The Twin Cities are awash in beer. The number of breweries in the immediate metro area is approaching 40. From the big-boy Summit to the smallest nanobrewery like Sidhe Brewing in St. Paul’s Payne-Phalen neighborhood, there is a taproom or brewpub within easy reach of everyone, with a variety of beers to quench every thirst.
But hit the two-lane highways outside the city, and you’ll find that a much quieter brewery boom is occurring. More than 70 breweries opened in Minnesota in the past two years. Many are located in small and medium-sized towns that dot the state from north to south.
These nonurban brewers serve a mostly local clientele. Their distribution ranges tend to be small — typically just a few miles from where the beer is made. Their taprooms serve as community gathering spots.
Traveling to these places offers a beer experience that is emotionally expansive. Winding through the green fields on a sunny summer day, it’s easy to leave the hustle and hurry of the city behind. It’s a relaxing pint that’s sipped on a historic, small-town Main Street or a patio overlooking a lake.
Slow down. Take a breath. You’re just here for the beer.
You needn’t go far to find this. A proliferation of new breweries just outside the I-494/I-694 loop — “out of the loop” as the brewers call it — has put a bounty of peaceful pints within easy reach of the Twin Cities. Their locations allow for three pleasant day trips with stops that loop you out of the city and then back again.
Begin the first trip by heading southwest to Waconia. The first stop is also one of the most picturesque. Schram Vineyards Winery & Brewery sits on 12.5 acres overlooking Reitz Lake. Seven acres of grapevines border the landscaped patio that features bocce courts and tree-shaded tables. They host regular events and classes in the taproom and the vineyards, including Highland Games, yoga and painting classes.
There are typically eight to 10 beers on tap in varying styles. They change frequently, so check the website for the current selection. One of the better brews on my visit was Smoking Aces Porter, a lightly smoked black beer with notes of caramel, bitter chocolate and licorice. Also nice was Mocha Monkey, an English-style brown ale made with cold-press coffee from a Waconia coffee shop of the same name.
Because of licensing issues, Schram can’t sell pints or sampler flights on Sunday. But they can sell growlers. They give a free pint with every growler purchase. If you don’t want to take home a growler, you can sip one of their many house-made wines.
From Schram, it’s a five-minute drive to Waconia Brewing Co. on the west end of Main Street in downtown Waconia. The taproom has a rustic feel, with barn wood walls and furniture made of reclaimed lumber. There is a view to the brewhouse through large windows on the back wall. The small patio in front offers a sliver of a view up Maple Street to Lake Waconia.
Of the nine beers on tap, Wactown Wheat is the perfect one for drinking on the patio. This American-style wheat ale is brewed with sweet and mandarin orange peel that gives it a refreshing citrus kick. Bready wheat provides a soft backing to all that orange.
Waconia’s English Pub Ale is a classic British pale ale with sharp bitterness, toasted grain and low earthy hops. It’s available in both CO2 and nitrogen gas versions. The nitro pour has the creamy head and smooth mouthfeel that one expects, but also favors hops over malt. I prefer the more balanced CO2 version.
A 30-minute drive through rolling farmland brings you to Lupine Brewing Co. in Delano. Located in a historic storefront across River Street from the south fork of the Crow River, the Lupine taproom is warm and inviting, with live music every Wednesday and Friday, as well as trivia on Thursdays. Patio seating is available in back.
Lupine is making some of the best beer in the area. They have a huge array of styles on tap ranging from a crisp German helles lager to a rich and creamy cranberry oatmeal stout, all of them solid.
Einzelgänger Alt is a toasted-malt treat, brewed in the German altbier style — one seldom seen in these parts. It’s lightly sweet with moderate bitterness and complementary floral hops. Delicious.
You also won’t go wrong with the seasonal Session IPA. It’s crisp, clean and not overly bitter, as some beers in the style can be. Bright citrus and melon hop flavors come through clearly as the stars of the show.
At this point in the journey, you’ll likely need some food. It’s a pretty, 20-minute drive to Birch’s on the Lake in Long Lake. There are two dining options there. The tastefully appointed supper club upstairs has a larger menu with everything from grilled salmon to burgers and salads. The more casual Brewhouse Bar downstairs has a large deck that overlooks Long Lake. The menu includes some of the same items as the supper club, but focuses on the sandwich and salad side of the menu. The signature fried chicken — including a Nashville hot version — is available in both. Take note that parking in Birch’s small lot can be a challenge at peak times.
While the food at Birch’s is good, the beer is generally uninspiring. But there are a couple of selections worth checking out. The kölsch has nice toasted grain notes balanced by light bitterness and delicate herbal hops.
Passion fruit Wit is an explosion of juicy pear and passion fruit that nearly overwhelms the underlying Belgian-style witbier. A bit of bready wheat and spicy fermentation character do manage to peek through.
Cap off this trip with a pint at Wayzata Brew Works. The taproom sits on the docks of Lake Minnetonka in the old Wayzata Boat Works building. Models of the boats once made there are placed around the room, completing the nautical theme. The large deck looks out onto the lake, just steps from popular cruise boat launches.
My favorite beer of the bunch was Hoppeweissen, a zesty wheat ale that showcases the toasted-biscuit flavors of English Maris Otter malt, and the banana, pear and melon notes of a new hop variety called Jarrylo.
The American IPA is a good example of the style, with low, toasted-cereal malt bolstering floral and citrus pith hops.
The second trip takes you northwest through Maple Grove, Big Lake, Annandale and Buffalo.
Located in a Maple Grove industrial park, Omni Brewing Co. doesn’t exactly deliver the bucolic beer experience of most of the other breweries. But it’s a pleasant spot nonetheless to ease you out of the city. The building is a former dairy processing plant and it retains some of the feel of its former use. The industrial edge, though, is softened by warming touches, such as a fireplace mural with wooden mantel. Large garage doors open onto a spacious patio.
Hopheads will appreciate Omni’s Hopfull IPA. Straight from the tap this one is all hops, with assertive bitterness and high citrus and tropical fruit flavor. Balancing sweetness and biscuit notes come in as it warms, letting you know that the brewer didn’t forget about the malt.
As a lover of malt, my favorite was Omnipotent, an 8 percent alcohol scotch ale that features rich caramel and the lightest touch of smoke.
It’s a 30-minute drive to Lupulin Brewing Co. in Big Lake. The taproom, located in a nondescript strip mall, is an airy space, with a wall of windows that let in light. The modern-rustic decor combines angular lines, cold metal and gnarly barn wood into a seamless concept that is full of energy. If you’re hungry for a snack, the homemade pretzels are a satisfying option.
The beers at Lupulin are worth the trip, with the Belgian styles an especially good bet. The well-made Belgian Tripel is deceptively light for a 9.5 percent alcohol beer. It’s dry and peppery with high notes of oranges and stone fruit. A touch of honey sweetness rounds it out.
If you’re not in the mood for a Belgian ale, try the roasty and hoppy West Coast Stout. I tasted a version aged in a rye whiskey barrel that flooded the taste buds with rich vanilla, coconut and dark chocolate. The whiskey flavor stayed in the background without overwhelming the underlying beer.
From Lupulin head 40 minutes farther west to Spilled Grain Brewhouse in Annandale. You’re out in the country now, and the brewery drives this home. It has the look and feel of an old repurposed barn, inside and out. Weathered red-painted barn wood covers the exterior. Inside, the large, open room is capped by thick, wooden rafters. It’s like a Minne-Texan honky-tonk.
Live music is a regular feature. The night I was there featured Pete Byam, a one-man karaoke act that serenaded patrons with smooth renditions of old-time country music favorites. It couldn’t have been more perfect. I was having so much fun that I didn’t want to leave.
The beers overall aren’t great, but they are good. I enjoyed them all, but likely wouldn’t trek out there just for the beer. Bearded Man Old Ale was delicious. This moderately strong British ale glides onto the tongue with luscious toffee, milk chocolate, brown sugar and raisin. Subtle orange citrus provides a welcome lift.
Drive 20 minutes along Hwy. 55 to Buffalo for the last stop, Hayes’ Public House. The Irish pub themed taproom is cozy, warm and welcoming. During my visit, a small combo playing traditional Irish tunes completed the effect. The patio offers nice views of Buffalo Lake across the street.
An Irish pub had better have a good stout. The Hayes’ Irish Stout does not disappoint. Dispensed with nitrogen gas, it pours jet black with that familiar creamy, cascading foam. It’s dry and bitter as it should be, with strong notes of coffee and bitter chocolate.
O’Ruaidhri’s Irish Red is another good bet. Caramel malt forms the base, with a touch of roast on the way out. Low bitterness and mild, earthy hop flavor don’t tax the palate, so you can have a few.
While the first two trips explored some of the area’s newest breweries, the third points northeast of the Cities to revisit old friends.
Lift Bridge Brewery is a 25-minute drive east of the Twin Cities to Stillwater. Like Omni Brewing, Lift Bridge is in an industrial park, but step inside the taproom and you will forget all about that. Polished wood, warm colors and barrel tables create a convivial atmosphere for a sociable quaff. On tap is a good assortment of the brewery’s mainline brews as well as seasonal offerings and the occasional rarity.
My go-to beer at Lift Bridge is Getaway Pilsner. It’s light, yet flavorful with low toasted grain, floral/herbal hops, and assertive bitterness. There is complexity if you look for it, but it won’t distract you from communing with friends.
The limited-edition Batch 1300 DIPA is a hop lover’s delight. It’s lower in alcohol than many beers of the style, so you can have more than one. But it packs a full hop wallop with aggressive bitterness and waves of citrus and pine resin flavor.
The 20-minute drive along Hwy. 96 to Big Wood Brewery in White Bear Lake takes you through some of the more scenic parts of the northeastern exurbs, past lakes, farms and golf courses. The taproom has a vintage industrial-meets-North Woods vibe as exposed brick mingles with split logs, rustic boards and knotty pine.
Big Wood hasn’t always enjoyed the best reputation when it comes to beer. But their brewer seems recently to have stepped up his game. The taproom selection is large, and I didn’t find a stinker in the bunch. Even beers that I have panned in the past stood up well on this inspection.
A particular standout is Fine IPA. Lovely pear and mango aromas drift from the glass before you even get it to your face. The flavor follows suit, emphasizing fruity hop flavor over bitterness. Dry, crisp and well-balanced, this really is a fine IPA.
For something lighter, try Grapefruit Cream Ale. It tastes bitter for a cream ale, inching toward American pale ale. The grapefruit peel used to make it gives it a bright, citrusy pop.
Head north on Hwy. 61 for the scenic route to Hammerheart Brewing Co. in Lino Lakes. Norse myth comes alive at this place in both the room and the beer. The taproom is a Viking lodge, complete with runes, antlers and Viking shields and swords. Norwegian heavy metal music is likely to be coming from the sound system. If the vibe is too intense, head out to the patio to get away.
Hammerheart beers focus on high alcohol, big flavors and smoke. They are some of the boldest beers being made in the state. The beer names are also inspired by Norwegian myth. Don’t even try to pronounce them. Just drink them.
Von Winterherz Verhasst is a strong, oak-smoked hefeweizen. The characteristic clove and banana character of this classic summer wheat beer is there, joined by a subtle smokiness that adds a touch of campfire and amplifies the spice. It’s a very Hammerheart take on the style.
If hops are your thing, try Surtr’s Flame, a smoked IPA. Once assertively smoky, the recipe has been toned down so that smoke is now a background note. Citrus and grapefruit peel hops are the real focus here.
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.