Minnesota's craft beer renaissance

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

About three hours southwest of the Twin Cities, out on the wind-swept plains, a large red shed serves as a beacon for the tiny town of Lucan, Minnesota, population 220. Instead of producing commodity-grade soybeans and corn, like most farms in the area, the fields near the shed are sown with barley and hops. Inside the building, shiny tanks, coolers, and a bottling rack take the place of combines and tractors, and the air smells faintly of a yeasty ferment. Welcome to Brau Brothers' little brewery on the prairie, one of the state's newest up-and-coming craft beer makers.

I was lured to Lucan after discovering a six-pack of Brau Brothers beer at my local liquor store a few months back, which left me a) impressed and b) full of questions. Who were these Brau brothers, exactly, and how did their English brown ale, made in the middle of nowhere, earn shelf space at Twin Cities liquor retailers? Was Brau Brothers' success a sign that a new era of brewing had been ushered into the land of sky blue waters?

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

After a few weeks of talking to brewers, drinking beer with brewers, and spending one intoxicating afternoon sampling nearly 30 locally made varieties in one sitting (let's just say my notes became less legible as the day wore on), I found answers to those questions and many more. So I sobered up and made my best effort to trace the development of Minnesota's current craft brew revolution, and discuss what we might expect from it next.

Beer has been a part of the American experience ever since the Pilgrims harvested their first acres of barley. It's the beverage that makes fishing more bearable, helps the ball game pass faster, and encourages wedding guests to get out on the dance floor. It's the most popular alcoholic beverage in the country, accounting for about 85 percent of total consumption.

Contrary to popular belief, however, the pre-Prohibition era wasn't as much a beer-drinker's utopia as we would like to believe. Though many small towns had breweries before they had newspapers—the populace was drunk before it was informed—the beer they brewed was not necessarily of good quality, and brewers typically made only a few styles. Before distribution channels were established, most drinkers had no choice but to sip the local swill. Today, about 1,500 breweries operate in America, roughly equivalent to pre-Prohibition numbers, and more than in any other country. "Today is the renaissance," says Jason Alvey, owner of the year-old specialty beer store Four Firkins in St. Louis Park. "We're leading the world in terms of craft beer."

Craft beer's resurgence comes on the heels of a decades-long trend of flavorless, homogeneous, mass-market beer produced by American breweries. As highly processed foods became more popular after World War II, the American palate grew accustomed to blander tastes. Brewers responded by offering inoffensive products to appeal to the broadest consumer base, which were often made from cheap, so called "adjunct" fermentables, such as corn and rice, instead of the more traditional barley malt (malted grains are those that have been soaked in water until they sprout, and then dried). These indistinct macro-brews—Budweiser, Coors, Miller, and the like—are about as flavorful as a beer burp, and are considered to be the fast-food equivalent of alcoholic beverages. Still, it's unlikely they'll ever completely disappear. "They're going to be making Schmidt's and Hamm's as long as we still have VFWs," cracks beer historian Doug Hoverson, author of the recent book Land of Amber Waters: The History of Brewing in Minnesota.

In recent years, beer-drinking culture has begun to shift away from quantity to quality, as those who once drank by the case or the keg stand are now stopping by the local microbrewery to pick up refillable glass jugs known as growlers. According to the Association of Brewers, American craft brewers saw their sales volume rise about 6 percent last year, while mass-market beer sales stayed flat. (The association defines craft brewers in terms of their small production, independent ownership, and traditional methods, but they're generally thought of as microbreweries that use high-quality ingredients to brew distinctive-tasting beer.)

While craft brews make up just 6 percent of sales in the American beer market, drinkers are quickly discovering that they're an inexpensive luxury. "You may not be able to afford a plasma TV," says Alvey of Four Firkins, "but you can sure as hell afford examples of the best beers on the planet for 10 or 20 bucks—which is incredible compared to the best wines."

With just 22 commercial brewers in the state, Minnesota finds itself in the middle of the pack in terms of breweries per capita. But in just the past few years, it has finally embraced—bear hugged, even—the craft beer trend that started on the West Coast nearly three decades ago. And several promising newcomers are helping to make sure more of those purchases are local.

The start of Minnesota's craft brew revolution can be traced to the late 1980s, when the state's first microbrewery, St. Paul's brand-new Summit Brewing Company, released Extra Pale Ale. Though Summit offers a number of British-style ales and other European brews, Extra Pale Ale is the one you'll receive if you ask for "a Summit," and it accounts for roughly 80 percent of the brewery's sales. "Summit EPA is a beer that you and I take for granted," says Alvey. "But it was a huge step forward—it was really progressive at the time. If Summit hadn't done that, our palates wouldn't be where they are today."

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.'"

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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