It's a fine time to be a fan of locally crafted beer and to live in Minnesota. Of the nearly 50 Minnesotan breweries listed on MNBeer.com, 26 have opened in the past two years alone (with several more slated to open in the next 18 months). Everywhere you go, people with a pint in their hand are voicing the same idea on the subject: “Can you believe how much new and delicious beer there is here?” This is inevitably followed by, “We're so lucky,” and then, the caveat, “But, wow, is it getting difficult to keep up.”
Happily, at the Minnesota State Fair, there are more places than ever to sample local brews: restaurants, food courts, the concession stands at live music, and more. But by far the most comprehensive place to try local beers is the MN Craft Brewer Guild's 2nd Annual “Land of 10,000 Beers” exhibit in the Agriculture Building. Plus, the exhibit is also a great way to immerse yourself in the local beer culture and community.
Located in the Ag Building's West Hall, the exhibit features dozens of presentations, speakers, videos, and displays, detailing how beer is made, providing info for home brewers, and incluing features on what local breweries are up to. (For a full schedule of presentations, check out the MN Craft Brewers Guild website.) Also on display are a lovely collection of vintage beer memorabilia and a wall of recently produced artwork, much of it created and used for beer label designs. As the amount and quality of local beer has risen dramatically, so too has the diversity of artwork and graphic design on said beers, and the exhibit is great proof of that trend.
But the biggest draw of the exhibit is the tasting flights, probably the easiest way anywhere to sample the full diversity of Minnesotan beer currently in production. Forty different breweries are represented; beers are arranged in six different flights of beer, with four samples of beer per flight. The selections rotate daily. (One or two nonalcoholic root beers are also offered.)
The flights are arranged according to general category (darker, hoppier, lighter, Belgian-style, etc.). While this many kinds of beer can be overwhelming, the flights provide an approachable mix of well-established breweries such as Fulton and Surly, and smaller, newer ones that don't yet have the same level of distribution, such as Northgate or Bent Paddle. It's impossible to choose a “bad” flight, as each offers the ability to compare and contrast familiar flavors with completely new ones.
Over the course of the first day of the fair, I sampled five of the six flights (with the help of some friends), and was thus able to check out the work of twelve completely-new-to-me breweries.
From the “darker” flight, I sampled Excelsior's Bitteschlappe English Brown ale – a clean, even beer with a quick, lemony finish. I also tried Jack Pine's Duck Pond American Brown ale – malty, sweet, and woodsy, with a bit of chocolate mixed in; it would make a great drink to end a meal with. Also in the “darker” flight was Indeed's Midnight Ryder Black Ale, one of my personal favorites; it was great to be able to compare this very familiar beer with the newcomers on offer.
From the “hoppier” flight, I sampled 612 Brewery's American Pale Ale, which is lovely, mild, and floral. I also tried Northgate's Little Pilgrim English Pale Ale – a beer that, amusingly, tastes like a brewery smells: huge malt flavors, some sugary notes, a bit of dank. Also in this flight was Summit's Horizon Red Ale: with its mineral, hoppy (but not too assertive) taste and clean finish, it demonstrates why it's such a beloved beer around the state.
From one of the two “Minnesota Mix” flights (which seem to be the catch-all categories,) I sampled the Dark American Amber from Schell's, that Minnesota institution. I hadn't had their Amber in several years, but I immediately rekindled a friendship with it: it's light-bodied, a bit sweet and sour, and totally refreshing. The Mankato Brewery's Original Koslch was appropriately airy and crisp, and Castle Danger's Cream Ale was a brassy, fruit-forward beer with an almost bubblegum finish – a marked contrast to the other beers in the flight.
Apart from the delicious beer, a kind of wonderful thing takes place in and around the exhibit hall: it turns out it's a great place to make small talk with strangers. (It might actually be the best place to make small talk with strangers at the Fair.) Because the flights offer four beers at a time and are served in cardboard trays, it's necessary to set them down while you sample. Since the hall only features about a dozen barrel table tops, you inevitably have to share one of them with other people.
During our first two flights of the day, we stood at a barrel and chatted with a succession of three different groups of people. All were eager to talk about the beer (“We're so lucky to have so much new beer here...” etc., etc., see above) and compare notes on the different breweries. Small talk continued to include what we'd seen at the Fair itself so far, what new foods we were excited to try, even how many years we'd been coming to the Fair and where we were coming from.
Only in its second year, the “Land of 10,000 Beers” exhibit already feels like a State Fair institution. It should be at the top of the list for any fairgoer with an interest in beer or even local food culture. It'll be exciting to witness the exhibit grow in size and scope each year, as more breweries open around the state and more people become passionate about making beer, enjoying beer, and sampling Minnesotan brews.
Peter Groynom is a graduate of Carleton College and the San Francisco School of Bartending. He is an avid home cook, a writer, and a Photoshop enthusiast. His photography can be found at Arts and Hovercrafts. He lives in Minneapolis. His writes SGT's DIY Craft Cocktails series, and his latest post was Mixing Cocktails with Herbs.