It's no shocker that the Midwest, often referred to as the Grain Belt, makes great beer. And though lately Minnesota has experienced a beer renaissance of sorts with brands such as Surly and Summit, as well as notable brewpubs like Town Hall, Minnesotans have been producing beer as far back as colonization. Doug Hoverson, a beer judge, teacher, and drink enthusiast, has meticulously reconstructed the history of Minnesota beer, from homebrews to Hamms to the present, in Amber Water: The History of Brewing in Minnesota. He took a moment in his busy schedule to chat with City Pages.
CP: What originally peaked your interest in Minnesota beer and its history?
DH: When I was at college I had some friends that got me interested in beer other than the readily available, heavily advertised, light beers, and when I came back to Minnesota it was just as Summit and James Page was starting to bring out their new beers. From there I started experimenting with different types of beers to see what was out there. I didn’t really have the idea for writing a book for another 10 years— I was looking at some old newspapers from Morehead back in the 1880s to for a paper I was writing on the Northern Pacific Railroad, and I came across some ads from old breweries I had never heard of. At that point I started to look around to see if there was a book on MN breweries There wasn’t. I thought it might be a fun book to write so I got started.
CP: I see that you’re a beer judge. How does one become an expert in the subject? What are some of things you look for during competition?
DH: The process for training is basically, local homebrew clubs put on a 40-hour class usually 3 hours a night over 12 to13 weeks. At the end you take a three, three and a half, hour and a half test where you describe beer styles, write sample ballots on mystery beers, and describe the brewing process. It’s a fairly tough test. You have to know a lot of trivia about types of ingredients and particular styles. Judging it, it’s really more like a dog show than anything else— it might be the cutest dog ever, but if it doesn’t look like what that particular type of dog is supposed to look like, it can’t win. With beer it’s the same thing—it might be your absolute favorite beer, but if they’re claiming it’s a pilsner, and it doesn’t have the right characteristics, it’s not a winner.
CP: Have you found you have a greater understanding and appreciation of chemistry through your beer research?
DH: Definitely! When I was working on the book, as well as training to be a beer judge, I had to learn things about amino acids and temperatures of reactions—things that I paid no attention to when I was doing chemistry in high school and college.
CP: What are some common misperceptions about beer—be it historical inaccuracies, or just general beer misperceptions that irk you?
DH: One of theories that comes up is what exactly bock beer is. There seems to be a perception that bock beer, because it’s much darker, is whatever is left in the tank at the end of the year, and they scrape that out and turn it into bock. There’s never anything left in the tank at the end of the brewing cycle, it’s absolutely clean afterwards. Bock is simply made stronger, with a darker grain mix. It would be like saying you made a pot of tea, and whatever you scrape at the bottom is coffee— you have to make coffee, and bock is an intentional product.
CP: It’s curious that the beverage industry often reflects trends in society more so than many other products. Why do you think that is?
DH: Beer is ultimately a luxury product. I think because of that it is more sensitive to trends. You don’t have to have it, so you’re going to choose it for enjoyment and the types of things that cause enjoyment change with the culture. There’s a big move with organic beers for example, because that has become important to people. For some, being accepted by a big group is what’s important, so Miller Lite, Bud Lite, and Coors is what you are looking for in a luxury product.
CP: It sometimes seems like we are moving away from local and independent businesses—bookstores being an obvious example. Yet the exact opposite seems to be happening with beers—Surly, for one, has become quite a local superstar.
DH: I think one difference, especially in the case of bookstores or small independent newspapers, is that it's hard to enjoy beer over the internet. There's something about the place where you're enjoying the beer. A lot of the enjoyment is the setting. One of the reasons Coors was so popular in Minnesota in the '70s, and Fat Tire is so popular now, is that it's a beer that people had out West on vacation, and so it has a good association.
CP: Are there any recent local beer developments that have you excited?
DH: Surly brewing is one that has to be mentioned. They’re products are always creative. I think it’s interesting that they decided to start canning instead of bottling. That way, it also finds a different customer group—people that play ultimate Frisbee or take it to the beach— the outdoorsy set The scene around the Twin Cities is quite active with Surly, Flat Earth, and the old standbys. There’s a lot of good beer being made—raising the standards so hopefully we can get away from people having to have 12 Miller Lites to have a good time, how about 3 or 4 nice beers. We’re not quite Milwaukee or Denver, bu we do have a lot of good people. It seems like all of the brewers really get along. There’s competitiveness at tasting events and festivals, but they’re all friendly and complimenting each other.
CP: I’ve noticed a certain stigma amongst beer snobs with canned beer…
DH: Which is another misconception. Let’s face it—the inside of a keg is an aluminum can. Most of the negative association comes from that when people drink straiggt from the can, they can taste whatever was on the top of the can. Plus, the beer hasn’t had a chance to get rid of the excess carbon dioxide from being poured into a glass.
CP: Amber Waters lays out a timeline of beer brewing and consumption in Minnesota that actually predates Minnesota as a state. What were some of the methods you used to reconstruct this history?
DH: There were a fair number of limitations because a number of the documents from the time are long gone. Sometimes I knew a brewery was in a town before the town had a newspaper, sometimes I would discover just by luck that someone else had recorded it and that info made it into a history book. Sometimes I would find references in family histories to someone starting a brewery. A lot of the earliest material was really tough to find. Once we're into the 1850s, almost every town had a newspaper, and at that point I could track info on a much more reliable basis. By 1862, the excise taxes were collected by the federal government, so I had incredible details on who brewed how much and when because the government needed their money.
CP: What are some of the more interesting examples of breweriana you came across in your research?
DH: I hadn’t realized that some of the first beer had been packaged in stoneware bottles. There were a number of early brewerina (items produced with beer logos on it)— and really early, it’s few and far between, but by the 1880s, breweries were buying taverns and stocking them with extremely fancy signs, and furniture with the logo on it.
CP: Do you keep a hefty collection yourself? I noticed that a lot of the pictures in the book are credited to your collection.
DH: Not particularly. Most of my stuff is fairly cheap. I collected mostly because I knew I would need them for the book.
CP: Do you anticipate another bust in small, local breweries in the future? Do you view the new era of microbreweries and smaller brewers as a progressive success, or is the industry cyclical?
DH: In this particular case, if there's a bust it will be a long ways away. There was a little bit of a shake-out in the craft breweries in the mid-1990s, but there weren't too many Minnesota breweries affected by it since there weren't too many at the time. Minnesota breweries have been creative and smart about making sure that they aren't duplicating each other's product. Schell is famous for their pilsners, wheat beer, and Octoberfest. Summit is more famous for their pale ale and porter. Surly makes beers that defy style guidelines.
CP: What do you think have been the strengths and weaknesses of MN beers, both past and present?
DH: Well, I think the brewers that function in Minnesota are as good as any in the country. We have some really top-notch people doing really creative work. One of the limitations of Minnesota brewing is that some of the laws are more restrictive than in other states. So, some people interested in starting a brewery somewhere might not pick Minnesota because of the tangled laws that they have top cut through, and there are a few that were interested in Minnesota, and they just discovered that Wisconsin was easier to deal with.
CP: Any tips for people interested in getting into homebrew?
DH: The best tip would be to check in with people at homebrew stores, and join a club. We have an upcoming event—on Saturday November 3, a bunch of homebrew clubs will be meeting outside at Barley John’s Brewpub in New Brighton. We’ll be encouraging anyone interested to watch ask questions and watch a series of batches being brewed.
Come see Doug discuss all things beer in Minnesota at several lectures through the city, including one at the Summit Brewing Company (be sure to get there early). Free. 7:00 p.m. 910 Montreal Cir., St. Paul, 651.265.7800. Also 5:00 p.m. Sunday at Magers & Quinn Booksellers (3038 Hennepin Ave. S., Minneapolis; 612.822.4611). Check out calendar for other related readings and talks.