When the taproom law was passed in 2011, it significantly altered the Minnesota beer landscape. Suddenly every brewery was able to serve beer directly to consumers in an on-premises hospitality room. Although most chose not to do so, they were even allowed to operate a kitchen and serve food — previously the exclusive purview of brewpubs.
This opened the door for an astronomical growth spurt in the state’s small-brewery count. Taprooms popped up everywhere and beer drinkers flocked to them. The media, from bloggers to mainstream, caught the wave, penning countless articles trumpeting every new opening. For many beer fans, taprooms today are the beer scene. But in all the noise and hoopla, old-school brewpubs have been somewhat overlooked.
Looking at a place like Surly, with its extensive beer hall menu and fine-dining restaurant, it might seem that the line between brewpub and brewery taproom is blurry. But it really comes down to state licensure and what types of sales each license allows. The difference is actually quite clear-cut.
A taproom is the hospitality space of a production brewery. A taproom can sell glasses of that brewery’s beer for consumption on the premises, as well as growlers to go. Breweries can produce an unlimited amount of beer annually and may package beer for distribution to stores, bars and restaurants.
A brewpub is a restaurant that makes beer on-site. Like a brewery, it can sell growlers and pints, but like a restaurant it can have a full liquor license, allowing the sale of wine, spirits and guest beers from other breweries. Brewpubs in Minnesota are limited to 3,500 barrels of annual production and may not package beer for outside distribution.
The Twin Cities has a number of places to get the brewpub experience. Here are four of my favorites.
Minneapolis Town Hall Brewery
I’m often met with surprise when I tell people that the Minneapolis Town Hall Brewery (1430 Washington Av. S., Mpls., 612-339-8696, townhallbrewery.com) makes some of the best beer in the metro area. Go there and discover for yourself. The year-round beer lineup — including the nationally sought-after Masala Mama IPA — is excellent, but the real draws for me are the ever-rotating seasonal and specialty brews. Head brewer Mike Hoops and staff craft a dizzying array of styles, ranging from single-hop IPA to Belgian grand cru and raspberry imperial stout. With new releases happening nearly every week, it can be hard to keep up. They also have an excellent selection of guest beers, ciders and scotch.
The food at Town Hall has always been tasty, if uninspiring. Expect a solid, reasonably priced selection of standard pub fare. The recently remodeled dining room retains the feel of a 19th-century saloon. It’s a place to let loose, relax and have a beer. Frequent special events offer reasons to keep going back. Don’t miss the annual Barrel-Aged Beer Week that begins Feb. 19.
Day Block Brewing Co.
A few blocks away from Town Hall is Day Block Brewing Co., (1105 Washington Av. S., Mpls., 612-617-7793, dayblockbrewing.com). Day Block takes its name from the historic 1883 building in which it is housed. Through the years, the building has served as a hospital, a furniture store, an undertaker and finally as Frank’s Plumbing Supply before becoming a brewery. My go-to beer at the brewpub — the caramel- and citrus-inflected Frank’s Red Ale — gives a nod to that final tenant.
While the menu includes sandwiches and entrees, pizza is the big draw at Day Block. The crispy, thin-crust signature pies offer creative takes on toppings such as kimchi, harissa and Carolina-style barbecue. The popular Banh Mizza is a Vietnamese bánh mì sandwich turned pizza, with gochujang mayo, Vietnamese pork, green onion and pickled slaw. I like the Japanese-themed Eggs in Osaka pizza, topped with ponzu sauce, bacon and baked eggs. All of the pizzas go down nicely with one of the six house beers on tap.
Northbound Smokehouse Brewpub
This bustling, cozy spot is just a few steps from the 38th Street stop on the Metro Transit Blue Line. Northbound Smokehouse Brewpub (2716 E. 38th St., Mpls., 612-208-1450, northboundbrewpub.com) has done a brisk business since the day it opened, and for good reason: Both the beer and the food are excellent.
Northbound puts its two industrial smokers to good use. The menu features an assortment of smoked goodies, such as cheese curds, trout dip, turkey sandwiches and a smoked corned beef Reuben. The 18-hour porketta sandwich is not to be missed.
Even some of the beers are smoked. My favorite Smokehouse Porter is made with a small amount of house-smoked malt, giving it a subtle campfire aroma behind the chocolaty roast. The occasional beers in the Cigar Series use malt smoked with cigars, often soaked in spirits. The current offering is a strong honey brown ale smoked with rum-soaked cigars. There is, of course, a full line of delicious non-smoked beers, as well.
Great Waters Brewing Co.
Downtown St. Paul also has a brewpub to visit, Great Waters Brewing Co. (426 St. Peter St., St. Paul, 651-224-2739, restaurantstpaulmn.com), which is the place to go for cask-conditioned ales in the Twin Cities. Cask-conditioned beers make up 50 percent of the brewpub’s beer sales. There are always four cask selections available — more than any other brewpub in the state — along with six year-round tap beers and a constantly changing selection of seasonal and special releases. Great Waters gets its great brewing water from a 100-year-old well originally drilled for the St. Paul Cathedral that once occupied the site of the historic Hamm’s Building, where the brewery is located.
The atmosphere at Great Waters suggests a European bistro, with high ceilings and an open floor crowded with tables. Outdoor seating is available in the summer months. The varied menu offers an array of entrees ranging from Minnesota standards such as broiled walleye to more upscale items such as a London broil with a brown ale reduction and pollo Caracas, a Venezuelan-influenced chicken dish. Watch out for those Rasta wings — they are hot, hot, hot!
Michael Agnew is a certified cicerone (beer-world version of sommelier) and owner of A Perfect Pint. He conducts private and corporate beer tasting events in the Twin Cities, and can be reached at email@example.com.