Since opening in March, Block North Brew Pub in Aitkin, Minnesota, has quickly become a popular spot for locals to gather and enjoy local beers and unique, homemade food, bringing back a much-appreciated slice of nightlife to the town. Now, after a busy grand-opening event over Memorial Day weekend, their own beer has finally joined the guest beers on tap, just in time for tourist season.
Block North began with two different ideas. Majority owner Peter Lowe, Jr., a chef who has spent many years catering Hollywood film sets (including “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” and “The Avengers: Infinity War,” among others) wanted to open a restaurant in his hometown. Co-owners and brewers Dake Olson and Rich Courtemanche wanted to start a brewery of their own, and the trio decided the two ideas were a good match. They began looking for locations across town and eventually settled on an old furniture store across from the historic Butler Building on Minnesota Avenue. Later, they hired on Bo Martin as an additional brewer.
The name “Block North” comes from the brewpub’s location. “It’s a block north of the stoplight,” says Olson, who is also the mayor of the nearby town of McGregor. (Courtemanche is also involved in local politics, working full-time as the land commissioner for Aitkin County.) “There’s only one stoplight in all of Aitkin County. 1,800 square miles and there’s only one stoplight.”
Everyone has taken notice of the food. Chef Lowe, who also owns the Beanery coffee shop across the street, began experimenting with different dishes while Block North was still a work-in-progress, trying to determine what works and what might be just a little too off-the-wall for the average patron. Judging by the turnout for events like Block North’s Easter buffet, which hosted more than 300 people, his creations seem to be a hit. The kitchen—whose woodfired grills waft rich, smoky aromas of roasting meat and vegetables across town—doesn’t even have a microwave, and everything on the menu features a special twist, from mac ’n’ cheese (which can be loaded with smoked brisket or lobster) to grilled ribeye to swordfish.
“The big thing here is, it’s just craft,” says Lowe. “Everything down to the beer, the food—every part of it. It’s all well thought out. What can we do different? What can we get that makes us stand out a bit from everybody else?”
With the food being deemed a success since opening, the brewers were excited to showcase their beer on Memorial Day. Their equipment has been ready since last fall, but they didn’t get their brewing license until early May. When it finally arrived, they got to work immediately.
Block North will have four housemade beers on tap: the BNBP IPA; Runaway Galloway chocolate milk stout; the Nerf Herder (think Han Solo from “Star Wars”), a traditional farmhouse ale with a tart, dry flavor; and the lighter “Gateway” ale, made with the craft-beer novice in mind. They are planning on releasing a new beer each month. In the works: an Oktoberfest variety and the Gobler Red, a red ale named after Aitkin’s school mascot.
After the loss of a number of local restaurants due to fires in recent years, Aitkin’s nightlife is finally returning, and the Block North crew couldn’t be happier. “For 20 years I’ve lived here and I’ve been waiting for something that’s open at night,” says Courtemanche. “This is exactly what this town needs.”
Summer is a busy time for the sparsely populated county, owing to a large number of lakes and resorts that fill up with tourists during warmer months. “When they come up, we’re gonna be ready,” says Rich.
Brewer: Dake Olson, Bo Martin, Rich Courtemanche
Beers: BNBP IPA, Runaway Galloway chocolate milk stout, Nerf Herder farmhouse ale, Gateway ale
Hours: Tuesday–Saturday 11am–10pm; Sunday 10am–3pm; closed Monday
Address: 302 Minnesota Ave. N., Aitkin, MN 56431
Grand opening: May 25, 2019