Beer trip: Soak up the suds

  • Article by: MICHAEL AGNEW , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 7, 2012 - 11:01 AM

Vacation time? Hop in the car for a visit to breweries along your route as you explore the region.

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Visits to wineries have long been part of the wine world. But beer travel? Is there even such a thing?

The 30-year rise of craft brewing has spawned a whole new suds-centered trend in vacationing. More and more people are planning trips around brewery visits. Beer travel books abound. You can find them for nearly every state in the union, including local guides such as Robin Shepard's recent "Minnesota's Best Breweries and Brewpubs."

The recent explosion of brewery openings regionally has made it easier than ever to go beer tripping close to home. You get to sample your favorite beverages, see where they're made and talk to the people who make them, all while enjoying some of the most beautiful landscapes the area offers.

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If you're headed north this summer, consider turning your Boundary Waters vacation into a beer- cation. The route from the Twin Cities to Ely offers ample opportunities to sample Minnesota suds before you take to your canoe.

Duluth is the first stop. Make time to visit one of the city's two packaging breweries, Lake Superior Brewing Co. and Dubrue. While there, grab a growler to bring to the cabin.

Lake Superior Brewing Co., located southwest of downtown, is one of Minnesota's oldest craft breweries. It was founded in a homebrew store in 1994, and has grown a great deal since then, now bottling four year-round beers and a rotating selection of seasonals. My favorite is Mesabi Red Ale. Its caramel and biscuit malt profile is balanced by citrusy American hops. Lake Superior offers tours daily during business hours, but call ahead to let them know you are coming.

Dubrue is one of the state's newer breweries, having opened just a year ago. It's a small operation housed in a commercial garage on the north end of downtown Duluth. Owners Nick Cameron and Bob Blair are a highly energetic and engaging pair. Their passion for beer is contagious. Be sure to try their India Black Ale, with roasted malt, citrusy hops and a touch of sweetness. Tours are available by appointment.

As you head north along Lake Superior on Hwy. 61, your next stop for beer would be Castle Danger Brewery, perched on the shoreline 12 miles northeast of Two Harbors at the Castle Haven Cabins Resort, a stunningly picturesque setting for a brewery.

The flagship brew, Danger Ale, is an amber with a kick. It's stronger than expected with bold caramel malt and spicy hops. Castle Danger doesn't have a taproom, so you'll have to pick up a growler to go. Or maybe rent a cabin and stay a while.

Beer-tripping isn't just about sampling great beer; it's also about taking in the scenery. The drive to Ely along Hwys. 1 and 2 is one of the most beautiful in the state. The winding two-laners snake through lake-dotted forests of pine and birch. It made me want to get out of the car and hike into the woods.

Once in Ely, stop at the Boathouse Brewpub downtown. Boathouse is both diner and bar, with a knotty-pine decor to give it that North Woods feel. You can stop for breakfast in the morning and come back for a beer at night. Mahnomen Wild Rice Brown Ale, made with locally harvested wild rice, is my beer of choice there.

After a week at the cabin, celebrate your return to civilization -- or maybe delay the return to the grind -- with a brewpub crawl in downtown Duluth. You can leave the car in the ramp. Three brewpubs are located within easy walking distance of one another and the downtown hotels.

Carmody Irish Pub and Dubh Linn are both brewpubs with an Irish twist, with Carmody the more authentic. It's a rough-edged place with a clear working-class vibe: dimly lit, with dark paneling and football-club banners covering the walls. Still, it's warm and welcoming. Brewer Mike Miley crafts an array of Irish-inspired beers in his basement brewery. Dubh Linn has a more generic Irish flair, but if you are there on a Saturday night you can enjoy national standup comedy acts with your pint.

Fitger's Brewhouse, housed in the historic Fitger's Brewery complex, is among the state's best breweries. Brewer Dave Hoops makes 80 to 100 different recipes each year. You'll always find something new and interesting, and you can't go wrong with any of the beers.

Southwestern Wisconsin

Wisconsin's Driftless Area escaped the earth-leveling effects of the last glacial period. It gets its name from the lack of glacial drift, a layer of silt, clay, gravel and boulders left behind by the ice flows. But the region was subject to dramatic floods from the collapse of glacial ice dams, which carved deep trenches, leaving behind a landscape of undulating hills and valleys.

Today's Driftless Area extends into southeastern Minnesota, and is one of the region's most picturesque places. Secluded country roads take you up and down the hills through farmland and forest, and past cliffs, creeks and caves. It makes for some very relaxing drives and is a great area for a beer tour.

Brewery Creek Inn in Mineral Point, Wis., makes a great base from which to explore the region. Owners Deborah and Jeff Donaghue actually have three businesses at Brewery Creek: brewery, restaurant and inn. The three work together to make a delightfully peaceful getaway destination. Jeff is known for his shandy, a particular beer-lemonade mix native to England. His is not the over-sweet shandy, but has a tart edge, made with fresh lemonade that keeps it light and ever so refreshing.

Mineral Point is itself worth a visit. An old mining town, its streets are lined with historic limestone buildings that house an array of quaint shops. It's also home to Hook's Cheese Co., one of Wisconsin's finest.

From Mineral Point, easy day trips take you to two other breweries. A must-see is the Potosi Brewing Co. Visiting this brewery is like stepping back in time. It's housed in a lovingly restored brewery building that dates to 1852. After taking a tour, have lunch in the restaurant and then check out Potosi's National Brewing Museum, an unbelievable collection of breweriana and historical brewing artifacts.

One of the more interesting stops is the Whistle Stop Restaurant and Brewery in tiny Woodman, Wis. This quintessential small-town tavern is also the post office for the town of 300 people. The beer isn't always great, but it is unusual. Co-owner and brewer Dennis Erb crafts some surprisingly good yet crazy concoctions, such as Rose Red, a red-ale brewed with rose hips and rose extract, or Arctic IPA, a hoppy brew with spearmint. Visit on Tuesday for taco night or Friday for the fish fry. If you're lucky you may catch a professional wrestling match on a ring set up in the dining room.

To get back home, head up Hwy. 52 through northeastern Iowa for a final stop at Toppling Goliath Brewing Co. in Decorah. The taproom there is a friendly place where chatting with strangers is the norm. Toppling Goliath is one of Iowa's edgier breweries and a great place for folks who love hops. Bitter beers abound, but the clear star of the show is the Golden Nugget IPA. Intense tangerine and tropical fruit aroma greets your nose as soon as the glass is set in front of you. That character carries into the flavor. It's aggressively bitter, but with enough malt to keep it almost balanced.

And speaking of balance, that's important to keep in mind when beer tripping. It's not just about the beer; it's about what's going on around the beer. Stop, relax, take in the sights. Go to a museum or see a show. Enjoy the journey and let the beer be the reward.

Michael Agnew is a certified cicerone (beer-world version of sommelier). His guide to Upper Midwest breweries will be published in the fall. Reach him at michael@aperfectpint.net.

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