Drinking at the Minnesota State Fair is all about balance. You don’t want anything too thick or heavy, nor anything too dry. You’re looking for something crisp and tart, light and refreshing. Something to pep you up. Something to help you slink amidst 100,000 of your closest statesmen. Something to help wash away whatever cheese and oil situation your palate and your body is currently enduring.
With this in mind, we set out to sample the 10 new beers and ciders available at the 2016 Minnesota State Fair. Our rankings are not precise or objective, and your personal results may vary. Everyone handles the chaos and olfactory onslaught of the Fair with a different mindset, so defer to your own tastes. We’ll try to point you to the right new beverage at the Fair for you…
Three Not To Miss: Sangria, Cookies, Mules
Schell’s Red Sangria Lager (Lulu’s Public House, Schell’s Pavilion)
On the heels of the successful Grain Belt Blu, our favorite new State Fair beverage is another slushy-topped fruit beer in the West End Market. Schell’s Red Sangria Lager is exactly what you expect to taste at the Fair—something gimmicky, bold, and sweet. The flavor is intensely fruity—a lovely melange of orange, cranberry, and currents. It finishes with some astringency, almost like tea, and the frozen slushy topping adds texture and keeps its temperature all the way down. This is fun in a plastic cup, people. Order a round.
Big Wood Brewing Chocolate Chip Cookie (Andy’s Grille)
It’s really hard to mimic the flavor of a sweet baked good in a beer without affecting the pleasure of drinking it as a beer. So it’s best not to drink Big Wood’s Chocolate Chip Cookie expecting something like liquified Toll House. Instead, you’ll find a light, cocoa-forward ale, with a little bit of roast and a twinge of coffee. Only half of the glass is rimmed with cocoa nibs—which is perfect because half the people will like them, and half will fastidiously fleck them away. You get the chocolate and not all the sweetness. Drink this in lieu of your second trip to Sweet Martha’s.
Sweetland Orchards Minnesota Mule Cider (Ball Park Cafe)
If this drink were called Sweetland Orchard Margarita Cider, it would have a perfect score by our judge’s criteria. It’s a florescent green with a floating wedge of lime. The flavor is punchy and direct—ginger, lime citrus, minerals. It starts like a margarita and finishes like a white wine. Crushable and lively. A tart, refreshing glass of citrus that should replace every Lime-A-Rita sold at the Fair. (Drink it with Ball Park’s legendary onion rings).
The new Fair-exclusive beers that were just regular beers and not gimmicks: They were all quite good
Bent Brewstillery Sweat Together IPA (Ball Park Cafe)
Bent’s brewmaster Kristen England collaborates with Jeff Taylor, a gold medal winner for the 2015 State Fair homebrew competition, for a hefty, promising West Coast IPA. It’s a dark amber-colored ale with a remarkable hop and citrus aroma, and a full body of caramel and citrus. Dry and rich. Fans of Bad Weather Windvane and Steel Toe Rainmaker will love this.
Fulton Frontier Amarillo IPA (Frontier Bar)
A solid ale. A light, dry IPA. If you like Sweet Child and The Ringer, you’ll recognize the taste of a Fulton pale ale in this one. It’s crisp, clean, and well-attenuated. It tells you exactly what Amarillo hops taste like. No BS here, just a good beer.
Summit Hop Merger IPA (Summit on a Stick, Int’l Bazaar)
The copper coloring doesn’t suggest wheat beer, but the nose has that Bell’s Oberon tropical fruit creeping up. Clean and wheaty, with a patient bitterness and astringency that build through the sip. I doubt we’d ever think of it as a “White” IPA—maybe just a good IPA. Refreshing. An ideal beer to pair with cheese curds.
A novelty that mostly worked
Sociable Cider Werks Caramel Apple Cider (Giggle’s Campfire Grill)
A really good cider. Exactly what you want at the Fair. Biting and direct, with a flavor that screams apple from the rooftops. It has a good amount of sweetness, though nothing too caramel-like. And the balance is there, with healthy acidity throughout. Finishes clean. We like the look of the caramel-drizzled apple floating in the glass, but the taste was a bit soggy and bland, and it sheds particulate into the otherwise enjoyable cider.
Three other novelties that split our judges
Lakes And Legends Sweet Corn Summer Ale (O’Gara’s)
This beer will remind you of macro-produced adjunct lagers. It’s that corny aftertaste—that severe drift of body towards the finish. But that’s also the exact point of corn beers—the most popular kind of beers for most of America’s brewing history. It doesn’t reproduce the sweet, kernely, tactile pleasure of sweet corn on the cob, and there are some Belgian esters in play that make odd bedfellows with the corn. Still, it mostly delivers on what we’d like in a corny beer—a light body and a nice dry finish.
Bent Paddle Hopmosa (Ball Park Cafe)
We love Bent Paddle’s Bent Hop IPA, the base beer for this infusion. We also love mimosas. But this beer runs exactly contrary to its namesake cocktail. The orange flavor is pithy and bitter instead of lush and sweet. It smells like orange soda, not orange juice. You have to focus on the “hop” part of hopmosa to understand this beer. It’s not poorly made by any stretch, just aggressively dry, bitter, and parching on its own. That said, it’s well-suited to pair with the fried culinary assault of the Fair—an able foil to the curd, the ring, and the pup.
Bad Weather Funnel Cloud (Mancini’s Al Fresco)
Funnel Cloud has a nose full of oatmeal and graham cracker, the body has pronounced maltiness, and there’s a wisp of sweetness on the finish. It seems like it was made conscious of the fact that pastry beers are often too sweet. So it pulls back hard, coming off more like an off-dry amber or ESB. There’s enough hops in the bill to dissuade you from thinking “fried dough,” instead your mind goes to “light red ale.” Really wish this one was served with a mini funnel cake to strengthen the parallel.
One we didn’t get to try
Cannon River Hard Cider (Grandstand)
We’ll be back at the fair early next week to try the new hard cider offering at the Grandstand.
Note: Each beer was judged on a very non-scientific scale of attributes including presentation, overall quality, execution of concept, and State Fair-ness (the quality of a beer being appropriate for it’s surroundings). All judgments are solely those of Editor-in-Chief Joseph Alton and Senior Editor John Garland.