What’s better than beer on a warm summer day?
As the Twin Cities beer scene continues to grow, the proliferation of taprooms makes it ever easier to string together taproom-hopping tours both in the center of, and on the edges of, the metro area. Here are two trip options — one long and one short — that offer thirst-quenching opportunities.
Route #1, South metro
The first tour takes you through the rural landscapes and small towns of the far south and southwest metro area. The 114-mile trip includes five brewery stops and ends with a bite and a beer in Burnsville.
To start, head south on Hwy. 169 to Shakopee. (1) Badger Hill Brewing Co. is in an industrial park nestled between Canterbury Park and Valleyfair. If you aren’t up for the full tour, Badger Hill makes a great stand-alone stop when visiting the racetrack or the amusement park.
Badger Hill’s taproom is a family-friendly space with games, soda and free Popsicles for the kids. The decor reflects the industrial nature of the building — high ceilings, dim lighting, neutral tones and cinderblock walls. A soaring glass wall allows an unobstructed view of the stainless steel tanks in which the beer is made.
Badger Hill beers are straightforward. There is nothing crazy or experimental here, but they are of consistently high quality. The taproom features a varied selection that includes year-round favorites, seasonal offerings and special one-off beers.
The gold medal-winning White IPA is my go-to at Badger Hill. This zesty brew is a cross between a Belgian witbier and an American IPA. The pepper/clove character of Belgian yeast strains is prominent, joined by bright notes of citrus-peel hops and orange coriander. The assertive bitterness is tempered by the bready flavor of wheat.
Locally brewed stouts and porters are a bit of a rarity. Badger Hill’s Foundation Stout is a standout among them. Chocolate cookie and coffee flavors of roasted malt dominate, accentuated by sturdy hop bitterness. Vanilla and caramel notes fill in the background along with a light molasses sweetness.
From Badger Hill head south again on Hwy. 169 for another 25 miles. Turn right at the Blakely Town Hall and follow Scott County Road 1 through rolling farmland to (2) U4ic Brewing (pronounced “euphoric”).
U4ic is a throwback to the early days of craft brewing when brewer ingenuity and a do-it-yourself attitude were the industry drivers. The brewery is a hodgepodge of hand-me-down and homemade equipment piled into a former truck and tractor garage attached to an old creamery.
It looks a bit scrappy, but brewing partners Dave and Jeff Luskey and Kurt Fossen are using it to make some of the best beer on this tour. Their ever-changing selection of 15 beers ranged in style from cream ale to imperial stout, which ensures that there will be something on tap to please every palate.
While doppelbock abounds locally, its lower-alcohol brother, traditional bock, is a seldom-seen treat. U4ic has a great one in Hoof & Horn Bock. This malty rich beer pulls you in with intriguing layers of bread crust, chocolate and dark fruits. It’s sweet up front, but finishes dry.
Those looking for something lighter with a bit more zip will enjoy Spit’s Rye Pale Ale. This one starts with zesty citrus and floral hop flavor that gradually gives way to lovely biscuit and caramel malt. The spicy taste of rye comes through, accentuating the moderate bitterness.
(3) Roets Jordan Brewery Co. is a quick 15-minute drive back up Hwy. 169 in Jordan.
When Tim Roets decided to open a brewery, it was a no-brainer to put it in the historic building on the southern edge of town that was home to the defunct Jordan Brewery in the late 1800s. But a 40-ton landslide demolished part of the structure, bringing that plan to an end.
Out of disaster came opportunity. Roets grabbed a new space up the street that offered more room and a better location. The taproom has an inviting coffeehouse vibe and a small beer garden in back for outdoor seating in the summer. Many of the beers at Roets Jordan are gluten-reduced.
Roets loves fruit beers. And when he makes fruit beers, he wants them to scream fruit. The two I tasted did just that. Roets Sour is a mango gose. This tart refresher is cloudy with fruit. Imagine eating a ripe mango with all the squishy flavor, but tart instead of sweet. Fruity is an American wheat ale made with wild raspberries and blackberry. It has a taste-the-seeds kind of berry intensity.
If you’re not into fruit, try Jordan Black. It’s a modified German schwarzbier style made with a cold-fermented German ale yeast for a crisp, clean, lager-like snap. Don’t be afraid of the dark color. Though nearly black, this beer has the profile of a pilsner with just a touch of chocolate and roast.
From Roets, head 22 miles east on County Road 13 to (4) Angry Inch Brewing in Lakeville.
Angry Inch opened its doors last July in a former Ace Hardware on Holyoak Avenue, Lakeville’s main drag. The ambience is simple, but soothing. A long bar defines the space. Light fixtures made from growlers provide a soft, amber glow in the somewhat dark room. The brewhouse stretches off to the back.
Owners/brewers Jon Erickson and Josh Hebzynski like big beers. This was on full display during my visit. Only two of the eight beers available were under 6 percent alcohol. Two others pushed into the 9 and 10 percent range.
The best of the bunch, at 6.5 percent (moderate strength), was Hop Party IPA. This is a full-on, juicy, tangerine-hop assault in both aroma and flavor. The bitterness is restrained, letting that glorious fruitiness shine. My only wish was that the malt were more substantial. The body seemed thin. A less neutral malt flavor profile would have offered a nice counterpart to the hops.
Dark-beer lovers will go for Samoan Kisses coconut chocolate milk stout. I didn’t detect the coconut, but it didn’t matter. This silky-smooth, nitrogen-dispensed sweet stout brings loads of milk chocolate, vanilla and caramel. It’s full-bodied and rich, with a sweetness that is cut by a bite of roasted malt in the finish.
This southern tour finishes with dinner and a pint at (5) Nutmeg Brewhouse, 15 minutes north of Angry Inch in Burnsville. Nutmeg has a modern-casual feel. A wall of windows lets light flood in. Beer-themed quips are colorfully painted on the high ceiling.
The food at Nutmeg is quite tasty. The menu offers a reasonably priced and eclectic selection that ranges from pub fare to Asian/Indian cuisine. The Mongolian Shrimp appetizer has a lightly spicy edge with ginger garlic sauce to give a fruity, chutney counterpoint. The Singapore ribs are fall-off-the-bone tender. The soy glaze lends them a delicious sweet and savory tang.
A year ago a sudden brewer departure left the beer program at Nutmeg in chaos. They seem to have largely moved past this. The beer is generally solid with a couple of real standouts.
Pirate’s Wife Pale Wheat is a hoppy, wheat pale ale. A citrus peel nose and taste is just barely balanced by a touch of soft, bready wheat. Bitterness is high, accentuated by the beer’s super-dry finish.
Rye 3.0 is a stronger version of an earlier rye release. Caramel, brown sugar and spicy rye fight for dominance with strong resinous, pine and citrus hops. Bitterness is bracing but amply balanced by the malt sweetness in this 9.3 percent alcohol bruiser.
Route #2, In the heart of the city
If you’re not up for the long drive or just want to stay in the city, the burgeoning Midway brewery cluster in St. Paul gives you five breweries in an easy four-mile trip that could be done on foot or by bike.
Start at (1) Lake Monster Brewing just off Cretin Avenue on Vandalia Street, two blocks south of W. University Avenue.
Lake Monster’s taproom is housed in an old railroad freight depot where cargo was staged for loading onto trains. Aside from a few modern upgrades, little has been done to alter the space. The ghosts of early-20th-century industry still reside there. Wooden-top tables and shop stools fit right in. String lights and exposed bulb fixtures give an aura that is at once festive and in keeping with the space’s history.
The 12-beer tap list includes Lake Monster’s four year-round beers — Calhoun Claw Pilsner, Empty Rowboat IPA, Buddy Check Session IPA and Lost Fathom Dark Lager — along with a changing assortment of seasonals and one-offs.
I always begin my visits here with Lost Fathom — a Munich-style dark lager brewed with wild rice. You get the bread crust and light chocolate notes of the lager with the added nuttiness of wild rice. The combination works very well.
Lake Monster’s Empty Rowboat IPA was selected as one of the best in the state in a blind tasting panel sponsored by Growler Magazine last year. It’s a fairly restrained IPA with notes of toffee and toasted biscuit that meld nicely with floral and orange-citrus hops.
Burn off those Lake Monster beers with a milelong walk east along University Avenue to (2) Burning Brothers Brewing. This is Minnesota’s only completely-gluten-free brewery. They don’t even allow gluten-containing items through the door.
The Burning Brothers taproom has become a mecca of sorts for celiac- and gluten-intolerant beer fans. The room is cozy, but bustles with activity and warmth. People know each other here and talk spreads beyond individual groups. It’s not unusual to see gamers engaged in concentrated competition.
Gluten-free food trucks such as Crazy Puppy Gourmet Workshop provide celiac-safe bites. On June 2, the brewery will host a National Doughnut Day event featuring gluten-free doughnuts.
Gluten-free beer leaves a bad taste in the mouth for many drinkers. But Burning Brothers has done a good job of making sorghum-based beers that actually taste like beer. Rotating taproom selections encompass a variety of styles from pale ale and IPA to a 10 percent alcohol raspberry chocolate strong ale.
Patrons were clamoring for the Chocolate Milk Stout during my visit — and with good reason. This rich and creamy brew showcases smooth cocoa and coffee tones. The use of unfermentable milk sugar lends a pleasing sweetness and full mouthfeel.
Shandies are a popular draw at Burning Brothers. Typically built on a base of the brewery’s flagship Pyro Pale Ale, these tasty fruit infusions meld citrusy American hops with tart lime, cranberries or orange blossom honey. Others are available seasonally.
It’s a 15-minute walk from Burning Brothers to (3) BlackStack Brewing, one of the Twin Cities’ newest taprooms. BlackStack shares its building with Can Can Wonderland, the arts-immersive, indoor mini-golf experience. You can squeeze in 18 holes if you need a break from beer.
The BlackStack taproom is huge. Its white-painted walls and columns of the former factory/warehouse space rise 20 feet to the ceiling. Light streams in through an eastern wall of windows. The bar stretches for what seems like forever from one side of the room to the other. Although the space is large, conversation pits of couches and cushioned chairs create intimate islands within it.
Local 755, a New England style IPA, is the biggest beer draw at BlackStack. Massive additions of hops late in the brewing process leave the beer with a cloudy haze. They also give the beer intensely fruity hop aromas and flavors that practically leap from the glass. Bitterness is mild to let that aromatic goodness shine. Brewer Bob DuVernois varies the hop bill, so you may find different versions available for comparison.
Spare Parts dark lager is another good choice at BlackStack. A style seldom seen in the Twin Cities, this beer showcases breadcrust malt flavors and spicy European hops. It’s light and crisp so you can have more than a couple.
A one-mile trek through a district of warehouses brings you to (4) Bang Brewing. The scenery along the way isn’t pretty, but the destination is worth the effort.
The corrugated steel corn crib that houses Bang Brewing looks out of place among the warehouses of this industrial district. But the only grain in this bin is used to make beer. The round space feels bigger on the inside than it looks from outside, but it is intimate. The taproom is right in the brewery. The bar rolls out of the way when there is work to be done. Additional patio seating helps to handle the overflow.
From grain to yeast, every beer at Bang is 100 percent organic. The focus is on drinkability. There is nothing “out there” or over the top. Each beer sports a simple, one-syllable name that bespeaks that sensibility.
One of my favorites is Neat, a highly carbonated, highly bitter pale ale with a solid biscuit malt backbone and touches of caramel. The extremely dry finish makes it quite quaffable.
On the darker side is Loop, a coffee- and cocoa-inflected stout that falls somewhere between the Irish and American styles. It’s dry and bitter, but still goes down smooth and silky.
If you’re tired of walking, take heart. It’s less than 100 yards to (5) Urban Growler Brewing Co., the last stop on the tour.
Upon entering the Urban Growler taproom, you will first notice three copper-banded serving tanks towering at the center of the room behind the bar. They anchor the space, making it clear that beer is the focal point of the bustling, social beehive buzzing all around them. Urban Growler was the state’s first female-owned and -operated brewery.
Urban Growler is one of the few local taprooms to feature its own kitchen. Refuel your walk-weary body with beer-friendly foods such as Reuben or Cubano sandwiches, burgers and nachos.
After a full day of walking and drinking, a lighter beer may be in order. Cowbell Cream Ale is such a beer. It’s a refreshingly simple golden ale with low bitterness and subtle notes of toasted grain and corn.
The Plow to Pint series at Urban Growler uses the produce of area farmers to create unique beers with a local twist. Uptown Wheat employs lemongrass grown in Rosemount. The mouth-filling, bready sweetness of wheat nicely complements the zippy lemon.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.