beer festival confidential: memoirs of an inside hoperative

Emotions were running high for me this weekend because A) it’s me and B) beer was involved. I know what you’re thinking: sounds like breakfast as usual. Very funny. But this was far more epic than breakfast.

It was the weekend after the 4th of July which meant it was the Hopped Up Caribou Beer Festival in Lutsen, MN which, in turn, meant the beer was flowing like those infamous runoff waterfalls all along Highway 61.

For those of you out of the loop, let me see if I can sum this up: imagine your weekend starting with a Friday night mixer, imbibing craft beers with the brewers themselves, while munching on a menu of beer-inspired appetizers and desserts. Then you roll outta bed Saturday morning to find a hearty breakfast buffet complete with bottomless Bloody Marys. That’s just the ‘preliminaries’–the big show starts at 3 p.m. The band starts playing, the burgers and brats hit the grill, and brewers from all around Minnesota and the rest of the Midwest start filling your commemorative glass with craft brews, both classic favorites and festival exclusives.

hopped up glass

We call that the “Full Barrel” package, ladies and gentlemen. And it sells out faster than a Red Hot Chili Peppers concert. Why? Because Minnesotans know craft beer is a good investment.

I’ve been to all four of these things, and they just keep getting better. As a pessimist, that’s really hard for me to say. But, honestly, every year of Hopped Up has been a big upgrade, streamlining beer intake for hundreds of North Shorriors, both local and honorary.

I always start the day working. It’s my biggest bartending gig of the year–the Bloody Mary Breakfast Buffet. My restaurant, Moguls, already has a killer Bloody Mary; a chef’s secret recipe mix coupled with our infused vodka, soaked through with fresh peppers, onions, garlic, and a slew of other ingredients to give it an extra kick. Throw in a spread of gourmet garnishes–like tequila-lime jalapenos and red-wine-sun-dried-tomato baby corn–made by yours truly and you’ve got a breakfast of champions. Also there’s eggs and stuff there, or whatever.

It’s an invigorating morning that gets me pumped. People love the guy pouring the vodka. And, as a bonus, I got my Lesli back this year. This Peruvian princess and I used to the be the backbone of any wedding and banquet that passed through the Lodge. Even though she sold out and moved to the Cities, I won’t hold it against her.

Been a couple years since the Dream Team tackled a banquet, but we got right back into the swing of things.
Been a couple years since the Dream Team tackled a banquet, but we got right back into the swing of things.

After the breakfast, I continue to “work” but that definition gets a little loose. Yes, I tear down, clean up, and move tables like a pro, but there’s only one thought on my mind–what’s a guy gotta do to get outta here and attend that sweet, sweet beer festival?!

This is the one day a year I’m an angel. Everything by the book. Santa’s coming and I gotta be a good boy if I want him to bring me endless pours of craft beer. Because once I get that first sip, every groan, ache, pain, and “lift from the knees!” is worth it.

All the rockstars of the brewing world were in place–Fitgers, Town Hall, Summit, and South Shore, to name just a few–along with some of the newer recruits like Third Street, and, for the first time, the very in-demand gang from Bent Paddle.

Fitger’s brought a rhubarb version of their 2-time-winning Hopped Up Favorite Apricot Wheat. Third Street infused their Rise to the Top Cream Ale with raspberries and vanilla for a “Raspberry Cream Pie” effect. Bent Paddle brought a cold-press-infused ale usually only available in their taproom to compete with Surly‘s classic Coffee Bender. Schell’s debuted a hoppy lager not even on the market yet.

And while it was fun to try special versions of my favorite beers, it was also exciting to try the fare of some of the breweries I never get a chance to visit, like St. Croix Brewing Company, with their cask-aged ale that’s a real gamechanger. Or Boathouse, out of Ely, who usually takes a placing with their delicious Blueberry Blonde, but I found their Off-Kilter Scottish Wee Heavy to not only be the best of their taps, but the best of the whole damn beer festival! Must. Get. A. Growler.

*Check out the full list of brewers here.

It was truly Beer Heaven. Sip by sip, as I made my way through the handy-dandy checklist, chatting with the real brewers–not some marketing rep that’s pushing product–I started to realize the level of camaraderie between midwestern brewers. It feels as much like a family reunion as it does a concert of all your favorite bands. And even though we hand out an award for favorite beer after all the votes are tallied, there’s no saltiness. No bad blood. Because–at the worst–everyone, brewer and drinker alike, still got to spend the weekend up north, doing what they do best.

Speaking of, this year Hopped Up was proud to give that illustrious tap handle trophy to one of the oldest microbreweries in Duluth, Lake Superior Brewing, for their tasty, citrusy, perfect-for-a-summer-day Rusty Nut Radler.

For the people, by the people, baby!

It was a good weekend. Not just because of the beer, but because of all the familiar faces that it brought home. Not only does beer taste good, it does good too.

The party lives on: #hoppedupcaribou

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