Woody, the giant traveling beer barrel, had survived a long trek across the western United States before arriving in the Twin Cities last week. So a little rain on Wednesday afternoon wasn't going to stop him from doing what he does best: serving beer to thirsty beer lovers.
"Woody" is the name Oregon-based Deschutes Brewery gave to this 5,000-pound, red-oak-carved bar on wheels (complete with sound system and disco ball). Pulled by a biodiesel truck and stocked with beer, the refrigerated beermobile had made stops in Idaho, Montana, Arizona and Colorado before arriving here. Where Woody goes, people follow.
For Deschutes, there is no better ambassador for its beer, which it began selling in Twin Cities bars and liquor stores earlier this month. Minnesota fans were glad to lay out the welcome mat. They clamored around Woody at his dozen-plus metro-area stops last week. Fans sold out a Deschutes tasting party at the revered St. Paul beer bar the Muddy Pig. They quizzed Deschutes brass at a meet-and-greet at the Four Firkins, a boutique beer store in St. Louis Park.
"I've only been here two days, and it seems like a pretty beer-geeky community," Deschutes' Ryan Schmiege said during a stop at Surdyk's.
Thanks for noticing. As it turns out, Deschutes isn't the only beer company taking note of our burgeoning beer scene.
In the next few months, several other craft breweries are expected to touch down on Minnesota soil, including Cleveland-based Great Lakes Brewing and Colorado's Odell Brewing. Twin Cities beer fans already know this is fertile ground -- as the success of homegrown breweries such as Summit, Surly and Fulton can attest.
"Suddenly the beer world is discovering Minnesota," said Muddy Pig owner Mark van Wie. "I can't remember when we've had this many breweries coming in at one time."
These additions to the scene are just part of the rising tide: Sales of craft beer rose nearly 10 percent in 2009, according to industry trade group the Brewers Association. Sales of beer giants such as Budweiser and Miller dropped.
Deschutes is the nation's sixth-largest craft brewery, with about 200,000 barrels produced annually. It's rolling out two beers in the Twin Cities that can be found in most of the metro's beer bars. Its Mirror Pond is a classic pale ale filled with hoppy flavor that won't overwhelm your taste buds. The silky smooth Black Butte is the country's top-selling porter, with chocolatey notes that are rich but not too rich.
"They might be the biggest brewery nobody has ever heard of around here," Van Wie said. "They really had to come in and make a name for themselves."
Deschutes sent a contingent of representatives from its home base in Bend, Ore., to talk up the beer at various Woody stops. They delivered bottles of Mirror Pond and Black Butte to 80-plus liquor stores.
"It's like they carpet-bombed Minnesota," said Jon Landers, bar manager at Stub & Herb's in Minneapolis. "It's been one of the more aggressive and calibrated rollouts for a beer company that I can remember."
Deschutes is the largest craft brewery to enter the market since New Belgium brought Fat Tire to the Twin Cities in 2007. The Deschutes path to Minnesota started with what some in the beer industry call "the dance."
Beer distribution in the United States involves a three-tiered system. Breweries sell their beer to independent distribution companies that in turn sell the beer to bars and liquor stores. This relationship between a brewery and its regional distributor is more important than you'd think.
"It's a dance, it's a courtship," said Erik Frank, the man who drives Woody.
Some call it a marriage. In Deschutes' case, distributors had been trying to lure the Oregon brewery here for several years. After interviewing a few Twin Cities companies, Deschutes finally went with J.J. Taylor, one of the scene's largest distributors (in charge of MillerCoors, as well as craft lines from Summit and New Belgium).
Creating buzz comes next. While liquor-store sales are a bigger part of the pie, a beer's impact in the bar scene is just as crucial. How often have you asked a bartender to suggest a beer? Every brewery hopes its beer is the answer. Securing a tap line is the ultimate goal.
"It's the toughest piece of real estate that we fight for every day," said Corey Shovein of Hohenstein's, which specializes in imports and craft beer.
The future is hoppy
Deschutes was just the beginning of this surge in activity. Two acclaimed breweries will make their Twin Cities debut in May.
Great Lakes Brewing (No. 23 nationwide) will have three release parties May 3-5 at Pracna on Main, Acadia Cafe and the Muddy Pig. The brewery is known for its commitment to sustainability and for producing exciting beers.
Odell Brewing is an award-winning favorite among brew heads. It's hitting the scene with a May 4 beer dinner, also at the Muddy Pig. Beer drinkers are looking forward to the company's popular flagship beer, 90 Shilling Ale.
The big rumor: Alaskan Brewing could land in the Twin Cities by the end of 2010. Located in Alaska's capital city of Juneau, it's the 11th largest craft brewery in the country.
While Deschutes has placed its beers in bigger markets, such as Houston and Los Angeles, its reps told me they'll probably sell more beer in Minnesota. They say it's not the size of the market, but the craftiness (so to speak).
"This is a very craft-savvy city," said Frank the Woody driver.
Shovein, who is not only a veteran distributor but one of the scene's most enthusiastic voices, said out-of-state breweries are beginning to see that "they need to get while the getting is good" in Minnesota. There's always a chance the market could get saturateed.
Either way, it's a good time to be a craft beer lover.
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