To truly get a taste of Minnesota's finest beers, sometimes it's best to make a weekend of it. While milling about Northeast's newly christened "Brew District" is arguably more convenient for Twin Cities tipplers, there's more to the local brewing industry than what lies within the city limits. After all, the oldest brewery in Minnesota, August Schell, is in New Ulm, about an hour and half from Minneapolis, and last year Duluth Mayor Don Ness boasted that his fair city, home to Lake Superior Brewing since 1994, is "the craft brewing capital of the state," pointing to a burst of new breweries and brewpubs as evidence.
With so many breweries popping up and aspiring to hit new markets, we've highlighted some of the breweries worth the drive. Be it just a 70-mile trek or a 150-mile daytrip, any of these journeys will lead you to outstate brewers with distinct recipes that both reflect their local communities and bring beer tourists from miles away.
1. Lake Superior Brewing Company, Duluth
Duluth has an active brewing scene with brewpubs, start-ups, and veterans alike. Lake Superior Brewing is located in an unassuming strip mall that predates the Taproom Bill. The brewery has survived multiple moves and the rise and fall of the 1990s market. Current head brewer Dale Kleinschmidt even stuck it out through years of earning minimum wage pay with no benefits. The brewery itself is industrial and unassuming, and it's clear from the outset that the taproom was a later addition (its soft opening was just held in recent months). The taproom's ambience is simple with a few tables and board games, but most beer fans don't come to the brewery to watch TV or dance to loud music anyway. They come for a variety of fresh beer and to see how and where it was made. Lake Superior is a tightly packed location where it's easy to get close to the equipment and to get a sample of the next seasonal beer, specialty, or a good old kolsch. The taproom is currently open on Fridays and Saturdays.
2. Bent Paddle Brewing Co., Duluth
Near downtown Duluth is one of the more buzzed-about start-ups, Bent Paddle. This young brewery offers a different feel than Lake Superior — namely a bit of glitz to the taproom, with an open floor plan, art on the walls, and nitro pours on tap in addition to the four flagships. The barroom feels more social than Lake Superior Brewing, but stays connected to the brew area, which is in an adjacent room, by way of a wide open doorway and a clear view of where the brewing, production, and canning happens. The brewery adds character with stacked pallets of multicolored cans that create an almost sculptural decorative effect, and with alternating color schemes that create a contemporary aesthetic but not one that shows up the product's quality.
3. Mankato Brewery, Mankato
Minnesota's brew scene isn't all up north, nor is it confined to the largest metros. Mankato Brewery, started in 2012, offers a variety of flagship and seasonal brews in an easy-to-locate industrial zone just off Highway 169 in north Mankato. The brewery and ample taproom are housed together in a giant warehouse. It's an open space with high ceilings and very little decor, but the picnic tables, hammerschlagen, giant Jenga, and bar games perk up the pared-down industrial feel, adding an atmosphere akin to a cookout. It's easy to grab a pint and sit at the minimal bar near the front door, or to grab a flight and go play some pool. There's even an upstairs seating area that allows for a more panoramic view of the brewery and a little isolation. "Recently we had to double our taproom space to support larger groups on weekends and special release nights," says co-owner Tim Tupy, as the brewery gets a lot of Twin Cities visitors on the weekends and serves primarily locals on weekdays. The brewery tour is detailed and thorough, mixing beer basics for the novice along with finer details that will keep a homebrewer interested.
4. August Schell Brewing Company, New Ulm
Down the road from Mankato sits Minnesota's oldest brewing company, August Schell. The German-styled New Ulm brewery has been at it since 1860 and has survived the Dakota War, Prohibition, and the brewery consolidations of the 1960s and '70s. The fifth-generation family ownership has kept the brewery in the hills that border the city, and many of the original buildings, including the 1885 Schell Mansion, remain intact, making the onsite museum and grounds equally if not more interesting than the offical tour. As August Schell said, "You've got to have a great location to make great beer," and Schell's lives by that philosophy today. The tour is definitely geared toward the drinking crowd and focuses on samples more than the brewing process. There is no public taproom for selling drafts onsite, but samples are provided with a tour and the beer is on tap at nearly all establishments within city limits. The influence Schell's has had on the city in 150 years is unmistakable, and serves as an example of what new start-ups aspire to: the community brewing of the pre-Prohibition era.
5. Brau Brothers Brewing Co., Marshall
Brau Brothers Brewing started as a production brewery in 2006 in the town of Lucan and relocated up the road to Marshall just last year when they finished building their new facility. The brewery sits in a remodeled warehouse with a spacious production area that is separated from the public by a lengthy wall of windows. The taproom itself is filled with booths and tables that give it the look and feel of a family restaurant. A bar sits smack in the center of the room with a dozen taps and 10 house-made sodas. The taps draw directly from a converted Lucan fire truck and the beers represent a wide variety, ranging from sours to ales to light lagers and milk stouts. Brau Brothers has a small-batch approach to brewing and a curiosity that leads them to create new recipes frequently. A trip to the taproom will provide a large sampling of brews unavailable in the Twin Cities or elsewhere. They have even brewed beer with their own house-grown hops, further highlighting their rural location. Being built so recently, Brau Brothers considered the concept of a destination brewery in the design, including a seven-days-per-week gastropub and merchandise sales along with the brewery. "The people of southwest Minnesota see us as an extended expression of their community," says sales and marketing director Lynn Richason, "and folks from the Twin Cities consider us the living and breathing definition of destination brewery."