5 factors driving the evolution of Minnesota beer

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August Schell Brewing Company marked its 150th anniversary in 2010, a milestone that only a handful of other breweries can claim. The brewing industry has changed a lot in those 150 years: the advent of mechanical refrigeration, the ascension of the first beer barons, Prohibition, industry consolidation, near bankruptcy, and the rise of the craft beer movement. During that time the nation’s brewery count rose to its highest point ever, crashed to its lowest point, and then rose again.

Yes, Schell’s saw a lot of changes in 150 years. But as I sit here sipping a One Five Five, the beer Schell’s brewed to celebrate its 155th year in business, I’m thinking about all of the changes in the beer industry in the last five years.

In 2010 you could count on one hand the number of really good beer bars in the Twin Cities. Most restaurants had simply not yet tuned in to “craft.” In 2010, the Four Firkins was the metro’s premiere bottle shop. Now, the Firkins has come and gone. I was the only beer writer at the Star Tribune in 2010. Now it seems like everyone is a beer writer—at the Star Tribune as well as every other daily, weekly or monthly publication in the Twin Cities.

By my count there were 22 breweries operating in Minnesota in 2010. I included 49 in my book “A Perfect Pint’s Beer Guide to the Heartland,” which I completed in the spring of 2013. The count is now somewhere around 100. The growth is staggering—I can’t keep track anymore.

A lot of credit must go to the so-called “Surly Law,” the 2011 legislative act that permitted production breweries to operate taprooms and realize a greater margin on every keg of beer. Many of today’s small brewers wouldn’t be here if not for that law.

And while the taproom law is the obvious factor, I find myself pondering some other developments that have changed the beer scene here, for better or worse.

1. The Surly Brewery

Surly Destination Brewery 7

Photo by Aaron Davidson

The Surly Bill came about because owner Omar Ansari wanted to build what he called a “destination brewery.” To do that, he needed to be able to sell pints of his own beer at the brewery. The law passed and the brewery was built. “Surly building their destination brewery was and is a game changer for everybody on a whole different level,” says Schell’s brewmaster Jace Marti. “It raised the bar big time, and that’s awesome.”

It’s a big deal for consumers, obviously, but Marti also thinks it’s a big deal for other brewers, setting a standard that will push them all to become better. He contends that it also shines a national spotlight on Minnesota. “I think when we look back five or 10 years from now, Minnesota will be right up there as one of the best beer states in the country.”

2. The Economic Collapse of 2008

Bent Paddle co-owner Laura Mullen was hired in 2007* to coordinate the Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild. During her tenure, she fielded numerous calls from would-be brewers who translated the layoffs and job scarcity of the Great Recession into an opportunity to follow a dream. I’ve heard this same story repeated by many Midwestern brewers. Limited prospects made the time seem ripe to cash it all in and take the leap.

I believe the recession also changed buying habits. Wine sales took a dive in 2008 as price-conscious consumers traded down to less expensive bottles. In that same period, though, craft beer sales were increasing. Consumers saw better beer as an affordable luxury. An eight-dollar bottle of wine isn’t spectacular, but you can get a top-notch beer at that price. This crossover introduced a whole new set of consumers to the flavor palate of great beer.

3. Expanded Craft Consumer Base and the Buy Local Movement

2014 MN Craft Beer Stats Brewers Association

Graphic courtesy of Brewers Association

The consumer base for better beer has grown exponentially in the last five years, and those new drinkers want to know where their beer is made.

According to the Brewers Association, Minnesota brewers produced 528,643 barrels of beer in 2014, up from 308,000 barrels in 2012. Considering most Minnesota breweries don’t distribute beyond state lines, that means a lot of local beer is being consumed locally—about four-and-a-half gallons per resident over the age of 21 annually.

Mike Hoops

Mike Hoops // Photo by Aaron Davidson

But this trend doesn’t come without concerns. Dave Hoops, formerly of Fitger’s Brewhouse, sees a need for the industry to invest in education. I agree and believe this education needs to be targeted at both brewers and consumers. With large numbers of inexperienced brewers going pro, there has been a corresponding increase in sub-par beer produced. New consumers, lacking knowledge and eager to support their local brewery, are being taught that flawed beer—sometimes seriously flawed—is good beer. It’s a positive feedback loop with a negative result.

Mike Hoops of Town Hall Brewery questions what might be coming next. “The practice of thinking ‘it is better because it is from elsewhere’ may have now changed to ‘local is better,’ but what might the next switch be?” he asks. Today’s consumers are fickle. They are always looking for what’s new. So what is the next big trend and how will brewers respond to it?

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Michael Agnew, A Perfect Pint About Michael Agnew, A Perfect Pint

Michael has a passion for beer. He is Minnesota's first Certified Cicerone (think sommelier for beer) with the Cicerone Certification Program, and a National Beer Judge with the Beer Judge Certification Program. In addition, Michael is himself an award-winning brewer. He writes a monthly column on beer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

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