Russian Expat in Norway from Vikre Distillery
photo by Terry Brennan
Ten years ago, in 2007, St. Paul’s Flat Earth Brewing filled its first kegs, joining recent startups Surly (in Brooklyn Center) and Brau Brothers (then in Lucan) in the first wave of new local microbrewery openings. They joined long-timers such as Summit (St. Paul) and Schell’s (New Ulm) to bring the total number of production breweries in Minnesota to eight. Of the roughly two dozen wineries in the state at the time, most were busy replanting their vineyards with the newly bred, cold-hardy Marquette grape. And there was only one Minnesota distillery, Phillips, in Princeton, dedicated to making spirits (unless you count an ethanol plant in Benson that made vodka on the side when it wasn’t producing fuel).
Today, Minnesota is home to more than 100 production breweries—most of them equipped with taprooms where customers can sip a pint of beer just yards from where it was made—as well as another 30 or so brewpubs where full food menus aid and abet the malt madness. (These breweries range from massive operations such as Surly, managing a full-service restaurant and selling at retail, to small operators such as Dangerous Man, offering their beer only through their taprooms.) There are now upwards of 60 wineries in the state, many of which have banded together into regional tasting trails that lure oenophiles from one winery to the next. And most of the more than a dozen craft distilleries that have cropped up around the state now have cocktail rooms that give customers a chance to sample their spirits mixed in the manner for which they were intended.
The tsunami of brews and booze was touched off in large part by the passage of the so-called “Surly bill” in 2011. That legislation not only cleared the way for small breweries to sell beer by the glass onsite, sweeping aside restrictive laws that dated back to the repeal of Prohibition, but also slashed the license fee for microdistilleries from a prohibitively expensive $30,000 to a relatively affordable $1,100. As for the winery boom, much of the credit goes not to the legislature but to another public institution: the University of Minnesota, which has developed several of the most commonly planted cold-hardy grape varieties—including Marquette, the latest Great Red Hope of northern winemaking. The growing interest in agritourism has also spurred the development of new vineyards and wineries, as urban locavores comb the countryside in search of pastoral pleasures.
Minnesotans’ fascination with locally grown farm products, dovetailing with the national local-food trend of the past decade, hasn’t been lost on the state’s new distillers. For example, Minneapolis’ Du Nord Craft Spirits sources non-GMO corn from co-owner Shanelle Montana’s family farm in Cold Spring. Far North Spirits has done them one better: The distillery is located on co-owner Michael Swanson’s family farm in Hallock, within sight of the fields where their grain is grown. Hard-cider producers, too, are reaping the bounty of the “drink local” movement: In just the past few years, around a dozen cideries have sprung up in apple orchards throughout central and southern Minnesota.
Of course, you don’t have to travel to the source to get a taste of these local libations. Bars and restaurants in the Twin Cities and beyond seem to be competing with one another to see who can offer the most local brews on tap—several have 30 or more. Spirits from Minnesota distilleries have also become fixtures in the backbars of the best craft cocktail purveyors. Though Minnesota wines still struggle to elbow their way onto restaurant wine lists, they may finally get a place at the table once optimal vineyard sites for growing Marquette vines are discovered and winemaking techniques for the variety are perfected. Or perhaps the breakthrough will come with Itasca, the U of M’s promising new white wine grape release.
Whether your beverage of choice is fermented, brewed, distilled, or some combination thereof, you’ll probably agree: There’s never been a better time to drink locally.
For more, check out Jason and Joy’s top picks.