“Thank you, local and regional breweries for your support of live music. You are keeping local music alive.”
Tweet from @Lowtheband
Kari Shaw-Akers isn’t much of a beer lover, but she’s been loving breweries lately.
“The crowds are usually pretty chill and receptive to the music,” said the singer for classic-country group the Dollys. “They’ve been great for us.”
Conversely, Gabriel Douglas of the hard-walloping rock band the 4onthefloor has closely followed the craft beer revolution for a decade-plus, but that’s not the main reason he’s frequenting taprooms more of late.“They’re popping up everywhere now,” he said. “It’s really become like a circuit for a lot of working musicians.”
Yet another way the modern brewery boom is improving the lives of people all around Minnesota: Taprooms — and distilleries — are giving musicians a lot more places to play.
Likewise, residents of the suburbs and greater Minnesota are able to catch a songwriter or band close to home.
As of 2018, there were about 130 breweries in Minnesota, 30 of them opened in the past year.
From Excelsior Brewing near Lake Minnetonka (where the Dollys played last month) to Forager in Rochester, Pearl Street in La Crosse, Wis., and the surprisingly popular Goat Ridge in relatively tiny New London, Minn. (all venues hit by 4onthefloor last year), breweries are using live music as a way to stand out in the increasingly crowded field.
“You can kind of get good beer in almost any neighborhood these days,” said Caroline O’Halloran, taproom and events manager at Excelsior Brewing. “Having music is one more great way to attract people to our taproom.”
Now in its seventh year — and thus an elder statesman among breweries — Excelsior draws plenty of regular patrons and summer tourists with or without music, but the performances have become a way of keeping them there.
“When the music is good, the people who came in just for one quick beer are more likely to stay planted in their seats longer,” O’Halloran said.
Excelsior hosts bands on weekends, a “brewgrass” jam on Sundays, open-mic nights on Wednesdays and sometimes music-heavy special events.
At the two-year-old Bald Man Brewing in Eagan, hosting music on weekends has “sometimes seemed a little counterintuitive,” co-founder Dan Jacobs admitted, since the place is often already packed. But it’s not just about bringing people in.
“Music is a big part of who we are as people, and what we envisioned for this brewery,” said Jacobs, whose brewery serves Tupelo Honey brown ale (named for a Van Morrison song) and, behind the scenes, has beer tanks named Prince, Clapton and Hendrix.
Jacobs also sees the live music as a thank you of sorts to patrons who live in the southern suburb. “People who live down here don’t like to cross the river if they don’t have to, so any live music around here is welcome.”
‘Part of the same culture’
At the relatively rural Goat Ridge, overlooking the Crow River 100 miles west of Minneapolis, visiting musicians have been “greeted with open arms by the community,” said co-owner and brewer Josh Reed.
“For me, music and craft beer are sort of part of the same culture, with the same kind of people,” Reed said.
Since its opening in 2015 on the edge of downtown Rochester, Forager has been appreciated as a locally flavored eatery as much as a brewery, and now it’s become the city’s most active music venue, too, often hosting gigs five nights a week.
“If people are willing to come here and pay a little bit more for quality beer and food that’s more sustainable, farm-to-table, then they’re usually the kind of people that want to support good, original music, too,” said general manager Chris Pickett.
In the Twin Cities, musicians aren’t just appreciated by breweries — they’re often on staff. However, brewhouses in Minneapolis and St. Paul generally leave the live music business to nightclubs and bars.
An exception is special events. Bauhaus and Indeed in northeast Minneapolis host block parties during Art-a-Whirl weekend in May, when Fulton also puts on its Gran Fondo party in downtown Minneapolis. And Surly’s $35 million “destination brewery” near the University of Minnesota hosts its SurlyFest in October, plus a half-dozen outdoor summer shows produced by First Avenue.
Mixed brew for musicians
Even before any of these brands were in business, independent brewers in Minnesota have backed local music.
Fitger’s Brewhouse has been a haven for Duluth’s music scene for more than 20 years. Summit Brewing has sponsored gigs and musicians in the Twin Cities even longer. The St. Paul microbrew forebear even played a key role in funding the Minnesota Music Coalition, a nonprofit booster/trade organization.
“Summit has definitely been a pioneer in not only making craft beer but providing meaningful support to Minnesota musicians,” said coalition executive director Ellen Stanley.
Stanley, a singer/songwriter known as Mother Banjo, applauds the craft beer world’s growing support of Minnesota musicians — but with a few caveats.
“More venues is good, but pay and quality of performance — space, sound, audience — is extremely varied,” Stanley said. “It has definitely been great for suburban and small-town communities in providing more areas for local original musicians to play.”
Dan Israel, a veteran singer/songwriter who’s been playing more taprooms, said he believes that the audience that follows his music is happy to follow him to a brewery.
“My people like them,” he said. “There’s almost never a cover. It’s always a relaxed vibe. There are seats and plenty of space and, of course, good things to drink.”
A longtime St. Louis Park resident, Israel recently played Copperwing Distillery there. “It’s nice to have a place to play that’s only a half-mile from my house.”
Then again, it’s nice to roam. Bassist Nick Salisbury figures he has played at least 11 taprooms across the state now with Sonny Knight and the Lakers, the Dollys and his singer/songwriter pals Jeff Ray and Steve Noonan.
“Getting to parts of the state where I never thought I’d be doing a gig is part of the fun,” said Salisbury, who cited Goat Ridge as a favorite destination.
“With so many bars and nightclubs shutting down or discontinuing live music — and especially places not wanting original music — breweries have been such a pleasant surprise. We needed them.”
Pros and cons of playing brewery gigs
Pros: Good crowds: Craft beer lovers are often music fans, too, and the vibe in taprooms is usually mellower and more attentive than in bars. (Usually) decent pay: With the main product made in house, and sometimes food sales to boot, the revenue on tap in most taprooms is high enough to pay at least moderate talent fees. They’re everywhere now: “There’s a whole new wave of breweries all over the state,” raved Dollys bassist Nick Salisbury.
Cons: Lack of performance amenities: Taprooms don’t often have stages and are usually housed in large, high-ceilinged spaces with industrial gear — making acoustics problematic. Loud bands need not apply: Many taprooms prefer to keep the volume to a minimum to avoid driving out customers. The obvious: Drinking is still the main activity of choice at these venues, and sometimes with higher-than-average alcohol content. “It can get kind of ugly, especially at a distillery,” said one taproom-seasoned musician.
11 plugged-in taprooms
Music-centric breweries and distilleries in the suburbs and greater Minnesota:
10K Brewing: Singer/songwriters Tue. and Thu., bands often on weekends. (2005 2nd Av., Anoka)
Bald Man Brewing: Bands on weekends, plus special events. (2020 Silver Bell Rd., Eagan)
Blacklist Artisan Ales: Usually bands Thu.-Sat., including Irish music, hip-hop and singer/songwriters. (120 E. Superior St., Duluth)
Castle Danger Brewery: Special events and sometimes weekend music. (17th 7th St., Two Harbors, Minn.)
Copperwing Distillery: Mostly acoustic acts every Wed. booked by musician Chris Koza, plus special events. (6409 Cambridge St., St. Louis Park)
Excelsior Brewing: Bands on weekends, open mic on Wed., “brewgrass” jams midday Sun. (421 3rd St., Excelsior)
Fitger’s Brewhouse: Bands on weekends in the Barrel Room. (600 E. Superior St., Duluth)
Flying Dutchman Spirits: Mostly acoustic acts Thu.-Sat. nights. (6801 Flying Cloud Dr., Eden Prairie)
Forager Brewery: Folk, jazz, blues and rock acts Wed.-Sat., jazz jam last Sun. of month. (1005 6th St. NW., Rochester)
Goat Ridge Brewing: Bands and singer/songwriters Fri.-Sat., special events and more in season on patio. (17 Central Av. W., New London, Minn.)
Wayzata Brew Works: Bands on weekends and special events in summer. (294 Grove Lane E., Wayzata)