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I’ll drink to that: the making of the Twin Cities microbrew revolution

Lining up for growlers at Fulton Brewery.
Photo by Bill Kelley
Lining up for growlers at Fulton Brewery.

The line stretched through the parking lot, and the air of excitement and camaraderie was palpable. Even Minneapolis mayor R.T. Rybak showed up for the moment the doors opened and eager shoppers rushed forward.
Just another Black Friday doorbuster? Not even close: this crowd was assembled for the grand opening of Fulton Brewery in the Warehouse District, with microbrew fans waiting for a chance to buy a 64-ounce container (called a growler) of the new brewery’s distinctive ales and stouts. “Drink up!” shouted a cheery Mayor Rybak as he hoisted a pint of caramel-tinted ale.
The Twin Cities are seeing a boom in these types of efforts, and it seems that some beer-focused liquor stores are having trouble finding shelf space for all the new creations from local microbreweries, as well as craft beers.

A quick note of definition: as outlined by the Brewer’s Association, craft breweries have an annual production of 6 million barrels of beer or fewer — no puny amount, considering that the best-selling beer in Minnesota, Michelob Golden Draft Light, only sells a bit less than one million barrels a year — while microbreweries are limited to producing 15,000.

According to Rob Shellman, founder of Minneapolis-based beer consulting firm Better Beer Society, both craft and microbreweries are defined as small and independent, with less than 25 percent of the brewery owned or controlled by another alcoholic beverage industry member. In other words, if a brewer is whipping up some craft-type concoctions but the place is owned by an entity like MillerCoors, then they tend to get less credit for being crafty (we’re looking at you, Blue Moon and Leinenkugel).
That means more and more local residents are attracted to microbreweries, those newest darlings of the beer world, with their often-tattooed and always-lively brewers, as well as funky beer names like “Divine Oculust” and “Angry Planet Pale Ale” and “Masala Mama IPA.”
“This movement is happening all over the country, not just here,” says Shellman. “However, we’re very fortunate to be living in one of the most exciting and up-and-coming regions for this beer renaissance.”
Changing Rules, Changing Tastes

Surly's product on view.
Photo by Bill Kelley
Surly’s product on view.

The level of activity over the just the past few years has been robust, if not ferocious, and it looks like even more microbreweries could be cropping up in the years ahead. Did everyone’s palates suddenly shift from fancy cocktails to microbrews? It might seem so, but like all revolutions, this one has been fomenting for quite a while.
One major factor for the surge in new microbrew efforts has been changes to regulations and laws that govern production and sales.
Most notably, Surly Brewing recently lobbied for a major shift to rules about microbreweries operating taprooms out of their production facilities. Considering that Surly’s plans involved a new $20 million restaurant and beer garden — providing plenty of construction jobs and subsequent brewery jobs — the Minnesota Legislature passed a law known as the “Surly Bill” in May.

Also a boon to beer lovers, last year’s change to Minneapolis city ordinances concerning growler sales allowed Harriet Brewing and Fulton Beer to sell their own brews instead of relying on distributors. Next up in the growler business will be Dangerous Man Brewing, which won its own recent victory in Northeast Minneapolis when restrictions about breweries near houses of worship were lifted.

“The deregulation in the beer industry and the changing regulatory environment here are progress,” says Jason Sowards, owner of Harriet Brewing. “Small microbrewers like myself are being given more freedoms, and that’s allowing us to be more creative in what we brew and how we sell it.”

Harriet Brewing, at Lake and Minnehaha.
Photo by Bill Kelley
Harriet Brewing.

That level of independence is more than exciting, he adds: it could give brewers the chance to branch off into all kinds of interesting directions. Sowards notes, “Who knows what we’ll be seeing with respect to brewing in the next 10 years? It could be all kinds of crazy, great stuff.”
Thinking and Drinking Locally

Another strong driver has been the growing focus on local foods and community efforts. As communal gardens and urban farms pop up across the Twin Cities landscape, the craft beer and microbrew movements thrive as a result.
Back before there were so many regulations around the sale of beer — sparked by Prohibition and subsequent beer industry forces—there were many more neighborhood brewpubs, Sowards says. As the rules lift and the community model of living is embraced, those local spots are coming back into the landscape.
That’s also prompting the growth of homebrew efforts, and bringing growth to outfitters like Northern Brewer, which just opened a new flagship store in Minneapolis to go along with its other two retail locations — in Saint Paul and Milwaukee — and enormous warehouse.
Wannabe brewers can also opt for more supervised brewing at Vine Park Brewing in St. Paul, which allows groups to brew on site. Dan Justesen, owner of Vine Park, says that the brewery has operated for 16 years, and that he’s been struck lately by the surge in enthusiasm and curiosity. More people want to know about Belgian-style beers, for example, Justesen points out. Also, ironically, people seem to be drinking less, and that leads them to better-crafted brews.
“When someone doesn’t drink as much, they want to drink better,” he says. “They also want to drink local. That’s really a huge trend.”
A Full-Bodied Future

“Saturation is inevitable,” says Shellman. “The market itself should dictate who stays and who goes, and we should be left with only high quality and interesting craft beers.”
It’s likely to be quite some time before true market saturation, some microbrewers believe, and beer lovers can rejoice at all the experimentation and new beers that will come along the way.
Part of the reason that the market isn’t exhausted quite yet is that microbrews don’t usually inspire the same level of loyalty as a more mainstream product (like, say, Michelob Golden Draft Light), which means that enthusiasts are willing to sample a range of brews rather than stick to a favorite.
Sowards notes that when he goes on vacation, he considers it a sin to drink the same beer twice, even if he loves a certain choice. That mentality is rampant in the Twin Cities, and it’s likely to keep the beer scene hopping for years to come. “This is a market that’s hungry for variety, with people who want to find out more about the complexities of beer,” he says.
Brian Hoffman, co-founder of Fulton Beer, adds: “If someone tries a Surly and likes it, chances are that they’ll try a Harriet Brewing, and so on. As that keeps happening, it benefits all of us. The rising tide of beer appreciation raises all ships, and it’s a lot of fun to be part of it.”

Elizabeth Millard is Innovation and Jobs Editor of The Line. This article is reprinted in partnership with The Line, an online chronicle of Twin Cities creativity in entrepreneurship, culture, retail, placemaking, the arts, and other elements of the new creative economy.

Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by J. Thorp on 12/09/2011 - 09:28 pm.

    Nice article…however, conspicuously unmentioned: Summit, whose EPA was just named on of the top beers in the country by the American Homebrewers Association; Minneapolis Town Hall Brewery, which also sells growlers of its award-winning brews (mmm…Hope and King); and Midwest Supplies, the country’s largest homebrewing and wine-making supplier, I believe…

  2. Submitted by Tom Clancy on 12/10/2011 - 02:49 pm.

    It is great to see the growth in micro brewing in the Twin Cities. We recently moved to Portland, OR often referred to as “Beervana” where the craft brew industry has thrived for 25 years since Oregon passed laws similar to the one Minnesota just passed. Portland is now home to 28 breweries, more than any city in the U.S. Brewtopia is here. There are many great brewpubs in neighborhoods all around Portland and many have combined with a strong “foodie” culture here to provide not only great beer but great food to go along with it. Our Winter ale festival just concluded in Pioneer Square downtown and our Oregon Brewers Fest in July is the largest outdoor Craft Brew Festival in the U.S. Come on out and take a look and see just where this revolutions might take you.


    p.s. We are no where near “saturation” yet.

  3. Submitted by Gregory Lang on 12/11/2011 - 07:45 am.

    Nice article and I wish them well. But like the rest of the “local/lefty” products it costs twice as much.

  4. Submitted by jendjro Busington on 12/11/2011 - 05:24 pm.

    To #3: Twice as much as what? MGD? You’re comparing apples to oranges. $5 will get you a pint of some of the best locally beer brewed beer available. Not bad, I’d say.

    That said, $5 will probably get you nearly a 6 pack of MGD. I’ll spend my fiver on the pint.

  5. Submitted by Pete Barrett on 12/11/2011 - 06:18 pm.

    I didn’t know there was a political aspect to beer. Seems like a lot of righties I know drink local craft beer.

    The owners of Summit and Schell’s worked the recent change in state law long before Surly joined the fight.

  6. Submitted by Matthew Brillhart on 12/11/2011 - 07:01 pm.

    I am a huge fan of Fulton, that stuff is delicious. Tom mentioned brewpubs in Portland and that got me thinking about why we have so few of them here. Town Hall is great, but I haven’t been there in years. Herkimer in Lyn-Lake…well let’s just say their beer isn’t very good. I share that opinion with many of my friends. It’s a fine bar and the patio is a lot of fun in the summer, but they would be a lot more popular if the beer wasn’t so blah. Most of the local brews are great, and although expensive, I don’t think twice about shelling out $8.99 for a 6-pack. It’s not like I’m going back to drinking Coors Light just because it’s cheaper. I can’t wait to see what Surly does, now that they got the law changed. The lack of news surrounding their development is frustrating! Even though they belong in Minneapolis, they would fit in nicely across the river as part of the Ford plant redevelopment.

  7. Submitted by Gregory Lang on 12/13/2011 - 09:17 am.

    Almost a hundred years ago there was the “Craftsman movement” in architecture. The desirability of some aspect of house design was related directly to the item not being mass-produced even though some machine made items like tongue-and-groove flooring were superior but required very uniform dimensions.

    In my case my Sears catalog pre-cut house had extremely precise angle cuts so it is far more “solid” than a comparable house built by a skilled carpenter.

    The advocates of the Craftsman Movement did admit that they had to appeal to the affluent for the more costly handicraft and noted the irony.

    When I go out to a bar I am happy to pay more for Summit Tap. My home standard is Mountain Crest Ice beer. It’s $10.59 for a flat and it’s even union made at one of the oldest breweries in Wisconsin!

    Local breweries can be flexible and offer unique beers. I wish them well but this could be a phase. Last week I was at a liquor store. It was slow. I commented to the black women clerk that the “cutsey” wine names were getting to be “a bit much”. She agreed and asked me if I noted the wine named “cold, hard bit*h”. I hadn’t noticed but agreed it was offensive.

    Again, I wish them well but “local” often means far more expensive. Local produce cost more because being local less energy is used in shipping. Ahh!

    Marketing is the key. I haven’t browsed the websites of our local beers but the internet is the cheapest advertising and information source around. Use it! If the beer has “whatever” on the website and quickly explain it’s purpose.

    I was offered a very good case price on a Minnesota apple wine that didn’t sell. I should save some or the bottles for classes on marketing as an example of how not to market. First off there was visible debris in the bottles. I suspected this was “unfiltered” but didn’t know. They had a listed website with an incredibly complex domain name that didn’t work. Once I got to a source domain name the website mentioned they made the stuff and invited people to visit their Minnesota operation. The website mentioned that they made the stuff but again nothing on filtering or lack of it.

    This is a “how not to”. The old wine thing was to act like an expert on it to impress.
    With the internet local beer can do the same.
    Putting the information online is really cheap. If a brew contains cinnamon and you point this out others drinking it will notice and you will look really smart. Nothing wrong with that!

  8. Submitted by Gregory Lang on 12/14/2011 - 11:21 am.

    A caveat on home brewing. Generally, the ingredients for home brewed beer don’t save much if any money over cheap mass market beer.

    Also I noticed a lot of beer making kits at garage sales. It took me a while to figure out that the key danger in home beer brewing is contamination that spoils the beer.

    Commercial beer brewers, even the small ones have the sanitation down to a science. It is not like your home kitchen. Just a warning. Nothing like putting $30 or $40 into a home batch that is swill!

    I once did some research on the effects of a raised alcohol tax. I calculated you could make a sugar bases wine/hooch for the equivalent of twenty to thirty cents per liter/quart cost with the alcohol content of wine. If you wanted to go cheap wine is the way to go, not beer.

    To boost it you could make “Norwegian whiskey”. Basically you freeze it solid in a plastic cleaned milk jug and slowly thaw it when it is upside down with the cap off. The alcohol melt first so you have a “cold distillation” of sorts. An old frat-house trick with 3.2 beer. For taste you need flavoring. Lower alcohol recovery than distilling but cheap to make and you can use the remaining water as base stock that resists contamination.

    That said, the Harriet Brewery is very near my house. If i have some friends over I might get one of their “growlers”. I wonder if they have contemplated automobile open bottle laws? Not difficult. They need a seal on the lid that needs to be broke. One option is the receipt on the lid that is heat shrink wrapped, preferably with a shrink wrap with custom printing for the company. Not difficult, just saying.

  9. Submitted by J. Thorp on 12/19/2011 - 03:06 pm.

    Sanitation is critical at certain points in the process, in particular — but brewing with someone who has successfully brewed a batch or two clarifies in a hurry what to worry about and when. I tried a batch learning from a book more than a decade ago, and it didn’t turn out. Then I helped two friends do it — one experienced brewer; one on his second batch — and have since brewed two stellar batches, not in my kitchen, but in the garage: an English pale ale (like Bass) and an Irish stout (like Guinness). The beers came out comparable in flavor and quality — and it’s not just me saying that!

    Where I live, Bass sells for about $7-$8 a six-pack, or around $30+ a case (24 bottles). The ingredients for English pale ale ran about $35 or so, and yielded a little more than two cases of very good beer — so almost half the price. The numbers are similar for Guinness versus homebrew stout.

    The equipment costs money, but as the previous commenter said, a lot of gear is available second-hand at a fraction of the price. If you drink better beer — stuff that costs a buck a bottle or more — you can do alright homebrewing. Find a mentor (ask around; you might be surprised who is brewing) — but beware: once people know you do it, they’ll want to taste your beer. It’s hard to keep in the fridge…

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