The Most Important Beers in Minnesota History: A 12-pack of taste and influence

Photo by Tj Turner

Since the beginning of commercial brewing here in 1849, Minnesota has produced all types of beers. Many were ordinary and some were renowned, but a small few have become true icons. These were brands that left a mark on the industry, the culture, and even the landscape of beer.

Assembling a list of the most important beers in Minnesota history is only slightly less controversial than ranking the state’s “best” beers. Several of the brands on this list are memorable for factors other than taste. These are beers that have stood the test of time, moved the local industry forward, and become important economic and cultural touchstones. Each needs to be considered in the context of its era, though the truly great ones transcend their times.

It is too early to assess the influence of some of the newest trends. In 15 years, perhaps, we will be able to pinpoint the most important dry-hopped hazy milkshake New England IPA. Until then, we present this iconic 12-pack that has singularly shaped the history of Minnesota beer.

12. Boundary Waters Wild Rice Beer, James Page Brewing Co. 

James Page opened shortly after Summit Brewing Company in 1986. Page was one of the few early microbreweries in Minnesota to focus on lagers rather than ales. Boundary Waters Wild Rice Beer and Wild Rice Bock were the first known commercially made beers in the nation to take advantage of the state’s native grain.

11. Masala Mama IPA, Town Hall Brewery 

While IPAs dominate the attention of today’s craft beer world, the hop-forward style was not always en vogue. Masala Mama, first brewed in 1998, has endured as a classic and often-emulated example of the “Minnesota IPA,” in which a complex malt flavor provides a counterpoint to the resinous hops. It also tastes great on cask.

10. Rosie’s Old Ale, Barley John’s Brew Pub

About 15 years ago, word spread that Barley John’s had a barrel-aged and fortified version of their Wild Brunette ale that had finished around 20% ABV. While that alcohol level was never reached again, Rosie’s became a benchmark for big beers—probably Minnesota’s first “extreme” beer of the craft age.

9. Darkness Russian Imperial Stout, Surly Brewing Company 

Perhaps the earliest and most important of Minnesota’s “cult” beers, Darkness brought the idea of waiting in line overnight for a limited number of bottles to the frozen north. The bottles feature painted labels created by a different artist each year and have become sought-after collectibles.

8. Pete’s Wicked Ale, Pete’s Brewing Company

Pete Slosberg’s company was headquartered in Palo Alto, but for years his beer was made in Minnesota, first at August Schell Brewing Company, then at Minnesota Brewing Co., and still later at Stroh Brewery Company (formerly Hamm’s). The original Wicked Ale was based on an English brown ale, but its popularity led to many seasonal variations. Pete’s Wicked Ale represents the importance of contract brewing in Minnesota’s industry—new breweries sometimes depend on others to make beer while they raise money for a building or equipment. Established Minnesota businesses with extra capacity have brewed hundreds of brands over the years, from local favorites like FINNEGANS to national brands like 21st Amendment.

7. Gluek’s Stite, Gluek Beer

Stite became the first patented malt liquor in 1943 and gained some popularity as a wartime product that masked replacement fermentable materials with high alcohol. It spawned numerous imitators, including Olde English 600 from Peoples’ Brewing Co. of Duluth (which later became Olde English 800 under other ownership). Stite also spearheaded Gluek’s expansion to other regions. But at about 7% ABV, Stite was most famous for causing headaches. This, combined with its bright green cans, gave Stite the nickname “Green Death.” (Other beers sometimes given this nickname, such as Heileman Special Export, are impostors.)

6. Weiss, August Schell Brewing Co.

Often hidden by retailers among the limited import selection of the era, the appearance of Schell’s Pils and Weiss in 1984 marked the return of locally made old-world German styles to Minnesota. Pils remains one of the classics of its style, but Weiss makes the list because it opened the door to styles other than light lager and reminded local drinkers of the flavor value of yeast and grains other than barley (or corn).

5. Extra Pale Ale, Summit Brewing Company

The beer that launched the wave of craft breweries in Minnesota. Even though Great Northern Porter and Winter Ale reintroduced the idea of dark ales to the state, EPA still represents the vast majority of Summit’s sales. It has reached a coveted status in which drinkers can say “I’ll have a Summit” and everyone knows which beer they mean. Hacking through the thickets of hyphenated IPAs to revisit this classic pale ale will remind you why this was the beer that blazed the local ale trail and still endures.

4. Bocks

From World War II until the 1980s, most bocks were pretty much the same: the brewery’s premium lager with a bit of dark malt or even just added caramel color. By the 1970s, some of the best-known bocks in Minnesota were often Wisconsin brands like Leinenkugel’s. However, it was the persistence of bocks from Schell’s, Hauenstein, and Grain Belt that kept alive the idea that beer could come in colors other than yellow, and that special beers were once an important marker of changing seasons.

3. Schimdt Beer, Jacob Schmidt Brewing Company

“The Brew that Grew with the Great Northwest” was Schmidt City Club for 20 years after Repeal but was reformulated and became plain old Schmidt Beer in 1953. The brewery and its lighted sign were landmarks on the St. Paul skyline for many years (and are again in their restored condition), but the brand is most important for launching a thousand beer-can collections. The Schmidt “scenics” were the most memorable can series from the Upper Midwest and finding all the variations was a sacred quest in the first wave of beer-can collecting in the 1970s.

2. Grain Belt, Minneapolis Brewing Co.

Grain Belt was the first flagship beer in the state to have a brand name that wasn’t simply the name of the founder or style of beer. By 1967, the brand was so important that Minneapolis Brewing Co. bowed to the inevitable and changed the name of the brewery to match the beer. August Schell Brewing Co. bought the brand and recipe in 2002. The “Friendly” beer can be identified by the distinctive red diamond on its label and the iconic sign on Nicollet Island, restored and re-lit in 2017.

1. Hamm’s Beer, Theodore Hamm Brewing Co.

“From the land of sky blue waters (wah-ah-ters)…” The Theodore Hamm Brewing Co. was once the largest brewery in Minnesota history, distributing its products more widely and sponsoring more teams and events than any other state brewery. At one point, it was the fifth-largest brewing company in the nation and eventually had five breweries around the country. Hamm’s was famous enough before the 1950s, but the creation of the Hamm’s Bear and the composition of one of the catchiest jingles in advertising history made the clean but otherwise undistinguished light lager one of the best-known products of Minnesota. The company’s lighted signs were also among the most attractive of any brewery in the world.