Kids are great. I love my children immensely. They are a blessing to both my wife and me. There are times though when to adults just need some time away. This past weekend was one of those times for us. We needed some time away to enjoy each other’s presence and not worry about when the kids need to eat, if they cleaned up appropriately, or determine if it is OK for TV time. We needed a slow paced weekend to recharge and relax AND focus on each other for the betterment of our relationship (and sanity).
I worked with one of my wife’s sisters and help set everything up. Come noon on Friday afternoon we would be kid free for over 48 hours. Earlier that same week I began planning details of our trip, where to go, places to visit and see, where we would eat, etc. Seeing as though we both had not visited before, I determined we would view the Apostle Islands in extreme northern WI. I had heard amazing things about them and some of the images looked pretty spectacular. (I have to say they were pretty amazing, I shared a few below.)
One thing that a beer connoisseur tends to think about on any journey away from the norm is where to get a tasty pint when in a new place. Knowing we were out in no man’s land in the north woods of WI, (sparsely populated, Ashland is one of the largest “cities”, population at approximately 8,200), I packed some of my own wares should I want a quality beer later on while spending some time with my wife and discussing our daily adventures.
In addition to planning a nice romantic getaway weekend I also, by chance, checked to see if there were any breweries in the area. After I did a few searches for things to do for my special lady and I, one brewery showed up, South Shore Brewery. I was familiar with it as I have had a couple of their beers in the past. The Rhoade’s Scholar Stout and their most well known beer, the Nut Brown Ale. All of their beers are quite good overall. None of them is at the world class, top notch, or beyond amazing levels BUT they are well done, quality, everyday beers. All of them! By setting up a brewery tour I hoped to find out why.
I emailed to set up a time and was greeted promptly with a response within two hours. +1 already! Come to find out, they were also doing an event that day complete with food and live music. +2! While I was not able to make it in for some of those festivities (-1 on my behalf) I did get some time with head brew master Bo Belanger on the tour for 5pm.
First off, the brewery and tap house are a humble affair. These are true honest people who are passionate about what they do. They don’t need all the craziness that goes into some of the upscale taprooms that are out there. They are there to make good beer and do some sharing of it with others in the modest sized taproom. These people do everything themselves from brew the beer to bottling it!
Speaking of the taproom, a nice touch was a turntable with a huge selection of vinyl so that any patrons could select whatever they wanted! Coupled with the shuffleboard table, it lent to a fun, intimate environment. It was also easy to see that they were still in the progress of renovating their current space to make it into what they envision… No need to share that though.
On to the tour!
Let me start out by saying that Bo is an excellent tour guide. I have to admit that when I first got in, I grabbed a Rhoade’s Scholar Stout, I looked around and thought, “a tour? I can see it all from here…”. I couldn’t be happier to have been wrong. What appeared to be a 3 min tour turned out to last well over 45 minutes.
Bo walked us through the entire brewing process, explaining each stage. I loved that he took time to explain what sets his brewery apart from many others. The first item that he shared was that they source all of their barley from local farmers whom they partner with in a symbiotic relationship. The farmer(s) they work with are located in Mason, WI which is a short drive from Ashland/Washburn where the brewery is located. Bo partnered with them to grow the type of barley (two row), and treat the fields as needed so as to get the finished grains that he was after. In return he would supply the used barley as feed for the cattle.
Interesting factoid: Barley used for beer, roasted or not, retains 92% of its nutritional value for cattle as part of their food regimen.
The partnership formed was a win win and one that was highly sustainable in the process. The relationship has now grown to the point in which they have a five brewer strong cooperative for their barley source. Bo then had us taste the barley itself from the base grains to the caramel and nut flovored varieties they use for the Nut Brown Ale. It was great to experience how you can get such dynamic changes in flavor from the SAME grain just harvested and roasted/dried at different times and then used in different quantities in the brewing process. As many of you reading probably know beer making is as much science as it is an art! Bo has a great mix of both!
As for the hops, which are obviously essential, he sources them from the Wausau, WI and the Rosholt, WI areas. Literally in my back yard! Who knew? He explained the hop growing process and what he looks for in the hop flowers, the resin generating portions of the flower and more. It was again evident that he not only knows his stuff but was extremely passionate about brewing.
After the tour I got a further sample of their beers. I tasted their Cream Ale, their Wisconsin Pale Ale, a Coffee Mint stout, and, most surprising , at the top of my list was their Meloria, a sour ale. While I am not a big fan of sours this one was rather good. A nice sour character but not over the top. A nice hint of fruity cherry notes followed by a slight bit of sweetness followed by a muted dry finish.
As most brewers know if you are going to introduce a sour into your portfolio you need to take a lot of precautions or you can literally spoil your whole operation. Bo brews this beer some twenty miles away in their old brewpub/restaurant location in Ashland, WI so as not to risk any contamination at their Washburn, WI main brewing facility. He mentioned to me that they will not even put a pre-tapped keg of it into their refrigerator unit. That is dedication to quality!
In closing, if you ever find yourself at the northern part of Wisconsin and are not sure what to do, or, want to take a brewery inspired trip to the Apostle Islands, make it a point to visit the South Shore Brewery. They have some good beer and are some great, inspired people.