Photos by Melissa Maki
Fitger’s Brewhouse started well before the recent craft-beer boom. This year, the Duluth, Minnesota, mainstay will celebrate its 20-year anniversary. But don’t expect this brewpub to age into complacency: thanks to the leadership of Master Brewer Dave Hoops, their offerings continue to evolve and surprise.
The Brewhouse has the feel of an old-school pub, dimly lit with dark wood accents and dedicated beertenders. But it’s also dotted with some more unusual characteristics, like vibrant blown-glass tap handles, postcards from fans around the world, and historic photos from the building’s original Fitger’s brewery, dating back to 1881.
Brad Nelson, Brewhouse director of marketing, says founders Tim Nelson and Rod Raymond were originally inspired to create the type of laid-back hangout you’d find in a Colorado ski town back in the 1990s. “I think what people appreciate about the Brewhouse is that it feels like two young guys opened a pub and just let it grow organically,” he says. “It’s authentic, it’s real.”
Music has played a primary role at the Brewhouse since its inception in 1995—a decision made by Tim and Brad. The brothers are both musicians and wanted to incorporate their love of music with their love of beer.
Their effort made the Brewhouse one of the first venues in Duluth to showcase live music as part of its offerings. “Music is a huge part of craft-beer culture,” explains Brad. “Craft beer is not just a liquid—it embodies a larger movement that’s rooted in localism and creativity. Craft beer and music both bring people together, and tend to inspire new ideas.”
Minnesota all-stars like Low, Charlie Parr, and Trampled by Turtles have graced the pub’s diminutive stage in years past. And Duluth’s vibrant music scene continues to benefit from the Brewhouse’s continued commitment to featuring free live music five nights a week.
Another way the Brewhouse has sought to stand out from other brewpubs is by giving typical pub fare a serious upgrade. The menu features fresh-caught Lake Superior fish and burgers made from local Scottish Highland cattle, which are fed spent grain from the brewery. Vegetarians and meat-eaters alike opt for the delicious and substantial Harvest Moon Wild Rice Burger.
Of course, the main feature of the Brewhouse is the beer. In addition to the regular cast of brews—Starfire Pale, El Niño IPA—are some stellar seasonal and experimental brews. The Hoppelujah was the only Minnesota beer featured at the Oregon Brewers Fest last year.
The man behind the brews is Dave Hoops, head brewer at the Brewhouse since 1999. Hoops emphasizes that since he works for a brewpub and not a production brewery, he’s afforded a higher level of creativity—which, if their Homegrown Hempen Ale made with ground hemp seeds is any indication, is something he clearly relishes.
Another example of Hoops’s appreciation for experimentation is his creation to commemorate 2the Brewhouse’s 4,000th batch: a chocolate-chili milk stout, made with two types of chocolate and four varieties of chili pepper, set to be released in early June. “I’ve never made a beer like this before—and it’s hard for me to find a style I haven’t done,” he explains. “But I needed it to be unique.” He also plans to age some of the batch in bourbon barrels.
In addition to the stout, Hoops has recently been experimenting with session beers in what he calls his “MN Nice” series. Each brew is lower in alcohol and highlights a single hop variety—his way of “going back to basics and producing simple and well-made beers.”
A beer that best represents Hoops’s talent for producing creative yet approachable brews is his Apricot Wheat. It’s an easy-drinking beer with a fruity sweetness balanced by peppery hops. The Apricot Wheat recently eclipsed the Starfire Pale Ale as the Brewhouse’s best-selling beer, upending stereotypes that a lighter-bodied fruit beer is just for the ladies.
Hoops describes the brew as a breakfast beer that goes down easy and is “just north of orange juice.” We call it the ideal summer refresher, perfect for filling a growler to enjoy while camping on the beautiful North Shore.
5% ABV, 12.9 IBU
Grain bill: 40% Two Row, 40% White Wheat, 6% Carapils, 6% Caramel, 7% Acidulated Malt
Hops: Willamette, Tettnanger
Yeast: California Ale Yeast
Other Ingredients: Apricot puree