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Appetites: Sampling Minnesota's gonzo beer flavors

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Beer flight
A flight of five of Urban Growler's craft beers Friday, Oct. 24, 2014 in St. Paul.
Jennifer Simonson / MPR News

It's pumpkin spice season — lattes, oreos, yogurt — and now beer. 

Beer drinkers are seeing an onslaught of pumpkin brews, and it seems like every brewery out there has its own gonzo flavors hitting the market. Can this be a good trend? 

James Norton, editor and publisher of the food and drink website Heavy Table, prepared a guided sampling for MPR News' Tom Crann of some of the more out-there flavors made by local breweries.

In choosing the beers, Norton found the challenge wasn't in finding five worth trying, but rather in narrowing it down.

The beers:

• Schell's | Black Forest Cherry, Noble Star Series | New Ulm, MN

• Borealis Fermentery | Mon Cherries Cherry | Knife River, MN

• Urban Growler Brewing | Candy Corn Imperial Cream Ale | St. Paul

• Bent Paddle Brewing + Duluth Coffee Company | Cold Press Black | Duluth, MN

The in-studio tasting
A photo from the in-studio beer tasting.
Jayne Solinger / MPR News

• Northgate Brewing | Pumpion Pumpkin Spice Ale | Minneapolis

Tasting notes:

Norton decided to kick off the tasting with the Black Forest Cherry from the state's oldest brewery, August Schell's in New Ulm. 

"They've got a great new series of beers called the Noble Star Series, which is a bunch of plays on a style called  Berliner Weisse," Norton said. "It's a style known for its sour flavor, and in Germany it's often sweetened with a fruit syrup or an arboreal syrup called woodruff. This beer, Black Forest Cherry, was made in a batch that aged for a year before it was further fermented with 5,000 pounds of red tart cherries."

CRANN: "Not sweet at all, cidery."
NORTON: "Almost balsamic, well-balanced, sophisticated."

Next they sampled the Mon Cherries from a Belgian monastery-inspired brewery near Knife River, just north of Duluth called Borealis Fermentery. 

This beer, Norton says, is "a totally different take on cherry, I think. It's a cherry-enhanced riff on a malty Belgian style of ale known as Dubbel."

CRANN: "Not much sweetness, couldn't taste more different than the other cherry brew."
NORTON: "In contrast to the almost vinegar-like bite of the Schell's, this has got a really deep spice, dried fruit kind of holiday funkiness to it. A lot of depth, and a lot of balance."

The next on the list is an unusual flavor from St. Paul's Urban Growler: Candy Corn Imperial Cream Ale

Candy Corn Imperial Cream Ale
Urban Growler's Candy Corn Imperial Cream Ale Friday, Oct. 24, 2014 at the St. Paul microbrewery.
Jennifer Simonson / MPR News

"It's a bit less of a refined concept, but you've gotta love the sense of fun," Norton says. "It was brewed with 65 pounds of Candy Corn that was frozen and pulverized into dust before being added to the brew kettle. There ares also 160 pounds of blueberries in the batch."

CRANN: "Some sweetness, also bitterness, no fake sweetness."
NORTON: "Candy corn in nose, not in taste. Hoppy astringency. Creamy, sweet beer, not obscene."

For a little buzz in a brew, they sampled Cold Press Black, which Bent Paddle Brewing in Duluth teams up with Duluth Coffee Company to make. The beer and variations of the beer won All Pints North Brewfest in Duluth and Autumn Brew Review the past two years, so it's much loved.

Eric Faust at Duluth Coffee Company described the process for Norton:

"Bent Paddle has us not only roast the coffee, but we also brew it," Faust said. "Meaning that when we deliver it to the brewery we deliver full kegs of cold press coffee already brewed. To my knowledge this is the only coffee beer on the market done on this scale like this."

Other breweries will add ground coffee to the wort, which can have mixed results, Norton says.

CRANN: "Disorienting. It's two great tastes that almost taste great together."
NORTON: "This is one of my favorite coffee beers from anywhere — tremendous sense of balance and a really pure, roasty, delightful natural coffee flavor. The beer kind of steps back and lets the coffee work, which is OK with me."

And finally, to the ubiquitous pumpkin. Northgate Brewing in Minneapolis has a pumpkin beer called Pumpion Spiced Ale that the crew at Elevated Beer Wine and Spirits endorsed as among their favorites of the season. 

The beer unites a strong English Pale Ale and pumpkin pie flavors - spices were added during the boil, and again with vanilla extract during maturation.

CRANN: "A little pumpkin flavor, creamy."
NORTON: "I love that this isn't overly sweet, and it's got a clean sense of balance despite the spice notes."