Chasing the Beer Scene in the Dakotas

By Emily Weiss

In previous issues of The Growler, we’ve played match-up with fun and interesting outdoor (and sometimes indoor, because we all need an occasional break from the weather) activities with craft beers from our neighboring cities and states.

Now that we’ve covered Duluth to our north, Wisconsin to our west, and Iowa to the south, it’s only natural that we look westward and explore the slowly-expanding craft beer scene in the Dakotas. Historically, this area has shown itself to be fallow ground for smaller breweries that are trying to take root – strangely low, considering that North Dakota ranks particularly high in the category of per capita beer consumption at 41.7 gallons a year, making it the fourth highest in the nation according to the Beer Institute. South Dakotans aren’t too far behind either, but it’s taken a lot of searching to find the right markets for brewers to set up shop. In the last five or six years a handful of inspired, persistent, pioneering brewers have managed to cut through the red tape and fully convince locals that there is better product available. Though the Dakotas may be lacking in breweries, something this area has never been short on are historical sites, state parks, and the natural beauty of odd geological formations – the very sights and scenes that we’ll cover in this, our guide to chasing the beer scene in North and South Dakota.

Edwinton Brewing Company’s Daesy Saison // Skating at Schaumberg Ice Arena, BISMARCK, ND

Edwinton Brewing Co.

Started in 2009, this family-owned, Belgian-focused brewery experienced a few bumps in the road before they were able get their operation off the ground and started selling their two flagship brews. One is a “deceptively potent” Belgian IPA called Lou, and the other is our beer of choice for this pairing, a honey and rosehips-infused Belgian ale that’s well-hopped, a tad spicy, and highly carbonated. Its thirst-quenching qualities make it an excellent post-workout beverage, and the brewery’s slightly whimsical attitude goes well with the juvenile fun one has when ice skating. Bismarck has several outdoor hockey and pleasure rinks, but it’s nice to have the option of an indoor arena like Schaumberg. Afterward make the short drive or walk to Peacock Alley – one of Bismarck’s best and brightest beer bars. The customer demand for local craft beer at this establishment was part of the impetus for Edwinton Brewery forming, so be sure to order a Lou or a Daesy while there.

Bitter Esters Brewhouse’s Grace Anne Stout // Hiking in Custer State Park, CUSTER, SD

Bitter Esters BrewhouseNo matter where you are in South Dakota there’s a good chance the ground you’re standing on is in some way significant, but the city of Custer is especially rich with history. Generally thought to be the oldest city in the Black Hills, it is also home to Custer State Park – the second largest state park in the country – and is situated just south of Mount Rushmore National Memorial, one of the most popular tourist attractions in the Midwest. If you’re looking for a more laid-back afternoon or if it’s just too cold to be outside for an extended period of time, go for a scenic drive in Custer State Park. The Needles Highway (SD Highway 87) offers particularly lovely views of Sylvan Lake and the vista of naturally occurring granite spires, the namesake of this highway. If weather permits, you can also hike in this same area on a one-way trail that starts at Mount Rushmore and runs about three miles to Horse Thief Lake. Whether relaxed at the end of your drive or depleted from an exhilarating hike, a good strong stout is in order. Make the 20- minute drive into Custer and belly-up to the Buglin’ Bull Restaurant where local brews from Bitter Esters are in regular rotation on tap. The Grace Anne American stout is a chocolaty, full-bodied beer with a dry finish and lingering bitterness, perfect for replenishing or winding down for the evening.

Fargo Brewing Company’s Wood Chipper IPA // Tubing at Edgewood Golf Course, FARGO, ND

Fargo Beer CompanyThough they are not yet officially brewing within the bounds of North Dakota (until ready, they’re brewing at facilities in Wisconsin in order to produce and distribute their beer more quickly), the popularity of this year-old brewery has spread rapidly throughout the state. Named for the infamous wood chipper in the Coen brothers movie filmed in and named after their fair city, Fargo Brewing Company’s flagship Wood Chipper IPA is a hop-bomb of grapefruit bitterness with a resinous finish. Its refreshing citrus notes would be a welcome wake-up after a day of tubing at Edgewood Golf Course. If you happen to be visiting on the weekend, free horse-drawn carriage tours are offered between 1:00 p.m. and 4:00, leaving from Edgewood and winding all the way through town. Since their beer is made offsite, Wood Chipper is mostly available in six-packs at places like Bottle Barn and Packer’s Package liquor stores, but you can get Wood Chipper on tap at several bars in downtown Fargo. Have a pint alongside a slice of pizza – like the local favorite meat-laden creation called “The T-Rex” at Rhombus Guys Pizza.

Crow Peak Brewing Company’s Pile O’Dirt Porter // Downhill Skiing at Terry Peak, near LEAD and DEADWOOD, SD

Crow Peak Brewing Co.This newly-expanded brewery in Spearfish has been around since 2007, making it one of South Dakota’s strongest examples of a start-up brewery. They began as a small-five barrel operation that struck a chord with locals and grew to be successful as a larger operation, now distributing their beer throughout the entire state. In addition to some brewhouse specialties like their Canyon Cream Ale and Spearbeer, an English style pale ale. Crow Peak’s Pile O’ Dirt is one of two year-round beers the brewery produces. It’s a sturdy porter that’s medium-bodied but very full-flavored with toasted maltiness and a breath of bitterness, making it a perfect aprés ski drink. Warm up with one after hitting the slopes at Terry Peak Ski and Snowboard Area in nearby Lead, SD. The park features one of the highest mountain peaks in the state, exceeding 7,000 ft., and is geographically situated to receive ample snow throughout the winter season.

Firehouse Brewing Company’s Barely Blond // Snowshoeing in the Black Hills National Forest, RAPID CITY, SD

Firehouse Brewing Co.Firehouse is South Dakota’s first proper brewpub. The converted fire station contains a lot more than just hopping kettles and fermentation tanks: they also have a full-service restaurant, a shop full of logo-stamped wares, and, most uniquely, an attached theater that puts on well-loved plays throughout the year (Cabaret is showing in February, and Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead premieres in March). The brewery’s slightly floral and easy-drinking Barely Blond blends Czech hops and crystal malt for light-bodied, well-balanced beer that finishes slightly bitter. It goes well with burgers, grilled meats, and spicy foods, all of which you’ll be craving after snowshoeing your way through the Black Hills National Forest. Take the scenic Dugout Gulch Botanical Trail, which is also groomed for cross-country skiing, by taking the Beulah exit from I-90, then heading south to access the trailhead. The 4.4-mile loop is heavily wooded and home to lots of rare vegetation with several good stopping points and vistas along the way.

Laughing Sun Brewing’s Hammerhead Red ESB // Snowboarding at Huff Hills Ski Area, BISMARCK, ND

Laughing Sun Brewing Co.This brand-new brewhouse and pub in downtown Bismarck holds the unique distinction of being one of the only outfits in North Dakota that actually brews and sells its product on the same site. Laughing Sun released five beers when they first opened their doors this May, happily to a huge and hearty public response. So much so that the brewers found it hard to match the rate of production to the major local demand. Having established a reliable and consistent system in their brewhouse, Laughing Sun is now focused on building up the pub component of their business. With space for about 65 and a small stage for live entertainment, Laughing Sun’s pub is a fun, young setting for settling in after a day on the slopes at Huff Hills, just about an hour’s drive from downtown Bismarck. After hours of tricks and tumbles, you’ll want a beer that feels like a liquid hug. Laughing Sun’s Hammerhead Red is a medium-bodied, biscuity, extra-special bitter that uses a mix of pale British and American hops, producing a nicely-rounded brew that thaws you out and tucks you in for the night.

Heist Brewing Company’s “Tea Off” Wheat Ale // Swimming at Brookings H.S. Pool, BROOKINGS, SD

Heist Brewing Co.For our final pairing, we’ve decided to ignore the fact that it’s winter and recommend beer and activities generally associated with summer because, believe it or not, you can do that in Brookings, South Dakota. Brookings is a college town so there’s no dearth of bars, but the one we’re most interested in is the SDSU Dairy Sales bar. Here, the school’s agriculture students gain experience in cheese- and ice cream-making and sell their ultra-fresh product to happy and hungry locals. After getting your cone and couple of cheese curds, wait 30 minutes before taking a leisurely swim at the local high school pool. It’s the only fully enclosed pool that’s open in the winter, but it’ll do for a few laps to work off the ice cream, and to work up a thirst for a summery ale. Make your way to Sully’s Irish Pub in downtown Brookings for a pint of Heist Brewing Company’s Tea Off wheat ale. Cloudy and copper, this brew is loaded with notes of orange, coriander, and, as you might have guessed, green tea. So light and tasty, you’ll trick your brain right out of the winter doldrums.



  1. A couple to add… Buffalo Common in Mandan, ND opened in February and Souris River Brewing Co. opened a brewpub in Minot, ND in December. On that note, a quick plug for our – Dean does an awesome job on keeping us up to date on all things brewing in North Dakota. ^RA

Speak Your Mind