Good Brews: The Northland Beer Boom

Historically, when the economy’s down, beer sales go up, up, up.

That’s certainly been the case in post-Great Recession northeast Minnesota and northwest Wisconsin. While economic recovery has been sluggish overall, tallying with wider nationwide trends, one sector of the economy has been booming: craft breweries and brew pubs.

Storied establishments like Fitger’sDubh Linn, and Carmody in Duluth have been joined by a whole crop of new breweries and brew pubs. Between Bent Paddle Brewing in West Duluth, Canal Park Brewing Company, Thirsty Pagan in Superior, and more, local connoisseurs never have to worry about being very far from one thirst-quenching option or another.

Outside of the Twin Ports, Borealis Fermentery can be found up the shore in Knife River, and Castle Danger holds the fort above Two Harbors. Even further north, Voyageur Brewing Company can be found in Grand Marais.

If anyone thought the local brewery landscape was saturated, the successful openings of Blacklist Artisan Ales and, most recently, Hoops Brewing, have defied those expectations. What’s especially amazing about the Northland’s brewery boom is the success rate. While new openings are frequent, very few establishments have closed. If the brewery business is indeed a bubble, it has yet to burst.

Craft brewing has been taking off all over the country but stats show the Northland to be in a league of its own. As of 2014, Duluth alone had one brewery for every 14,369 residents. Compare that to the national average of one brewery per every 123,000 people. The other states known for their beer, Vermont and Oregon, have approximately one brewery for every 25,030 and 27,365 residents, respectively. These numbers actually lend credence to former Mayor Don Ness’ much buzzed about 2013 proclamation that Duluth is the Craft Beer Capital of Minnesota.

So why the Northland? There’s our superior (pun intended) access to fresh water, which is essential to the brewing process. But aside from that, is there something about this region and North By Choice culture that’s particularly conducive to the production (and appreciation) of superlative beer?

One of the best people to ask is Dave Hoops, founder of Hoops Brewing and a regional authority on the industry. In one edition of his Hoops on Hops column for the Duluth News Tribune, Hoops explains: “One question I get a lot is what I like about brewing in Duluth. For me, it’s very much about this community. My wife and I moved here to raise our family, be closer to friends and family and also to live in this beautiful area surrounded by the beauty of northern Minnesota and our great lake.”

Many would agree that the sort of enthusiasm and dedication Hoops has for this region can actually be tasted in area brews. The amount of flavor and creativity that goes into each season’s unique round of beverages is truly astounding, as anyone who has tried them can attest. In fact, whoever is lucky enough to grow up around here will probably be disappointed to find out what passes for beer in other places. Whether an intensely dark stout or a tangy IPA, there’s a perfect drink for everyone just waiting to be discovered in the Northland.

And for the region at large, the brewery boom means more than just good beer. Aside from brew fests like All Pints North, which draws in masses of visitors and dollars annually, breweries do much to stimulate the economy.

In his influential 2016 survey of American cities for The Atlantic, journalist James Fallows cites the presence of craft breweries as a main indicator that a city will succeed. As a case study, Fallows highlights the overwhelmingly positive impact Bent Paddle Brewery has had in West Duluth. “[B]ecause startup breweries need a lot of space but typically don’t have a lot of money, they usually set up shop in low-rent, fringe, non-fashionable parts of town,” explains Fallows. “The jobs and activity they create in those neighborhoods have their own effect – which is then magnified by the customers they draw to the area, particularly at night and on weekends when warehouse districts would ordinarily be deserted.”

In another article titled “Paradise Duluth,” Fallows points out the flurry of entrepreneurial activity which has sprung up around Bent Paddle, including new restaurants, coffee shops, and more. “The investment Bent Paddle has made and the traffic it has inspired are clearly driving this development,” observes Duluth local Peter Hatinen, as quoted in Fallows’ article. “It’s wonderful,” adds Hatinen. “I wish I had another lifetime to watch what will happen on the west side of town.”

Widening the lens, breweries brought in $1.3 billion in sales statewide in 2014. According to CityPages, “That’s nearly half of what iron mining contributed to the local economy the same year.”

Staggering statistics like these put the Northland’s brewery boom in a particularly palatable light. And as for the brews themselves, they’re the imbibable distillation of the many components that make this neck of the woods a great place to work, live, and drink in.

Interested in becoming part of the local brewery industry, beyond simply enjoying a craft brew here and there? There are many ways to get involved. Keep an eye on our career center for job openings at local breweries and brew pubs!

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