5 Minnesota brewers proving root beer is craft, too

A tulip glass filled with Big Axe Brewing Company's Root Beer // Photo courtesy Big Axe Brewing Company

A tulip glass filled with Big Axe Brewing Company’s Root Beer // Photo courtesy Big Axe Brewing Company

Brewers across the state take pride in crafting drinks that are innovative and refreshing—and that includes root beer. Root beer not only provides a non-alcoholic option at local taprooms, but it also allows brewers to experiment with flavors through handcrafted sodas.

“Much like the craft beer scene, it’s been fun to watch and sample and see all the new varieties come up, each with their own unique twist,” says Chris French of Big Axe Brewing Company of Nisswa, Minnesota.

While brewers use many different spices and extracts, that classic root beer flavor comes from sassafras and sarsaparilla roots. However, brewers have used artificial sassafras flavoring for more than 50 years, since scientists discovered the root’s safrole oil causes liver damage.

The sweet, syrupy drink we now know was developed in the mid-1800s, though Native Americans had been making teas with the same ingredients for centuries beforehand. The beer part of the name is often linked to the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, where pharmacist Charles Hires used the term to market his root beverage extract. Being a teetotaler, Hires originally planned to call the mix root tea, but decided “beer” would sell better at the event, even if the drink contained no alcohol.

Minnesota has a storied past when it comes to root beer, from Prohibition-era 1919 Root Beer made by August Schell’s Brewing Company in New Ulm to the handmade pops of “root beer lady” Dorothy Molter in Ely, from throwing back a chilled Killebrew at a Twins game to drinking a Fitger’s Driftwood Draft in Duluth. The brewers listed below represent a new era of root beer makers, free of high fructose corn syrup, who are mixing things up with each pour.

Red Wing Brewery in Red Wing

The Red Wing Brewery taproom in Red Wing, Minnesota // Photo via Red Wing Brewing Company Facebook

The Red Wing Brewery taproom in Red Wing, Minnesota // Photo via Red Wing Brewing Company Facebook

Reproducing antique beer recipes is part of Red Wing Brewery’s mission, and they stay true to it with Good Old Zimmie’s Root Beer. Since it opened over five years ago, the brewery has had root beer on the menu for customers who want to enjoy the craft beer scene but are either underage or don’t drink, according to owner Scott Kolby.

“Breweries that make their own root beer offer a house-made alternative for patrons that want a non-alcoholic beverage when they are out with their family and friends. Many people are grateful for this,” he says.

Good Old Zimmie’s taps one local resource for its natural sweetener: real maple syrup. While purchasing maple syrup from a local sugar bush costs more than other sweeteners, Kolby says it adds another layer of flavor.

Real maple syrup rounds out the sweetness so that the flavor is reminiscent of the old fashioned root beer barrel candies,” he says.

The only place to find this root beer is at Red Wing Brewery, but it is available by the growler for carry-out or by the glass for those sticking around a while. Kolby noted that it goes well with their pizzas, but above all, it appeals to all sorts of customers.

“We wanted to serve a beverage that was made on-premise that non-beer drinkers of all ages could enjoy,” he says. “This encourages a family atmosphere at our brewpub.”

Tree Fort in Minneapolis

Tree Fort Soda's product line up, including their Root Beer on the right // Photo via Tree Fort Soda Facebook

Tree Fort Soda’s product line up including a bottle of their Root Beer on the right // Photo via Tree Fort Soda Facebook

Found in bottles across the Upper Midwest, Tree Fort Soda was started by Twin Cities resident Eva Duckler when she was just 17. The Blake School gave her graduating class time off to work on their senior capstone projects. For her project, she began making sodas, perfecting her floral blends of natural spices, and started a company to sell them.

When the capstone project was finished, Duckler turned to her brother, David, for help producing the drinks on a larger scale. He was the perfect ally because, for starters, he already owned Verdant Tea with his wife, but also because he and his sister had always been huge root beer aficionados.

“Tasting different kinds of root beer became a game of searching our imagination like some sort of mental botanical database for placing the different flavors,” Eva Duckler says. “[…] We always searched for our perfect brew but never quite found it. So it naturally follows that we’d grow up to do it ourselves.”

As a result, Tree Fort is the “kitchen sink” of root beer recipes. Using real honey as a sweetener, it moves beyond the classic sassafras and sarsaparilla flavor with a mix of wintergreen, anise, cinnamon, marigold, and peppercorn.

We started out brewing 15-gallon batches, simmering herbs and spices on the stovetop and selling sodas one by one out of kegs,” she says. “Over time, we grew from one botanical root beer inspired by old pre-Prohibition recipes to four sodas bottled and sent all over the Midwest.”

Glewwe’s Castle Brewery in Prior Lake

A bottle of Glewwe's Castle Brewery's Root Beer. The small family-centric brewery is located in Prior Lake, Minnesota // Photo via Glewwe's Castle Brewery Facebook

A bottle of Glewwe’s Castle Brewery’s Root Beer. The small family-centric brewery is located in Prior Lake, Minnesota // Photo via Glewwe’s Castle Brewery Facebook

A mom and pop shop is the most accurate way to describe Glewwe’s Castle Brewery. Mark and Laurel Glewwe run the business, which started making root beer and other hand-crafted soft drinks in 1994. They began selling the beverages 10 years later as a way for their son, Erik, to raise money for college.

“He has since graduated—go Gophers!—and is only tangentially participating, so it has fallen upon my wife and I to keep it operating,” Mark Glewwe says. “It is more of a hobby getting out of control rather than a true money-making business.”

Glewwe’s Castle Root Beer is available in 12-ounce bottles, 16-ounce and 32-ounce swing-top resealable bottles, as well as kegs and growler fills at the brewery, a pole barn at the Glewwes’ Prior Lake home. It also is available at farmers market in Prior Lake and is expected to be a tap option at the Boathouse Brothers Brewing taproom in Prior Lake once it opens.

What makes Glewwe’s Castle root beer special is its blend of sassafras and birch that’s sweetened primarily with honey. The root flavor was stronger originally, Glewwe says, but his kids advised him to cut back when they began to sell the beverage.

“The result seems to be reasonably popular, so much so that we are ranked fairly highly on two national website rankings, Anthony’s (Root Beer Barrel) and Eric’s (Gourmet Root Beer Site),” he says, adding that the bottle labels bear “Eric’s Seal of Approval.”

Vine Park Brewing Co. in St. Paul

The exterior of Vine Park Brewing Company, located on West 7th Street in St. Paul, Minnesota // Photo by Brian Kaufenberg

The exterior of Vine Park Brewing Company, located on West 7th Street in St. Paul, Minnesota // Photo by Brian Kaufenberg

While Twin Cities homebrewers and home vitners know it as a place where anyone can make and bottle their own beer and wine, Vine Park has also been making a mean root beer since 1995. Owner Andy Grage says his wife motivated him to create the naturally sweetened, caffeine-free pop.

“My wife is a root beer connoisseur, and she wanted a root beer that didn’t have high fructose corn syrup. So we use organic cane sugar and locally sourced honey to sweeten our root beer,” he says.

Vine Park sells its root beer at the taproom in 12-ounce bottles. Customers can buy them individually, in six-packs, or by the case. For large gatherings, kegs are available, and the brewers offer a tap and ice buckets, if needed, as well as a phone number for troubleshooting. If your family or group of coworkers can’t finish a keg in one day, brewery staff will recarbonate the pop so that you can transfer it to 22-ounce bottles.

The Grages spent three years perfecting their recipe, adding different flavors in different quantities, before releasing it at Vine Park. But the end result strikes a refreshing balance, Grage says, adding: “It’s got just a touch of wintergreen to offset the sweetness.”

Big Axe Brewing Company in Nisswa

A glass of Big Axe Brewing Company's Root Beer in the brewery's taproom which is located in Nisswa, Minnesota // Photo courtesy Big Axe Brewing Company

A glass of Big Axe Brewing Company’s Root Beer in the brewery’s taproom which is located in Nisswa, Minnesota // Photo courtesy Big Axe Brewing Company

For a cold float in the northwoods, the craft root beer from Big Axe Brewing Company makes the cut. French, owner and head brewer, says the taproom has been serving refreshing root beer since opening in 2015.

“It’s been a great addition to our beer-focused lineup, especially for all the kids that come up in the summer. They love it, and a lot of adults dig it, too,” he says.

Big Axe’s root beer is only available in the taproom. It pairs well with a burger from the brewery’s kitchen, or customers can order a float with a generous scoop of vanilla ice cream to wash down their meal. Either way, what makes the soft drink unique is its balance of sweetness, herbal and root flavors, and viscosity, which is why French himself is a fan of the drink.

“It’s not syrupy and it’s not too watered down, but right in the middle for sweetness and flavor,” he says. “In fact, on a hot summer day while brewing beer, I can easily put down several glasses just like I could as a kid and not feel over sugared or root beered out.”