Craft (Beer at the) Fair 2012

The Minnesota State Fair embraces craft brews

By Drew Kerr

For years, the Minnesota State Fair has been dominated by the country’s largest brewers, leaving craft beer enthusiasts a limited menu of options from which to choose. That’s starting to change.

In a nod to the state’s growing roster of breweries, the Great Minnesota Get Together is offering an increasingly diverse selection of locally-made craft beers, and putting their makers on a pedestal to be celebrated in the same way cheese makers, farmers and artisans have been since the fair began.

The focus on craft brews is still relatively new, but there are ample signs that it is likely to become a permanent and growing part of the annual event. For the first time this year, the Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild will have a place alongside winemakers and other locally-sourced products in the Agriculture Horticulture Building, where the group will showcase Minnesota’s beer history and sell beer flights from craft breweries around the state. An ever-growing homebrew competition celebrates its 11th and perhaps biggest year yet, and vendors are expanding their tap selections and beer companies are bringing brewers to mingle with the masses.

“It’s really all about Minnesota, so it’s just natural that you’d have Minnesota beers there,” said Carey Matthews, the marketing manager for Summit, which sponsors a stage at the International Bazaar and will be sold at 16 fair locations this year.

Dan Theisen, who runs the Ball Park Café with his wife Gina, brother David, and sister-in-law Colleen, said the appetite for craft beer at the event became evident last year, when the 13-year-old stand added twelve craft beer taps. Half of the lines were dedicated to Minnesota brews, including Lift Bridge, Schells and three varieties of Surly, while the rest were dedicated to national craft brews including Goose Island, Odell and Stone Brewing.

Theisen said the move was an immediate success, with a quarter of beer sales attributed to craft beer, and overall beer sales climbing 20 percent between 2010 and 2011. Given that success, Theisen will expand this year to 15 craft beers, most of which will come from Minnesota. New additions include Fulton, Harriet, Lucid, Summit and Badger Hill, one of the Twin Cities’ newest breweries. If they’re available, he’ll also have beer from Excelsior Brewing Company.

The switch to craft beer wasn’t easy —Theisen spent thousands on a 60/40 nitrogen-blending keg system, designed to better showcase the beers on tap—but the challenges have been taken in stride. Theisen and his brother have personally visited each of the breweries they intend to carry at the stand, and brewers plan to stop by—if not deliver the beer directly—throughout the fair, adding a personal touch that doesn’t exist with larger brands.

“It’s an entirely different culture and it’s great to be able to support people you know,” Theisen said. “It makes it very easy to support these guys and promote their product.”

That same philosophy is what led Hank Hanten to bring Summit to the fair 20 years ago, when the event was still limited to 3.2 beer, a low-alcohol blend that excluded much of the craft beer available at the time. A craft beer enthusiast who admits to sneaking in his own personal supply of Summit, Hanten worked with the St. Paul-based brewery to bring a low-alcohol version of their Extra Pale Ale, which was also being sold at Midway Stadium, to the fair in the early 90s.

Its arrival, along with lobbying from beer makers, set the stage for the state to lift the 3.2 limit in 2007—a move that has helped grow the number of vendors, and quantity of beer sold during the two-week event. According to State Fair officials, there will be at least 75 different types of beer sold this year, compared to just 28 in 2002, and 13 in 1992. The expectation is that at least 7,500 kegs will be sold in 2012, up 35 percent from a decade ago.

“Once the fair changed, it went from having maybe 10 beers to select from to a whole world of beer,” said Hanten, whose stand, Shanghaied Henri’s, can be found at the International Bazaar.

Hanten has continued to innovate, too, acting as the brain child behind Summit on a Stick, a three-beer Summit sampler that delivers three pours nestled in a single paddle. This year, the stick will include EPA, Horizon Red and Oktoberfest. (Summit’s new Saga will also be available at the stand, though it is not included in the stick.)

The interest is as much in the producers as it is the beer, with brewers from Summit, Surly, and others stopping at the fair to meet consumers and shed light on their brews. This year, brothers Jake, John and Dick, fifth generation brewers from Wisconsin based Leinenkugel, will attend the event as part of a road trip celebrating the brewery’s 145th birthday.

It’s not all professionals, though. The state fair has for the last 11 years also hosted the Minnesota State Fair Homebrewed, Mead and Cider Competition. Judges narrow the field to 28 beers, meads and ciders by the time the competition gets to the state fair, and the race to make the cut has become more intense.

Last year, more than 600 home brewers from around the state submitted entries, up from 450 entries the year before. This year, organizers anticipate they will sift through more than 700 entries in an effort to crown the state’s best home brewer. (If history serves, it’s anyone’s game: a Russian Imperial Stout took first last year, and previous winners include a Scottish Gold Ale, a fruit melomel, an Old Ale and an American IPA.)

While visitors can only watch and wonder what the home brews taste like, Amanda Kutzke, a member of the Twin Cities-based home brew club Primary Fermenters who is organizing this year’s event, said interest in the competition is growing.

Like the rest of those bringing craft beer to the event, Kutzke said she only expects that curiosity to grow, and for the event to become larger as well. “People are really curious and are very into how it all works,” she said. “It’s definitely increased in popularity, and I don’t see that going away.”

The Minnesota State Fair runs daily from Thursday, Aug. 23 to Monday, Sept. 3. For updated event information and a full list of vendors visit mnstatefair.org. Photos courtesy of the Minnesota State Fair. Illustration by Jeff Nelson.

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