Almost 10 years ago, I went to the one specialty craft beer store in the Twin Cities and bought every local brew they stocked: Schell’s, Summit, Surly, and the handful of other producers who sold at retail (many in the form of individual bottles, fortunately). With my wallet a couple hundred dollars lighter and the trunk of my Honda a couple hundred pounds heavier, I was ready to begin my survey of Minnesota’s craft beer scene.
I enlisted the help of a homebrewer friend and Doug Hoverson, author of Land of Amber Waters, the definitive tome on the state’s brewing history, and we cracked into my stash: Brau Brothers’ smoky Scotch Ale and just-sweet-enough Strawberry Wheat; Schell’s Pilsner and Schell’s Dark; Summit EPA and Surly Furious; Flat Earth’s Rode Haring Flanders Red, my first-ever sour beer, which delivered a beguiling pucker-punch.
I flashed back to that afternoon (what I can recall of it; my tasting notes devolved into illegible scratch) as we put together this month’s cover story, “Drinking Minnesota”. Compiling our guide to the state’s best breweries, totaling nearly 50, I tried to imagine repeating my sampling endeavor. Surely, it’d take thousands of dollars and a U-Haul this time around.
We’ve seen similar growth in Minnesota’s craft distilling scene. Around the same time as my craft beer survey, I paid a visit to the headquarters of Phillips Distilling, the century-old Minnesota liquor company, which had just launched its Prairie Organic Vodka. At the time, not only was Phillips one of the few spirits producers in the area, but its approach to Prairie—made from locally grown corn distilled by a co-op ethanol plant in Benson—ran contrary to that of nearly all American-made vodkas, which started with neutral-grain spirits distilled by Archer Daniels Midland and other massive grain processors.
Today, we have small artisan distillers scattered around the state, from Spring Grove to Hallock. In time, they may be as common as Minnesota wineries, an industry that began, in its modern form, only in the 1970s, but has grown immensely in recent years as new cold-hardy grape varieties have been introduced. Craft cideries are the latest wave of artisan alcoholic-beverage producers to join the ranks. With only about a dozen in the state so far, I might reasonably undertake another comprehensive sampling. But this time, since so many producers have made their facilities into bona fide tourist destinations, I’d skip the liquor store in favor of a road trip.
PORTRAIT BY ERIKA LUDWIG. HAIR AND MAKEUP BY MARGO GORDON