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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Compare and Contrast: Minnesota and Oregon

Those of you who follow me on Twitter will know that my recent sojourn to Minnesota was somewhat fraught with failure in an attempt to find indigenous beer. In four days I managed just two: a bottle of Schell's Dark and draft Summit Extra Pale. I found this very strange. The Upper Midwest is beer country and Minnesota has been home to a host of famous brands: Hamm's, Schmidt, Grain Belt, and Schell (still independent after 149 years).

At the various restaurants I visited, the slate of draft beers was almost identical: Corona, a national brand and its "lite" variant, Summit Extra Pale, and one import (variously Guinness, Beck's, and Smithwick's). Yet it is consistent with a surprising finding I stumbled across when I was doing research on highly-concentrated brewing regions: Minnesota, with just 22, a per-capita rate similar to Kansas'. Why would a place with a rich brewing history and towns as funky and beer-ready as the Twin Cities have so little local craft-brewing ferment?

One component is definitely local liquor laws. I discovered this as I wandered out the first night on a post-sunset amble. As is my habit, I made for the first grocery store I could find, in this case a Whole Foods near MacAlester College. I spent a good ten minutes trawling the aisles for the beer cooler before it occurred to me to check the iPhone: sure enough, beer and wine can only be purchased in liquor stores. I have no idea how much this dampens sales or blunts local beer culture, but since that's the intention of such a law, and since both beer availability and local beer culture are so constrained, one has to conclude it's working.

Another measure: according to the BeerAdvocate listing, Minnesota has only 15 brewpubs; compare that to the 71 in Oregon.

Admittedly, I didn't go to real pubs or even restaurants where one would expect many beers. But all had several taps, yet only one devoted to local craft. In Oregon--or at least in Portland--it would be nearly impossible to find a restaurant with four taps that had only a single local craft beer.

I don't doubt that the beer geeks of Minnesota are just as geeky as Beervana's, nor even that there are a lot fewer of them. Yet the experience for the casual visitor is that local beer just isn't getting made or consumed there. I welcome insight and conversation. As always, I return to Portland with renewed appreciation.


  1. "Admittedly, I didn't go to real pubs or even restaurants where one would expect many beers." Right there is your first problem. You aren't giving a City a proper chance unless you are willing to step out of your comfort zone a little. Even if you did frequent the standard bars, I am shocked you didn't see a tapper for Surly or Flat Earth two fine MN craft showing that I see all over town. Now, granted I am not sure whether or not you were in the Twin Cities or just in some small town (where I am guessing in any state might have a limited tap selection).

    Next time do a little research and get more out of your trip:

  2. Okay, before we get into a bashing session going both ways, I want to clarify the point here. I was in the Twin Cities for a conference hosted at MacAlester College. I was not in control of my schedule or the restaurants I went to. Had I had my druthers, I wouldn't have eaten anywhere but taprooms and brewpubs--which longtime readers know as my comfort zone.

    But that's not the point I'm trying to make. What surprised me was what I expressed in the next sentence:

    "In Oregon--or at least in Portland--it would be nearly impossible to find a restaurant with four taps that had only a single local craft beer."

    This was really an inquiry: why is this so?

  3. I saw the movie "New in Town" with Renee Zellweger! That's about as close as the Doctor would like to get to Minnesota.... I felt her pain through the whole movie... ;-}

  4. Even the Roundtable Pizza out in Hillsboro has Deschutes, Bridgeport, and Widmer on tap. And my league bowling alley(Park Lanes) has a rotating tap!

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  6. Ohhhh I must have missed the conference part, still though I gotta admit I am shocked you didn't go anywhere with a better tap selection. Maybe I am just hard wired for only going to bars with taps though (maybe its even my x-men power. . . jealous?).

    Even the hotel bars that I have been too here are pretty darn good. Maybe you just wound up in some kind of beerless portal.

    You are right on the laws being a problem though. As a native Wisconsin person I find a lot of them quite silly.

    However, you are right that overall there is more beer buzz in Oregon (I would imagine from what I hear, never been there) than in Minnesota and I am not sure why. Maybe to many Lutherans? :D

  7. Amber, I went to grad school in Wisconsin: go Badgers! (Must be tough for a Packer to live in Viking land...)

    I think I'll post an update to the blog with this thought, because it would have been good to note it. The whole point of the post was to reflect on the nature of beer culture and why Minnesota is an outlier of sorts. I've looked into the reasons why a state develops a robust microbrew scene and one of the very strongest correlates is having had a regional brewery in the state at least until the final shake-out in the 80s.

    States with long brewing histories and a regional brewpub took to micros more quickly and generally have a far richer micro culture than states that did not. And Minnesota is second only to Pennsylvania in that regard. So one would expect it to be awash in micros--like Wisconsin, for example.

  8. Oh man, yeah I was born and raised just outside of Madison and went to school there. (Don't even get me started on this Brett Farve becoming a Viking nonsense.)

    I'm not sure why MN walked away from its roots for a bit but I think one of the reasons that it is having a hard time getting going into the micro scene is that while there was a stale mate in MN beer pride people latched on to different beers. But it is happening, even in the year since I have lived in MPLS the beer culture has grown a TON. For a super cool website/book on MN beer check out:

    Also I just got tickets to go to a 2nd beerfest that is being held on the grounds of the old Grain Belt Brewery which was awesome the first time around.

  9. The Muddy Pig isn't far from Mac, and the tap list is amazing...

  10. How about you identify the restaurants you went to? That'll help us diagnose the situation. It's almost impossible to find a place in the Cities that doesn't carry at least Summit on their taps unless they're truly god-awful chain joints. Your experience is not representative.

    On the other hand, everywhere I go in the country I find college kids drinking swill. PBR in cans is popular with that demographic from Portland to Manhattan. If you ended up in joints catering to them, it would explain a lot.

    I visit Portland a lot (even judged at the most recent Spring Beer and Wine Festival). There is no shortage of places in the Cities with beer programs as good as or better than what Portland offers. You were a very short walk from the Groveland Tap, for instance. Something like 40 taps, most carrying regional craft brews. It's most definitely up to Portland standards. Check out their current list:

  11. Well, I am pleased to see the Minnesota contingent both a) locating this blog, and b) defending the Gopher state. It indicates what I suspected--an active group of good-beer fans. One of the restaurants I went to was a Japanese place. They had both Schell and Summit on. (As you'll note in my original post, I did see Summit everywhere, though just the Extra Pale.) I had the Shell because old breweries rock.

    I don't recall what the other one was. The third place was the airport, actually. I trawled all over looking for something besides Summit and came up dry--unless you consider the Rock Bottom, which I didn't. I felt it was unfair to hold the Twin Cities responsible for the idiotic choice of the MSP Airport choosing a Colorado brewpub chain.

  12. If you had the time and freedom to hit the Whole Foods Market, you could just as easily have visited any number of decent pubs or restaurants in the area. Don't generalize from your poor choices...

    The alcohol sales laws are ridiculous here, without a doubt. The liquor retailers trade group has way too much power. Between the private liquor stores and the municipal ones (a phenomenon you should be familiar with in Oregon) they're determined to maintain their monopoly. I know someone who lobbied for the grocers to try to legalize the sale of only wine, not even beer or spirits. It's been tried repeatedly, but there's still too much entrenched power to pull it off. Especially from the munis.

    As for the airport, did you check out Axel's or Ike's? They're local restaurant classics with locations in the airport. Since everything in there is managed by the giant HMS, I suppose their selections maybe constrained by that companie's purchasing policies, but I'd expect a broader selection of local stuff than you describe. I haven't been in either lately, so I don't know.

    Incidentally, Minnesota is home to a chain of brewpubs that is rapidly growing to compete with Rockbottom. Granite City Food & Brewery has five locations in the state and more than 25 in the region. They started in St. Cloud and are headquartered in a Twin Cities suburb. (One of the founders, BTW, has a culinary arts degree from the CIA. He's now CEO. The other founder is a brewing chemist.)

  13. Don't generalize from your poor choices...

    You sure you're not Doc Wort's Minnesota cousin?

    (FWIW, I had no car, and on my one opportunity to take a stroll happened by the Whole Foods. It was as such not so much a choice, poor or otherwise.)

  14. I was about to jump on this earlier, but the "still in MN" contingent (who knew there were so many of us) jumped in and said it all.

    Oh yeah, and the Muddy Pig kicks ass. A little expensive if my memory serves correctly, but no worse than anywhere else in the heart of the Twin Cities.

  15. I had never heard of Doc Wort til you mentioned him, but now that I've found his blog I'll be a regular reader. Wonder if I ran into him at Fredfest without knowing it.

    Anyway, I'm not even a Minnesotan. I just happen to live here at present. Been looking for a job in the Portland area for years, but the right one hasn't come along yet.

    I just dislike poor judgment and analysis. And your generalization about a whole state from a tiny sample of three locations falls in that category in my humble opinion. In addition to having a lifelong appreciation of good beverages, I've spent the past nine months traveling the country, visiting breweries, brewpubs, and plain old restaurants. My conclusion is that there are far worse places to be if you're looking for a rich and diverse beer culture. If you wanted to explore it, you should have checked with the locals. I've given visitors informal tours, and I'm sure others would do the same. At the very least, there's a wealth of info online. Yeah, I know your excuse is you didn't have the time, but it didn't keep you from publishing an ill-informed opinion.

    (Asheville was one of my stops, BTW. I was impressed, but there's no way it measures up to Portland.)

  16. I had never heard of Doc Wort til you mentioned him, but now that I've found his blog I'll be a regular reader.


    I just dislike poor judgment and analysis. And your generalization about a whole state from a tiny sample of three locations falls in that category in my humble opinion.

    I do appreciate--and was soliciting--opinion. However, if there's any projection going on, I think it may be coming from your side. In this post, I never claimed to have done a full survey of Minnesota brewing. All I did was note that in a comparison of similar experiences (random Twin Cities restaurants with a few taps versus similar Portland restaurants), brewpubs, and grocery-store availability, I was surprised at how different the two places were. As you apparently know, finding local beer in Portland is something you have to actively avoid. In the Twin Cities, you have to seek it out.

    There's nothing ill-informed about comparing two similar situations. That I didn't do what you would have liked is beside the point--the point of this post, in any case.

  17. There you go again, asserting the same uninformed claim. No, you don't have to seek it out. You do not have a meaningful sample of experience on which to base such a claim. When we refer to particular establishments, like the Groveland or the Muddy Pig, it is simply pointing out particularly outstanding examples, just as I presume you would rave about the Horse Brass or the Green Dragon. We're no more saying the vast majority sucks than you would be doing so.

  18. If you are in and around the Twin Cities I would hope a non-chain restaurant would be able to offer up some of the local crafts. Outside of that region, you might be hard pressed to find much except for Schell's or the occasional brewpub. I've talked many times about it, and the chains definitely don't do their part in holding up Minnesota's brews. As a newcomer to the state, it would be difficult to come across some of the best beer bars around. Only since last summer have I heard of The Happy Gnome and Muddy Pig. I had the same issue when I went to Portland last summer- I just had no idea where to go! I didn't need anything too outstanding, but I wanted a taste of what the state had to offer. I'm sorry you didn't find things as great we tend to believe they are. Let us know when you're heading this way again, because you'll give you the grand tour.

  19. The Twin Cities is a relatively small (compared to West Coast standards) yet growing craft beer community. Incredibly stringent liquor laws, and recent legislative attempts including a proposed excise tax of 144% imposed on each barrel sold by a Minnesota brewer to help make up the state deficit thankfully failed, mainly due to calls from beer geeks begging their rep to vote against it.

    Next time you're in town, shoot me a note via my blog, I'll help point you in the right direction. Or just check out the list of Twin Cities brewpubs and craft beer bars on my blog.

  20. Mike - are you in the deep suburbs or something? I can name a dozen places within a short walk of my place in the city that have a good selection of MN and regional beers. Almost harder to find one nearby that doesn't have them.

    And the Gnome and the Pig are from from being alone in their support of local and regional brews. Just off the top of my head the various Bulldog locations, Acadia, Blue Nile, Pracna on Main, Ngon Vietnamese Bistro, Buster's on 28th, Red Stag Supper Club, the various Grumpy's locations, Common Roots, Stub & Herb's, and the Triple Rock come to mind.

  21. I recently hit up the Blue Nile, man what a great deal, they had two for ones on any tap, WIN!