I’ve been tasked once again with telling you how things should be. If you’re a fan of this blog, you’ve probably already seen some of my posts regarding how things should be or how to make things the best that they can be. The ‘things’ part changes each time I do this column, but you can be assured that it will always be the best ‘things’ or at least the best possible ‘thing’. Although the fact that I say something is the best is fairly meaningless. Don’t let snobs of any stripe tell you how to live your life, but especially don’t let snobs tell you what kind of beer you should like. That is up to you, dear reader.
I wanted to do a basic primer of breweries from our region of the Upper Midwest (kind of skewing North, I guess), but of course it is mainly centered around the styles of beer that I personally enjoy, so don’t take it too seriously. Living in a state (MN) that is at the forefront of the craft beer movement has made life easy, in terms of writing this blog and in cracking cold brews, so… OK. You know that I want to get into some suds. Let’s do.
FULTON- Minneapolis, MN
I know that a lot of my craft-beer snob friends would poo poo me putting Fulton on my ‘tops’ list, but hear me out! Fulton brought an inexpensive, delicious and well crafted lager (Fulton Standard) to the market. A lager that is actually a lager, not an IPA masquerading as one. That was a really big deal for folks like me who had been over-hopped to death for years. There are actually a lot of us out here who enjoy beers that are more nuanced, such as a lager or pilsner because they are of the easy drinking variety and also don’t kill your palate with a pine needle assault. Beer can actually be a friend to food, not just something that you had too much of that necessarily requires you to eat food. Fulton really does the range of what quality beer drinkers expect to a T; enjoy their Standard Lager for a bit of malty refreshment, Fulton Pils for a thirst quenching drink with a flavor that leaves you wanting another sip, and Fulton 300 for that very full flavored hit of mosaic hops that this version of a West Coast IPA delivers in spades.
SUMMIT- St. Paul, MN
Summit is that venerable Minnesota craft brewery of old, so I figured I would be remiss if I didn’t mention them. For many who grew up in Minnesota or Wisconsin, this would be their first foray into ‘good’ beer, before the craft beer explosion had happened and perhaps before that term was even coined. I’m guessing that a lot of people would feel that with the proliferation of breweries (some of them really good) in Minnesota, no ink or digital blips should even be wasted on Summit. I, too, was always pretty unimpressed by their offerings, although for different reasons than my beer-snob friends. Summit’s devotion to all things pale ale (their EPA had to have been one of the most popular beers in the state) had always left me wishing that they would do a good lager or pilsner. Most of the snobs felt as though Summit had gotten too pedestrian in their styles, as they are always seemingly longing for the latest barrel aged, sour or weird peanut butter and jelly beer to come out. Summit never really did a ton of that stuff other than in their taproom, but rather, as a really pretty large player in the craft production brewery world, Summit has always kind of focused on producing the stuff that moves bottles off of the shelf (with great success). In the spirit of that, Summit now hits the market with a couple of new pilsners. Keller Pils was a really popular one-off that Summit did for a couple of summers before it became so popular that it had to go into regular rotation. Keller Pils (which is a cloudy, ‘young’ pils with less filtration) drinks crisp and refreshing with just enough salinity to keep you wanting more. They also sell this for around $15 a 12 pack (cans), which makes it a value for a very high quality beer. Summit has also recently released Dakota Soul, a Czech style pilsner, noteworthy for using barley sourced from a single farm in North Dakota and in using a new American hop varietal called Loral. This cold-conditioned pilsner is complex but easily drinkable, making it what I would consider a go-to for warmer spring weather (although sub zero temperatures recently did not diminish my enjoyment of it). Summit does a lot of cool collaborations with other breweries (the Unchained series springs to mind) but is also really making a push to master the classic European styles. I’m not a huge fan of a lot of Summit’s other beers, but their English Pale Ale, Great Northern Porter, Oatmeal Stout and Saga beers are well crafted and highly rated by many.
NEW GLARUS- New Glarus, WI
This brewery has to be respected simply due to the absolutely ubiquitous nature of their beer in Wisconsin. It’s almost like you can’t tip over a cow in that state without finding reference to this brewery. It could be due to the fact that it is only available in Wisconsin, but seriously, there isn’t a liquor store, gas station, bodega, fireworks stand or roadside gift shop in America’s Dairyland that you will not find at least their flagship beer, Spotted Cow. Spotted Cow always gets dogged by the beer snobs; too light, too sweet, and of course, not hoppy enough. Spotted Cow falls into the category of farmhouse ale, which is a cask-conditioned style of beer often referred to as ‘real ale’, aka beer brewed from traditional ingredients (or in a traditional style) and matured by secondary fermentation in the container from which it is dispensed. This is similar to the way homebrewers condition their beer in bottles with no secondary carbon dioxide added. The result in Spotted Cow is a beer that is cloudy, fruity, slightly tart and incredibly malty. Spotted Cow goes great with most food and is hard to beat on a hot summer day. The same goes for their Two Women brew, a smooth yet flavorful lager. New Glarus makes a beer for just about any type of beer lover, and their beers are highly coveted throughout the Great Lakes region and beyond.
UPPER HAND- Escanaba, MI
Michigan’s upper peninsula has proliferated more than a few great breweries and brew pubs in the last few years, and Upper Hand is one of my favorites. Having occasion a couple of times to travel through this breathtakingly beautiful part of the state in 2017, and always loving to drink local, I sampled plenty of the smooth beers made by Upper Hand. It’s pretty amazing to think that in one of the least populace parts of the state of Michigan, beers are being made at such a high level (not to mention high volume). For my taste, Upper Hand nails it on their Pale Ales and Lagers, but they truly have a beer for everyone.
UTEPILS- Minneapolis, MN
Ok, so if you’re from the Twin Cities area (and surely beyond) you no doubt are familiar with how cool NE Minneapolis has become. Great breweries, restaurants, bars… basically a young, party-centric person’s dream. But what about the neighborhoods that are emerging? What about Bryn Mawr ? Just kidding! Bryn Mawr is a beautiful neighborhood directly west of downtown Minneapolis with tons of hiking trails, proximity to lakes and so many other great amenities but is probably not considered cool or emerging at all. Until now! Utepils Brewing is a relatively new player in the Minneapolis beer scene, but one that has garnered an almost cult-like following, especially in the tragically underserved neighborhood of Bryn Mawr. The reason? The beer. Utepils has a strict commitment to doing classic beer styles the way the Europeans did them, and with great success. While a lot of Minnesota breweries that had heretofore been pushing the boundaries of all that is beer are now starting to come back to doing ‘classic’ beers, Utepils has never strayed from what has worked for centuries. I think that’s the reason that I like them so much. It takes guts to go up against major players in the beer world like Ayinger or G. Schneider & Sohn, but to brew beers that actually stand up to the breweries that have been producing these styles for hundreds of years is downright impressive. I’m personally a huge fan of their Pils and Keller Pils styles, but have been geeked to see them succeed with diverse styles such as Altbier or Kolsch. Ewald the Golden (hefeweizen) was their first flagship beer and one that I highly recommend even for those who are not fans of the style. Their version is revelatory; estery, bananna-ey and clovey yet extremely clean at the finish. It makes me want to smash every glass of Blue Moon with an orange wedge on the ground in protest. An even cleaner version can be found in their Kristalweizen, which is essentially a filtered version of Ewald the Golden, producing a crystal clear look and taste. I wouldn’t kid ya, kid. This brewery could be magically transplanted to Bavaria and no one would bat an eye.
YOUR LOCAL- Anytown, USA
I don’t know where you live. Why would I? But one thing is almost certain: whatever corner of the Upper Midwest you hail from there is probably a brewpub or brewery relatively close to you. If you live in any decent sized town here I could almost guarantee that you have one or the other or both. I think that one of the smartest components of the craft beer movement is the tie to local economies. It’s really not a hard sell when you think about it. you drink beer. Beer is produced in your town. Beer is produced by the people that live in your town. Beer is taxed in your town. The people who live in your town that work at the brewery spend money in your town. You spend money at the local brewery/brewpub and a lot of that money it stays in your town. What’s not to love about that process? If you can find a beer you love being produced locally it really behooves you to buy it often. In the city of Duluth, MN where I live, we have Lake Superior Brewing (Minnesota’s oldest craft brewery), Fitger’s Brewhouse, Bent Paddle , Blacklist and new kids on the block Hoops Brewing to choose from. Just across the border in Superior, WI we have the Thirsty Pagan brewpub as well as the new Earth Rider production brewery and taproom and just up the shore in Two Harbors, MN Castle Danger brewing is gaining a rabid following both locally and statewide. It’s truly a great time to drink beer and to do so locally. Just think about the far reaching impact those beer dollars have so close to home!
So there you have it. My comprehensive guide to drinking the beers of my region that I enjoy. But, no matter where you live, there are bound to be some great suds to enjoy with your buds. Please do so!