Minnesota’s Brewpubs: Where Fresh Craft Beer Meets its Culinary Match

Where fresh craft beer meets its culinary match

By Doug Hoverson 


As the United States emerged from Prohibition, lawmakers sought to make sure that the close economic links between brewers and saloons, and the political and moral corruption that sometimes resulted, would not be reproduced in the new era. The three-tier system separated the manufacturer from the retailer by using supposedly independent distributors to limit the power of any one business.

However, the inability of brewers to sell beer on their own premises eliminated a business model that had existed in Europe for centuries—taverns that made their own beer for customers. Breweries could also provide free beer to visitors on tours or at special events at the brewery.

Not until 1982, when Bert Grant opened the Yakima Brewing and Malting Co. in the Washington city of that name, did the once common brewery saloon return to America. Two California businesses, the Mendocino Brewing Co. and Buffalo Bill’s Brewpub, opened the next year, and over the course of the next decade the concept spread into the Upper Midwest.

In Minnesota, would-be brewers worked with legislators to craft a bill narrow enough to allow for brewpubs without drawing too much opposition from beer wholesalers or bar and restaurant owners. Taps Waterfront Brewery and Comedy Club of Minneapolis was the first to open, in 1989, but it closed two years later. Sherlock’s Home, located off Highway 62 in Minnetonka, proved a well-run business with distinctive beers that could thrive and help drive the beer culture of the region. Bill Burdick introduced cask ale, firkins, and tastings to Minnesotans and paved the way for the creative breweries that delight locals and visitors alike.

Nationally, brewpub growth has gone through a couple of different cycles. After the first stage of growth, many establishments that opened to capitalize on a trend, rather than to brew memorable beer, closed. Although brewpubs have been opening at a more rapid rate again, they comprise a much smaller percentage of new breweries than they used to.

The brewpub business model is more complex than that of a production brewery, since the brewing operations need to work and play well with the restaurant side of the business. Some brewpubs that made fine beer closed because the restaurant didn’t draw enough repeat business to keep the doors open. Or, they were run by chains that didn’t understand the local market.

Sometimes a brewpub closed because of bad luck, bad timing, or even because their building was demolished (R.I.P. Shannon Kelly’s). Of course, the beer was often not particularly memorable or consistent. But for more than two decades, a brewpub was the only place a beer lover could buy a beer and a sandwich while admiring the brewhouse. When brewpubs gained the ability to sell their beer by the 64 oz “growler” in 2003, their place in the Minnesota beer scene extended beyond their own walls.

Running a brewpub is a careful balancing act that goes beyond food and beer. How adventurous should the beers be? If the restaurant customers are mostly beer novices, how much tank space should be dedicated to double IPAs versus blonde ales? Some beers excite the brewers, others pay the bills, and it is only a few lucky brewpubs where the biggest seller is a beer like Town Hall’s Masala Mama IPA.

Is it “selling out” to serve beers other than the house brews? What if the guest beers are all styles that only fill gaps in the local lineup, like a few lagers in an all-ale brewpub? But what if the restaurant loses a party of twelve because the guest of honor is livid that he can’t get a Bud Light?

On the brighter side, brewpubs can be more creative with their beers than production breweries. The batches are smaller and the loss from an unsuccessful batch is less of a financial burden. Brewpubs have been able to lead the way in barrel-aging, infusions, and other experimental styles.

And the balance between brewpubs and small production breweries is changing. Statistics from the Brewers Association show that 76% of new openings in 2012 were “micros,” compared with 35% in 1996. A major reason for the shift is that breweries have become much easier to open and now have an important new source of early income. This new advantage for breweries is the legalization of brewery taprooms in many Minnesota cities. Whether a well-appointed taproom or one that bears a strong resemblance to your neighbor’s garage, patrons can still gaze at the kettles and trade pleasantries with the brewmaster. But the brewer doesn’t have to worry about food preparation, service, or anything other than pouring beer and filling growlers.

The emergence of food truck culture in the Twin Cities enables taproom operators to offer a variety of food with none of the overhead. A few food vendors have even become popular characters in the local beer community. Could taprooms function as brewpubs on the cheap and undermine the model?

In the face of this challenge, brewpubs seem as healthy as ever and are experiencing a growth spurt not seen in years. In Minneapolis, Town Hall opened its third outlet in a beautifully refurbished bowling alley near the airport. A couple miles north is Northbound Smokehouse & Brewpub, which has exceeded its owners’ expectations since opening in 2012. The Freehouse, the brewpub operated by the successful Blue Plate restaurant group, added another beer-friendly stop to the North Loop, and Day Block Brewing Company open at the other end of Washington Avenue. In outstate Minnesota, 2012 saw the opening of new brewpubs in Duluth, Red Wing, and Reads Landing. It appears that the demise of the brewpub has been greatly exaggerated.

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