In the late-night hours of July 16, 1984, the brewers at August Schell Brewing Co. began the process of making what is believed to be the first wheat beer brewed in the United States post-Prohibition.
Schell’s hefeweizen was a departure for the southern Minnesota brewery known for their light, American-style lagers. It was a departure as well for members of the broader beer community in the state who were accustomed to drinking those same lagers. That brew session could arguably mark the start of craft brewing in Minnesota.
The early 1980s were a tough time for small breweries, both locally and nationally. The industry was consolidating into an ever smaller number of large corporations. In Minnesota, both Hamm’s and Grain Belt had sold out to larger companies. Just across the border in La Crosse, Wis., the Heileman brewery was shuttered. The small breweries that remained couldn’t compete with the mega-brewers’ marketing might, which created a perception among consumers that bigger meant better.
“We were shrinking and shrinking,” said Ted Marti, Schell’s president. “Prior to me taking over, your choice was to try to go cheaper and hope you could compete. I said, ‘Well, that’s not a solution. That’s just a recipe to go out of business.’ ”
But the success of then-new craft beers like Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Samuel Adams Boston Lager and Anchor Steam suggested there was a growing desire in the market for something different. Craft beers such as hefeweizen, pilsner, bock and others offered Schell’s a pathway to survival, while staying true to their German heritage. Those beers showed Minnesota drinkers accustomed to the same old pale lagers that small breweries had something to offer — something flavorful. Small and local didn’t necessarily mean bad.
In St. Paul, Mark Stutrud also saw opportunity and began planning Summit Brewing Co. in 1982 — spending his vacations apprenticing at fledgling craft breweries on the coasts and attending classes at the Siebel Institute’s brewing school in Chicago.
Summit rolled out its first keg of Extra Pale Ale in 1986. It was a game-changer in the Minnesota beer scene. “It showed us that locally made beer could come in different colors and flavors,” says Doug Hoverson, local beer historian and author of “Land of Amber Waters: The History of Brewing in Minnesota.”
“It gave us a fresher alternative to imports like Bass. It created a sense first of curiosity and then of pride in a local product,” he said. “It was a local to be savored rather than pounded. Its success also paved the way for Great Northern Porter, the seasonal offerings and products of other brewers.”
Though ubiquitous now, extra pale ale wasn’t an easy sell at first. It was more bitter than the public was accustomed to at the time. And there was the fight against the mega-brewers’ marketing machines.
“Back in that day, we were competing head on with all of the basic, national domestic lager producers and strong importers,” says Stutrud of Summit. “During the first year, there wasn’t a distributor that would touch us with a 10-foot pole.”
Stutrud went directly to independent restaurateurs and liquor store owners who knew that beer was more expansive than pale lager. His persistence paid off. “When we acquired a Miller line at Leaning Tower of Pizza in Minneapolis, I thought we might make it,” said Stutrud.
In 1987, the Minnesota Legislature passed a law allowing restaurants to brew their own beer on site, paving the way for the first brewpubs. One that was especially influential in those early days was Sherlock’s Home, which opened in 1989 in Minnetonka.
After spending time in England, owner Bill Burdick sought to bring the hand-pulled, cask-conditioned ales he had enjoyed there back to Minnesota. Sherlock’s quickly became a center of the Twin Cities beer community, hosting home-brewing competitions, beer tastings and appearances by renowned beer writers.
“Sherlock’s was important in creating a beer culture. Not just different recipes and different styles, but the way it’s consumed, the way it’s respected,” said Hoverson.
“The idea that not all beer had to be absolutely ice cold; sometimes it was better that way. That the way you presented and served a beer was important. It wasn’t just about how many beers you can get out quickly and slap them on the bar at the lowest possible price. That there was an art to pulling a beer,” he said.
During the late 1980s and into the 1990s, a number of breweries came and went, each adding their own piece to the early development of the state’s craft beer industry.
A second wave
The late 1990s saw a crash in craft beer nationwide. A glut of breweries and an influx of investors making subpar products in pursuit of a fast buck brought the growth of the movement to a grinding halt. In Minnesota, the period from 1997 to 2005 was chaotic, with few openings and many closings. But behind the scenes, Minnesota craft brewers were organizing to build their brand.
The first meeting of the Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild in 2000 was a modest affair. A small group of brewpub brewers met in the basement of Town Hall to discuss lobbying for changes to Minnesota law that would allow breweries with annual production of less than 3,500 barrels to sell growlers to the public for off-premise consumption. The law was passed in 2003.
But the Guild also had a bigger agenda — to promote Minnesota’s fledgling craft beer industry to the public. To accomplish this, the members established the state’s first beer festivals. The first Autumn Brew Review took place in 2000 at Peavey Plaza in downtown Minneapolis. Twenty-two breweries participated, according to Laura Mullen, co-founder of Bent Paddle Brewing Co. in Duluth and onetime event planner for the Guild. That represented the entirety of the industry at the time. The first Winterfest was held in early 2001 in St. Paul.
Both of these festivals are fixtures in the Minnesota beer scene to this day, along with other Guild-sponsored events like All Pints North in Duluth and the Land of 10,000 Beers craft beer exhibit in the Agriculture-Horticulture Building during the State Fair.
The next big shift came in February 2006 when Surly Brewing Co., initially of Brooklyn Center, delivered the first kegs of its flagship Furious to bars in the Twin Cities.
Omar Ansari had begun planning Surly two years earlier. An avid home-brewer whose palate was honed on Summit Extra Pale Ale and Schell’s Oktoberfest, he conceived a plan to brew big, unabashed beers of a type that were rare here — beers with loads of hops, barrel aging and elevated alcohol levels.
The initial announcement of the brewery conveyed that aggressive stance. “Our beers are not for your mother,” it proclaimed. “Sometimes you have to get a little angry to make things happen, so Get Surly!”
Twenty years earlier, Summit had pushed Minnesotans’ palates on hops, but Furious shoved them off the cliff. It was a brash beer — aggressively bitter with over-the-top hop flavor. There was nothing else like it in the local market at the time and people either loved it or hated it.
“I had bartenders spit that beer out when I brought it out. I mean, so many people didn’t like that beer,” Ansari said with a laugh.
But many people did like it, and with a passion that was as aggressive as the beer itself. A force of Surly superfans later dubbed the “Surly Nation” took to the internet, a game-changing amplifier not available to the earlier pioneers.
Surly fans spread the word on national beer-rating sites like Beer Advocate and argued in Surly’s defense when others disparaged them. All the hype led to Surly being voted best brewery in the country on Beer Advocate’s 2007 member poll. It took Surly to a whole new level and elevated Minnesota craft beer to national attention.
Surly’s opening was followed closely in 2007 by Flat Earth Brewing Co. in St. Paul. Founded by home-brewer turned pro Jeff Williamson, Flat Earth’s weekly growler sales days became quite popular with Twin Cities beer drinkers. They couldn’t sell samples from the brewery, but they were allowed to give them away, so they were willing to let visitors taste as many beers as they wanted while deciding which one to take home. This led some in the community to quietly refer to the Thursday afternoon events as the best secret happy hour in the Twin Cities.
In 2008, Lift Bridge Brewery of Stillwater started contracting time and space to produce beer at the Flat Earth facility in St. Paul, eventually moving to their own space. That same year, Boathouse Brewpub opened in Ely, bringing craft beer to the far north of the state. Sweet Child of Vine, from Fulton in Minneapolis, started appearing on shelves and tap lists in 2009, the same year that Carmody Irish Pub in Duluth added a small brewery to its operation.
The third wave
In 2011, Surly was going to build what it called a “destination brewery” in Minneapolis.
The only problem was that Minnesota law did not allow production breweries to sell pints of beer on premises. In order for Surly to realize the plan, the law would have to be changed. And resistance from retailers, distributors and other interests made changing beer laws in the state a very difficult task.
A similar law change had been attempted in 1987 by Mark Stutrud and freshman state Sen. John Marty, but was shut down by lobbyists for the Minnesota Wholesalers Association and the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association, as well as retailers who threatened to drop Summit from tap lists. That put an end to the effort.
But Surly had its Surly Nation fans behind its effort. The Surly bill became law in 2011.
Later that same year, Lift Bridge became the first brewery in the state with a taproom. Fulton followed in 2012 and many others did the same.
The taproom law fomented in Minnesota what was already a swelling tidal wave of new breweries nationwide.
Since 2012, the number of breweries in the state has grown to about 180. And they keep opening. Many of these new breweries are supported primarily or entirely by taproom sales. “It lowers the bar to entry and that’s really the name of the game,” said Ansari.
The proliferation of very small breweries has spawned an attitude of hyper-localism among drinkers. Where 15 years ago consumers may have gravitated to breweries from the state or the region, that loyalty has now shifted to the neighborhood. Even retail establishments have caught on. This has created a new layer of competition for some larger brewers.
“There are some bars in Northeast who are like, ‘We only sell Northeast beers,’ ” said Ansari of Surly.
Perhaps the most significant area of growth has been in greater Minnesota. Brewing outside of the Twin Cities has blossomed. Duluth has become a beer destination. With nine breweries and a couple more across the bay in Superior, Wis., the city draws beer drinkers from across the region.
The impact that a brewery can have on a community is perhaps most visible in the proliferation of breweries in small, rural towns. From Ranier and Hallock in the far north of Minnesota to Luverne, Fountain and Reads Landing in the south, breweries are popping up on main streets across the state, where they often become points of civic pride. They renovate old buildings and create community gathering places in struggling downtowns. They bring with them economic activity and jobs.
“I think you will find that many small communities have a strong sense of pride for products that are made within their towns,” said Tom Hill who founded Bemidji Brewing in 2012. “As many rural regions in Minnesota have transitioned out of their historical reliance on large industries, there seems to develop a cultural opening for new products to rally around. Beer seems to be a favored product to fit that bill.”
The beer world in Minnesota is a totally different place now than it was in 1984 when Schell’s began that fateful brew.
“It’s changed in every manner,” said Ansari, of Surly.
“I used to be president of the Craft Brewers Guild. I used to know all the brewers then and we used to do a toast every time there was someone new joining the group. We can’t do that anymore, man. It’s crazy.”
Local beer history, a timeline:
1984: August Schell Brewing Co. of New Ulm, Minn., brews first wheat beer in U.S. post-Prohibition, creating the craft beer movement in the state.
1986: Summit Brewing rolls out first keg of Extra Pale Ale.
1987: Minnesota law allows restaurants to brew their own beer on site, resulting in brewpubs.
2000: Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild created.
2003: Minnesota law allows breweries with annual production under 3,500 barrels to sell growlers to the public for off-premise consumption.
2006: Surly Brewing Co. delivers kegs of Furious to bars in the Twin Cities.
2011: The Surly law passes, allowing breweries to have taprooms.
Michael Agnew is a certified cicerone (beer-world version of sommelier). He can be reached at email@example.com.