes, and I don’t remember the Deschutes until later, which is either not a good sign for the beer or it’s not a good sign for my wellbeing.
No, YOU’VE been in the sun too long.
4:00 The weird thing about a festival of this size is that you run into everyone and you run into no one at the same time. I swear the list of fellow attendees includes a combination of my wife, former co-workers, high school friends, college friends, a groomsman from our wedding, a good friend who also happens to be the mom of one of our three-year-old’s preschool friends, our neighbors, our neighbor’s brother-in-law, Michelle Obama’s former scheduler, and an editor from a magazine I used to sell when I worked at FuncoLand in college.
I didn’t make any of that up. And now I can’t find any of them.
Except, then I turn around and there’s the scheduler and the high school friend and the preschool mom all talking about beer and that reminds me, I need to go find some more beer. Here’s Fitger’s, which is close enough, and it has these fancy beers with names like Blue Label Grand Reserve and 1100 Wheat Wine and they’re both wonderful but they both have like 25% ABV, probably.
Time’s going really fast now, apparently, because it’s almost time to go. A last gasp: I finally stop to see what Rush River is all about and have all of their beers at once and try to convince the guys to give us a sign but we don’t need the sign. BubbleJack is a session IPA, I think. Uber Alt is good, if I remember correctly. Lyndale Brown Ale is a brown ale. So. There’s that.
5:00 I’ve found one of my friends, but another has wandered off to who knows where, but that’s okay because it looks like we’re being ushered out of here and HEY WAIT A MINUTE this guy just dumped out a keg of New Belgium Ranger and it’s fresh-hopped and just spilling all over the ground. Travesty. Someone call the cops. I mean. Except that I think the cops told them to dump it out. So. I guess. Here goes nothing.
Yeah. That’s good. Ranger hits home. It’s familiar. Even wet-hopped, it’s familiar. I mean, please don’t judge me the keg was tipped over and it was just pouring out and what a waste. The cop didn’t like it. But then again the people at the front gate didn’t seem to like the fact that I was wandering out of the festival with a sign that the brewers from 21st Amendment gave me because they thought I stole it but I didn’t steal it actually because my wife got it for winning a game of Hammerschlagen and no don’t ask me how to pronounce that or spell it even thanks.
The crowd moves together. We know where to go - to our friends who were smart enough to not go to Autumn Brew Review but weren’t smart enough to stay at home and protect themselves from the horrible annoyance of driving these people home. We stop at a bar first. We get a pitcher of Old Style. We revel in it’s awfulness. We cheer the celebration of craft brew. And we fight to stay awake, because four hours in the sun can really wear a person out.
Especially after a beer or two.
The Five Best Beers I Tried at Autumn Brew Review, In No Order
S≈∏X - Surly Brewing American Strong Ale - A beyond complex beast of a beer that put nearly everything else to shame.
BubbleJack - Rush River Brewing American IPA - Something about this really appealed to me, though I’ll admit I tried it at 4:45 PM. Sessionable and crisp.
Rye of the Tiger - Great Lakes Brewing Company Rye Beer - It’s hard to explain what a good rye ale tastes like, but one you know you’ll understand why people like them.
1100 Wheat Wine - Fitger’s Brewhouse Wheatwine - Boozy and bourbony, 1100 satisfied my dissapointment in the Goose Island booth’s lack of Bourbon County Stout.
Deconstruction 2012 - Odell Brewing American Wild Ale - Officially, this is one of the few you could actually pick up in Sioux Falls. If you see some, buy it. It’s wonderful.