The Extra Medium Effect

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Most of you know that I used to run SouthernMinn Scene magazine, and maybe some of you will remember this. A couple years ago, when Adele put her album 25 out, my music columnist published a column entitled “The Adele Effect,” essentially making the case that this new album had made the world a better place. People were happier and nicer to each other. The colors were deeper and more vibrant. Food tasted better. The air seemed cleaner.

Two weeks ago, we tapped our first keg of Extra Medium beer. This is a collaboration between Imminent and Subzero brewing, especially Josh Wilhelm who really developed this particular beer. Ever since we put Extra Medium on our rack, it just seems like things have gotten better.

The sun came out. The snow melted. And suddenly there are leaves on the trees and flowers are blooming.

People are smiling at the brewery more. There’s more laughter. There also seems to be more people hugging each other. The dogs are wagging their tails more. Even that big grumpy guy behind the bar has been in a better mood lately.

I’m sure that the food is tasting better, because we’ve had more than one food truck flat out run out of food while parked on our patio.

The Twins have started winning again.

The stock market is up.

Heck, after almost 70 years, the Korean War finally officially ended.

You guys ever see Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure? Bill & Ted were a pair of 80’s slackers who formed a band called Wyld Stallyns, and their music eventually became the foundation for 1000 years of peace and prosperity in this world.

I’m not sayin’, I’m just sayin. Why couldn’t one beer change the world?

If you haven’t indulged in the Extra Medium, you’re going to want to get over to Imminent as soon as possible. All of our beer is really good, but this is a really, really good beer. Our descriptive menu says this about it:  “An unfiltered wheat beer with local honey, and drawing a distinct orange character from 4 hop varieties with mandarin/tangerine/clementine flavor. This beer is both dry hopped and “dry peeled” with bitter orange for maximum face-punching aroma and flavor. Not too light and not too heavy, this beer is the ultimate in medium.”

It’s really the perfect beer for Minnesotans. We don’t like anything to be too extreme, but at the same time we demand things be done properly and with care. That’s maybe the most spot-on description of this golden beverage.

And that reminds me, come in during the afternoon while the sun is out, get a pint of Extra Medium and then take it out onto the patio and hold the glass up to the sun. This beer gives off a glow unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. Could this be a sign that the Extra Medium is a gift from the Heavens? Anything is possible, I guess. They have beer in heaven, don’t they? I mean, after all this time, don’t you think the powers that be have gotten a little tired of wine? Martin Luther was a home brewer, wasn’t he? I’ll leave the theological debate to people smarter than me. Regardless, this beer looks really cool in the sunlight.

Look, I’m not saying that Extra Medium will make your life perfect. I’m not even promising that it will make your life better. But, if there’s a chance that it might, isn’t that worth coming to our place for a pint?

Tim's Gravel Grinder, perceived bitterness and this whole gluten reduced thing

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I stopped by the brewery the other day in search of answers, and I knew the Beer Geeks would be able to explain things to me.

Please understand that I use the term Beer Geek in a loving and respectful manner. Randy Clay, Justin Holden, Jared Allerson, Tessa Rogers, Stephen Vander Wal, Derek Myers and Laura Myers all know quite a bit about beer either from their experiences with home brewing or from their education, or combination of both. I myself have a pretty limited knowledge of the ins-and-outs of beer and what makes things what. These people are a tremendous resource for a guy like me, so I have a nickname for their little group. They are Beer Geeks.

Anyway, I was confused. Last week we unveiled our newest beer, Tim’s Gravel Grinder. It’s a Chinook IPA, which means this is a very hoppy beer made exclusively with Chinook hops. It’s also a gluten reduced beer, but we’ll get to that in more detail a little later.

My problem was that I didn’t like Tim’s Gravel Grinder and I couldn’t figure out why. My palate was telling me that this beer was far too bitter for my liking, but it was only hitting about 40 on the IBU (International Bittering Unit) scale. I don’t know much about beer, but I do know that 40 IBUs means the beer isn’t overly bitter.

So, when I got to the brewery, the first person I bumped into was Jared. I told him why I was there, and he attempted to explain the concept of “Perceived Bitterness” to me. Now, I realize that this is a little bit technical speak for many of you, but work with me here.

“IBUs aren’t necessarily going to tell you how bitter a beer tastes,” he said, “because it’s a scientific scale that measure the amount of [iso-alpha] acids. The acid content will have a lot to do with how bitter a beer is, but you also have to factor in things like malt character and some of the other ingredients. It could also be that you just don’t like the flavor of the Chinooks.”

Okay, so that made sense to me. Even though this beer doesn’t really rate high on the IBU scale, that doesn’t mean it’s not going to have a bitter flavor.

Eventually, Randy and Justin came over and joined our conversation. I still was a little unsure about using bitterness as a reason for not liking the beer. I like a good IPA. In fact, our double hopped Double Down IPA is one of my favorite beers ever. So, after a while, Randy asked me when had I tried the beer, and I told him that it was probably a week ago. He pulled a small sample of the Guard Down IPA and a sample of the Gravel Grinder for me, and asked me to compare the two. I tried the Guard Down, of which I am very fond, first. It was just what I expected. Guard Down is not what they call a “hop forward” beer; most of its flavor is in the aftertaste.

So, then I tried the Gravel Grinder again, and lo and behold, this was almost a completely different beer from what I had first experienced. It had mellowed, and in fact tasted sort of like the exact opposite of the Guard Down. All the flavor seemed to be up front, and it finished very subtly.

Randy has tried to explain this to me before: when beer ages, it changes. The flavors open up and evolve a little bit. I had tried the Gravel Grinder almost as soon as it was ready to be tapped, and didn’t care for it. A week later, whatever was going on with that beer was working for me. This was suddenly a very good beer.

The moral of the story is this: don’t be so quick to judge a beer. You might not like something on your first visit to Imminent, but try it again the next time you come in. You might be pleasantly surprised.

We should also discuss this Gluten Reduced thing.

Tim’s Gravel Grinder has been treated with something called Brewers Clarex. Essentially, it’s an enzyme that breaks down the gluten proteins in beer. The additive has been used by brewers for a long time to eliminate haze and make the beer look clearer, but only recently have people figured out just exactly what it’s doing. By eliminating the amino acid chains that create gluten proteins, not only is the beer clearer, but most of the gluten has been removed as well.

We cannot legally use the term “Gluten Free” for reasons that pass my understanding, however I can say that the FDA calls anything with less than 20 gluten parts per million as gluten free. The Gravel Grinder came in at less than 10.

We’re also in the process of having the Gateway Cream Ale tested for gluten as well, and we anticipate that it will come back with the same results. Stay tuned for more information there.

So, that’s the story on Tim’s Gravel Grinder. Far more complicated than one would think for such a simple beer, but it made for some interesting conversation and I learned some stuff I thought you guys should know.

We’ll be open at 4 pm today. Come get yourself a Gravel Grinder.

Know your bartender: Stephen Vander Wal

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We hadn’t been open very long, so it was probably late June of last year. This was my first shift with Stephen Vander Wal, whom I did not know very well (even though we would later figure out that we had recently been across-the-street neighbors). I was trying to figure out what sort of person I was working with. I knew he was an enthusiastic home brewer, and I had an inkling that he was an engineer of some sort, but that was it.

Shortly after the beginning of our shift, a man walked into the brewery wearing some very bright, almost neon-yellow shoes. Steph greeted him politely and when the man responded Steph looked at him and said, “I’m sorry, I can’t hear you. Your shoes are so loud!”

That’s when I figured it out. Stephen Vander Wal: Very smart. Great lover of beer. King of the Dad Jokes.

Need more? Ask him where he grew up.

“Ogden, Utah,” he’ll tell you. “About an hour north of Salt Lake City. If Salt Lake City is the heart, Ogden is the liver.”

As funny as he (thinks) he is, he’s also a very talented engineer who specializes in designing… wait for it…

Breweries!

He’s a contract engineer, which is a fancy way to say “freelancer.” So, if I’m an aspiring brewer, and I go to Steph and ask him to help me build a facility to make my beer, what is he going to ask me?

“I’m going to ask you where you want to put the brewery. Then I’ll ask how many competitors do you think you’re going to have? Which will lead to ‘How big are you going to go? What are you trying to do? Are you going to make regular, everyday beers, or are you going to go 10% all day everyday?’ So, the answers to those questions will stipulate how we build a system.”

Then he’ll go to work.

“I do all the manufacturing drawings and plans for the tank manufacturers. So, I tell them how much steel they need and how to put it together.”

Essentially, he’s the guy who designs the tanks, gives the manufacturers the shopping list, and writes the instructions for how to put the tanks together. It’s a pretty impressive skill, but isn’t it sort of a niche thing?

“Well, I work with several manufacturers. And breweries are just one aspect of my business. I do after market trunk bumpers. I do cast iron skillets. I’ve done disposable razors. I’ll do anything. I’m open. I’m game.”

Steph went to school in Utah, which is where he met his wife, Lisa. After they graduated, they lived in Oregon for a number of years, before deciding that they wanted to be closer to Lisa’s family in Wisconsin.

“We just sort of landed here. We got into our cars in Oregon, my wife and me and our two-year-old daughter, and said the goal was to land in the Twin Cities. If we made it there, great, and if not, we’d just set up shop where were. “

Not being able to resist the opportunity for another Dad Joke he added, “Now, if we had broken down in the middle of Wyoming we may have had to think twice about that plan.”

“But we made it,” he continued. “We got to the Cities and were staying with some of Lisa’s family. We started looking around, found a place in Northfield and thought ‘Yeah, this works.’

“Another year later we bought a house, and now we’re finally dropping some roots. This is our seventh house in eight years. We’re ready to be settled.”

He and his family have found Northfield to be the perfect spot for both work and family.

“My background, prior to doing this design work, was in medical devices and orthopedic implants. So, if this goes to hell, I’ll have some fallback in the medical device field in either the Cities or in Rochester. If I ever do need to get what my wife calls ‘a real job,’ then I would be okay.”

He’s been a home brewer since he was 21 (or as he puts it, “Let’s just say since I was 21.”) With a full time job, a part time job and a hobby all centered beer, it’s not a great jump to assume that he’s a man who enjoys a good beer.

“I’m always a sucker for a good pale ale, so I’ve got that locked down. Being out west, it was the big IPA’s, and I love those. I’ll chase after a caisson anytime, or an oatmeal stout. I really haven’t come across a beer that I would turn away.”

But make no mistake; he’s a family man first and foremost. It isn’t just the corny jokes that give that away.

“Ultimately, the reason I decided to go into this contract work is to be able to be with the kids while they’re young. Having two little girls is a party every day,” he said.

“So far, things are working out. We’re in a good spot.”

Know your Brewmaster: Randy Clay

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If Randy Clay were to brag a little bit, it would be understandable. They guy is an owner of a very popular local brewery after all. In fact, he’s the brewmaster, which means he is directly responsible for the creation of one of the prime reasons for the brewery’s popularity: the beer.

But try to get him to take credit for any of the success at Imminent Brewing, and he will quickly point out that his partners have more contact with the paying customers than he does. Or ask him about his time with Bon Appetit as the Board Manager of the on-campus food service at St. Olaf College, when his cafeteria was regularly being ranked among the top five in the country, and he’ll talk about the executive chef or how Bon Appetit is a “great company.” Ask him about the medals he has won as a competitive home brewer, and he will conveniently forget the name of the 1000 entry contest in Chicago where he won a gold medal and a 3rd Place Best-in-Show for his pale ale. When he points out that he and Jimmy Stewart are from the same home town, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and his interviewer then asks if all people from Indiana are as charming as he and Jimmy Stewart, he’ll just mock the question.

He’s a humble guy. And he makes some darn fine beer.

Born and raised in Western PA, he’ll tell you that the first transformative time in his life came when he moved from his hometown to Colorado. Not just because it was the first time he saw the better part of the country, and not just because it was where he honed his hospitality skills as a server at the Vintage Hotel in Winter Park and the Grand Lake Lodge on the Western edge of the Rocky Mountain National Park.

Mostly it’s because that was when he met Northfield native Tonja Larson, the woman he would one day marry. It’s also because that was when he was introduced to the world of craft beers.

“I knew there was more to life than Macro Beer, but then when I got to Colorado, my mind was completely blown. This was the mid-90’s, and micro-brews were starting to happen out there. Not to the level they are happening now, but Colorado has always been ahead of the curve for brewing and craft brewing. Even back then New Belgium brewing was underway with Fat Tire, there were a couple others in Fort Collins. Boulder Brewing was another one back then. And there were a couple little tiny ones, like Silver Plume Brewing Company, right off of I-70 near Breckenridge. They had a Blackberry Porter that changed my life.

“It changed from the quantity of the beer that I was drinking to the quality of the beer.”

After a few years in Colorado, he followed Tonja back to Northfield, and that was truly where his brewing career began in earnest.

“Our first Christmas here, Tonja bought me a Learn-to-Home-Brew kit. She said, ‘You’re not going to find all those beers from Colorado in Minnesota, so you’re going to have to start making your own.’

“That’s a pretty special person to recognize that.”

Over the next twenty years, Tonja and Randy got married and started a family. Randy went to work for the Leann Chin Company as a manager and trainer, and then took his position with Bon Appetit.  All the while he was honing his skills as a brewer. But he eventually hit a point where he had become frustrated.

“After six or seven years, I hit a point where I was too intense. Tonja told me I wasn’t having any fun when I was doing it, and she was right. I was stressed out trying to make perfect beer. I decided that I either needed to quit doing it, or I needed to get better and figured out how to make it fun. So that’s when I joined a club, the St. Paul Home Brew Club and started having other people evaluate my beers and telling me what was right and what was wrong, and I immediately got better. And at some point, I just stopped buying beer. It was obvious that I was making beer that was better than the stuff you could buy at the store.”

Thinking, and rightly so, that there had to be more home brewers in Northfield than just him, he and Gabe Meerts founded Northfield’s now famous Mill Town Mashers Home Brew Club.

And it was with the Mashers where he eventually met Laura and Derek Myers, with whom he and Tonja would found Imminent Brewing.

“When we started talking about this, I started taking steps to make sure I could do it. I met with other professional brewers who had started out as home brewers, and I started brewing with any pro brewer that would let me brew with them on their system. I took some online classes. I knew enough to know that I didn’t know everything, and I was confident that I could make it happen. But I didn’t want to be cocky and do this just because I make really good beer. There’s a lot more that goes into it than that.

“Just because you can cook a good Thanksgiving dinner doesn’t mean you should open a restaurant.”

But, like we said, he does make really good beer. Randy says the his best recipe is probably the Gateway Cream Ale, because it’s the beer he’s made the most and worked at the longest. But he teasingly says his favorite beer that he makes is a Munich Dunkel that has not yet appeared on the Imminent menu.

“It’s a German Dark Lager,” he said. “It’s fantastic.”

So, honestly, though, there has to be some point of pride in being one of Imminent Brewing’s four cornerstones, isn’t there?

“I love being able to watch people enjoy our product,” he said. “There’s a lot of pride that comes with that. And the acceptance we’ve received from the community of our business is beyond words.”

And then the humility quickly kicks back in.

“People say ‘You’ve made your dreams come true,’ and I say ‘Well, no, actually the town has made them come true.’ The community space is what we dreamt about. And you can’t make that happen; you can try, but you can’t force it. And to see this happening is awe-inspiring. I can’t overstate it. It makes the challenge to doing this worth it.”