By Maya Rao • (Minneapolis) Star Tribune
Lisa Faletti-Watkins was wearing a hat from Fulton Brewery in Minneapolis. The growler in front of her wife, Sarah, was wrapped in a cozy from Pitchfork Brewing in Hudson, Wisconsin, one of the many places they visited from their home in search of the best local beer.
They sat at the bar at the Big Wood Brewery in White Bear Lake, Minnesota, on a Saturday night when conversation turned to a fourth, even more-distant brewery as a friend asked if they wanted to go to Fitger’s Brewhouse in Duluth one weekend.
“We should go up there,” Sarah Faletti-Watkins agreed.
As breweries open and expand around the region and interest in craft beer intensifies, Minnesota tourism leaders are trying to encourage people to travel farther to experience them. Explore Minnesota and the Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild are promoting “brewcations” with brochures at 10 visitor centers, Web pages and social media.
There are now nearly 60 breweries around the state, from Baxter to Rochester and Marshall, after the legislature passed the “Surly bill” allowing local brewers to open taprooms where customers could come in and try their beer.
The question is, how many people are willing to drive a few hours out of their way just to try a new brewery or two?
Clint Roberts, who heads the brewers guild, described such trips as in concert with the philosophy of craft beer drinkers.
“They’re looking for adventure, they’re looking for exploration, they’re looking for new experiences — that’s the ethos of what a craft beer consumer is,” he said.
And now, he added, Minnesota has breweries across the region. The guild has added 15 members this year.
“The Twin Cities metro has a good brewing scene, certainly, but when you look at the different corners of the state, there should be a craft beer destination somewhere along the way,” said Roberts. “It does stretch the state now, more than it has in a long time.”
Some breweries are already used to being destinations.
“We get quite a few out-of-town people at our brewery — we count on it,” said Dustin Brau, owner of Brau Brothers Brewing Co. in Marshall, population 13,000 in southwest Minnesota.
The brewery hosted its first, already called annual, HopFest in September.
Brau Brothers draws people on their way to go pheasant hunting and attracts others from just over the border in South Dakota and Iowa in addition to the Twin Cities. Now, Brau said, brewing companies are looking “more outside the box” for customers.
“The people who follow craft beer know we’re here … now it’s about going out to people that maybe they’re winery people or maybe they’re looking to do something else in the area, and this is a nice little addition to fill out the weekend or the week,” Brau said.
Bob Erler, marketing manager for Explore Minnesota, acknowledged that there might be more people coming from outstate Minnesota to the Twin Cities to try the range of breweries there, rather than an influx of urbanites traveling in the other direction.
“I think the appeal of these smaller taprooms and the smaller breweries is they’re kind of quaint, maybe they’re a little bit like the old corner bar in a way for locals,” said Erler. “But that’s kind of fun to go to if you’re from out of town and go in and experience that — that’s part of the attraction.”
Duluth is also becoming known for its sizable concentration of breweries.
The Duluth Experience, which offers tours of North Shore breweries, along with its more traditional offerings of adventure and history tours, draws people from the Twin Cities, the Iron Range and Wisconsin. CEO David Grandmaison said that when the company started arranging tours in July last year, “there was this trend and this increase of breweries in the area, and there was nobody that was really tying it all together and talking about the North Shore craft beer scene.”
Tourists go behind the scenes at nine local breweries and learn their stories, including Bent Paddle, Castle Danger and Blacklist.
And business is growing, Grandmaison said, adding that the company might add breweries in Grand Marais to the tour.
In Baxter, near Brainerd, most of the people in the taproom of the Jack Pine Brewery on weekdays are from the area, but weekends feature more out-of-towners.
“Beer tourism is a thing people are willing to go out of their way for,” said owner Patrick Sundberg.
But Sundberg said he’s spending his efforts on making more beer — demand is exceeding his capacity now — rather than trying to promote it.
“It becomes not really something that’s pushed on people, it’s something that people actually want to do; they want to explore the world of beer rather than being told they should be exploring the world of beer,” he said.
In White Bear Lake, Big Wood Brewery opened its taproom in February and is already attracting people from as far as Mankato, Duluth and St. Cloud, according to owner Jason Medvec.
“It’s a very attractive business to be in — you really can’t go a week without seeing an article or a story on the craft brewing industry,” he said. But with craft beer still only a small percentage of total beer sales, he added, “We’ve got a long way to go.”
The Faletti-Watkins couple heard about the new taproom and “We … were like, ‘Heck yeah!’” said Sarah Faletti-Watkins. “We don’t drink the kiddie beer anymore, the Millers Light, the Bud Light.”
They’ve been so busy traveling nearby to check out new breweries that they haven’t headed to the North Shore for beer — yet.
“We want to go … because they’ve got a bunch of breweries up there,” Sarah Faletti-Watkins acknowledged while drinking the Bark Bite IPA. “The hoppier the better.”
Added Lisa: “That’s how we roll in our house.”