Dusty dive bars and new brewpubs attract a new generation of pinball fanatics in the Twin Cities

Belles and Chimes at TILT

Belles and Chimes at TILT

“I wasn’t into pinball at all when I started this place,” admits Sam Harriman.

Shortly after opening Sisyphus Brewing, Harriman was approached by two pinball fans who worked in the office above. They tried to talk him into getting a machine. He was skeptical, but eventually caved after someone offered to install one in his space for free.

Soon he was hooked. He decided that Sisyphus should be a be a competition venue for the Pinball Twin Cities league, so he bought a second machine to be eligible. And then he bought two more. “And then we had four games and it was like, ‘Well, we should just have [our own] monthly tournament,’” he says. Not long after, Sisyphus was hosting recreational league nights at the brewpub.

Pinball is a game that is deeper than it looks. There are skilled techniques, such as “the dead bounce” and “the hold pass.” There are extensive glossaries of jargon: slam tilts, drains, slap saves. Players can get seriously high scores by mastering these moves.

“Pinball is cool in that the table is telling you essentially what you’re supposed to be doing,” he says. “It’s just a matter of you actually having a full grasp of the rules.”

Nowadays Harriman often stays late at work, long after sending his employees home, playing pinball. The machine that started it all for him, a table from 1979 called Flash, still sits in the corner broken, but not forgotten.

Barhoppers play Flash at Sisyphus.

Barhoppers play Flash at Sisyphus. Sisyphus Brewing

In the ‘70s and ‘80s, pinball machines were staples of bars and arcades. But when technology advanced past them, they soon became neglected, relegated to the dusty corners of dive bars.

Decades later, the pinball industry is experiencing a renaissance. Somehow, in those same dusty bars, a new generation has taken interest. In 2006, the International Flipper Pinball Association started back up after a 14-year hiatus. People around the world compete for points and a worldwide ranking. The organization currently has over 62,000 players, and the growth has been exponential over the past couple years.

Ben Granger is a Minnesota representative for the IFPA. In addition to being the state rep and the third highest-ranking player in Minnesota, Granger collects and runs machines in the basement of Caffetto Coffee House, a popular Wedge neighborhood cafe located on 22nd Street, just around the corner from Hum’s.

“I got bit by the tournament bug right away,” Granger says of his early pinball days of playing games in the St. Paul Student Center at the University of Minnesota. “It was pretty much an adrenaline thing the whole time.”

In 2012, Galvin started a monthly IFPA tournament at Mortimer’s. Seven years later, that tournament is still going strong, and places like TILT and Caffettos host their own IFPA tournaments, too.

Granger also hosts more casual recreational nights that are free and attract new players to the games.

“It’s awesome. People can get their feet wet, and they can compare scores,” he says.

Ben Granger throws his arms up in a moment of upset after a game at the IFPA Minnesota State Pinball Championship at Brunswick Zone XL in Brooklyn Park.

Ben Granger throws his arms up in a moment of upset after a game at the IFPA Minnesota State Pinball Championship at Brunswick Zone XL in Brooklyn Park. Star Tribune

As the local pinball scene continues to grow, this rebirth has not been without challenges, however.

Before 2014, the most pinball Nikki Eisenrich had played was the old Space Cadet pinball video game that shipped with Windows 95. Then she starting playing real machines in Chicago, eventually joining a league. When she moved back to her home state of Minnesota, she founded the aforementioned Pinball Twin Cities, an entirely social event with no IFPA points, no buy-in, and no big prize pool, just friendly competition between teams that travel to different Minneapolis bars.

“There wasn’t really the recreational, more casual, social league that I had been a part of in both Chicago and New York, so I decided to start it,” she says.

But she wasn’t finished starting pinball meet-ups in the Twin Cities.

When Eisenrich attended her first IFPA tournament in Minneapolis, she found only one other woman playing in a competition of over 20 people.

“[The rest were] all older, mostly middle-aged men who were looking at me, a young woman who didn’t belong,” she says. “So it [was] a little scary and intimidating.”

In October 2017, she jumped at the chance to found the Minneapolis chapter of Belles and Chimes, an international organization of women-only pinball clubs.

“Right now it’s just sort of a gathering,” she says. “It’s really just to create a community for women that’s inclusive, because pinball can be shitty sometimes for women. It’s a male dominated hobby.”

For example, when out by herself playing pinball, Eisenrich has been approached by guys in the middle of her game, “which [would never happen to] a guy pinball player,” she says. (Pinball etiquette and tournament rules are very strict on disturbing the player when a ball is in play.)

As more people are introduced to pinball, major machine makers in the industry may also need to go through some growing pains, reevaluating their fan base.

Granger, for example, prides himself on having a diverse collection of machines. Still, many tables feature scantily clad women aimed at a straight male audience.

“Pinball has always had a touch or more of misogyny in it,” he says. “You look at who is your market, and it’s always been kinda nerdy dudes, you know?”

The newest machines released from gamemakers Stern Pinball have been Deadpool and Iron Maiden.

“Oh cool. Another male superhero and a dad rock band,” says Eisenrich. “That’s not who’s gonna be playing pinball in 10 to 20 years. They need to get with it and understand that they have a younger, more inclusive base.”

John Galvin of TILT Pinball Bar agrees that opening up the scene for more diversity is the next step forward for the industry. “My goal is to get anyone and everybody to try it out,” he says. “Not everybody’s gonna like it, but hopefully some of them do.”

“The thing that's really growing [on the local pinball scene] is the social aspect,” says Eisenrich, “and people looking for community. We're all looking for a community around whatever we love.”