This year was a busy one for the craft beer industry — both nationally and locally.
In April, we’d heard from one brewer that there were around 150 breweries in Minnesota and that 20% of those had opened within the past year. Just eight months later, we’ve heard that number’s grown to as high as 180.
There’s no doubt the craft beer scene is growing and continues to grow. Within the span of just seven months, two new breweries opened their doors in our own little community of Monticello; we know of two breweries set to open their doors in Owatanna in the new year; and as many as another three are racing to be the first to open their doors in Katie’s hometown of Fergus Falls. We can’t say with certainty how many new breweries opened in Minnesota this year — our best guess is about 30 — but it’s been enough for us to put together a list of our favorites. Here are five new Minnesota breweries that blew our minds — in a good way — in 2018.
5. Starry Eyed Brewing Co. — Little Falls, MN
“Look — hops!”
Starry Eyed Brewing Co. in Little Falls, MN was the first brewery we’d ever visited that grew its own hops onsite. Prior to to our visit, we’d heard very little of this family-friendly brewery tucked away in Central Minnesota; in retrospect, maybe that was intentional — this place is a gem!
Our early September visit coincided with Little Falls’ annual Arts & Crafts Fair weekend. Drawing 100,000 people over two days and being hailed as one of the largest craft fairs in the nation, it’s the kind of fair that leaves you worn out and needing a drink afterwards.
Located just north and outside of town, any reservations of small-town brewery culture were both confirmed and assuaged as we pulled into Starry Eyed’s gravel parking lot. Rows of hop vines grew off to the side that we’d later learn were for more than just looks — for every bucket of hops picked, we got a free pint of beer!
Starry Eyed offered a large and unique tap list, from saisons and ales (the cream ale was fantastic!) to more creative flavors like banana bread and espresso porter (both equally exceptional as well). A nice patio space allowed families with kids to pick hops out in the sun, while a local musician and plenty of games offered additional entertainment inside. The staff were welcoming and warm, and overall there was just something refreshingly local and communal about Starry Eyed Brewing Company. By the time we left, we felt like we’d stumbled upon a hidden gem of Minnesota’s craft beer scene.
4. Nordic Brewing Co. — Monticello, MNNordic Brewing Co. is the second brewery to open in our neck of Minnesota this year. Their open was quiet and unassuming, and had Katie not spotted the taproom while driving through town we might have missed them altogether.
We immediately loved Nordic’s theme — a nod to the history and heritage of Minnesota’s early people. The large, spacious taproom features unique wood-crafted tables, chairs, benches and bars; Scandinavian decor like skis, ski poles and tennis rackets; and even a tree — presumably fir or pine.
An ibex — the adventurous mountain goat native to the European Alps and Nordic’s mascot — is stamped on glasses and merch and seems fitting for the slogan “Beer — the Ultimate Quest.” For its part, the beer was impressive for a new brewery. Where we’ve found some newly opened breweries require a “grace period” to get used to new brewing systems and larger recipes, Nordic’s headbrewer Matt was clearly prepared and up to the challenge. The three flagship beers — a cream ale, fruit beer and brown ale — were all fantastic; the recently added California Common steam-styled was unlike anything we’ve had before; and we’re confident that once the nearly 20 taps are pouring, Nordic may just make Monticello a craft beer day-trip destination (with additional stops at nearby Rustech Brewing and Lupulin Brewing) yet.
A final feature we’re particularly excited about as locals is the large event space adjacent to Nordic’s taproom. Previously home to a small church, it will be large enough and properly equipped to host everything from live music to televised wrestling events! Matt’s wife and co-founder Laura told us they hoped the space would be ready for use by early New Year.
3. Waldmann Brewery & Wurstery — St. Paul, MN
Waldmann Brewery & Wurstery in St. Paul may be the most charming brewery/taproom we visited in Minnesota in the past year. Technically, Waldmann opened in late 2017, but as far as we’re concerned, it makes our list of mind-blowing breweries of 2018.
Stepping inside Waldmann feels like taking a step back in time, which is exactly the intent. A pre-Civil War era beer saloon restored, you can almost imagine what the taproom would have felt like circa 1857 — frontier-era wooden tables and chairs still dot rooms heated by functional wood stoves; glass-covered cases built into the walls feature pieces historic to the building or reflective of beer from the time; a giant buffalo head — someone’s hunting trophy, one must wonder — even mounts a wall upstairs.
Waldmann’s tap list is as inspired as the rest of the building’s German influence, specializing primarily in various styles of lagers. We’ve usually found 7-9 beers on tap including a delicious Amber Wiezen, a full-bodied and fruity Weihnachtsbier Alt Bier and the best Wiener Vienna-style Lager Adam says he’s ever had. The food, too, is delicious — various sausages made in-house, pretzels, breads, cheeses, mustards and sides all honoring German traditions.
As far as traditional beer styles, food and unique taprooms go, Waldmann Brewery & Wurstery offers a one-of-a-kind experience. We have a hunch we’ll be visiting frequently in 2019.
2. Wooden Hill Brewing Co. — Edina, MN
Even before visiting, we’d heard impressively positive things about Wooden Hill Brewing Company in Edina, MN. The food was delicious, the beer great, and the taproom fun and unique. Turns out, those things were all true and more.
“We want our taproom to bring people joy,” Sean, one of the two founding brothers, told us as we toured the facility. Joy seemed an appropriate emotion. From the big, bold, vintage-looking “BREWERY” sign out front to the bright colors and lights inside reminiscent of the Minnesota State Fair, everything about Wooden Hill just seems happy.
Even the beers made us happy — from traditional styles like a pre-WWII era Kolsh; gluten-reduced, white-wine like saison; triple-hopped juicy IPA; and chocolatey wheat stout to funkier flavors like a cold-brew infused Coffee Cake Brown Ale; cranberry and raspberry Pixie Catcher Sour; and Harlem Shake strawberry banana milkshake IPA.
Next time we’re feeling down and in need of a pick-me-up, we know where we’re going!
1. Ursa Minor Brewing Co. — Duluth, MN
If we were judges on America’s Got Talent and Ursa Minor Brewing Co. were an auditioning act, we’d give them the Golden Buzzer.
A dream three-years in the making, Ursa Minor Brewing just has an X Factor quality about them. From selection of beer to taste of food, quality of service to attention to detail in the taproom — Ursa Minor encompasses everything we look for in a great brewery.
We visited the same week Ursa Minor opened, and everything bespoke the quality and excellence of a brewery that had been open much longer. The tap list already offered some 8-10 beers ranging in style from ales to sour to stout, and the praises we heard heaped on the wood fire pizzas matched that of the pretzel we tried.
We couldn’t believe the attention to detail in the taproom — things like the handcrafted Mug Club mugs hanging from a pergola behind the bar, the logo burned into the tables and tap handles, maps burned into bar tops, the laser-cut constellation wall, and beautiful charcoal art. Handcrafted beverage sleeves by Harmonic Goods, homemade ice cream by Love Creamery, and pork sticks by Yker Acres all for sale attest to Ursa Minor’s positive reception from and collaborative relationships with the Duluth community. Their branding is just plain cool, their marketing creative and their social media game one of the strongest we’ve seen from a new brewery in 2018.
And there you have it — five new breweries that blew our minds in 2018.
While we dutifully kept our list to new Minnesota breweries that stood out this year, we’d be remiss if we didn’t recognize a couple non-Minnesota breweries that also blew our minds. So, please, read on for two well-deserved honorable mentions:
Untitled Art Brewing — Madison, WI
Untitled Art Brewing out of Madison specializes in some of the best collaboration beers we’ve ever had.
Regrettably, Untitled Art doesn’t have its own taproom yet, instead contracting out to Octopi Brewing and focusing on distribution. But we’ll definitely be keeping an eye on what they’re up to in 2019 and highly suggest you do, too!
Hairy Cow Brewing Co. — Byron, IL
Just barely rounding out our list of mind-blowing breweries of 2018 is Hairy Cow Brewing Co. in Byron, Illinois.
Located not far from Adam’s parents, we visited Hairy Cow during our Christmas holiday days after they’d opened. Located in a small town in rural Illinois (population 3700), it’s not exactly a destination for travelers or craft beer enthusiasts. But situated on the Rock River and with a claim as the first brewpub in Ogle County, it’s sure to be a hotspot for the Northern Illinois community Adam still calls home. Sentiment aside, we thought Hairy Cow was genuinely a fantastic brewery.
From the outside, it looked rather unassuming; but inside, it was full of energy and life. A fireplace climbed up one wall, a large Hairy Cow sign lit up another and a cool hops mural decorated a third wall.
To their credit, the staff seemed far more composed and professional than one might expect into their days-old job.
The beers — a cream ale, amber ale, pale ale and IPA brewed in-house — were all fantastic, and two guest stouts from Founders and Bell’s Brewing cleverly rounded out the list. Head Brewer Jon told us he had a couple more beers on the way including a vanilla coconut porter; he also hoped to add a smaller brewing system for experimental beers in the future. Wine and spirits offered options for non-beer drinkers and a wide selection of delicious, wood-fire pizzas offered something for everyone.
We left Hairy Cow Brewing thoroughly impressed. For a brewpub in small-town, rural Illinois, they seemed comparable in quality and experience to any of our favorite “big city” breweries and will definitely be our future “Home for the Holidays” stop.
And there you have it — our list of five (seven, actually) new breweries that blew our minds in 2018.
We wish each of them the best of success in the new year and hope you may get to experience them for yourself.
Cheers to a new year of ale adventures!