Where local beers are King: Patroitism or great taste in Minnesota and Wisconsin? You be the judge
HASTINGS, Minn. -- When Minnesota visitors think of the Twin Cities of Minneapolisand St. Paul, they often are quick to think of places like Mall of America, Target Field and popular attractions like the Minnesota Zoo.
But get out away from the city a little bit, and you'll find some hidden gems. This is especially the case for those travelers who like to sip on suds. Breweries are popping up in many nooks and crannies throughout the eastern part of the metro area, including the small college town of River Falls, Wis., and the bustling suburb of Stillwater, Minn.
A popular brew pub is also in operation in New Richmond, Wis.
All three businesses are a testament to the craft beer craze that is sweeping across the United States. Even better is that the two breweries are open for public tours that are free. The tours are often populated by people who simply like drinking good beer and people who are dedicated home brewers. In either case, the tours are light-hearted and include, as you could probably guess, free beer.
What's not to like?
At Rush River Brewing Co. in River Falls, Wis., a gray warehouse building hides from passersby the magic that lies inside. Upon entering the facility, the smell of malts linger in the air as one of the firm's owners, Dan Chang, glides up and down a ladder to check on a brew.
For Rush River, it all happens here: Beers are brewed, bottled, chilled, kegged and shipped right out of the building. In most cases, local ingredients are used, including barley grown in Chilton, Wis.
Most days at 6 a.m., Chang gets to work on a batch and by the time he heads home at night, he will have brewed the equivalent of 30 kegs, or 19,000 bottles.
"We do everything here," Chang said. "We're proud of that."
The story is similar at Lift Bridge Brewery in Stillwater, Minn. Located behind a Herberger's in another one of
those big warehouse-style buildings. Again, from the outside it doesn't look like much. Inside is a different story.
The location includes a unique tap room, the first in the state of Minnesota. In 2011, legislation was passed that allowed brewers to sell their beers on site and Lift Bridge got to work right away to set up the tap room. The tap room is open for business while tours are run every Saturday from 1 p.m. until about 4:30 p.m. or so.
The tap rooms aren't the only time the local breweries dispense their beer to locals.
Both Rush River and Lift Bridge offer 64-ounce growler fills. In fact, at Lift Bridge, growlers can be filled Thursdays and Fridays from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. and in the afternoons Saturdays too. Tours are held there at 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. and registration should be done online.
Trevor Cronk, one of the owners, said private tours have also become popular. The facility is often opened for birthday parties, bachelorette parties and team-building exercises for those in corporate America. Food is often catered in by a local firm, and the food is paired with the beers.
Brewery tours aren't the only option for beer samples from Lift Bridge. Three Brews Cruises on the St. Croix River are planned for the summer. On June 15, July 20 and Aug. 24, guests can travel up and down the river on a large paddleboat while they sip on Lift Bridge beers and eat artisan cheeses, all the while listening to live music.
Tickets are available at www.stillwaterriverboats.com and are $30 per person.
On a side note: Lift Bridge's most popular beer, the Farm Girl saison, is available now at Target Field in a portable stand near sections 126 and 320.
From the outside, Brady's Brewhouse in New Richmond, Wis., doesn't look much different than the other bars that line the main street through downtown there.
Once inside, though, it is the smell that informs customers that the establishment is in fact unique.
The air is filled with the scent of malt. In the back of the restaurant, the source of the scent is easily determined: Two brewers can often be found back there, hard at work crafting a number of different beers for the restaurant.
It may seem like a bit of a stretch for a town of 8,000 to support a brew pub, but owner Chris Polfus said it's anything but. As craft beers have exploded in popularity across the nation, the movement is taking hold in the river valley.
"People just appreciate the quality, the freshness and the flavor of craft beers," Polfus said.
While bars used to simply offer domestics and imports, most have quickly adapted to include the word "local," and for good reason. More and more customers want good, fresh beer from area breweries.
At Paddy Ryan's Irish Pub and Restaurant in Hudson, Wis., owner Mike Fassino has seen a real spike in craft beer interest, and he thinks patriotism and values have a lot to do with that. When MillerCoors was sold to a firm from South Africa, and when Budweiser was sold to a Belgian company, there were no major American-owned brewers left.
"That's why you're seeing what you are seeing with microbrews," Fassino said. "It's more localized. People feel more connected to it than they do to a bigger brewery."
Plus, small breweries have been bolstered lately by the quality of their product, which is increasingly improving and unique. One regular at Paddy Ryan's has a beer bucket list. He'll come in with his list, try a new one, mark it off the list and then come back down the road to see what is new at the pub.
"To me, I take it like someone who is in a wine club," Fassino said. "That's exactly what is happening with beer."
Brady's Brewhouse, meanwhile, takes local and fresh to a new level, as they brew eight different beers in house.
What starts as malt, hops, yeast and water in the brewery can end up in a customer's pint glasses in as few as 14 days.
Across the river in Stillwater, Minn., the owners at Lift Bridge Brewing work to get their craft beers bottled, then see the product hit store shelves just days later.
"The mass-produced beers are all very similar," Chang said. "Craft beers are all small businesses. People like to support local businesses. People are willing to spend more for a six-pack. That says a lot, especially during a recession."
Historic homes open for tours too
If beer isn't your thing, consider a few of the historic homes in the eastern metro that are open for tours. In Hastings there is the LeDuc Historic Estate and in Hudson, Wis., there is the Octagon House.
Every day some 30,000 cars pass by the most recognizable and significant historic home in Hastings, the LeDuc Historic Estate. Located at 1629 Vermillion Street, the home was built for two prominent early Minnesotans during the Civil War, General William LeDuc and his wife, Mary.
The estate is open for public tours, which began May 23. The 2012 season goes through October, and tours are held Wednesdays through Sundays. The estate is usually open the first two weekends in November and December as well for holiday shopping, Christmas tours and historic brunches.
For more information, go to the DCHS website at www.dakotahistory.org or call 651-437-7055.
William LeDuc moved to Minnesota in 1853, finding a variety of opportunities as a lawyer, land speculator, immigration promoter and investor while living in St. Paul. He and his wife eventually moved to Hastings, where William pursued milling and farming, and continued his work with railroads. It was after living in Hastings for several years that the LeDucs decided to build their dream home, the mansion we know now as the LeDuc Historic Estate.
The Octagon House Museum in Hudson, Wis., is open for the 2012 tour season. The museum is open Wednesday through Saturday from noon to 4:30 p.m. and Sunday from 2 to 4:30 p.m. Take a step back into the 19th century with a tour of the elegant, octagon-shaped house as costumed guides share the story of the Moffat-Hughes family who lived in the house for over 100 years.
Tours last about an hour; admission is $7 for adults, $3 for students ages 12 to 18, and $2 for children ages 5 to 12.
This year's "Westward to the St. Croix" theme will explore the early history of St. Croix County, including the French Canadians who settled on the shore of the St. Croix River, the fur trade, logging, the railroad and the many immigrants who settled Hudson.
The museum complex includes the Octagon House Museum, the Garden House with general store, blacksmith shop, domestic arts, and medical tableaux, and the Museum Gift Shop featuring decorative items for the home and garden, and Victorian inspired gifts. The Gift Shop is open to the public during regular tour hours.
Groups of 10 or more can make advance reservations by calling the Octagon House at (715) 386-2654. For larger groups (25 plus) special tour times and events may be pre-arranged with additional options such as an afternoon tea, city tour and more.