What in the wide world of "adult" beverages is your drink of choice? Mine, without a doubt, is craft beer. But it wasn't always that way. The "me" of 15 years ago wouldn’t have been familiar with the term "craft" beer, and my palate probably wasn’t quite ready for it. However, shortly after I moved to Minnesota, I was invited to take the path less traveled, to experience something beyond the mass produced product I had been accustomed to. This is no flat expressway; instead it is a meandering trail that offers discoveries around every turn, invites you to find something you didn’t even know you were looking for, and begs you to appreciate the craftsmanship that's gone into the glass that you're holding.
As with all artisan products, craft beer is made by people who, first and foremost, are interested in taking top-quality ingredients and creating a top-quality beer. The craft brewing movement, and the rise of small, west coast breweries in the late 1970s, has been embraced by a dedicated group of brewers, the driving force behind the breweries and brewpubs of Minnesota. We might not have the number of them that our neighbor Wisconsin does, but I’d pit a beer of ours against a beer of theirs anyday.
The basic recipe for beer includes a simple, four-ingredient list: water, hops, barley, and yeast. However the simplicity of the recipe belies an infinite number of variations, and offers brewers the opportunity to connect with their community in two ways: first, by sourcing local ingredients, and second, by quenching the thirst of those -- like me -- who buy their products.
Water, by nature, and the practicality of sourcing it, will always be local. Some brewpubs, such as Great Waters Brewing Company, which opened in St. Paul in 1997, are especially proud of their water. The historic Hamm Building in which they are located is the original site of the St. Paul Cathedral and is home to a natural spring.
The other main ingredients, hops, barley -- used to make malt -- and yeast, are available locally to varying degrees. The hop is a hearty perennial (pictured, above) that can be grown in Minnesota, but tends to thrive much better in climates with less severe winters. The majority of hops are imported, however both Barley John’s Brewpub in New Brighton and Lift Bridge Brewery from Stillwater have utilized homegrown hops in some of their specialty beers. Brau Brothers Brewing Company, located in the southwestern Minnesota town of Lucan, also is making strong efforts to use homegrown hops as well as local grains as much as possible.
Barley (and other grains) comes from a variety of locations; however the southern suburb of Shakopee is home to Rahr Malting, the largest single-site malting facility in the world. Malting facilities, like Rahr, take grains, sprout them, and transform them into malt. While the grains that Rahr uses to make its malts may come from further afield than just Minnesota, the existence of the company and our support of it by buying its products is one way to keep dollars in the local economy.
Although yeast is not a crop like hops or barley, there is a wide variety of yeast strains brewers can purchase and some choose to propagate their own. Yeast is the essential component that changes the combination of water, barley and hops into an alcoholic beverage.
Beyond the four main ingredients in beer, brewers often use additional ingredients that can be sourced locally. Locally produced honey and locally roasted coffee have been used by a number of breweries and brewpubs. In addition, Barley John’s uses Minnesota wild rice in one of their year-round beers, Wild Brunette.
Hopefully, I’ve made you thirsty for more on beer and brewing in Minnesota. It’s a topic I enjoy, from talking about what I’ve recently tried, to what's still to come, to the great folks who produce local beer. I'll stop by Simple, Good and Tasty from time to time to highlight local breweries and brewpubs, talking about what make them unique, and how they fit into the local brewing scene. In the meantime, when a beer is what you’re thirsting for, pick up some bottles or cans, or order a pint of great Minnesota brewed beer!
Kris McDowell is an established writer about tasty things, including cheese and beer. You can read her Beer Musings from Minneapolis-St. Paul on the terrific blog she shares with her husband Mag, and at the site MN Beer.