Two Twin Ports brewery staples are getting a refresh

Thirsty Pagan Brewing Company // Photo by Ellen Burkhardt

Thirsty Pagan Brewing Company // Photo by Ellen Burkhardt

Two of the Twin Ports’ oldest breweries and brewpubs are getting a refresh with new faces in the brewhouse, new packaging, and a rebrand.

After months of being without a brewer, Thirsty Pagan Brewing’s owner Steve Knauss tapped Kathleen Culhane, the founder and brewer at the now-defunct Sídhe Brewing in St. Paul, to fill the role vacated by longtime brewer Allyson Rolph, who left Thirsty Pagan in 2017 for a position at nearby Earth Rider Brewery, which opened last October.

Culhane was most recently working on the packaging team at Fulton Brewing’s production facility in Northeast Minneapolis. After a meeting to discuss her interest in the position, Knauss offered her the opportunity to take the reins at Thirsty Pagan.

“I’m so excited to be going up there and making beer again,” Culhane said in late June, days before she made the move to Superior. “I love Fulton. They have been very, very good to me. I can’t talk them up enough. But packaging is not brewing. And being in the brewhouse is where my true passion lies and where my expertise is. I’m going to get paid to do exactly what I want to do. And it’s awesome.”

Culhane’s first few weeks have been spent getting the brewpub’s flagships back on tap, and introducing some of her more popular recipes from Sídhe Brewing to complement Thirsty Pagan’s offerings.

However, Thirsty Pagan’s basement cellar presents Culhane with a puzzle: What to do with the dozens of oak barrels filled with sour beer? “While I do, in fact, love sours, I don’t know a lot about them. So I’m going to be casting about for some resources to figure out what’s best to do with them,” she says. Culhane adds that she’s relishing the challenge as she gets herself up to speed on the ins and outs of sour beer production and what each of the barrels holds. “It’s exciting. Any excuse to learn a new technique and new technology, more things on, all in favor of it.”

The barrels in the basement of Thirsty Pagan // Photo by Ellen Burkhardt

The barrels in the basement of Thirsty Pagan // Photo by Ellen Burkhardt

Before taking the position at Thirsty Pagan, Culhane had been attempting to jumpstart a new brewery project of her own: Culhane Brewing, in the former Station 4 space in Lowertown St. Paul. Asked if we will see Culhane Brewing someday down the line, her answer was definite. “Nope. Not going to happen. […] And that’s okay; the universe is telling me that I should look somewhere else. And I’m not really probably cut out to be a business owner. I am a pretty decent brewer and I’m really good with mechanical things and process and quality control. So if I can find someone else who will pay me to do those things, they can have the headache of running the business. And I’ll make sure they have a damn fantastic product. That’s where I know I can shine.”

Across the high bridge, the new owners of Duluth’s oldest production brewery, Lake Superior Brewing Company, are reintroducing the brand to craft beer drinkers, many of whom didn’t know Lake Superior Brewing even existed. “We get people every shift [in the taproom] that are like ‘Wow! I never even heard of you guys. You’re the oldest micro?’ You know, just incredulous that they didn’t know that we were here. So that’s kind of thrilling,” says Lisa Blade, who purchased Lake Superior with Lars Kuehnow in October 2017. “I’ve been a longtime fan of the beer, and to be able to bring other people to quality liquid, it’s rewarding.”

Lake Superior Brewing's beer lineup gets a fresh look // Photo via Lake Superior Brewing Company's Instagram

Lake Superior Brewing’s beer lineup gets a fresh look // Photo via Lake Superior Brewing Company’s Instagram

That an award-winning brewery turning 24 years old this December could be brand new to craft beer drinkers in Minnesota may seem baffling, but it’s not necessarily a surprise to Blade. “They just didn’t market. And so, as the business grew, evolved, and changed, Lake Superior Brewing just continued to make just consistently great liquid. Just fantastic. And then really did nothing as far as marketing. […] So, that was something that we could bring.”

Photo courtesy Lake Superior Brewing Company

Photo courtesy Lake Superior Brewing Company

Blade and Kuehnow’s marketing efforts have come in the form of increased social media presence, a new website, and a rebranding of the brewery’s longtime offerings. The brewery is also finally jumping on a trend that has taken off in Minnesota: cans.

The portability of cans appeals to drinkers with an active lifestyle—a demographic Blade and Kuehnow think Lake Superior, which previously only distributed its beer in bottles, was missing out on. “That was something we felt was really, really important to the brand,” Blade says. The brewery’s Kayak Kolsch and Mesabi Reb are the first two brands to be sold in 12-ounce cans.

Blade and Kuehnow also hired a new head brewer, Ryan Woodhill, who worked at Crescent City Brewhouse in New Orleans and Canal Park Brewing Company in Duluth before coming aboard at Lake Superior. Woodhill takes over the brewhouse from former owner and brewer Dale Kleinschmidt, who will remain on staff to help consult and guide the new brewing team. To begin, Woodhill will be mainly focused on brewing Lake Superior’s flagships as the company introduces their longstanding brands to new customers. Eventually, though, he’ll have more opportunity to introduce new recipes in the taproom.

Lake Superior Brewing opened well before the state’s taproom law went into effect. As a result, its taproom is a small space built within the production area, and very modest compared to those of breweries that opened after 2011. Asked whether there are any plans to update or even relocate the taproom, Blade replied, “It’s definitely in the plans, but nothing I can reveal to you at this point.” For now, they’ve added new hours of operation and are playing up the current taproom’s “authentic” feel. “We literally rolled the bottler and the canner, everything, out of the way to put the tables down,” says Blade.

Lake Superior is hosting it’s Augtoberfest event on August 17 and 18, where attendees can get their first pints of Lake Superior’s Oktoberfest.

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Brian Kaufenberg is the editor-in-chief of The Growler Magazine.