Western Canada’s Most Popular Beers are Local
Beer Hunting in Greater Madison, Part 1 — Minhas Craft Brewery, Monroe, Wisconsin; the first in a series.
Not much of the exterior of the 1845 brewery remains.
In 2006, at age 24, Ravi Minhas purchased the former Joseph Huber brewery in Monroe, Wisconsin, and named it after himself. It’s now Minhas Craft Brewery.
Could this be the worst thing to happen under the guise of craft brewing in the country?
Probably not. With the arguable exception of Huber Bock, the Joseph Huber Brewing Company in Monroe, Wisconsin never produced any really outstanding beers. The Berghoff label, which was — and is — still brewed at the plant under contract, offers a number of drinkable beers, but none of them get a lot of critical acclaim. And Huber brewed Augsburger — a decent beer, positioned to compete with Michelob — in the 1970s. It was subsequently sold to Stroh’s, killed, then briefly revived by Stevens Point Brewing.
Still, I wanted to love this brewery … really. It’s the second oldest brewery in the country (after D. G. Yuengling and Son Inc. in Pottsville, PA). It inherited some of the grand old names in Wisconsin Beer … including Huber, Rhinelander, and Wisconsin Club, among others. And under Minhas, its growth has been spectacular.
In 2002, before Ravi got involved, the Joseph Huber Brewery was chugging along at approximately 40,000 barrels per year. After Ravi became involved in 2003 — first contract brewing his Mountain Crest and other beers, then in 2006 buying the brewery outright, production hit around 300,000 barrels in 2008. That’s the good news — it means new jobs, increased contributions to the tax base, and other economic stimuli for Monroe and Green County, Wisconsin. And the brewery has a great mini-museum of old beer memorabilia.
It’s now the 14th largest brewery in the US although, despite the name, Brewers Association doesn’t include Minhas in its list of craft brewers — simply lumping it among Anheuser-Busch InBev, MillerCoors, and Pabst (#1, 2, 3 respectively; with #2 and #3 being Chicago-based).
In terms of volume, Minhas is ranked just behind Iron City in Pittsburgh, and larger than F. X. Matt (home of the crappy beer I drank in college, Utica Club, plus some good beers under the Saranac label). It’s also larger than regional favorites Bell’s (#21) and Goose Island (#22). There’s speculation that Minhas will break into the top ten soon.
These days, Minhas’ primary labels are Mountain Crest Gold Lager, Lazy Mutt Farmhouse Ale, Billy Bock, Swiss Style Amber (a reference to the Swiss heritage of the Monroe area), and 1845 Pils (commemorating the year the brewery was founded). They’re also making a number of sodas under the Blumer name (a tribute to one of the brewery’s early owners), a number of “alcopops” (malt-based, flavored beverages, similar to brands like Mike’s Hard Lemonade, Smirnoff Ice, et al), and an energy drink.
So if they’re so big, why am I not familiar with any of their beer labels, other than Huber and Berghoff – both relatively minor brands around these parts? Maybe it’s because my brain, besotted with so many great local ales and lagers, refuses to cooperate at times. Maybe it’s because I’m not sufficiently in touch with the Midwestern beer scene (a great excuse to drink even more local beers). Or, perhaps it’s because I don’t live in Western Canada.
Yeah, I’m going with that last one.
I’m too lazy to figure out what makes the economics work, but somehow Ravi determined a way to produce beer in Wisconsin, export it to Alberta and Saskatchewan, and sell it at lower prices than beers brewed there. And he’s been remarkably successful at it. 80% of Minhas’ production is exported to Canada, where it’s positioned as a “value brand.”
And “value brand” is also a good, if somewhat generous, way to summarize its beers’ flavors.
Of Mountain Crest, one Albertan, familiar with the beer, wrote, “ The reason Mountain Crest is so cheap is because it is owned by Calgarian Entrepreneurs who brew it in the United States to save money, then import it to Canada and sell it as a cheap alternative to good beer. Their slogan “Damn Good Beer” is a legal form of libel as far as I’m concerned. The only way to drink this abomination is through large, desperate chugs that make you wanna crawl under your bed and die.”
That may be a bit harsh. If Red Dog is your Platonic ideal for a great beer, you might find Mountain Crest acceptable.
According to Minhas’ tour guide, their Lazy Mutt is on its way to becoming the brewery’s signature beer. Lazy Mutt, billed as a “farmhouse ale” — the same designation used for New Glarus’ far better signature brew, Spotted Cow — has a strong corn adjunct flavor, without any of the rich estery flavors that define well-made ales. Underlying the “value brand” positioning, its gimmick is that its “six-packs” contain eight bottles (the eight-pack concept is actually a leftover from the Joseph Huber Brewing days). Without personally passing judgment on whether or not it’s a good beer (okay, maybe I’ve hinted at my personal opinion already), I’ll just say that, based on 50 reviews, Beeradvocate gives it a grade of D+.
Among their other beers, the Billy Bock tastes like Huber Bock (a decent bock, with some nice, roasty flavors) under a different label. I found it interesting that Minhas’ 1845 Pils bills itself as “all malt.” (According the label, “Mr. Corn and Mr. Rice don’t live here! They are not even welcome here.”) Most craft beers are all-malt; it’s the mega-brewers like BudMilCoors that stretch alcohol content of their beers by mashing in adjunct ingredients that are cheaper than barley malt, like corn or rice, to up the alcohol content to 4% – 5%, without contributing much flavor. The fact that Minhas feels the need to tout this one beer as “all-malt” says a lot about its other beers.
But 1845 Pils does a great job of imitating a cheap adjunct beer without using adjuncts, if the label can be believed. It does have a nice, somewhat full body, but no hop taste or aroma, and a markedly grainy flavor. And if you mix the Mountain Crest and Billy Bock beers in a 2:1 ratio, you’ll get a beer that resembles their Swiss Style Amber … a beer with the tremendous power to shame anyone who takes pride in being Swiss.
And, keeping with the adjunct theme, all of you ‘Nawlins fans should know that, since Katrina, all your beloved Dixie Beer is brewed under contract at Minhas. New Orleans’ signature beer comes from Wisconsin these days.
I spoke briefly with the brewmaster, Kris Kalav, and asked about the yeasts Minhas use. Their primary yeast is from Schmidt, a famous old brewery in St. Paul, Minnesota. “It’s a very sturdy yeast,” he said. (The Schmidt brand is now owned by Pabst, and brewed under contract by Miller in Milwaukee). He went on to mention other yeasts, including a champagne yeast, that can ferment up to levels of 19% – 20%. It’s used to make a clear base, which is then diluted with water and flavorings to make their alcopops.
But knowing they have the capability to make high-alcohol beers, I asked him about the possibility of making a barley wine. “Oh, I don’t think that’d fly.” Clearly the brewmaster isn’t the guy in charge here.
Minhas actually creates an interesting contrast to another historic Wisconsin brewery, Stevens Point (fifth oldest brewery in the country, opened in 1851).
Prior to Minhas’ ownership, Joseph Huber Brewing was not particularly aggressive, and it did pump out a lot of adjunct-laden brews, but it was keeping alive some of Wisconsin’s older (admittedly adjunct-laden) historic brews. While retaining a bit of that, Minhas now seems to be striving to become a significant, efficient, low-cost macrobrewer – especially for the Western Canadian market.
An example of Minhas’ dedication to finding new methods to produce and distribute beers as efficiently as possible — the brewery is among the first to use plastic kegs with a disposable mylar insert to hold the beer. These are empty at the moment.
Stevens Point has gone in the opposite direction. Historically, it also produced adjunct-laden brews. But in recent years, it has supplemented its flagship Point Lager with a number of specialty beers, including a Cascade hops-based Pale Ale, a witbier, and some great seasonal beers (anyone up for a Nude Beach in the summer [an American Wheat Beer]?) Particularly worth seeking out are their limited release specialty ales, under the Whole Hog brand. I recently had their Whole Hog Imperial Pilsner, a rich, complex 8.5% ABV brew that pushes the pilsner model well beyond what any typical beer drinker could reasonably expect. It’s excellent.
Stevens Point has become a true craft brewer. Minhas Craft Brewery is not craft brewing. There’s a place in the world for cheap beer. Just don’t confuse cheap beers with craft beers, as they’re trying to do in Monroe.