“At an April ceremony in a ballroom overflowing with over 2,000 craft-beer luminaries from around the world, Summit EPA took the World Beer Cup gold medal for Classic English Style Pale Ale.”
That was 2010. I penned those words in my debut column for the Star Tribune’s Taste section, published a decade ago, almost to the day. I was in that crowded Chicago ballroom to watch Summit receive the award and to snap a picture of the elated brewers as they came off the stage. It was the first of seven medals that Extra Pale Ale would receive in national and international competition over the next seven years.
Over those years, I’ve written 125 pieces for the Star Tribune and covered everything from taproom openings and beer styles to cider, beer books and kombucha. I’ve outlined taproom tours by train, car and bicycle — both inside and outside the metro freeway loop. I’ve recommended pairings for the holidays, Halloween candy, truffles, cheese and Super Bowl snacks. It’s been a wonderful journey.
Change was in the air in May 2010. There was a sense in Minnesota, and nationally, that something big was about to happen for beer. A massive expansion was just beginning to get underway. There were only 20 breweries in the state when that first column was published, six of which have since closed. Compare that with the approximately 225 currently operating.
This growth is reflected in my columns. In 2012, I wrote two pieces about new brewery openings — seven of them in all. That fall I wrote, “Five new breweries in three months may seem like a lot, but the rush is hardly over. Several more are set to open later this year or early next year.” The total for 2012 was 17.
In July 2014, I wrote, “July saw three new brewery openings in as many weeks, giving area beer fans a slew of new options to gather for a pint.” I covered five new breweries that year, and those were not the only ones to open. A year later I reported, “There are currently 25 taprooms inside the 494/694 loop. As many as 10 more could open by the end of this year.”
By July 2016 that number had nearly doubled. “The Twin Cities is awash in beer,” I wrote. “The number of breweries in the immediate metro area is approaching 40.” Then in a June 2018 piece on brewery tours by bicycle, I pegged the metro area count at 50. There are currently around 80 breweries in and around the Twin Cities.
Taprooms, the single most important factor in that exponential growth, were still a year and a half away in May 2010. Surly wouldn’t announce its plans to build a “destination brewery” for another eight months. It wasn’t until May 2011 when the lobbying push and grassroots pressure campaign that followed Surly’s announcement resulted in the passage of Minnesota statute 340A.301 subd. 6(b), allowing brewery taprooms to become a reality.
Consumer tastes have also changed over the past 10 years. The proliferation of breweries in Minnesota has led to a decided preference for local and even hyperlocal beer. Drinkers want beer from their block. A trip to most beer stores these days reveals a large cooler full of Minnesota and regional beers next to a small selection of national brands and imports.
I’ve written several pieces over the years about the fanfare surrounding the arrival of certain national breweries into the state. Deschutes, Stone, Odell, Weyerbacher, Dogfish Head and Alaskan Brewing Co. are just a few of the brands whose splashy debuts I described in print.
Today such entries are hardly noticed when they happen at all. In the current highly competitive and locally focused environment, it is more common for breweries to quietly pull out of far-flung markets than to enter them. Many of those same brands that once generated such excitement have since substantially or completely slipped away with little attention paid to their departure.
While drinking local is always good, this market shift has not been without its drawbacks. Ten years ago, Twin Cities beer fans had easy access to a wide array of beers and styles from around the country and the world. Classic examples of fine English ales, German lagers and the sublime beers of Belgium were plentiful. These included some of the world’s truly great beers. Experiencing the full spectrum of flavors that beer can offer was as easy as assembling a mixed six-pack.
Today’s consumer quest for local has largely pushed these beers aside. Many have become difficult to find or have left the market entirely. Beer stores with limited shelf space naturally stock only what sells to their particular customer base, meaning different stores carry different beer, most of it local. Finding a particular nonlocal beer or classic style today might mean trekking from store to store to store.
More of the same
It’s much harder now than it was 10 years ago for beer newcomers to immerse themselves in the depth and variety of the beer world. Unaware of what could be available to them, consumers gravitate to a small selection of styles. The proliferation of breweries has led to much greater competition for drinkers’ attention. Brewers make what consumers demand, magnifying the limiting effect.
And so we’re left with a huge assortment of IPAs, one-dimensional kettle-soured beers and flavored concoctions that taste like everything but beer. While the craft beer movement started as a reaction to a beer monoculture in which drinkers were offered the choice of a few brands of essentially the same beer, current conditions seem to be leading us back to a world of limited options. Here’s hoping the next 10 years bring a swing in the opposite direction.
The next few months could bring another sea change. The loss of sales due to COVID-19-related shutdowns have put many small breweries in existential danger, both locally and nationally. The Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild recently published a report saying that 15% of Minnesota breweries indicate that they will have to cease operations completely if the closure period extends beyond May 13.
The Brewers Association, a national organization representing small brewers, released similar numbers for brewers nationwide.
If you love beer, now is the time to offer your favorite brewery some support.
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.