Taking center stage: The beer revival in middle Minnesota

Breweries in the heart of Minnesota are popping up faster than holiday décor in big-box stores, but do they have what it takes to make it long-term?

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Lupulin Brewing in Big Lake, Minnesota // Photo by Brian Kaufenberg

You probably have a mental image of what an outstate Minnesota beer drinker looks like. It’s a guy. He’s middle-aged, a little paunchy, wearing a jacket with his employer’s name emblazoned on the back. He’s sitting at the corner of the VFW bar or puttering around in his garage, and in his hands is a macro-brewed, fizzy, yellow beer.

What this piece presupposes, to paraphrase “The Royal Tenenbaums'” Eli Cash, is maybe he isn’t?

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Bad Habit Brewing in St. Joseph, Minnesota // Photo courtesy of Bad Habit

While it’s not the taproom Disneyland of Northeast Minneapolis, central Minnesota’s craft beer scene can fairly be described as thriving. This has not always been the case. Just five years ago, your best bet for a local, craft beer in the area would have been a Granite City outlet or going to the now-shuttered McCann’s in St. Cloud. Third Street Brewhouse was still Cold Spring Brewing, pumping out energy drinks and economy beers with no taproom in sight.

Head out of the Metro area on I-94 or Highways 10 and 55 today, though, and you’ll run headlong into a dozen outlets for your craft beer thirst.

(To wit: Beaver Island Brewing in St. Cloud, Spilled Grain Brewhouse in Annandale, Hayes’ Public House in Buffalo, Lupulin Brewing in Big Lake, Lupine Brewing and South Fork Brewing in Delano, Foxhole Brewhouse in Willmar, Goat Ridge Brewing in New London, Jack Pine Brewing in Brainerd, Big Axe Brewing and Gull Dam Brewing in Nisswa, and Third Street Brewhouse in Cold Spring. The scuttlebutt around Benton County is that someone has bought the old American Legion in Sauk Rapids with the intentions of turning it into taproom and brewhouse as well. At current conditions, two more will have opened by the time you get to the end of this paragraph.)

The latest entry is Bad Habit Brewing in St. Joseph, which opened to the public on Halloween. Owner/head brewer Aaron Rieland was more than happy with his first weekend in business.

“It was very humbling,” he says. “Never in my wildest dreams did I expect to see that many people come out. The support of the local community was amazing.”

While it’s natural to wonder if this is just a case of people kicking the tires on the new bar in town, there is evidence that these crowds aren’t going away any time soon.

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Beaver Island Brewing in St. Cloud // Photo by Steven Neuman

St. Cloud’s Beaver Island Brewing Company is a relative old-timer in the area, having been open since all the way back in February 2015. Co-founder Nick Barth echoes Rieland’s sentiments almost to the letter.

“The demand has been significantly higher than supply,” Barth says. “We thought St. Cloud would be a great place for a brewery, but we simply had no idea how supportive not only the community would be, but [also] the entire state. It’s humbling.”

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Lupuline Brewing in Big Lake, Minnesota // Photo by Brian Kaufenberg

Lupulin Brewing’s Matt Schiller confirms that it hasn’t just been cabin traffic on the way to Brainerd that’s been bellying up at their Big Lake location. “We’ll have locals getting off work come in here and order a double IPA. That was a pleasant surprise to me.”

As Bad Habit looks to establish itself (Rieland is still working his day job, so they’re on a Friday and Saturday schedule for now), both Beaver Island and Lupulin are looking to grow less than a year into their existence. Beaver Island is on tap at over 40 bars and restaurants in the St. Cloud area, and has recently expanded into the Duluth market.

“We’ve just ordered two more [fermenters] to double our production capacity,” Barth says. “In addition, we’ve invested in 10 whiskey barrels and intend on adding some barrel-aged beers to the lineup.”

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Barrels in Lupulin’s cellar // Photo by Steven Neuman

Lupulin is already barrel-aging (a Belgian blonde in chardonnay barrels was just tapped), and while their beers are only available on-site for now, they have the room and equipment to package their beers in 750ml bottles in the near future.

The increased competition for the craft beer gullet has not noticeably bruised any egos in the area, either. Everyone I spoke with made a point to mention how friendly they are with their would-be rivals.

“(Beaver Island’s) Matt Studer and his wife came and enjoyed a few beers at our opening on Saturday,” Rieland says. “My wife was like, ‘Seriously, who does that? Beaver Island coming out on opening day to enjoy our beer?’ I don’t think you see that camaraderie in any other industry. I’ve chatted many times with Bemidji Brewing, Jack Pine, Spilled Grain, Goat Ridge, and a few of the guys from Third Street.”

In a market that appears to crave non-macro options as much as your hippest, beard-heavy Minneapolis enclave, Barth does have one piece of advice for anyone looking to open their own brewery in the area: “Take your budget and double it.”

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