Pros: Comfortable atmosphere, cool location
Cons: Relatively bland beer, nothing-to-write-home-about sandwiches
Number one reason you should go: Great Waters is the only brewery in the Twin Cities we’ve seen so far where cask-conditioned ales are offered so consistently and under such strident quality standards. If you’re interested in trying this style, Great Waters is a good place to go. Just hope your palate is less demolished than ours.
When it comes to St. Paul institutions, Great Waters Brewing Company is about as par-baked as they come. Let’s see:
- Brewing beer in the Historic Hamm Building in downtown St. Paul
- On the original site of the St. Paul Cathedral
- For two decades
They must be doing something right, right? Right?
We arrived at Great Waters on a chilly Wednesday night, greeted inside by a relaxed and friendly atmosphere tinged with that distinct aura of regulars. The bartender was patient and professional, and seemed familiar with several of the patrons there. One notable customer swung by on his way out to pay his tab…from January 4th.
“Was it just a shot?” asked the bartender.
“I think it was a beer and a shot,” said the guy. “I don’t just drink those straight.”
So yeah…that kind of place.
Great Waters is also one of those establishments that’s equal parts restaurant and brewery. We tried the buffalo chicken and reuben sandwiches, and they were both, shall we say, fine. Not bad by any stretch of the imagination, but also nothing you couldn’t make at home.
Here is the quandary with breweries and restaurants that have been around a long time: tastes change. Whether or not establishments change along with them is a toss-up. Though the craft beer movement has been germinating since the 1970s, it was still a relatively niche faction of the beer world when Great Waters opened in 1997. In 1997, people were still more likely to resort to Schells, Sam Adams, or something similarly bland when they decided to “branch out.” No one was ready to have their hair blown back by a 100-IBU double IPA, down a bourbon barrel-aged that tasted like straight booze, or have their sinuses singed by some habanero-infused lager. And breweries at the time understandably played to those tastes. So did Great Waters change with the times? Well…sort of.
“Brewed on site using the highest quality ingredients & yes in fact… holy water” boasts Great Waters’ website, referring to the natural spring water well that bubbles up under the former cathedral location. For those home brewers hoping for a new secret ingredient: holy water does not a tasty beer make. For the most part, the beer offerings at Great Waters were pretty bland in terms of today’s tastes. Their specialty is their CAMRA-compliant cask-conditioned ales, unfiltered ales which are transferred to casks, carbonated, sealed, and undergo a final fermentation in the cask. Cask ales are delicate, with an often more complex aroma and flavor profile than keg beer. Unfortunately for our IBU-battered taste buds, however, they just did not taste like much.
To end on a positive note, there were a few beers we did enjoy, including the clean, powerfully piney The Singularity SMASH IPA, the full-bodied, highly drinkable Saint Peter Pale Ale, and the delightfully Christmas-y Yuletide Stout. Check out our reviews of those and Great Waters’ other brews at the Untappd links below:
- 3 Little Birds Porter (Cask-Conditioned) (1.75/5)
- Black Watch Oak Stout (CC) (1.5/5)
- Brown Trout Brown Ale (3/5)
- ESB From HELL (CC) (2.25/5)
- Golden Prairie Blonde Ale (3.25/5)
- Ride On Australian Pale Ale (2/5)
- St. Andrew’s Cross Scotch Ale (CC) (3/5)
- Saint Peter Pale Ale (4/5)
- The Singularity SMASH IPA (3/5)
- Yuletide Stout (3.25/5)