In last year’s Ultimate Minnesota Beer Bracket, Castle Danger Brewery surprised everyone — including themselves — to win round after round, culminating in a nail-biting matchup against No. 1 seed Surly to take the trophy.
How did this North Shore brewery, which produces just 20,000 barrels a year, trample the competition? Maybe your summer road trips up Hwy. 61 had something to do with it, said co-owner Lon Larson.
We spoke with Larson about what it was like to crush the competition, how nostalgia makes everything taste better, and whether Castle Danger can do it all again.
Q: When you found out Castle Danger won the competition last year, how did you react?
A: I think the response each step of the way, especially when you get to the Final Four, was surprise. Especially when you’re going against Surly with their following and their size — at the time, they were five to six times larger than us in both production and social media. And we always think of us as the cute little brewery up on the North Shore, so maybe we don’t give ourselves enough credit. But how do you compete with the demographics of the Twin Cities? Quite frankly we were surprised to get past the first two rounds. March Madness seems to love the upsets.
Q: If you had to guess, how did you manage to prevail against the larger Twin Cities breweries?
A: A high proportion of the tourism on the North Shore is from greater Minnesota, and the Twin Cities dominates that tourism, so our initial brand reach came out of people trying it on vacation and coming back home and going, “How do I get that?” That’s how we got heard of.
Q: Did you have a strategy to get votes throughout the competition?
A: We just posted it on Facebook and said, “Vote for your favorites.” That was it. From a stylistic standpoint, that’s really who we are as a brand.
Q: What does your victory say about your beer?
A: We are a destination brewery for most. Over 92 percent of our taproom visitors are not local. The North Shore is very nostalgic for most of its visitors. I always say, things taste better when on vacation or at the cabin. There’s an emotional attachment to our beers being a part of that experience. The tourism of the North Shore is critical to its economy, and we’re no different, being in a town of 3,600 people. But we had approximately 100,000 visitors last year to the brewery, and when you think about what that’s doing for a small town, it’s changing traffic patterns.
Also, one advantage we have is brewing with Lake Superior water. It doesn’t contain many minerals, thus it’s like a blank canvas to brew with. It gives us a very easy platform to start from.
Q: Was there anything else that gave you a leg up?
A: When I think of the Star Tribune contest vs. all the other beer contests, we’re not that hippie, niche-y, extreme beer brand. We’re very approachable, we’re very balanced, drinkable. When you look at the audience reading the paper, it’s a big cross-section, but it’s everyday people. It’s not your extreme beer blogger that’s crazy niche-y, and I think that’s what we’ve appealed to.
Q: How do you describe Castle Danger’s place amid the rest of the Minnesota beer scene?
A: Minnesota has a growing reputation for great craft beer. We are proud to often be mentioned as a part that discussion. Based on sales in Minnesota, a lot of people are surprised that we’ve quietly climbed to No. 5. We don’t make beers that are on the extremes or chasing fads. I think the brand’s steady growth demonstrates the drinkable and approachable lineup.
Q: Think you can win again?
A: We were so shocked last year. I think being a repeat winner is quite a stretch. Our plan is to do the same: We’ll share the article, share the story and say vote for your favorites, because that’s what it’s all about. There are a lot of great beers to pick from.
Ready to vote in this year's Ultimate Minnesota Beer Bracket?
Choose your favorite breweries — up to five — from the drop-down fields, in order of preference. Vote for each brewery only once. Entries that include a brewery in more than one field will be disqualified. The top 16 vote-getters will form our Ultimate Minnesota Beer Bracket field, which we’ll announce in print on March 20. Polls are open till Friday at 5 p.m.