Picnic Picks

Three beer cans surrounded by greenery
Picture of Bennett Porter

Bennett Porter

Bennett (he/him) is one of our Beer Cave Trolls, is a Certified Cicerone® and holds his WSET Level 3 Certification in Wines. You’ll see him lurking about the German pilsner and kölsch sections most often. He also enjoys Steel Toe, Odell, and La Croix and chocolate milk on occasion. If he wasn’t at France 44, he’d be trying to make it work as a full-time snowboard bum. He and his wife share a great Anatolian Shepherd named Bear.

Memorial Day weekend is here, marking the unofficial start to summer in the US. As you gather with friends and family to honor those who have served and enjoy the warmer weather, don’t forget to include some refreshing beers to complement your meal. Whether you’re firing up the grill or lounging in the park, here are some of our top recommendations for elevating your Memorial Day picnic experience.

Though they originated across the pond, IPA has become the quintessential American craft beer style. This new-school take on the West Coast IPA is the latest year-round offering from Plymouth’s Luce Line Brewing. An abundance of Citra Cryo, Simcoe and Strata hops deliver bright tangerine, peach and melon notes to complement the tapered malt bill. This is an IPA that delivers on flavor while retaining a great drinkability.

Late spring is when wheat beers emerge from their winter slumber to accompany beer drinkers on warm, sun-dappled afternoons. Fair State Hefeweizen offers refreshing aromas of banana, clove, vanilla and a prickle of citrus. On the palate it has a softly-textured bready malt flavor, restrained fruitiness and a crisp finish that begs another sip. Bavarian-style hefeweizens like this are particularly enjoyable alongside your favorite fruits, salads and picnic snacks. 

Feel free to disregard the snow-covered mountainscape that adorns this crispy pilsner’s label. Originally a limited winter release, Slopes has recently been upgraded to year-round status. This French-style pils drinks like freshly-fallen champagne powder: light, dry and smooth. French pilsner malt, a kiss of corn and a healthy dose of spicy, herbal Strisselspalt hops makes this a perfect thirst quencher for après-waterski.

The State of Craft Beer

Beer!
Picture of Bennett Porter

Bennett Porter

Bennett (he/him) is one of our Beer Cave Trolls, is a Certified Cicerone® and holds his WSET Level 3 Certification in Wines. You’ll see him lurking about the German pilsner and kölsch sections most often. He also enjoys Steel Toe, Odell, and La Croix and chocolate milk on occasion. If he wasn’t at France 44, he’d be trying to make it work as a full-time snowboard bum. He and his wife share a great Anatolian Shepherd named Bear.

From my decade-plus experience of selling beer at France 44, I have been fortunate to get a first-hand perspective of the craft beer boom. My favorite quip about working in craft beer is that “the only constant is change”, one of the principal reasons I have enjoyed this industry so much. As new beers arrive daily, often hourly, the beer cooler exists in a fluid state. Every week is different, requiring a constant effort to keep your finger on the pulse. With near limitless choices of ever-improving quality, there has never been a better moment to enjoy craft beer; yet behind the rose-colored lenses the industry faces a new version of change.

Beer Cooler

I’ve been reflecting a lot on what got us here, and what the future holds. How “fully fermented” is craft beer? Early craft beer drinkers were like yeast introduced to sugary wort: consuming, metabolizing, multiplying in numbers, along the way generating by-products of more breweries, more craft beer in more styles, and more flavor. The chemistry of this industry developed quickly, thriving like an active fermentation. It seemed like a new brewery was opening every day.

We rode that high for quite a while. Then the pandemic hit, fraying the fabric of in-person social interaction—the main environment in which craft beer is enjoyed. Its toll magnified a reality we learned to be true: the market had matured and become much more competitive. For the confluence of these reasons and more, I believe we’ve reached the “secondary fermentation” of craft beer, a period of slowing change and maturation.

•••

Bennett in the Beer CoolerAround the time I took my first shifts in the beer cooler was a particularly exciting time in the Minnesota craft beer scene. The recently passed “Surly Bill”, which allowed distributing breweries to sell their beer on-premise, opened the floodgates for new local craft breweries to plant their roots.

Up to this point, our beer selection looked much different. Swaths of shelf space were dominated by mid to large-sized regional breweries, most from out-of-state (e.g. Bell’s, Deschutes, Odell, etc). The local craft scene was just beginning to blossom. Brewery release calendars were steady and predictable back then. I could usually tell someone when to expect a certain seasonal offering. It was specifically the limited release bottles, often barrel-aged imperial stouts in tall glass and a fancy crown, that really generated peak excitement. I reflect fondly on my first few Surly Darkness releases when lines of people, lawn chairs and thermoses in hand, would form outside our doors in the early morning hours. Acquiring bottles of the most limited beers like these had become a sort of tradition for craft consumers.

This perpetual hunt to find the next rare beer was a nascent gamification for the widespread “gotta catch ‘em all” mentality that took over craft beer in the following years. BeerAdvocate, RateBeer and especially Untappd were all platforms on which users could rate and review the beers they had tried. Much like on social media, people became more aware of what beers their friends and peers were drinking, and if it was any good. Limited beers began to take on new faces: hazy New England-style IPAs featuring newly-developed hop varieties, pastry stouts with candy factory adjuncts, and smoothie sours saturated with fruit puree.  

Double False PatternThe “haze craze” was born, as hazy IPAs quickly became the hottest-selling beer style in our cooler. People who once lined up for stout releases turned to “truck chasing”: tracking down the freshest, juiciest, most-limited IPA drops from breweries like BlackStack, Drekker and Junkyard. Funny example, our Junkyard delivery driver would post his delivery route on Instagram, and by the time he arrived we’d have a crowd waiting to buy their beer. Genius! It was so crazy I actually had people actually grab beer out of my hands as I tried to keep the shelves stocked.

Like fuel to fire, soon we were juggling 50, 60, 70+ new beers coming through our doors every week. Sell out of one, replace it with another–wash, rinse, repeat. This became the environment in which most breweries had to operate to be successful. If you weren’t constantly developing new beers and flavors, you weren’t “staying atop the feed” in consumer’s minds. The results of these flavor pursuits were admittedly varied. It led to some of the best beers I’ve ever tried, and some of the worst. It was a time in craft beer when people responded well to gimmicks, us included. However, I think we reached a point of overstimulation that coincided with the eventual maturation of the craft beer market.

Today, it feels like we’ve come full circle. The onslaught of new beers continues, though at a more sustainable pace. Much to our satisfaction, maturing beer tastes have put a new focus on well-made craft lager styles (e.g. Pilsner, Helles, Bock) . Consumers are responding less to overengineered brews, as the risk of disappointment rises with the price point. Beer also faces fresh competition from the surging non-alcoholic and THC categories. In this “secondary fermentation” of craft beer, providing honest, dependable beer has become paramount.

Fairstate FestbierIt has never been tougher to decide what to stock our shelves with. Amongst the beer available to us there is a bit of amazing, a lot of great, and a sea of good, acceptable or worse. Our goal is to offer the freshest selection of the best quality beer we can provide. Although we make these decisions as a team, we rely on guidance from the most important people, our customers. Sharing your tastes and feedback with us is invaluable in shaping our selection and helps us best support the breweries that you want to thrive.

At this stage of craft beer, the future is in your hands. Support your local breweries and your locally-owned beer shops!

Drie Fonteinen

by Bennett

The complex, mystical nature of traditional Belgian lambic justifies its reputation as one of the more befuddling beer styles in existence. Born in the gently sloping farmlands of Payottenland and the Senne River valley that surround Brussels, Belgium, lambic beer is a rarity that offers a lense into the past. Unlike most beer styles whose fermentations are metabolized by a cultured yeast strain, lambic is fermented spontaneously by the ambient microflora around the brewery. Lambic brewers and blenders strive to harness the unpredictable, unique nature of wild fermentation to craft astonishingly complex, beautiful beers.

Spontaneously fermented beer has existed in this region since before Julius Caesar’s advancement into Northern Gaul over two millennia ago, when the campaigning Romans drank beer made from locally-grown wheat that surely underwent a non-controlled fermentation. After all, early brewers had no knowledge of the microbiology behind fermentation. Flip back to almost two millennia later, Louis Pasteur and Emil Christian Hansen were just making their breakthrough discoveries of fermentation and pure bred yeast cultures in the late 19th century.

Today, a vast majority of breweries have adopted the advancements of science, using pure cultured yeast for a controlled, predictable end product. And why not? The concept of making a living off years long, souring fermentations in expensive barrels, sometimes with whole hand-picked fruit, all to potentially end in disaster is a frightening prospect. I’d guess these lambic bottlers would say, “I’ll risk it for a biscuit.”

Of the less than 15 remaining brewers and blenders of lambic, Drie Fonteinen from Beersel, Belgium is highly revered. Established in 1953, the Dutch “Three Fountains” is an ode to the three hand pumps that once served lambic at the original 19th century inn and lambic blending business on the property. Anton and Raymonde Debelder built a respected lambic blendery and restaurant over the next three decades, eventually handing the reins to their sons Armand and Guido.

Until 1998, Drie Fonteinen operated strictly in lambic blending—purchasing lambic from the surrounding breweries to age, blend and bottle at their own discretion. Armand finally took a leap of faith and installed a leased brewhouse, becoming the newest lambic brewery in almost eighty years. Drie Fonteinen’s most distinguished lambics are now produced fully in-house under new successors to the Debelders, but they still source from other local lambic breweries. You can typically determine if the beer is 100% Drie Fonteinen or a blend from other breweries by the color of the bottle—brown for proprietary lambic, green for blends. 

Making traditional lambic at Drie Fonteinen is a much different process than your average beer. A grist of pale malt and raw, unmalted wheat is used to make a turbid mash, producing a low conversion, cloudy wort with abundant levels of dextrin, proteins and complex sugars—perfect food for wild yeasts and bacteria. 15 year aged Challenger and Hallertauer hops are added to the boil, lending their antimicrobial, preservative qualities but minimal bitterness or discernable hop character. After a lengthy boil, the lambic is transferred to the coolship—a large, open, shallow vessel where the wort cools quickly and begins inoculation by the local non-cultured yeasts and bacteria. Old French oak red wine barrels are then filled with the fermenting lambic and moved to age in a climate-controlled environment. The lambic will age for one to three years in the barrel. During this time, the beer will undergo a series of overlapping fermentations by competing microorganisms that metabolize the nutrients in the wort. In the case of fruit lambics, ripe whole fruit will be macerated with a younger lambic until the desired characteristics have been achieved. 

When barrels are ready, it is time for blending and bottling. Blending lambic is more art than science, something done with experienced instinct. Younger lambics, which offer freshness and the residual sugar necessary for bottle conditioning, are blended with the matured lambic, which brings drying complexity. The best lambics are funambulist efforts—high-risk, high-reward beers that display a sure-footed balance of lactic tang and animalic funk.

Drie Fonteinen lambics are a curious indulgence that every adventurous beer drinker or natural wine lover should consider when that “risk it for a biscuit” mood strikes.


 

Drie Fonteinen Oude Geuze – $14.99/375ml

A traditional oude geuze blend of one-, two, and three-year-old lambic sourced from Boon and Drie Fonteinen. This masterfully-made geuze is a great entry point into the world of lambic. 

3 fonteinen Frambozenlambik 2018 ass 68 | Belgian Whalez

Drie Fonteinen Frambozenlambik – $36.99/375ml

This traditional raspberry lambic uses whole, hand-picked raspberries to macerate for four months with a young lambic. Each bottlecontains over half a cup of raspberries. The raspberries add a gentle pink hue and a bright fruitiness that opens in the glass.

3 Fonteinen Schaarbeekse Kriek 75cl | Beer MerchantsDrie Fonteinen Schaarbeekse Kriek – $69.99/750ml

Schaarbeeks are a tart cherry variety indigenous to the area northwest of Brussels. The fruit has a long history in Belgium but is seldom grown, the diminishing number of cherry trees falling victim to suburban sprawl. Drie Fonteinen crowd sources these special cherries from local family orchards. The handpicked fruit is macerated for 14 months in the barrel with one- and two-year-old lambic. Each bottle contains over a cup of these Schaarbeek cherries. 100% Schaarbeek Kriek is considered a limited specialty from lambic producers.

3 Fonteinen Oude Geuze Cuvée Armand & Gaston – CraftShack - Buy craft beer online.Drie Fonteinen Cuvée Armand & Gaston – $99.99/1.5L Magnum or $34.99/750ml

This cuvée, named after the son and father who have led Drie Fonteinen throughout its history,  is a traditional oude geuze made from a blend of one-, two- and three-year-old lambic all brewed in-house. No two bottlings are alike, as there are many variables in the blending process.