Free Beer--Harriet Brewing Hits Minneapolis

If you’ve been down Minnehaha avenue in the evening lately, just off Lake Street in South Minneapolis, Harriet Brewing Company may have caught your eye. If so, it probably wasn’t because of their building, a nondescript former armored car garage with a front of fluted cement. No, if you noticed them it would have been because of a plain fold-out sidewalk sign featuring two words most of us only see in our fondest dreams: “Free Beer.”

If you haven’t heard of it, Harriet Brewing is the latest addition to the Twin Cities’ local brewing scene, and is for the moment the only operating brewery in Minneapolis proper. A few evenings a week, they’ve been opening up their doors for tastings and tours (gratis as advertised), hoping that folks will drop in, learn a little something, and maybe take home a growler of beer—a half-gallon refillable jug often sold by brew pubs and microbeweries.

This little brewery was born out of a community of friends, and part of the company ethos is clearly to be active in the wider community. With only a few full time employees, they rely on dedicated volunteers for a lot—but there’s also an earnest spirit of collaboration at Harriet Brewing. They hope, for example, to start and host a homebrewers’ meetup group; they also source their ingredients from Minnesota farmers and companies when they can (though that’s tough to do with brewing) and the brewery serves as a dropoff point for the CSA of JPS Farm, (the same farm where they send their spent grains for feed).  

But their community spirit also has to do with their choice of location—off a busy street, sure, but also nestled in residential Minneapolis—and their ability to create an inviting space. Jason Sowards, the owner and head brewer, told me that he wants the taproom to be, “a place where people want to hang out.” 

And it is; they do. Even on a Wednesday evening, the small, bright front end is packed with tour-takers, growler-fillers, and prudent folks who couldn’t resist the no-brainer offer on the sign out front. There is lot of good humor going around—again, another predictable side effect of free beer—but there’s more at work here. For one, the taproom doubles as a modest and pleasant art gallery featuring local artists, prints and original paintings for sale. Many of these are the work of in-house local artist Jesse Brodd, who Sowards hired to paint the company logo and labels for each new Harriet brew.     

Which is to say that, if Harriet brewing has something of a communitarian vision, then they also certainly have an aesthetic one. In addition to the gallery out front, Sowards has the corner of the brewing space set up like a living room (or maybe dorm room), complete with his expansive personal collection of classic vinyl and a large easel, where Brodd paints in the presence of the fermenting tanks. These are well-cultured brews, to be sure. 

Now, at this point I realize that I’m at risk of portraying this whole operation as some kind of artsy fun-fest, so let me be clear: the Harriet crew gets things done. Sowards, who jumped into this venture without previous professional brewing experience, has already got his beer on tap at two dozen bars across the Twin Cities after just six months of doing business, and he has more on the waiting list.

He also, incidentally, predicated his whole business plan on being able to change a Minneapolis liquor law that prohibited the onsite sale of growlers by breweries. Much has been made lately of the so-called “Surly Bill,” a successful change in state law lobbied by the burgeoning and beloved Brooklyn Center brewer that made it legal for breweries to sell pints in their own taprooms. But last year, Jason Sowards and council member Gary Schiff led the legislative charge, legalizing local growler sales and paving the way for Minneapolis breweries-to-come.

Sowards, for his part, welcomes the boom in the Minneapolis beer scene wholeheartedly, and plans to take full advantage of all these policy changes as his business grows. He envisions an expanded taproom in the years ahead, one with a view of the brewing floor and both pints and growlers for sale.

Unfortunately, thanks to Minnesota’s still-puritanical (Lutheranical?) approach to alcohol sales, there are still legislative obstacles for the local microbrewer. Because it’s illegal, for example, for Harriet to sell kegs of their beer on-premises, they have to first deliver them to a licensed distributor—that’s Minnehaha Liquors in this case, literally across the street from the brewery. “Write your legislator!” urges the cheerful volunteer behind the bar, and it’s not clear whether he’s joking. Minnesota’s government may have ground to a halt this past month, but the beer community is apparently full of legislative dynamos.

So Harriet Brewing’s affinities and proclivities include lobbying, community building, musical connoisseurship, and fine visual art—but chiefly, they brew good beer. Harriet’s brews are the manifestation of their approach to business: daring, unusual, and aesthetically rich. Unless you’re already knee-deep in cerevisaphilia, these are artisanal beers to broaden your horizons.

So far, they’ve been specializing in distinctive Belgian styles, though overall the emphasis is clearly on traditional, complex European beers that Sowards noticed were “underrepresented” in the Minnesota scene. Each of their interpretations of these styles manages to be faithful yet dynamic and fresh, though their West Side Belgian IPA has a flare all its own.

True to form, the next new release will be a German Oktoberfest, to be celebrated in collaboration with the Seward Coop and a number of other local businesses at a big release gala on September 24.  

For my part, at the end of my tour I took home a growler of Wodan Weizen that barely lasted out the evening. This Hefeweizen, a hazy German wheat beer, is an excellent example of the style but is lighter and more drinkable than other Hefeweizens I’ve tried. Like other Harriet beers past and present, it’s solidly outside the mainstream American beer palate, and that’s a good thing. Phrases like “Trappist Dubbel,” “Belgian Golden Strong” and “Farmhouse Saison” may not yet roll easily off your tongue, but rest assured: the beer sure will. 

To find out how to take advantage of free beer samples, legal growler sales, or an enlightening brewery tour, visit


Michael Pursell is a St. Paul-born, Minneapolis-based freelance writer and journalist. Among his chief passions and interests are the production, distribution, legislation, preservation, preparation, fermentation and oh yes, consumption of food and drink.