When Grain Belt went dark: Minnesota beer in the year 1996

The Grain Belt sign went dark in 1996 // Photo courtesy of Schell's Brewery

The Grain Belt sign went dark in 1996 // Photo courtesy of Schell’s Brewery

This Saturday, Minnesotans will gather along the shores of the Mississippi River in Minneapolis near Nicollet Island to celebrate the relighting of the Grain Belt sign.

Erected in the 1940s and moved to its current location in 1950, the iconic sign has been dark since 1996. Take a step back in time with us as we recall what Minnesota’s beer scene was like in 1996, and how dramatically it has changed since.

For beer lovers used to a world with brewery taprooms galore and more beer styles and brands than one could ever drink, 1996 was an arid place. You couldn’t even get a growler from one of the eight breweries or eleven brewpubs scattered throughout the state. You could still get a Grain Belt, but it was made in St. Paul. English beer writer Michael Jackson was at the peak of his career, and I had yet to start researching “Land of Amber Waters.” (Okay, I had, but not with a notebook in hand.)

Nationally, the Big 3—Anheuser-Busch, Miller, and Coors—dominated the industry, but they were still independent companies then. Heileman Brewing of La Crosse was sold to Stroh Brewing Co. of Detroit in 1996, and Pabst had shuttered its iconic Milwaukee brewery the year before. The national brands were chasing the latest big thing—ice beer. There were about three dozen “ice” beers on the shelf, replacing the previous trend, “dry beer.” The dominant national “microbrew” was Sam Adams, though in 1996 a segment on Dateline NBC revealed that most of Boston Beer Company’s beer was contract brewed at larger breweries. It was in 1996 that a shakeout began among the microbreweries, with many underfunded breweries making mediocre beer closing before the turn of the millennium.

While today’s drinkers can find out what is on tap at any given moment with a touch of their phones, craft beer lovers in 1996 seeking local beer information relied on “Midwest Beer Notes,” edited by Mike Urseth and Alan Moen. (They had a special column called “What’s Brewing” on the Information Super Highway that highlighted breweries or related businesses that actually had this new thing called a website!) Using “Land of Amber Waters” and my 1996 issues of “Midwest Beer Notes,” let’s take a look at what the local beer world was drinking.

Large Legacy Breweries

In 1996, the old Hamm brewery, owned by Stroh’s, was in its last full year of operation. The most full-flavored products coming from the big brewery on East Minnehaha Avenue were the Augsburger beers, including occasional seasonal offerings. Minnesota Brewing Co., the company that took over the old Jacob Schmidt brewery, was brewing a wide range of contract brews (anyone remember Rhino Chasers?). Minnesota Brewing had replaced the iconic S-C-H-M-I-D-T sign with one touting their Landmark brand, but they were best known for their Pig’s Eye range of beers and Grain Belt.

Small Legacy Breweries

Cold Spring Brewing Co. was in a period of transition during 1996, but would emerge the next year as Gluek Brewing Co., hoping to spotlight the brand they had purchased earlier from Heileman. Most of the beer coming from Cold Spring were contract brews—many from exotic locations. Travelers to the Caribbean who raved about Foxy’s beer were surprised when they read the bottle and discovered it was made in Cold Spring.

By 1996, August Schell Brewing Co. had already established itself as one of the leading microbreweries with brews like Doppelbock, Schmaltz’s Alt, and Maifest, as well as the classic Pils and Weizen.

Microbreweries

Summit and James Page were both well established by 1996. Summit had just introduced their new IPA. Page was best known for their wild rice bock—believed to be the first commercial wild rice beer.

Lake Superior Brewing Co. started out in the Fitger’s Hotel complex in 1994, and remained there for five years until they moved to larger quarters. The new kid on the block in 1996 was Mantorville Brewing Co., established in the shadow of the old Mantorville brewery by seven homebrewers who took a chance at going pro.

Brewpubs

Minnesota’s flagship brewpub in 1996 was Sherlock’s Home in Minnetonka. I spent a lot of time there enjoying the cask-conditioned ales brewed by Bill Burdick and his team. But the interesting thing about brewpubs in 1996 was that there were as many in Greater Minnesota as in the Twin Cities. Alas, the only survivors from 1996 are Rock Bottom Brewery in Minneapolis and Fitger’s Brewhouse in Duluth. The list of those that passed into memory: District Warehouse Brewing (Minneapolis), Sherlock’s Home, Trader & Trapper (Moorhead), Clubhaus (Rochester), O’Hara’s (St. Cloud), Mill Street Brewery (St. Paul), Shannon Kelly’s (St. Paul), O’Gara’s (St. Paul), and Backwater Brewing Co. (Winona). It’s difficult to imagine a list of Minnesota brewpubs that doesn’t include Town Hall or Great Waters, but they did not open until 1997.

Imports—Near and Far

Today, when retailers can occupy a wall of coolers with just Minnesota craft brews and a craft beer bar can fill a large chalkboard with local offerings, it is important to remember how important microbrews from other states, contract brews, and classic imports were to educating the palates of Minnesota beer drinkers.

The mid-1990s were the heyday of the Pete’s Wicked brews, many of them brewed in Minnesota. Leinenkugel’s introduced Berry Weiss in 1996, and New Glarus earned international acclaim for its Belgian Red (though one still had to cross the river to buy it). Spotted Cow was still a year away. Sierra Nevada was readily available, as was Rogue—the vanguard of the West Coast invasion. While some of the imports from the mid-1990s have largely disappeared from local shelves (Grolsch and Young’s, for example) Samuel Smith, Fuller, Ayinger, Schneider, and others remain.

In the 21 years since the Grain Belt sign last shone across the river, the Minnesota beer scene has expanded far beyond what anyone could have imagined then. However, some things have remained constant: brewers with big dreams are opening breweries, and drinkers are there ready to encourage them. And, you can still get a Grain Belt.