When my fellow Beerploma blogger, Eric Wentling, laid down the gauntlet, challenging me to rank my favorite top 10 MN craft beers of 2016, I struggled to narrow down a list of 10 distinct beers. Now I am charged with the task of ranking my favorite top 25 MN breweries. Initially, this seems like a breeze because I have the leeway of 25 different slots to rank the breweries. How hard can it be, right? Well, it pains me to say that I haven’t had this much difficulty writing something since college.
The thing that I have going for me is that I absolutely love taprooms and breweries. I am constantly looking for a unique and satisfying taproom experience. A good craft beer will always bring me in the door. Pair a great tap lineup with a comfortable setting and friendly taproom staff and I am going to stay for the night.
What I noticed when I started comprising my list is that there isn’t one particular type of place that I always gravitate towards. If I want to people watch, I head for a crowded place where I can grab a seat at the bar and observe others. If I want a conversation, I try a smaller and less raucous place. I will usually set out with a particular beer in mind and then hope to be surprised by something else on tap that I haven’t had before.
Like you all, I have my favorites. I also have places that I seldomly go unless it is a friend’s idea. Most of the time, I drink based on seasonality, but there are certain beers from local breweries that I am always in the mood for. So, here is my crack at ranking my top 25 MN breweries for 2016.
25 Best MN Breweries for 2016
#25) Lupine Brewing (Delano)
They are located outside the 494/694 loop, but their beers are impressive. The Three Bandits Coffee Porter is my favorite. However, I also really dig their Murder of Cranberries Stout and Kilted Maple. They are brewing some great beers and they have tons of live music in the taproom.
#24) Fitgers Brewhouse (Duluth)
The iconic smokestack is a beacon of hope for weary travelers seeking good food and well-crafted beers. The brewpub is attached to a hotel which has a nice element of class along with a fantastic view of Lake Superior. The Apricot Wheat is great for summer and the Big Boat Oatmeal Stout is a roasty sensation if you want something a dark. This is usually where I stay for All Pints North and it is always a great time.
#23) Wabasha Brewing (St. Paul)
With a new taproom and an ever-expanding catalog of craft beer, they continue to surprise and wow me. Their Westside Popper is a wonderful beer to pair with any of the readily available Mexican fare available on the Westside. I also love the aesthetics of their new taproom. If you are there in the fall, you absolutely have to try their Darktoberfest because it a unique Oktoberfest-Dunkel hybrid that hits all the notes for the malty beer lover.
#22) Grand Rounds Brewpub (Rochester)
Steve Finnie is someone in the MN craft beer community whom I am happy to call a friend. His smile, dry wit, and passion for craft beer is something that comes through genuinely when you talk with him. When I saw that he was stepping away from Grand Rounds in December, the news hit me like a punch in the gut. I hope that Grand Rounds can continue to showcase flavor and nuance in a community where craft beer is becoming more prominent. However, to lose someone of Steve’s caliber both in persona and brewing expertise is not easy. Their Freedom Scotch Ale is a tremendous showcase of malt. The Hawaii 507 Coconut Stout is dessert in a glass.
#21) Hammerheart Brewing (Lino Lakes)
If you are into Norse Mythology or Game of Thrones, this taproom will scratch you right where you itch. I really love the aesthetic and interesting take on their beers. Between their use of smoked malt to their skill at barrel-aging beers, they certainly deliver a fantastic education for my palate. They are five minutes away from my Sister-in-Law and that is an added bonus to hanging with the family. Flaming Longship, Olaf the Stout, and British Invasion are all beers that I wish I could see on tap more regularly.
#20) Modist Brewing (Minneapolis)
I love the unique concept of brewing craft beer based on flavor profile and not BJCP style guidelines. They are a newer brewery and seem to have created quite a buzz around some of their beers. I cannot get enough of their First Call, an amazing golden beer in color with an insane amount of robust coffee flavor. I also really like their Phresh when the weather is nice. Now that they are into some different experimental beers, I see them continuing to wow craft beer drinkers in the year to come.
#19) Lupulin Brewing (Big Lake)
This brewery is definitely a must-stop if you are willing to make a little bit of a drive. The way they use hops is somewhat of a revelation. Their Blissful Ignorance series is a hop lovers paradise. They are responsible for introducing an area of the state to craft beer in an approachable, yet innovative way. Their beers are brewed with passion and the taproom has a wonderfully warm sense of community. Their Blissful Ignorance #4 just went back on tap and if you go there for that, you will be happy you stayed and tried whatever else they have on tap that day.
#18) Bad Weather Brewing (Saint Paul)
I can’t say that I am a regular, but I do spend a considerable amount of my Saint Paul taproom time here. Between the craft beer and the people behind the brewery, there is a lot to love about Bad Weather. The owners are more than happy to chat beer with patrons. The brewer really has an immense amount of passion and knowledge for what he does. Their Galactic Tide (Rye Porter) and Cauld Weather (Wee Heavy) are great beers. If you want an extremely underrated Russian Imperial Stout, you have to try their Calamity. The taproom space is incredibly cool and they have and old-school video game night on Tuesdays.
#17) Waconia Brewing (Waconia)
While I have only been to the brewery a handful of times, I seek them out at every festival. The people behind the brand brew sensational beer. From their specialty beers that are released randomly like the Chocolate Peanut Butter Porter to their award-winning Carver County Kölsch, they brew beers with a focus on quality and flavor. Some of their offerings are available in cans now and they also have select beers in 22 oz. bombers. If you like DIPAs, you might want to keep your eyes out of their Paradise Island.
#16) Urban Growler (St. Paul)
This is one of my favorite places to hang out in the mid afternoon on a weekday. However, no matter what time you go to Urban Growler, you can always find delicious food and some great craft beer. Having just embarked on an expansion that will more than triple their capacity, to say that Urban Growler had a big year is an understatement. They also had their first barrel-aged release party back in November. The staff at Urban Growler are some of the nicest and most accommodating people you will find at a brewery. The owners Jill and Deb are top-notch when it comes to people you want to root for and support in the industry.
#15) Schell’s Brewing ( New Ulm)
Schell’s sets the standard for German craft beers in MN. They are responsible for teaching me to love the Berliner Weisse style of beer. As I continue to learn more about German craft beer styles, I continue to seek out their brews because I believe they are fantastic and consistent examples of what craft beer would taste like in Germany. Their Hefeweizen, Snowstorm, and Fire Brick continue to be some of my favorite beers to drink.
#14) Tin Whiskers Brewing (St. Paul)
Watching Tin Whiskers continue to evolve as a brewery is something that a St. Paulite like myself is really happy about. This year brought more brewing capacity, a centrifuge, a few more Brew-Off wins and another barrel-aged beer release to celebrate an anniversary. I love their Short Circuit Stout and love that it is available in cans now. They are always finding fun ways to involve their staff in brewing and the taproom team’s Doppelbock was a tremendous success in my opinion. I love the people and the beer behind this brewery and look forward to see what they do in the next year.
#13) Junkyard Brewing (Moorhead)
If there is a brewery that I see making constant strides towards brewing perfection it is Junkyard. Their beers push the envelope when it comes to flavor and creativity. The taproom is a cozy place to hang out and play a game or chat with a favorite relative. Whether it is a Pilsner or a Blackberry Gose, they don’t make a bad beer. The beer they brew will make you think and excite your palate. I am lucky because every time I visit the In-Laws, I make sure to stop in and check out what Dan and Aaron have going. I hope that 2017 is the year that Junkyard crowlers will begin to show up on shelves in the Twin Cities. My favorites of theirs are any of the experimental sours that they do and the Peanut Butter Bandit.
#12) NorthGate Brewing (Minneapolis)
I love this taproom because it feels like a neighborhood pub in Britain. The beers are brewed so well and aside from Summit, I don’t think that there is another Minnesota brewery that adeptly showcases British Malt and hop varieties. From my avowed love of their Red Headed Piper to a rabid infatuation with their Barrel-Aged Stout, I cannot say enough good things about what they do at NorthGate. I am so excited for their upcoming 4th Anniversary Party because they are releasing a Barleywine and I am starting to really dig that style.
#11) Indeed Brewing (Minneapolis)
When I go to a MN Craft Brewer’s Guild beer fest, one of the first things I look forward to is the Indeed beer lineup. They have some tremendous beers and between their Wooden Soul Series and the barrel-aged stouts (Rum King and Whiskey Queen) they are among my favorite beers to seek out. Their everyday lineup leaves a little to be desired in my opinion and that is why they are not among the top ten for me.
#10) Fulton Brewing (Minneapolis)
One of the interesting stories of 2016 was seeing Fulton produce so much good beer that they can no longer sell growlers. If you think that statement defies logic, join the club of people who think that more than a few beer laws in MN need to change. War and Peace, Barrel-Aged Libertine, and Insurrection are my favorites from these guys.
#9) Steel Toe Brewing (St. Louis Park)
When I think about consistency in brewing, my mind goes to Steel Toe. They can do so many styles well that it is almost mind-boggling. Their Size 4 is probably my favorite session beer around and when I want something with oodles of roasty bitterness, I go for the Douglas Cascadian Dark Ale. I still need to try the Wee Heavy, but since its GABF medal win, it is so hard to come by. I am glad that their taproom is bigger and as a result, I have been stopping by more often.
#8) Insight Brewing (Minneapolis)
2016 was a big year for Insight. It saw them branch out into a new out of state market (Sioux Falls, SD), start up a barrel program that will only be getting better, expand their brewing capacity, and hire a new Head Brewer. All the while, they continue to produce fantastic beers (Doe Eyes, Battering Ram, and Scotch Barrel-aged Gravity Well) and expand their portfolio. Ilan keeps his eyes on the globe and has several great trips planned. His travels will surely yield new knowledge and techniques that will be applied to Insight’s growing list of craft beer legends.
#7) Lift Bridge (Stillwater)
From their special releases like Commander, Irish Coffee Stout, and Barrel-Aged Silhouette, to their flagships like Hop Dish and Farm Girl, they have something great for every palate. They continue to expand their portfolio with beers that set the bar in my opinion when it comes to style and flavor. The folks who live in Stillwater, MN are lucky to have this crown jewel of the MN craft beer scene in their own backyard.
#6) Fair State Brewing Cooperative (Minneapolis)
In 2016, Fair State won awards at every one of the MN Craft Brewer’s Guild beer festivals. They play a huge role in introducing people to sour beers. They secured a space in Saint Paul which will allow them to expand their capacity to keep up with the ravenous demand for their incredible beer. Their list of co-op members continues to grow and their brewery continues to impress. I cannot wait to see what the next year has in store for Fair State.
#5) Surly Brewing (Minneapolis)
A few years ago they became Minnesota’s first destination brewery. They continue to expand at a rate that is on par with some of the biggest breweries in the country. The Surly Beer Hall showcases beers that aren’t packaged in production and the Brewer’s Table offers upscale food and beer pairings. This past year, brewed some of their early anniversary beers to celebrate ten years, including Surly 4, a Coffee Milk Stout.
However, all these things seemed to be lost in the shuffle when it was announced in October that Todd Haug, longtime Brewmaster at Surly, was stepping down. In many areas of life, perception equals reality. When Todd exited, there was a perception among the MN craft beer scene and beyond that Surly’s sky was falling.
I will say that I don’t believe the situation to be all doom and gloom. I think that Surly will be fine. From what I hear among industry people, the two brewers that will essentially take over the brewing duties at Surly are more than capable. It will be fun to see what Surly does in the next year. However, similar to Steve Finnie leaving Grand Rounds, Todd Haug leaving Surly will be a loss because his persona was so much of the Surly brand.
#4) Bent Paddle Brewing (Duluth)
Bent Paddle endured some rough P.R. when they took an anti-mining stance in order to ensure that the water up in Northern Minnesota would be clean and free of any negative environmental impact. Municipal liquor stores in Silver Bay voted to ban Bent Paddle products from their shelves. However, none of that mess has detracted or slowed their popularity and success in the craft beer scene. I think that they make one of the best pilsners around in their Venture Pils. When I see the 14° ESB Extra Special Amber Ale on tap I have one. I also look forward to anything they do that has to do with coffee.
Their taproom has become an unofficial haven to craft beer geeks on the Friday of All Pints North. To me, it wouldn’t be All Pints without hanging out at Bent Paddle to drink great beer and enjoy seeing familiar faces.
#3) Dangerous Man Brewing (Minneapolis)
Dangerous Man is a shining example to anyone who wants to just be a brewery without the hassle of distribution. The taproom is always slammed. The lines for their barrel-aged special release beers wrap around the block, causing passersby to stop and gawk. Dangerous Man is always on my list of places to go.
It is a favorite spot of mine when I want to go out and drink sip a beer by myself and people watch. I don’t mind how crowded it gets if I am by myself. I unapologetically lust after their Peanut Butter Porter. Their Imperial Pumpkin is a thing of beauty and legend in my opinion. I think that if I could make their Sour Delores my mistress, I would. I also think that their taproom staff make Dangerous Man a fun place to hang out.
A complaint I hear from trolls on the interwebs is that this place is only for hipsters. This is absolutely not true. In fact, I am a fashion-backward 37 year-old who is the farthest thing from cool, and I have always felt comfortable here.
#2) Town Hall Brewery (Minneapolis)
There are so many things I love about Town Hall. They have one of my favorite pumpkin beers, holiday beers, and host my favorite week of beer (Barrel-Aged Week). The brewery is a MN craft beer institution. The food makes sense and goes well with a lot of the things they brew. As I have learned more about craft beer, I have appreciated what they do even more.
Their patio in the summer is where I love to spend a late afternoon. Sipping great beer with friends on their patio somehow elevates a nice summer evening into the echelon of perfection. There are so many people in the MN brewing industry that worked at Town Hall at one point or another. We are all lucky to have Town Hall and that is why they rank so high on my list.
#1) Summit Brewing Company (Saint Paul)
In a year where Summit celebrates 30 years it makes the number one spot on my list in no-brainer fashion. In their 30th year, Summit gave us phenomenal beer. The Keller Pils, Dark Infusión, and English-Style Barleywine all showcased how Summit has managed to find success in an industry that is cutthroat.
With all of the talk about Summit turning 30, it was a beer that is so dependable and reliable that won a gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival. Summit’s EPA is a great beer that has become so much a part of the craft beer fabric of MN. It is on tap everywhere. I know that 2017 will bring more innovation and excitement from Summit. In a recent article on the Summit website, Founder Mark Studrud said that they [Summit] don’t brag enough which has been a disadvantage. I think that to be the best, you can let your beer do the talking for you. I have to say, Summit’s lineup of beers doesn’t need words to tell you how good they are, they do it with flavor and quality.
25 slots seems like a lot, but there are some breweries I really like wound up being left off the list. Bent Brewstillery, Castle Danger, and Brau Bros. are ones that I gnashed my teeth at having to leave off the list. Jack Pine and Disgruntled Brewing were also on my mind, but didn’t quite make it for me this year.
I am excited to see what 2017 will bring. I know that there will be new breweries popping up and even maybe a few shutting their doors. All of this is good for the MN craft beer scene. MN is at a crucial point in the evolution of becoming a craft beer destination. We have some guiding, stellar examples of what great craft beer should be. We have a fervent market of craft beer enthusiasts who are becoming smarter and more selective about what they drink. The margin for error is shrinking. What an exciting time to be a craft beer drinker.
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