40 years ago, there were only five breweries in Minnesota. The legal drinking age was 19. A beer cost $1.32.
Halcyon days. Now Minnesota is one of the nation’s emergent beer markets. There are over 150 breweries operating instate, with new shops popping up at a gold rush pace. In four decades, we’ve gone from desert to oasis, with the biggest boom coming in the eight years since the 2011 Surly Bill.
City Pages has tried a few times to encapsulate and quantify just how the beer world has changed during the time we’ve been covering the Twin Cities scene. But any stab at definitude is dulled by the tectonic movement of the brewing industry. In 2019, evaluation isn’t nearly as important as re-evaluation.
That’s why we’re using the occasion of our 40th birthday—and our annual beer-filled parking lot party—to take an academic look at the beers coming out of Minnesota and attempt to tabulate that greatness. This list may only be a mile marker on a road that’s only just being laid, but when we look back in another 5, 10, or even 40 years, it’s these 40 beers we’ll remember as the best of their time.
40. Schell’s Firebrick
The boilers in Schell’s brewery are ancient lungs of steam. These hulking workhorses have powered the revered New Ulm brewery through countless batches of Old World European beers, but they finally got their due when Schell’s named its amber Vienna-style lager in their honor. Firebrick carries their legacy in its carmine body and sandy beige head. It drinks like punch time on Friday, wiping away hours of toil with a single malty flush. This is a beer you can stand by, batch after batch, for generations.
39. Eastlake Nicollet Mauler
Eastlake fancies itself a baseball franchise, and as such, they needed a hoss of a flagship to fill out the middle of their order. Enter Nicollet Mauler, a fence-busting black IPA named for the downtown Minneapolis pedestrian agora. Mauler packs a wallop, leading off with a sweet burst of kilned malt followed with cocoa, coffee, and anise. But it’s got opposite field power, too, sporting an audacious amount of piney and floral hop flavors. It’s a ’roided-out freak of a beer, but that’s what gets ’em roaring from the cheap seats.
38. Lift Bridge Commander
Before hazy, juicy IPAs ruled the trade boards, it was the well-fortified barleywine that held dominion. Lift Bridge’s Commander is a powerfully sweet mix of toffee, cardamom, and bourbon. Its 12.5% ABV and exuberant cherry licorice aroma are enough to stop most beer drinkers in their tracks, but this is a brew that deserves a wider audience. Commander’s 2018 vintage was sized down to a 12-ounce serving, so the Stillwater sentinel is more approachable than ever without sacrificing the huge, bold flavors that’ve delighted beer nerds for nearly a decade.
37. Grain Belt Premium
Grain Belt’s saintly visage hangs over Minneapolis as one of the city’s most enduring landmarks—a feat that could never have been accomplished by a lesser beer. This is a brew so embedded in the Minnesota way of life they named it The Big Friendly. The key to Grain Belt’s halogenic sovereignty is its simplicity. You know what you’re getting into as soon as you lay eyes on its transparent, corn-colored body and breathe in its factory-milled grain aroma. You could drink this beer on instinct alone. If you’re Minnesotan, it’s already in your bloodstream.
36. Insight Doe Eyes
Door County cherries may be a Wisconsin birthright, but the storytellers at Insight have cracked the code on how to take those licorice-red tart globes and turn them into beer. Doe Eyes is a gobsmacking jolt of Montmorency wonder, made with 7,500 pounds of cherries per batch. That’s a lot of punch for this sour Belgian, but the beer is all the better for it. Imagine mixing a spoonful of maraschino syrup in your farmhouse ale, and you’ll have captured the spirit of Doe Eyes, but you’ll have missed the whimsy and nostalgia this seasonal conjures.
35. Badger Hill Tripel Abbey Ale
Every brewery has a signature annual big beer, but for most Minnesota beermakers, that bellwether brew comes in the form of a Russian Imperial Stout. Only Shakopee’s Badger Hill anchors its release calendar around a spicy, rocked-up golden ale like Tripel Abbey Ale. Abounding with esters of clove and pepper, this is a beer done the way Friar Tuck would’ve liked. It mounts an elegant thin head of bubbles, tracing layer by layer as you empty the tulip. It’s a piece of history that reinvents itself every December.
34. Town Hall Three Hour Tour
Town Hall Brewery has seen it all. Fads have come and gone, and through everything, the Seven Corners brewpub has continued to make tremendous beer without making too much of a fuss, not unlike a ship lost to the tides. Perhaps their most enduring stroke of genius is their Three Hour Tour, a muslin-bodied milk stout that first hit the market in 2009. If you find yourself sitting with a toasty pint of this coconut-flavored brew at any of Town Hall’s four locations, savor it. Kegs of this special beer come less frequently than search parties for the S.S. Minnow.
33. Bent Brewstillery Dark Fatha
Bartley Blume first conceived of Dark Fatha all the way back in 2008, six years before he opened Bent Brewstillery in Roseville. Now Blume—rechristened Barth Vader—stakes the reputation of his brewery/distillery combo on the once-a-year “Emperial” stout he cooked up on his homebrew kit all those years ago. Complex with a Sith-strength ABV, Dark Fatha is a gripping blend of bourbon, cocoa, and charred toast. It’s an occasion beer for sure. Pair it with your annual rewatching of The Empire Strikes Back and relish in the spoils of the Dark Side.
32. Junkyard Free Candy
Trappists would curdle at the way Junkyard treats Belgian classics. The Moorhead fun factory prefers a bit of palate-teasing absurdity to the hard-wrought classics, and their “North Moorhead-style” Quadrupel Free Candy is a perfect example of why there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Eschewing traditional flavors of caramel and clove, Free Candy leans into the Quad’s sugary side, tasting like a wacky slurry of freeze-dried banana and cherry fruit leather. Sure, it has all the boring qualities purists love (a perfectly cloudy amber body, ’stache-gripping foam), but sometimes you have to give yourself over to the shenanigans.
31. Fulton 300
300 was initially a one-off in celebration of Fulton’s 300th batch in 2013. Now they produce over 29,000 barrels a year, and they’ve been forced to grow into a second production facility in Northeast. Through all the growth, 300 has remained, eventually becoming a year-round offering. The key to 300’s appeal is the way that it harmonizes the roasty, sweet richness of the Pilsner malt with the resinous pine of the Mosaic hop. That kind of balance never goes out of style, and this West Coast IPA persists as a reminder of Fulton’s first high-water mark.
30. Summit Extra Pale Ale
You don’t last three decades by kowtowing to the critics. Though latter-day beer nerds have accused Summit of coasting on the success of their Extra Pale Ale, the 33-year-old beer is as popular in Minnesota as it’s ever been. Sure, it doesn’t have the same scene-churning shock factor it did at its release, but EPA is a testament to the idea that revolutions can sustain. Summit didn’t make a brassy, piney beer in 1986 to pop their sales charts for the month. They did it because they were trying to shift the tide. In 2019, a nicely chilled mug of EPA is still one of the finest joys of Minnesotan life.
29. Boom Island Oude Funk
Boom Island is among the wild fermentation pioneers of Minnesota, and the Minneaplis brewery’s first contribution to the spontaneous beer world is the one that still upholds the standard for sours in the Gopher State. Oude Funk is a triumph of yeast. The gueuze-style Belgian is replete with barnyard funk and kombucha-level vinegar esters; let your tulip warm slightly, and the vanilla and virgin oak sweetness emerges. But pH chasers be wary, Oude Funk is a starter sour. It won’t nuke your palate. Instead, its mellow tartness and simple straw flavor will make you realize why people love wild-fermented beers.
28. Fair State Vienna Lager
Fair State Brewing Cooperative head brewer Niko Tonks proudly calls Vienna Lager “beer-flavored beer.” It’s simple, but that simplicity is worth exalting. Vienna Lager is all-purpose. You could serve it at a fantasy football draft or a baby shower or even a gallery opening, and no one in attendance would lift a brow. Its caramel malt backbone and pleasing creaminess make it the ultimate crowd-pleaser. Keep a case in your basement for those spontaneous backyard hangouts or to pair with family brat night. You can’t go wrong.
27. Steel Toe Before the Dawn
Steel Toe Brewing’s take on barleywine is a clash of titans. Before the Dawn takes the dastardly obsidian Russian Imperial Stout, pits it against the fruity, bittersweet English barleywine, and lets the two behemoth styles duke it out for a few months in a whiskey barrel. In the wake of the tussel emerges a beer that’s deep with layers of molasses, toffee, vanilla, oak, and glorious, glorious booze. A little cellaring changes it significantly, so grab two bottles from this St. Louis Park brewer when they drop in November. Drink one fresh, let one mellow.
26. Castle Danger Castle Cream Ale
In the wrong hands, cream ale can taste like factory-grade corn juice, and for too long, this luscious, refreshing style has been fumbled in the hands of cut-rate macrobrewers. But slowly, Castle Danger Brewery in Two Harbors has been doing its part to rebuild the reputation of this oft-maligned style. Golden, rich, and eternally quenching, Castle Cream Ale is as utilitarian as beer gets, and it doesn’t sacrifice quality to do so. That’s why it won Best Beer in 2017.
25. Fulton War and Peace
Most people who start the novel War and Peace don’t finish it. Like the Tolstoy masterwork it’s named for, Fulton’s War and Peace imperial coffee stout is an undertaking. Brewed with whole dark roast Peace Coffee beans, this is a well-fortified 9.5% bomber that goes down contemplatively. But unlike the Russian novel, there is no satisfaction in finishing a bottle of War and Peace. When you’re done, you’ll wish there was a sequel. Good news: There is. A special cacao-infused variant is available in Fulton’s Mixed Coffee four-pack.
24. Dangerous Man Chocolate Milk Stout
Long before the concept of the dessert beer became ubiquitous, northeast Minneapolis’ Dangerous Man Brewing was there, turning out delectable stouts that captured the imaginations of the drinking public. Chocolate Milk Stout is purpose-fit for the inner kid in you. It’s a dose of playground silk, delivered with brownie-batter-esque sweetness. Though indulgent, Chocolate Milk Stout does show some restraint, balancing off the syrup currents with some, you know, actual beer character. Modern pastry stouts could learn a thing or two from Dangerous Man’s flagship elementary school-style stout.
23. Disgruntled Stupid Good
The haze masters of Minneapolis and St. Paul never could have known that their greatest challenge would come in the form of an absolute game-breaker out of Perham. Disgruntled Brewing’s Stupid Good is currently the eigth-highest-rated beer from Minnesota on BeerAdvocate, placing above all other NE IPAs listed on the site. What BA users have zeroed in on that the rest of Minnesota seems to have missed is Stupid Good’s immense punch of citrus. It’s a beer that smells like the spritz that escapes the flesh of a freshly peeled grapefruit, and it glows a hypnotic orange in the glass.
22. HammerHeart Flaming Longship
Vikings are prone to burning their flagships, so it’s fitting that the staple beer at HammerHeart Brewing Co. bears the name Flaming Longship. The wickedly smoked Scotch ale exhibits all of the Nordic marauder-themed Lino Lakes brewery’s strengths. Flaming Longship carries mounds of peaty goodness and an earthen hoppiness, all foisted upon a sinisterly dark roasted malt axis. HammerHeart’s rotating taplines turn over fast, but Flaming Longship is the liquid pitch they’ve chosen to lead them into battle since they first flew their sails.
21. Modist First Call
Coffee beers don’t have to be overbearing, as Modist Brewing Co. proves with their Wesley Andrews-infused lager First Call. This is a Galaxy Brain beer. By sight, you’d think it was a budget lager. By smell, you’d think coffee porter. By taste… you don’t know what to think. You’re getting roasted arabica at the same time as biscuity factory malt. You’re leading in with a nostril-tempting aroma and going out with a perfectly quenched cleanness. Be thankful for this mindfuck. It’ll break you out of your coffee beer rut.
20. Town Hall Masala Mama
A true O.G. of the Minneapolis/St. Paul beer scene, Town Hall Brewery’s old-school IPA Masala Mama is veritable institution. With a decade and a half of prominence under its belt, this resin-heavy stalwart has earned the respect of most everyone who’s touched it to their lips. Masala Mama is fortified with a mishmash of different West Coast hops, leading to spicy, pungent beer that mystifies still to this day. Masala Mama was given a nod from Food & Wine as Minnesota’s best IPA in 2016, and three years later, you could still make that argument.
19. Steel Toe Size 7
Seven is Steel Toe’s lucky number. With the 7% ABV, 77 IBU Size 7 IPA, the brewery reached hop holiness in 2011. Though they also do Size 4 and Size 11 variants, Size 7 has always reigned supreme. “Tongue-scraping” is a kind way to characterize the ferocious kick of bitterness contained in one golden pint of this beer. It tastes like someone juiced the Willamette Valley, strained it into a shaker pint, and dared you to slurp it down.
18. Lupulin Hooey
Host of the annual IPA Invitational, Lupulin Brewing has stolen the hearts of the hop-crazed with their incredible stewardship of the far-flung style. Year-round American IPA Hooey best exemplifies their dedication to the IPA’s juciest interpretations, combining Citra, Mosaic, and all their trendy cousins into one sunshiney porridge of a beer. NE IPA cynics won’t find a conversion experience in this nose-thumbing juice monster, but they will find Minnesota’s best emulation of the beers that shot the words “New England IPA” to the top of every beer trader’s wishlist.
17. BlackStack Local 755
Hopheads chase BlackStack’s trucks around town like lawyers chasing ambulances, trying to score the latest Drake-inspired haze drop, but the St. Paul brewery has never surpassed the velvety appeal of its flagship Local 755. Likely the most utilitarian NE IPA in the Twin Cities, it invites drinkers in with a bouquet of citrus aromas, and keeps them sipping with its provocatively soft body. This fragrant slurry of Citra, Amarillo, and Azacca hops goes down much easier than it probably should, and that’s why it’s one of BlackStack’s few regular tallboys.
16. Fair State Mirror Universe
Fair State didn’t want to be known as the kings of haziness, but they certainly didn’t help that cause when they followed their much-lauded Modern Times collaboration Spirit Foul with the ectoplasmic NE IPA Mirror Universe. This “highly illogical” pillow of Mosaic, Citra, and El Dorado is catnip for hazebois, but Mirror Universe stands out for its incredible softness. Fair State holds a strict principle of approachability, and this silky hop monster somehow still fits the bill.
15. Surly Furious
What’s left to say about Surly Furious? It’s the second most recognizable beer out of Minnesota. The bearer of all standards. The beer that launched 1,000 breweries. The flagship of Minnesota’s flagship. Wherever new and outrageous perversions of the IPA style appear, Furious will be there, course-correcting with its pineous collection of hops and triple-digit IBU. This beer’s fury is undeterred from a decade-plus of setting the standard for what a Minnesota IPA should be.
14. Junkyard King Size
Beer should be fun, but it almost feels wrong that Junkyard’s peanut butter stout King Size is this much fun. One sip and you’ll be thrust back to the days of stealing after-school snacks out of the cupboard. It’s the kind of beer you imagine begging your parents to buy as you go through the Kowalski’s checkout line. But don’t let the Nutella-meets-Nutter Butter aroma blur your judgment. This imperial stout’s 11.3% will kick in and remind you King Size is not for kids.
13. Barrel Theory Rain Drops
Were the brewers at Barrel Theory smokin’ on cookie in the hotbox when they named their flagship NE IPA Rain Drops? Most likely yes. The St. Paul hypebeasts took off like “Bad and Boujee” at a midnight dance club when they opened in 2017, and they’re now among the hottest beermakers in the country, thanks to their dry-hopped stalwart. It feels like every blockbuster they’ve released since has been trying to recapture Rain Drops’ greatness. Like the Migos song it’s named for, Rain Drops sucks you in before you even know what’s happening.
12. Pryes Dublin Dry Stout
It was seven years before Pryes found a permanent home in their new Near North brewery. By the time they opened in the summer of 2017, their Miraculum had already established itself as a local standby, but the IPA has since been usurped by a malty successor: Dublin Dry Stout. A gold medalist at the 2018 North American Brewers Awards, Dublin Dry Stout is everything Guiness promises to be and more. Bready, complex, and incongruously light, it’s the pride of Irish beers.
11. Indeed Rum King
This big-body 12-ounce annual should be more of a tradition. Northeast’s Indeed broke the mold when they started canning their boozy imperial stout in small-can four packs. Rum King is too much to take a pint at a time. A delightful confection of raisin-y, molasses-y nectar and hot Caribbean booze, it’s a beer that needs to be sessioned carefully and deliberately. Its thick depths go down slowly and pensively, with all the tonic quality of its namesake spirit.
10. Forager Pudding Goggles
City Pages’ 2019 Best Beer was really overdue for its accolade. Pudding Goggles is the envy of any beer nerd’s far-flung collection, an appointment beer of the highest order. Clear your schedule when its crowler release is announced. Cancel your son’s hockey game so you can wait in line. You’d sink belly-deep into a hot tub of this sludgy dessert beer if you could.
9. Fair State Pils
It may be passé to laud a beer for its allegiance to the Reinheitsgebot, but greatness had a definition long before artisans started putting yeast, water, malt, and hops together in the United States. That definition is capitulated in Fair State’s no-bullshit Bohemian-style “fizzy yellow beer”: Pils. Pils is perfect in a way that’s difficult to articulate. It tickles a part of your brain that has evolved to recognize good beer on instinct—a hidden lobe that has not developed to recognize lactose or lupulin powder but only sweet, clean-finishing barley water pulled back through time and poured into a glistening pilsner glass for your instinctual enjoyment.
8. Modist Dreamyard
If you ever wondered why certain brewers love putting oats in their beer, give Dreamyard a try. The 2018 Best Beer-winning New England IPA from Modist is made with 100% wheat and oats, giving it a succulently soft body. It’s like drinking a juice box full of crushed velvet. Like walking face-first through a cloud of of grapefruit cotton candy. It’s a softness that malted barley alone could never accomplish. Yes, Modist does have a unique mash filter that allows them to make Dreamyard so cushy, but give it up to the beermaking prophets who saw fit to apply it for such heavenly ends. A true product of divine inspiration.
7. Surly Todd the Axe Man
Surly Brewing’s once-synonymous brewer Todd Haug may have moved on from the Prospect Park brewery, but his legacy remains in one of Minnesota’s most respected beers. Todd the Axe Man is the dry-hopped Citra and Mosaic double IPA that all imitators are judged by. Fierce as hell but still cushy and sweet, the beer is a marvel of both aggression and restraint. Much like the kind-hearted metalhead it’s named for, Todd the Axe Man is a beer of playful contradiction. May it go down in lore the same way its creator has.
6. Dangerous Man Peanut Butter Porter
For a generation of local drinkers, Dangerous Man Peanut Butter Porter was the first beer to capture the imagination of what craft beer could be. A paragon of both excess and restraint, this former Best Local Beer winner tastes like singed toast slathered in creamy peanut butter, all without betraying the rich, malty base stout it’s built upon. A beer like that can shift a drinker’s axis, carrying them from Mich Golden apologist to flag-waving beer buff with one 16-ounce dose.
5. Lift Bridge Silhouette
In the field of Minnesota-made imperial stouts, Lift Bridge’s Silhouette is easily overlooked. The roasty Stillwater-made bomber doesn’t lean on outrageous flavors or sky-high booziness to sell itself. Silhouette is tempered in its approach: a careful, deliberate combination of molasses, chocolate, and coffee, alight with the bourbon woodiness that gives it that imperial 11.19% ABV. But no one flavor comes at the cost of another. You get an expertly blended dose in every sip, and that’s consistent with every new annual release.
4. Summit Keller Pils
St. Paul stalwart Summit Brewing shook off about a decade of dust when they launched Keller Pils as one of their limited 30th anniversary beers in 2016. This was a brewery thriving off their first innovation in 1985, one that City Pages readers were writing off as “the Coldplay of beers.” Then they go and gobsmack doubters with a crackery unfiltered German-style pilsner that no one saw coming. October gave the instant classic a perfect 100. Paste Magazine ranked it the number-two pilsner in the world. It’s just that good.
3. Forager Regal Hops
Forager’s immodest style has lead to some truly bonkers beers. From gummy-bear sours to butterscotch stouts, the bad boys of Rochester have Fuck Youed themselves into some memorable brews. But when they put their powers toward crafting a heads-above-the-rest double IPA, they come away with the crown jewel their varied arsenal. Regal Hops is indeed king of the juicy IPAs, touting its all-Citra mastery above the pretenders to its dry-hopped throne. Its reign is short, though, as even at 8% ABV, this IPA slurps like an Orange Julius.
2. Surly Darkness
The ritual of Darkness is just as important as the beer itself. Surly’s sinister Russian imperial stout calibrated the Twin Cities’ definition of greatness, and it recalibrates it every single year, leading hundreds of faithful to line up outside the Brooklyn Center brewery’s gates to rejoice in the goat-blood blackness and hellfire booze that Darkness heralds. Festivities recently moved to Somerset, and the beer is more widely available than ever, but the spirit of revelry is as alive as ever. With an imperial stout this consistently bewitching, it’d be a sin not to celebrate.
1. Bent Paddle Barrel-Aged Double Shot Double Black
Bent Paddle’s Cold Press Black Ale is a start. Anyone who considers themselves a beer enthusiast should sample it. Barrel-Aged Double Shot Double Black is a grand finale. Anyone who’s convinced they’ve already had the best beer of their life should sample it. BADSDB moves goal posts. It rewrites standards. An absolute borealis of flavor, BADSDB is the kind of beer you drink with no distractions. It absorbs you in its toffee and whiskey aromas, its vanilla cold press sweetness, and its simmering booze backbone. A tremendous beer from the Duluth brewery, and one that’s worthy of top honors in 2019.