Last month, my wife and I got the spontaneous urge to burn some airline miles and fly somewhere new – under 3 hours away – for a long weekend. We have both been up and down the West Coast and throughout the Southwest, so we set our sights eastward.
I have always heard good things about Minneapolis / Saint Paul, Minnesota, and the area has a thriving craft beer scene, so that’s where we decided to go. As a bonus, the Wisconsin border isn’t far from the Twin Cities, so we’d be able to pick up some of New Glarus Brewing’s elusive brews, which are only distributed in Wisconsin.
The Land of 10,000 Lakes isn’t just hyperbole. According to Wikipedia, Minnesota has 11,842 lakes larger than 10 acres, and I could see quite a few of them as our jet made its approach. The area looked more like the San Juan Islands than the Midwest.
Fun Fact: The state of Minnesota has 1 recreational boat for every 6 people, making it one of the top boating states in the nation.
Over four days, we managed to visit a half dozen breweries and beer bars, plus a few liquor stores, and even some touristy sites, such as the sculpture garden, Lake Calhoun, some parks and the old Stone Arch Bridge that spans the mighty Mississippi River.
Like many cities across the United States, breweries are blowing up in the Twin Cities. The metropolitan area now has more than two dozen breweries, and based on the thirsty crowds we encountered at the breweries we visited, the area is ripe for having many more.
Since opening in 1997, Town Hall has built an esteemed reputation in the beer world, with many GABF medals under its belt, so I was eager to visit. The brewery was much smaller than I expected (smaller than most of Bellingham’s breweries), but I found its reputation to be well deserved, nonetheless. I thoroughly enjoyed all of the beers I tried, especially the slew of hop-forward beers on tap, including the deliciously juicy, grassy and piney fresh-hop ale made with Minnesota-grown hops.
We ended up having a great chat with one of the bartenders, and he even gave us a quick tour of the brewhouse. In addition to the great service, great beers and great atmosphere, we also enjoyed the brewpub’s tasty food, especially the soft pretzels, which had cheese cooked inside of them and on top of them, plus they came with a side of jalapeno cheese sauce. Apparently, Minnesotans don’t hold back when it comes to cheese, and I loved it.
Saturday afternoon we made our way to Indeed Brewing, and it was so busy we had to park two blocks away. As I walked up to the crowded taproom, a bouncer asked for our IDs.
“What’s going on today?” I asked. “Is there a special event or something?”
With a confused look on his face, he said, “Nothing. It’s just a normal Saturday.”
Fortunately, the brewery has an auxiliary taproom down the hall, called the Ox, which was a bit mellower. While there, we enjoyed a pleasant sour ale and a rustic saison fermented with Brettanomyces. I wish I had more time to try all of the other beers on tap, but we had to push on.
Surly’s relatively new Beer Haul was a jaw-dropping sight. It was spacious, inviting and incredibly well designed, featuring a long bar and an endless number of tables. On one wall, the massive brewhouse can be admired behind huge glass windows. The service, food and beers were all excellent to boot.
The brewery doesn’t do taster flights, so we just ordered a bunch of schooner pours, including four different IPAs, a couple sour ales and more, but I left still yearning for more.
Two of the beers I tried really stood out: Coffee Bender, an oatmeal brown ale with some insanely wonderful espresso notes, and Todd the Axe Man, a West Coast-style IPA made with Golden Promise malt and Citra and Mosaic hops.
Based on a friend’s recommendation, we made a stop at Tavern on Grand in Saint Paul and I ordered the Walleye Sampler, which was delicious. This freshwater white fish is like the Midwest’s halibut, and it was cooked to perfection. The restaurant/bar also features a relatively small but fine selection of beers.
Over the weekend we also visited two other beer bars, Republic in Minneapolis and The Happy Gnome in Saint Paul, both of which had solid tap lists and charismatic atmospheres.
Of course, we had to make some stops at liquor stores to pick up beers to enjoy in the hotel room and to bring back home. My favorites were Zipp’s in Minneapolis and The Ale Jail in Saint Paul.
Unfortunately, Minnesota is one of the five states with archaic “3.2 beer” laws. Grocery stores, gas stations and convenience stores cannot sell liquor, wine or full-strength beer, but they can sell 3.2% alcohol by weight (ABW) beer, which is equal to about 4% alcohol by volume (ABV). Liquor stores have limited hours and are not allowed to be open on Sundays, but if you’re desperate you can still buy 3.2 beer at grocery stores on Sundays.
Even though the backward laws are annoying and inconvenient (requiring some pre-planning when your visit falls on a Sunday), the Wisconsin border is only about 30 minutes east of Saint Paul, and Wisconsin’s alcohol laws are much more lenient. In fact, just across the St. Croix River is the town of Hudson, Wisconsin, which is home to a surprising number of liquor stores – much more than you’d expect to find in a town of less than 13,000. Apparently, this is where many Minnesotans go to buy alcohol on Sundays, and it’s also where you can find a bunch of New Glarus beers (Spotted Cow seemed to fly off shelves), which are only distributed in Wisconsin. So, on Sunday, that’s exactly where we went.
My favorite stop in Hudson was at the historic Casanova liquor store, which opened in 1896, back when it brewed beer under the name Casanova Beverage Company. The place was a bit cramped, but the selection was fantastic. And, more importantly, it had what we wanted and it’s open every day of the year.
On our last day, we tried to squeeze in a tour at Summit Brewing, one of the Midwest’s craft beer pioneers (circa 1986), but the timing didn’t work out and we had a plane to catch. Fortunately, the airport has a Summit bar, so I was still able to get a sampler of the brewery’s beers, and it was a great way to end the trip.
The only downsides of the trip were that some of the beers were surprisingly expensive (especially for the Midwest) and some of the breweries and bars we visited didn’t offer flights of beer, which is unfortunate for tourists like myself who want to try many beers under the constraints of time and liver. One of the bars (which I won’t mention) that did offer a 5-taster flight charged $20 for it! I understand the need to mark up flights due to the hassle, and I’m OK with paying a bit more per ounce, but had I done the math better, I should have just ordered 5 pints for a few dollars more and left some of them half full.
Regardless, we had a great time in the Twin Cities, and I truly relished the beers I got to experience and the nice people we got to meet. The beer we brought back in our suitcases wasn’t too shabby, either. Although, we did have to buy an extra piece of luggage in order to get it all home.