By Jeremy Zoss
With so much happening in the Twin Cities’ craft beer scene, it can be hard for Metro-area drinkers to look beyond their borders to see what’s happening in other parts of the state.
Like the Twin Cities, Duluth is undergoing a serious craft beer boom, one that ties into the Twin Cities’ beer scene in many unexpected ways. Here are ten facts about the Duluth craft brewing scene every beer geek should know.
1. Fitger’s Brewhouse is just the beginning.
Most craft beer fans in Minnesota have stopped in for a pint at Fitger’s Brewhouse, or are at least aware of the name. Founded in 1995, Fitger’s was the first brewpub in northern Minnesota and the only one in Duluth for many years. Since then, Fitger’s has added several satellite restaurants, such as Tycoon’s Alehouse, Redstar Nightclub and Burrito Union, all of which pour Fitger’s beer. But Fitger’s is no longer alone. The greater Duluth area is now home to breweries and brewpubs such as Borealis Fermentery, Carmody Irish Pub, Canal Park Brewing Company, Castle Danger Brewery, Dubh Linn Irish Brewpub, Dubrue, and Lake Superior Brewing Company – and there are more on the way.
2. The scene is growing rapidly.
This spring will mark the arrival of Bent Paddle Brewing Company, a new Duluth-based production brewery with a 30-barrel brewhouse and an extremely experienced team. Carmody Irish Pub is working on adding a second location in Two Harbors. The “nomadic” Blacklist Brewing is looking to find a permanent home in the area. If recent history is any guide, expect to see more breweries to announce their plans later in the year.
3. It is a future beer tourism destination.
Rockie Kavajecz opened the Canal Park Brewing Company on the shores of Lake Superior in November and believes the combination of Duluth’s natural splendor and the growing craft beer scene will ultimately put it on the map as a world-class beer tourism destination.
“I traveled around quite a bit to Boulder, Colorado and Bellingham, Washington and it seemed to me that these top-flight kind of places were really attracting big crowds and weren’t hurting each other or cannibalizing each other, they were just making more people come to town,” said Kavajecz. “We wanted to participate and bring more people to all the breweries and make Duluth into kind of a Boulder/Bellingham kind of a scene. I really believe that is happening.”
4. It features big-time talent.
Despite Duluth’s small-city vibe, there are serious, world-class brewers at work there. Fitger’s brewmaster Dave Hoops left a job at West Coat powerhouse Pyramid Breweries to take over for his brother Mike Hoops, the brewpub’s original brewmaster. Canal Park employs a brewer who created craft beer recipes for Anheuser-Busch. Duluth exports its share of great talent, too.
“Every single brewer who has ever worked for me either owns their own brewery or works at a brewery throughout the country, which I’m very proud of,” said Dave Hoops. Fitger’s veterans have moved on to work at New Belgium, breweries in Washington State and, of course, their own breweries in Duluth.
5. It has strong Twin Cities ties.
Minneapolis-based craft beer fans might recognize the name Mike Hoops as the brewmaster at Town Hall Brewery. Bent Paddle’s founders Byron Tonnis and Colin Mullen both worked extensively in the Twin Cities. Tonnis spent several years as the head brewer at the Minneapolis Rock Bottom Brewery, and Mullen at Barley John’s Brew Pub. Their wives are both equal partners in Bent Paddle and each brings serious experience of her own. Karen Tonnis worked in food logistics and Laura Mullen spent years as coordinator of the Minnesota Craft Brewer’s Guild.
6. It spans borders.
Because of its close proximity to both Wisconsin and Canada, the Duluth scene features a good deal of crossover. Tonnis also works at Thirsty Pagan in Superior, Wisconsin and Canal Park’s Rockie Kavajecz is a big fan of Thunder Bay’s Sleeping Giant Brewing Co. “They’ve been down to visit us and we plan to head up there,” said Kavajecz. “It’s kind of a cool thing. It’s like international beer relations, you know?”
7. The market is split.
According to Fitger’s Dave Hoops, Duluth is one of the biggest markets in the country for Bell’s Two-Hearted Ale. “People are either drinking Pabst out of a can or drinking Two-Hearted and other craft beers,” he said. “There’s really no in-between.”
Rockie Kavajecz said the Kolsch-style beer served at Canal Park was developed to help transition macro brew drinkers to better beer. “I had quite a long construction process and we had a lot of tough union guys,” he said. “’But as tough as they are, they seem to like really weak beer.”
8. It inspires amazing feats.
Knife River’s Borealis Fermentery easily has one of the most incredible origin stories of any brewery in the state. Founder Ken Thiemann spent more than four years building his home and brewery by hand, using a timber frame, straw bales, stucco and wooden pegs – no nails. When working on the roof, Thiemann fell head-first off the 30-foot structure. He managed to turn, land on his feet and roll, but snapped the tendons in both feet in the process. Ouch.
9. It embraces the outdoors.
Bent Paddle’s founders said it takes a particular type of person to live in Duluth, so it makes sense that most of Duluth’s brewers seem to love the outdoors as much as they love beer. Tonnis calls beer and canoeing his two passions, and for years he’s used a bent paddle for mashing during brewing. Kavajecz said Canal Park’s location was chosen to highlight Lake Superior and its beers are designed to capture the spirit of Northern Minnesota. One of the area’s smallest breweries, Castle Danger, is on the grounds of small North Shore resort Castle Haven Cabins.
10. It feeds the cows.
The brewing process at Fitger’s results in up to 3,000 pounds of “spent grain” every week. So what do you do with that grain? It feeds Fitger’s cows. The grain is sent to a farm about 20 miles outside of Duluth, where Fitger’s owners keep a small group of Scottish Highland cattle. Ultimately, those cows will have a date with a dinner plate back at one of the Fitger’s restaurants.