something in the water
When I visit small brewpubs tucked into modest spaces I always wonder, “where is the brewhouse?” At larger facilities such as Granite City, the beer is started in Iowa and then the wort is shipped to be fermented at individual restaurants. Rock Bottom locations often have large vessels visible to the public and some of the grain is stored off site.
Credit: Heavy Table
At Great Waters, which is located in the historic Hamm’s building in Downtown St. Paul, the secret is in the basement. After all, they produce about 90 different beers annually and there is not much brewing space in the dining area.
There is one very special element about this basement: a historic, unregulated well that is only used by Great Waters. The water is especially useful in their cask ales which they are known for and negates the need for reverse osmosis treatment. It lends consistency, purity, and a unique element.
Cask ales were part of Great Water’s niche from the beginning. Seeking to produce something different from the rest of the beer in the mid-90’s, they were inspired by another brewery called Sherlock Home (which actually closed shortly after Great Waters opened). Today, where cask ales have become increasingly popular, Great Waters still has about four on their menu daily.
The day of my visit there were six force-carbonated beers in addition to the casks. I started with the Prince Ludwig Dunkelweizen since I have one fermenting now. Although it didn’t stick out to me as a Dunkel, it was a good, balanced choice for a hot day beer. I didn’t get enough of a sense of wheat or phenols that the style usually embodies, but the bready and Vienna malt notes were spot on. All in all, I just wanted more.
The beer only got better form there. I sampled the Skyline IPA which was a bitter treat almost reminiscent of an amber.
My favorite of the evening was the Black Watch Stout on cask. The roasted malt and sweet-sour notes were in good balance and the crisp but deep finish was intriguing. The temperature was perfect and the depth of flavor was enhanced by the lack of carbonation.
Carbon Dioxide is acidic and it can do several things to the flavor of beer. Generally speaking, carbonation is sour. It can increase hop bitterness and aroma, and sometimes it also masks maltiness. Take it away (or tone it down) and the balance shifts. Increase the temp a bit and it shifts even more.
I urge you to try the offerings at Great Waters. Note that they do not serve flights during peak hours (or before the Mumford & Sons concert, for example) and if you want to chat and learn pick a slower point in the day. Don’t skip out on the cask, either, the ancient technique is their flagship in a sense.