The Gateway to Minnesota’s North Shore, Duluth is no stranger to tourism, but recently its reputation for craft beer is becoming a great draw for travelers. But to say beer in Duluth is a new phenomenon is anything but true. Sydney Luce founded a brewery in 1857 that would pass through several hands before a young German brewmaster August Fitger eventually put his name on it. Back in the big brewery heyday, Fitger’s Brewing and a couple others anchored the port city on the map, and in the craft brewing era, Lake Superior Brewing brewed its first batches in 1994, and brewpub Fitger’s Brewhouse opened their taps in 1997.
Start by checking in at Fitger’s Inn, the original brick brewery complex right along Lake Superior. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, this fine hotel is part of a complex that includes several shops, restaurants, and a small museum. Fitger’s Brewhouse, a separate entity within, is the largest brewpub in the state (by production) and spreads over two floors and several dining and drinking spaces.
Due to brewpub rules in Minnesota, you can only find their beer – 14 on tap — right here or at one of five restaurants around town which are “tied houses” for their brews. Brewer Dave Hoops came to Duluth in 1999, taking over for his brother Mike, the original brewer. “We have the best beer connoisseurs in the state. The weirder the beer, the more they want to go out of their way to get it.” He calls Duluth a “hop-driven city” and an educated beer community. In the last year he made 33 different IPAs.
A 15-minute stroll along the paved, multi-use Duluth Lakewalk takes you to Canal Park Brewing Company, a family friendly eatery with a dozen brews on tap plus two cask beers. In season, patio seating overlooks the lake – and when the chill comes up there is a fire pit there — and the shops and attractions of Canal Park – including an ore ship turned museum – are walking distance from here.
Also downtown is Carmody Irish Pub, offering 4-7 of their own beers among the 32 on tap. Carmody is often the “last call bar” with patrons ending the night with beer and bar fare or grub from food trucks outside. Just over four blocks south is Dubh Linn, another Irish-themed pub, with beers brewed for them by South Shore Brewing in Ashland, WI.
A short drive south along Superior Street are two production breweries. Lake Superior Brewing is the veteran and first occupied a 200-square-foot space over at the Fitger’s complex. Growth sent them to this industrial building with a casual drinking space that spills right into the brewing area. Co-owner Dale Kleinschmidt will chat you up under the malt-bag canopy if he’s around. One of their flagship beers is Kayak Kölsch, a nod to the area’s great outdoors. In fact, Kleinschmidt’s own kayaks, and Head Brewer Kevin Green’s canoe, are stored up in the rafters when not in use.
A few blocks away is Bent Paddle, which opened in 2013 but is already on pace to brew 6,500 barrels in 2014. Bent Hop, a golden IPA, is one of four flagship beers and their best seller. The modern, spacious tap room offers a look into the brewhouse through a glass garage door. There’s no menu, but you can order delivery and food trucks come by in summer. Both breweries offer tours: Bent Paddle on Saturdays according to schedule, and Lake Superior by appointment — or if an employee is free during taproom hours.
The smallest of the production brewers is Blacklist. Their small industrial space doesn’t typically open for public tours, so typically you’d need to find their Belgian-style ales at liquor stores in 750 ml bottles. Or de Belgique, a strong golden ale, is their biggest seller. “These are special occasion beers,” says brewer Brian Schanzenbach. “Think of it as a substitute for champagne.” Beer releases are often hosted at Zeitgeist, a café with a solid craft beer menu.
A short distance out of town are two other worthy brewery visits: Castle Danger Brewing, once a small out-of-the-way brewer in a shed the size of a modest apartment, just moved into larger digs with a nice taproom in Two Harbors, twenty minutes up the north shore of Superior from Duluth. Also not to be missed but in the opposite direction is Thirsty Pagan, right over the bridge in Superior, WI, with great pizzas and live music to accompany the brews.
Superior Street seems to be the backbone of the beer scene and the proximity of all these brewing sites makes Duluth a very easy and safe brewery crawl destination. But if that weren’t enough, beer travelers can make it even easier by booking a tour with the Duluth Experience. While this tour company offers great historical rounds of the city in their 14-seat bus, their most popular route is the beer trail. Let them drive and you’ll get behind-the-scenes visits at three area breweries plus a meal. Different days offer different breweries so the tour is worth repeating.
The Duluth Experience is currently the only way to visit Blacklist Brewery (above) as well as another Belgian-inspired brewery near Two Harbors, Borealis Fermentery. Ken Theimann is a one-man operation in a straw bale-insulated brewhouse/residence he built himself out in the woods. Like Blacklist, his beers are available in 750 ml bottles at liquor stores and restaurants, and on tap at only a couple places in Duluth, such as 7 West Taphouse.
Coming soon in 2015, you should also pick up the new road-trip guidebook to the breweries of Minnesota: Minnesota’s Best Beer Guide! Another installment in the popular pils-grimage series that includes Wisconsin’s Best Beer Guide and Michigan’s Best Beer Guide!
If You Go
The Duluth Experience
Bent Paddle Brewing Company
1912 West Michigan St., Duluth, MN
211 East 2nd St., Duluth, MN
Canal Park Brewing Company
300 Canal Park Drive, Duluth, MN
Carmody Irish Pub and Brewery
308 East Superior St., Duluth, MN
Castle Danger Brewery
17 7th St, Two Harbors, MN
Dubh Linn Irish Pub
109 W Superior St, Duluth, MN
600 East Superior St., Duluth, MN
Lake Superior Brewing Co.
2711 West Superior St., Duluth, MN
Zeitgeist Arts Café
222 E Superior St, Duluth, MN