Reviews, Commentary and Opinions on Midwest Craft Beer and Microbreweries


Beer Reviews

Northwest Passage IPA

Flat Earth Brewing Co.
St. Paul, MN

Style: India Pale Ale (IPA)
ABV: 6.5%

Nigel’s Rating:
one beerone beerone beerone beerone beer   (Recommended)

There are a few things every Midwesterner knows about the craft beer scene in Minnesota:

  1. When compared to other Midwestern states, with the exception of Iowa, Minnesota has a long way to go to catch up. Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio are worlds ahead of the Land of 10,000 Lakes in terms of craft beer production and quality.

  2. Everyone has had a Summit Extra Pale Ale at some point in their lives. Based in St. Paul, Summit is the biggest and best known craft brewer in Minnesota and until recently, really didn’t stand out much. To their credit, some recent special edition brews and their tasty Horizon Red Ale have changed that stereotype a bit, as did a solid IPA brewed for their 25th anniversary last year.

  3. Grain Belt … sadly … is still the state beer of Minnesota. Never had a Grain Belt? Well … have you ever nearly drowned in Lake Superior right as a coal barge is passing by? The water that nearly overtook you was the flavor equivalent of Grain Belt.

  4. Surly. Everyone knows Surly due in equal parts to its quality, its funky image, and its very limited availability, which is relegated to the Twin Cities metro and a few select outposts in the state. The infamous Brooklyn Center brewer is in the process of expanding, we shall see what that means in terms of distribution.

With that in mind, when I traveled back to the Twin Cities for the first time in over a year on the first leg of our spring vacation/road trip, I figured on doing what I did the last time I was there: stocking up on Surly. Summit is as prevalent in Wisconsin as it is in its home state, so I typically go after Surly, Surly, and more Surly when in Minnesota, as there isn’t much else to tickle the taste buds.

Before we departed to spend a day at the Mall of America, I hit a local liquor store in Bloomington in search of Surly. They had no Surly. Fortunately, the gentleman on duty pointed me to another liquor store just down the road that “had an ‘in’ with them,” them being Surly (and that statement making me wonder if Surly is run by the mob). Sure enough … they had Surly abound. And, somewhat surprisingly, an entire door of their cooler designated to Minnesota brews.

In said cooler was the anticipated Surly and Summit, the aforementioned Grain Belt, as well as a couple of “near” Minnesota brewers like Rush River, based in River Falls, Wisconsin. Also present was Brau Brothers, a well-received brewery in tiny Lucan, population 220 (it says so on EVERY package … for the Badger Dorks, it’s the Lake Louie of Minnesota), Fulton, another new brewery based in Minneapolis, and Flat Earth, a St. Paul-based brewer that seems to enjoy bomber bottles. Being aware of but never having sampled Brau Brothers and having never even heard of Flat Earth or Fulton, I picked up a few of each in addition to my Surly.

With the next part of our road trip taking us to craft beer poor South Dakota, we filled the cooler and trunk with Minnesota brews and I sampled my first Flat Earth selection, an American Pale called Angry Planet, the following evening. It was fine, but did little to inspire. I saved my other bomber, Northwest Passage IPA, for the duration of the trip in hopes of reviewing it when I returned home. And home I am, so here I go.

Northwest Passage would appear to be a standard American IPA, checking in at 6.5 percent ABV and, as described on the bottle, “a … blend of Canadian malts and American hops.” However … it also checks in at a whopping 115 IBUs, which completely caught me off guard as I sat down to drink it. With that in mind, the key will be balance, as anything with 115 IBUs has the potential to be tongue-numbing without any other redeeming values.

Northwest Passage pours with a mild, creamy head of about a half inch that quickly dissipates into a noticeable white lace and some residue on the sides of the glass. The definition of golden brown, it looks a little cleaner in the glass than I expected it to, with a crisp hue and no trace of sediment. It’s a nice looking beer, but not one that screams out “craft IPA.” I was expecting a solid punch of American hops upon taking a big whiff after the pour, but was a bit disappointed to find only muted aromas typical of an IPA. There is a solid backdrop of citrus (grapefruit and orange peel), piney hops (though not too floral), and a sugary, grassy maltiness at the very end. Not a bad aroma, but much less powerful than I was expecting and hoping for.

The flavor is fine, but again does little to indicate this is the hop monster you would expect a 115 IBU brew to be. Initial notes are definitely hoppy, but are straight-up bitter rather than flavorful. You can be bitter and still have a pleasant flavor, be it floral, sweet, or piney, but Northwest Passage is simply bitter, and gets more so as the session progresses and the beer warms. Fortunately, that bitterness is tempered at times by a noticeable malty backbone that provides some grassy earthiness and sugary sweet spots, but it’s not enough to bring the balance back where it ideally should be. The mouthfeel is fine, though it is a touch high in terms of carbonation, giving it some stinging bubbles to go with the bitter hops. The aftertaste is a touch strong and, again, generic bitter. It’s far from a disaster, but in terms of taste, Northwest Passage really does nothing to set it above the crowd despite having the potential to be a tasty hop treat.

In a nutshell, Northwest Passage doesn’t make me want to hop in the car and drive 5 hours to cross the border again, as both this and the other Flat Earth offering I sampled, fell, well … a little flat. However, I’m tasting enough potential and seeing enough diversity in the Flat Earth lineup that I will likely pick up a different offering the next time I’m in the Twin Cities to see if they can do better.


Reviewed by Nigel Tanner on May 29, 2012.
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