Liz Foster is a craft beer enthusiast and the events and communications manager at Urban Growler Brewing Company. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
What are you doing this weekend? Do you want to road trip to a brewery with me?”
This is the exact phrase I said 80+ times to friends and family members as I coerced them to join me on my journey to visit every brewery in Minnesota in 2018. I had set the lofty goal of visiting the state’s then 141 taprooms (currently more than 175) in one calendar year and needed companions for the car rides, as well as to share flights of beer with me. Over the course of the year, I was able to visit 120 breweries total (repeat visits to the same breweries did not count, sadly) and ended up sampling and evaluating at least 480 different beers. My liver hurts a little just thinking about it.
Having worked at Urban Growler Brewing Company in various positions for over four years, I had already spent my fair share of time drinking at other breweries. The entire idea to do statewide brewery tour was originally inspired by overhearing a taproom patron say they had visited all of the breweries in the metro area. I decided that if someone not in the industry could achieve that, I could easily do the same, and then some. But beyond just the bragging rights of completing the tour, I also wanted to take away something more from the experience.
Professionally, I wanted to gauge what other breweries around the state were doing in terms of such practicalities as bar setup, beer menu presentation, customer service, vibe, glassware, software systems, and brewing equipment. Perhaps I’d be able to implement successful ideas into my brewery’s daily practices (one of the many perks of working for a small business).
Personally, I wanted to be critical about the beers I was drinking in terms of style and quality, and to build my own beer sensory/evaluation skills. The best way to do that: drink lots of beer.
At the beginning of a new year, hopes and aspirations were high and adventuring to the far reaches of Minnesota seemed achievable. But that fun idea became challenging when reality began altering my normal daily plans to go drink beer. Road tripping to breweries and detouring my normal routes became part of the course of my life and the entire focus of my weekends.
While my slightly selfish journey was challenging, the definitive set of criteria I had laid out to evaluate each location eventually began yielding patterns and overarching ideas that the Minnesota craft beer scene is following. What follows are some of the similarities, the differences, the expected, and the surprises I found along the way.
1. Craft beer is a great conversation starter. Building my professional network was not originally what I had set out to accomplish on this mission. I had companions with me for 118 of my 120 brewery visits and saw the trips as a good way to reconnect with them. But it grew to be more than that. From the first brewery on, I made new friends and met people who wanted to discuss beer. When I walked into Fitger’s Brewhouse with my brand new beer journal on January 1, 2018, the bartender turned out to be a Certified Cicerone and was happy to share his knowledge of craft beer and his experiences with me. At the second brewery I visited, Blacklist Artisan Ales, a nice couple at the bar commented on my note-taking and explained they were on their way to Canada and would like recommendations for other breweries to visit along the way. My journey and the journal was a talking piece. Many times folks would ask if I had been to their favorite remote brewery, or if I had made it to Hallock yet (which I hadn’t, and didn’t). They wanted to create a connection with me and to share their own beer journey as I was on mine.
2. “State of Minnesota” Drinking. What I mean by this can be summed up perfectly by my experience at a small town brewery located near a then-frozen lake. Four people were inside and still dressed in all their outdoor winter gear. While I was enjoying a beer, the group finished their round and then shuffled outside to the collection of holes and tip-ups on the ice. Some discussion was had and some checking of lines was done, then they all lumbered back in and grabbed another round of beer to wait out the fish. It was an amusing, surprising moment that, to me, represented how the craft beer industry has integrated and built itself around the outdoorsy pride that is so ingrained with Minnesotan culture. During the warmer months, I witnessed a boat pull up to a dock near the brewery so that someone could run in, grab a few Crowlers of beer, and bring them back to the boat to share. Living in the metro area, I can find local beer around every corner. But what I found in smaller towns is that communities are craving something local to support while simultaneously enjoying the abundant outdoor activities all around them. Visiting some of Northern Minnesota’s breweries, I discovered just how much of a ritual it is for some folks to grab a growler of local craft beer before heading into the Boundary Waters for hiking or camping—it’s people’s way of supporting their community and the environment.
3. Surprise, surprise: There are great beers outside the Twin Cities! Just because you haven’t heard of a brewery doesn’t mean it isn’t making great beer. I stumbled on many lesser-known places that had balanced and interesting brews on tap. I learned to embrace trying new places and to not make assumptions before visiting a taproom. A few of my favorite surprises include: Starry Eye Brewing Company in Little Falls—they had a wide variety of styles including a few infusions when I visited, and everything I sampled was balanced and approachable; and Back Channel Brewing Company in Spring Park, which is perhaps best known for the unique serving vessels used to serve their hazy IPAs. The brewery also had several European-style lagers that, in my opinion, should be getting much more recognition.
4. How you are served is just as important as what you are served. Customer service can make the difference between a fine experience and a great one. Most of the breweries had incredible bartenders that loved to discuss beer, their story, my beer journal, etc. After years of beer drinking, I know which styles I enjoy, but this journey involved a certain level of adventure that required stepping outside of my comfort zone in order to appreciate beer at a deeper level. To do so, I would often ask the bartender to tell me their favorite beer currently on tap or to recommend something to me. Too often, a (male) bartender would automatically suggest a lighter or fruitier style that was in their words “easier beers to drink.” Aside from my initial shock at the sexism and assumptions made about my preferences, I was disappointed to find that this is a problem in Minnesota breweries. It could be that I am sheltered from industry sexism because I work at a women-owned brewery, but a brewery bartender is the face of the brewery as well as a trusted guide to a guest’s experience. I would usually retort to these men’s recommendations with, “Sure, if that’s the type of beer you normally drink and would recommend, but I will also try your barrel-aged Doppelbock because I love German-style beers.” I’d say that both to defend my own beer intelligence as well as for the sake of all the other countless female guests that have been guided in this manner and therefore missed out on an opportunity to try something new and different. (Side note: After one bartender found out I worked at a brewery, they came and apologized for their comments. I was gratified at the time, but on reflection there would be no apology given for a woman who didn’t work in the beer industry.)
5. Craft breweries are vibrant third spaces in small-town communities. One Friday, we drove an hour to a small-town brewery, u4ic Brewing Company in Belle Plaine, which was as packed as any Northeast Minneapolis brewery would be and had all the same features: food, families gathered together around a table, live music. Lupine Brewing, located 35 miles north of u4ic in Delano, had a quieter vibe even though it too was full, mostly with blue-collar workers enjoying their end-of-the-week pints. In both towns, there was a general feeling that this was just where locals went on a Friday night. It seems to me that even in the farther towns there is a push towards the idea of supporting local. They could have been drinking domestics at the corner bar, but instead, they are drawn to a cozy taproom where they order handcrafted beer (and they were more than willing to tell you which was their favorite).
6. Minnesota can expand… beer wise. Almost every brewery had a NEIPA on tap (though most versions were juicy but barely qualified as “hazy”). Which makes sense: even if IPAs aren’t your style of choice, it’s incredibly popular among craft beer drinkers and non-craft beer drinkers alike; eight times out of 10 it was a brewery’s most popular option. Some breweries tried to stand out by using adjuncts to alter normal styles (coconut this and berry that). It was always a treat to find a nice lager or barrel-aged beer on tap. Coming from the brewery side of things, it is ideal to think that if you brew a great beer it will fly out of the tank because it is balanced and true to style. But a majority of what is being brewed is being driven by consumer demand. That brewers are feeling the need to offer “wow” beers versus simply well-made beers gained credence after a conversation with a brewer from Bad Weather Brewing. We were having a discussion about their very tasty Ordinary Bitter and it was mentioned that it isn’t brewed as frequently one of their IPAs.
7. Allowances/amenities that change a brewery vibe and draw: Dogs, family-friendly breweries, food.
- Everyone loves a dog-friendly brewery… until there are too many dogs. Whereas walking into a brewery with a few quiet pups makes you feel like you’re at a friend’s house, walking into a brewery when they are having a “dog day” completely alters the atmosphere, making it much louder and smellier.
- Family-friendly breweries are more or less the norm—there’s almost always a group of adults oohing and ahhing over a newborn baby, or kids ages 2–13 playing while their parents have a beer with friends. It is cool to see craft beer as a responsibly enjoyed alcoholic beverage. There are a few times though when walking into a brewery can feel a little walking into a jungle gym due to the comfort and community that a taproom can offer as a safe environment.
- A brewery offering food is huge. I visited a brewery without a kitchen or food truck around lunch time and it was quiet—just a couple patrons were there. I walked into a neighboring brewery that had a kitchen during that same lunch hour and it was packed. There was no drastic difference in the quality of beer between the two breweries, but offering in-house sustenance to supplement beer drinking is a big draw.
8. Quality is key. It has to be said that there is beer in the market that is inconsistent and/or not the best quality. For one reason or another, the beer doesn’t represent the intended style as it should and possesses flavors it shouldn’t. You don’t have to finish these beers, nor should you finish them. I learned this the hard way after being the only patron (for good reason) at a brewery, feeling it was rude not to finish a very acetone-tasting beer (imagine nail polish remover) and earning a headache because of it. I also learned that the hype over some beers is overrated and that while they may look good with a certain filter on Instagram, they’re not as delicious to enjoy in real life. Most quality analysis comes down to personal knowledge and preferences. It’s worth doing research on a brewery (or tasting all of their beers) to know what they are brewing that is at least worth a taste.
9. Equally important: Taproom Experience & Quality Beer You never really go to a brewery for how unique it looks but having a boat on the wall really makes a place pop in a guest’s memory. An identity tells a story and offers a chance for the guest to connect to the place through that moment. It is meant to complement and enhance the experience for guests who walk through the door. Some places don’t really have a unique theme and end up looking similar to the next brewery but ideally, they are a stage for a beer experience. Having a quality product in a space with nice ambiance can allow you to just enjoy yourself. If you can walk into a cozy place and sip on a good beer it leaves you to focus on the moment and the people you are with. Take either one of those things away—unfavorable beer, bad service, unkempt taproom, as examples—and it takes away from the focus.
What I am left with after my travels is a large sticker-covered notebook with amusing tales, funny in the moment quotes, and scribbled notes about the beer reminding me of that moment and place. These are the beer thoughts and gatherings from my journey that was essentially 120 mini-adventures and experiences wrapped around the gathering force known as craft beer. Minnesota has breweries full of incredible people, tasty beer, and the potential to keep growing into the future.