Minnesota's craft beer renaissance

Surly, Summit, Brau Brothers among the intoxicating additions to Minnesota culture

For the next two decades, Minnesota craft brewers made slow but steady strides. New Ulm-based Schell's, the country's second-oldest family-owned brewery, which today derives much of its revenue from producing the mass-market beer Grain Belt, started producing a few specialty bocks and amber lagers, among others, as finely crafted versions of Old World styles. Schell's Bohemian-style pale lager was dubbed "one of the best American examples of the Pilsner style," by the late Michael Jackson, the beer world's Robert Parker.

Around the same time, James Page, a Minneapolis microbrewer whose brands are now owned by Wisconsin's Stevens Point Brewery, started making a beer from wild rice. By the mid-1990s, Lake Superior Brewing, which today makes a portfolio of bock, lager, and kolsch-style beers out of a small Duluth strip mall, was proving there was a strong market for small regional brewers. In 2002, Summit began contract brewing Finnegan's Irish Amber, a pioneering socially conscious beer whose profits are donated to charity. Still, compared to the brewing explosion on the coasts, the Twin Cities' local craft beer market was largely untapped.

Then, in February 2006, the first Surly beers emerged from a Brooklyn Center warehouse, an event significant enough that local beer geeks will perhaps one day refer to events in Minnesota's brewing history as having occurred B.S. and A.S.—before and after Surly. Omar Ansari and Todd Haug, Surly's creators, were the first to truly put Minnesota on the national craft beer map. Within about a year, the online magazine Ratebeer.com had judged Surly Darkness, a seasonal Russian Imperial Stout, the best beer in the country. Beer Advocate magazine called Surly the best brewery in America. Even though Surly is only available in parts of the Midwest, Hoverson dubs the brand "world famous" and recounts a story of bringing a few Surlys into the famous Portland beer shop Belmont Station. "The clerks almost soiled themselves," Hoverson recounts. "They said, 'We'll trade you anything in the store for it.'"

In tiny Lucan, Minnesota, Brau Brothers grows its own barley and hops to brew its unique craft beers
courtesy of Dustin Brau
In tiny Lucan, Minnesota, Brau Brothers grows its own barley and hops to brew its unique craft beers
courtesy of Dustin Brau

Surly's beers tend to defy categorization. Instead of brewing traditional styles, Haug has experimented with all sorts of extra-hoppy, high-alcohol, barrel-aged beers rarely seen in Minnesota. His recipes tend to be more complicated than those of most brewers, using several types of malts, for example, to create complex flavor profiles.

Surly's signature Furious rates at 100 International Bitterness Units, or IBUs, the maximum on the scale used to measure bitterness provided by the hops. It tastes sharp and bright, as if you'd set a citrus grove on fire in your mouth. I think it's the best-smelling beer in the world and would wear its grapefruit aroma as a fragrance if they'd figure out a way to bottle it. Surly's other year-round beers include the smooth, malty Bender (it's also available in a coffee-infused version) and a beer called Cynic, which has several fruity, almost resin-like flavors. Even as one of Surly's lightest beers, Cynic is about as close to a mass-market lager as maple syrup is to birch sap.

Surly's choice to give its aggressive-tasting beers edgy names and sell them in 16-ounce cans with iconic graphics—marketing Alvey describes as, "Are you man enough to drink this beer?"—appeals to the adventurous tendencies of the craft brew subculture. "We're known for being the extreme brewery," Ansari says.

This, apparently, is exactly what drinkers wanted. When Surly released 2008's first batch of its famed Russian Imperial Stout at "Darkness Day," some diehard fans camped overnight outside the brewery's front door. (The port-like brew—to me, it tastes of chocolate, coffee, and figs, with top notes of citrus—is probably one of the few beers worth a night on the pavement.) Ansari says he once met a Surly evangelist who told him that whenever she went to a bar and saw someone order a Newcastle, she'd buy the person a Bender and try to convert him. Without doing any advertising or marketing, and relying mostly on consumer requests, Surly has become so popular that new liquor store accounts are put on a years-long waitlist. The brewery has already been expanded several times to increase capacity, and the owners are in the process of figuring out how to cut a hole in the brewery's roof to drop in even larger tanks.

Ironically, this edgiest of local breweries has helped make craft brewing—and its own beers—more mainstream. As beer enthusiasts move brewing culture into the thriving new beer-focused bars such as the Happy Gnome and Buster's, craft beers reach an even wider audience. "Our beers aren't that crazy anymore," Ansari says. "It's not just a beer for the guys who go to beer fests. You can drink it at your local bar." I tell Ansari that I recently saw a couple of old-timers order Surlys at the 8th Street Grill, a place whose patrons are arguably more hip replacement than hipster. Ansari isn't surprised: "We brewed beer for people who didn't know they wanted to drink it until they had it."

NEXT WEEK: Three new breweries take the craft brew revolution in new directions.

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