post-game at thirsty pagan

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!

Pagan GitcheeDuring the festival, Kat and I were treated to an in-depth discussion about harvesting wild yeast as a part of Thirsty Pagan Brewing’s sour program.

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.Thirsty Pagan dining


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.

T Pagan pizzaWhen 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.

I can't explain how much I love this photo. I didn't pay enough attention when I took it.

I can’t explain how much I love this photo. I didn’t pay enough attention when I took it.

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.

TP tour 2I 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.

Thirsty Pagan barrel roomWhat 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.

TP tour 1One 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!


Gitchee Gumee Brewfest

sunny DuluthAfter my two beer samples and stroll around Canal Park, it was time to cross the bridge into Superior. My fellow lady beer enthusiasts were meeting me at the hotel.

The Gitchee Gumee Brewfest, which is in its 17th year, is held in the Wessman arena of the Univerisity of Wisconsin Superior campus. It is sponsored by the Jaycees and the Univerisity.

It has historically been extremely well-attended but the crowd is not the typical beer geeks. There is a definite college representation and many of those I spoke with were at their first beer festival. It made for a different vibe.

Over 100 different beers were available from over 30 breweries representing Minnesota and Wisconsin along with a few other states.

walk to GGThe walk to the arena was a sloppy mess but we made the best of it.

I was especially looking forward to meeting the Bent Paddle folks, tasting Thirsty Pagan, catching up with Castle Danger, and introducing my friends to Canal Park.

The line was serious – I heard a rumor that people were primarily arriving early for Surly and for various special releases by other breweries.

We didn’t really have a game plan but we just kept walking in circles and it all worked out.

Gitchee Gumee crowdI stopped by to visit with Lakefront and Bell’s who each had several beers on draft. Kat and Jen tried some Canal Park IPA (the firkin was still a bit…active) and I made a pit stop to visit with Colin and Laura of Bent Paddle.



Bent Paddle has been a highly successful brewery, producing classic styles since May 2013 which they now distribute in cans. The brewery was founded by two couples, Bryon and Karen Thomas and Colin and Laura Mullen. Bryon, formerly of Rock Bottom, and Colin, who previously brewed at Barley John’s, shared a vision for opening a brewery.

I approached Laura who was pouring for the considerable crowd at their booth and enjoyed chatting with her over a Cold Press Black Ale. When Colin arrived, I asked him a really dumb question : “How are things going?” Of course he gave me a hard time, and said that things are better than they ever could have imagined. They described an immense success and fulfillment of a dream. In speaking with the couple, their passion is very evident.

Colin used a phrase that I will never forget. He said that the mission of Bent Paddle is to export Duluth. To bring quality beer from the shores of Lake Superior to drinkers everywhere. And where are they currently exporting Duluth? To 8 restaurants and 8 off-sale locations in the Twin Cities along with multiple accounts closer to home. Bent Paddle enjoys hand-picking where their beer will be available and personally delivering it.

Bent Paddle GitcheeLaura explained what a critical role Duluth plays for Minnesota tourists, beer drinkers, and those in love with the outdoors.

“It is the gateway to the north,” she says to me. And Bent Paddle offers all of their employees a park pass so that they may spend more time enjoying the north.

Notably, Laura points out, Lake Superior water is known to be chemically similar to the water used in the original Czech Pilsners – extremely soft with less than 50ppm of dissolved solids. This is just one of the many important elements along with brewing expertise that make the Bent Paddle Venture Pils a huge hit.

Along with their quality line-up, look for their upcoming Trail Series of beers this year with the first one to be released in weeks.

Castle Danger menuI’ll be taking a closer look at the taproom and brewhouse very soon, so stay tuned!

I meandered over to Castle Danger and chatted with Clint about their new 10,000 square foot space. Things are currently coming along nicely in Two Harbors and they are hoping to open in June at the latest. The new building will also feature a canning line – exciting stuff!

Their flagship Danger Ale is always a winner, but I was also a fan of their brand-new Camp Depression Lager, an offering I hadn’t previously tried. It has some sweet notes for sure but the finish is still quite crisp. It is named after an old logging camp near Gooseberry Falls.

All in all, I was happy with the organization of the festival and would attend again in the future.

Next up I will share some enlightening work going on at Thirsty Pagan, but don’t come hungry to my next post — there will be pizza!


a very bright day in canal park

This weekend I traveled to Duluth and Superior to revisit the source of some of my favorite beers and to attend the Gitchee Gumee Brewfest with members of my brewing club. The festival, which in now in its 17th year, is known for being a very fun and well-attended event as well as one of the, well, drunkest festivals around. All in all, it promised to be interesting.

But beyond the arena full of beer from the northwoods, one of the highlights of my trip was a second look at Canal Park Brewing and a stroll through Duluth.

Duluth frozen lighthouseIt was a beautiful trip full of melting snow, sunny skies, and Minnesotans anxious to climb out of their winterized homes to see the sun. Lake Superior was still a giant ice block, but you wouldn’t have known based on the number of people out and about.Duluth bridge

Canal Park Brewing Company was no exception. The place was very full, including the bar, and about half a dozen people had begun to line up for a tour.

Canal Park Brewing exterior

I peeked in the brewhouse and found Badger, who you may remember from my first trip to Canal Park Brewing not long after they had opened. He was hard at work preparing for the festival with brewer King plus assistant and tour guide extraordinaire, Tinga.

brewhaus CPI was very grateful to be greeted so warmly and to see that the young brewpub is still very successful.

Badger indicated that Canal Park, now in its second year of business, sold an impressive and reassuring 1200 barrels in the first year. The breadth of the beer continues to be impressive with a mix of expected styles and unexpected twists that appeal to the craft beer lover and unsure tourist alike.

We spoke about the trajectory of the brewpub. “Lately I have been focusing on staff education,” explains Badger. He went on to say that he believes there is a beer for everyone and that guests should be encouraged to try beers that they may not otherwise consider.WP_20140405_010

The tour program has also been in development over the past year. Tinga currently leads several weekend tours, with higher frequency possible this summer.

At the bar Badger poured me a Mindblock Honey Double Maibock and an Old Avalanche Barleywine. Handing them to me at the same time, he said “you look good double-fisting” (which just may have been the quote of the weekend).

CP Maibock Barleywine

The Mindblock is somewhat of a style anomaly. I asked whether a double Maibock is still a Maibock considering the fact that they are light in color and medium bodied by definition. I was told that, yes, it still fits the guideline for the style but in a more alcoholic sense. The beer contains local honey from a wine and mead producer. It has a clean bock character and clocks in at 7.5% ABV. There is a light caramel character and general sweetness, but the finish is pleasantly crisp.canal park kegs

Next I enjoyed the Old Avalanche, a classic barleywine. There is a component to the aroma that is hard to describe but the maltiness comes through immediately with some slight fruit. The only slight bitterness is at the very end and a pleasant stonefruit character sings through- something of a plum note. The ABV is a robust 9.5%.

Some of the beers I had a year ago were still on tap, but a few of the recipes have changed over the months of experience and experimentation. I asked Tinga if the changes were more due to crowd preference or brewer perfectionism. His response was “both”. For example, the British Bitter, popular among staff, was not a hit with customers. On the other hand the Stoned Surf IPA, a brew I absolutely love, now contains a different ratio of hops because brewing staff wanted more citrus and less resin.King Badger cheers

Canal Park Brewing had several beers on tap at the Gitchee Gumee Brewfest including one special firkin of Feck It, their Scottish Ale. Their booth was well-attended and my fellow homebrewers got to enjoy their beer and meet the guys behind the Duluth gem.

I took some time to enjoy the sun and melting snow before crossing the bridge to Superior for the festival. Stay tuned for a visit with Bent Paddle and some mind-blowing brewing techniques being employed at Thirsty Pagan!