Well, it is true. The Bitches Brew Crew closed down the Gitchee Gumee Brewfest. In fact, I got yelled at by a security officer, which doesn’t often happen. That’s the sure sign of a good time, people!
This means that, inevitably, we were “those people” – taking up space at the booth just to put the brewer on the spot. Well, that isn’t entirely true. It was benevolent curiosity and genuine interest (and we got out of everyone’s way).
Head brewer Allyson Rolph was appointed her position at Thirsty Pagan in November of 2012. The brewpub, in need of a serious revival, has been a Superior staple since the 90′s and was purchased by new owners in 2006.
Allyson, who is certified and ranked through the Beer Judge Certification Program and is a Cicerone-certified beer server, is one of only two female head brewers in Wisconsin. (source: Duluth New Tribune)
But all those acronyms and titles don’t capture what Allyson has truly given to the brewing community.
We asked her, in the middle of thousands of people, about how her sour was developed and she was more than willing – enthusiastic, actually – to share with us. She described a painstaking process of trial and error, explaining that she explores the fruit trees of her own (and her neighbors’) back yards, placing specimens into wort to see what develops.
“Not everything works out”, she explains. Referring to an experiment with cherry trees, she says, “two out of my three attempts were decent, drinkable. And I developed them. The third was extremely phenolic.”
Yeah, well, two outta three ain’t bad, I’m told.
When we arrived to the brewpub via taxi, the place was packed. Live music was in full swing and it was overwhelmingly obvious that the place has a regular following, despite whatever beer festival happened to be in town.
In fact, I don’t think I have ever been so struck by a sense of homegrown, authentic pride and support of any restaurant in my life.
Some folks who were pouring at the festival came over to our table to check in, suggesting that we stick around and see the brewhouse, and they were incredibly genuine.
After we wrapped up our flight which was full of some fantastic beer, including the Spring Thaw Stout, brewed in Parti-gyle fashion, we met up with Allyson who drew us across the sacred threshold, into her space.
I am not a numbers person, I hate to admit. I don’t mean that I am not good at math, what I mean is that I leave the nitty-gritty numbers game to my colleagues. While they were busy discussing barrel systems and hydrometer readings, I was busy getting wrapped up in the feel of the place. This is one reason while I will never be a real brewer, at least not a very good one.
Allyson and her assistant/intern Jared showed us through the stainless steel, answering many of our questions and allowing us to explore (even to touch things we shouldn’t…Shari).
All the improvements that this generation of Thirsty Pagan owners, brewers, and employees has made are incredible. The old, tiny, system is now used for test batches, and although the place still feels like the best parts of a laboratory, the whole operation is much more streamlined, allowing for Allyson to meet the restaurant’s demands more efficiently.
What I really hung onto from this tour was our trip down to the barrel room and experimentation labyrinth. It was such a privilidge to discuss the intricacies on brewing while standing in a dark, damp cellar.
Thirsty Pagan takes a fairly laissez-faire approach to barrel aging and souring. The brewers often use partially-filled kegs or leftover beer from events as a canvas for harvested yeast. They store the beer in barrels, pins, or firkins and simply see what happens.
One of these sour experiments was at Gtichee Gumee and it was hands-down one of the top beers at the festival after having been aged for over a year.
All of my thanks to Allyson, Jared, and the Thirsty Pagan for allowing us to sort of run wild inside the brewery. Thanks for answering all of our questions and for sharing your passion. Keep brewing fantastic beer!