Summer Guide: Duluth beer-cations

MICHAEL RIETMULDER | Updated 6/6/2013

The North Shore’s beer boom is drawing visitors from all over.

Paul Helstrom poured pints at Fitger’s.
Photo by Kyndell Harkness

A beer geek’s love knows no bounds. Ale addicts stake out liquor stores and sleep outside breweries, just to quench their thirst for certain brews. It’s a restraining-order level of obsession.

This yearning for yeast, malt and hops even permeates their vacation plans. Booming beer markets become travel destinations and breweries are their tourist traps. Screw the Smithsonian. Where’s the nearest brewpub?

“When we travel we look for the brewpubs — who’s got the micros?” said Badger Colish, head brewer at Canal Park Brewing Co. in Duluth. “That’s just what we do.”

Oregon, Colorado and San Diego have long been beery wellsprings. But Colish’s Duluthian turf is becoming an attraction in its own right. Four new breweries and brewpubs have opened in Duluth and nearby Superior, Wis., within the past year, bringing the total to 10. Duluth Mayor Don Ness has dubbed his town Minnesota’s beer capital.

Between Grandma’s Marathon and the throngs of North Shore-bound Twin Citians, Duluth draws 3.5 million tourists annually. Canal Park co-owner Rockie Kavajecz believes the city’s growing brewing scene will lure beer-based vacationers. Kavajecz, who also jointly owns the neighboring Canal Park Lodge, said his hotel sees a reservation surge whenever the pioneering Fitger’s Brewhouse releases new beers. That inspired him to invest in his $6 million brewpub, overlooking Lake Superior. “We’re expecting big things this summer,” Kavajecz said. “I’d bet the farm on it.”

Dave Grandmaison is betting on it, too. In July, the Duluth native will launch the Duluth Experience, a tour company that will lead pilsner pilgrimages through area breweries, in addition to historical and outdoor adventure tours.

Another event group, Minneapolis-based GetKnit, started running brewery-tour day trips from the Twin Cities this spring.

At Thirsty Pagan Brewing in Superior, Wis., head brewer Allyson Rolph said the brewpub already attracts its share of out-of-towners. “We’re starting to see a lot more of the beer tourism, people coming up here from Minneapolis-St. Paul, Milwaukee, Chicago,” she said over a pint at Bent Paddle Brewing Co. — Duluth’s newest brewery and taproom.

From the boutique, Belgian-leaning Blacklist Brewing and Borealis Fermentery (in Knife River, Minn.) to Irish bars/brewpubs Carmody and Dubh Linn, North Coast beer is diversifying. Even aesthetically, the shiny new Canal Park offers a contrasting feel to Thirsty Pagan’s small-town charm.

Just north of Two Harbors, Minn., Clint and Jamie MacFarlane of Castle Danger Brewery have perhaps the state’s most serene brewery. The couple’s toolshed of a brewhouse sits on a scenic 40-acre lakefront plot where they also run a 12-cabin resort. The resort has been in Jamie’s family since the 1930s and next year they plan to add a larger brewery/taproom in downtown Two Harbors.

But beer communities aren’t built in a day. Lake Superior Brewing Co. and Fitger’s have been pushing craft beer in Duluth since the mid-’90s. “I basically cut my teeth on those two breweries’ beers,” said Bryon Tonnis of Bent Paddle, which opened two weeks ago with a pair of enjoyable year-round ales.

“We owe them a big debt of gratitude,” said Bent Paddle co-founder Colin Mullen.

Ski trips out West during the early-’90s craft craze hipped Fitger’s co-owner Tim Nelson to better-beer culture and prompted him to open his beer-bar-turned-brewpub in 1995.

“We noticed these little scenes that were happening in these towns,” the scraggly bearded beer magnate said. “People that were culturally the same as us were hanging out enjoying craft beer. We thought, ‘Wow, this is what Duluth needs.’ ”

Nelson’s vision of Beer Town Du­luth is coming to fruition. Fitger’s brew guru Dave Hoops said he’s proud of their elder-statesman status and that multiple Fitger’s-groomed brewers have opened their own operations, including Blacklist and Dubrue, fortifying the Duluth scene.

Last summer the Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild launched All Pints North, a full-blown beer festival in Duluth that drew 1,300 attendees. Organizers say they’ve already sold as many tickets for this year’s July 13 sampling soiree in Bayfront Festival Park.

Whether you’re passing through this summer en route to Grand Marais or seeking a suds-centric stay-cation, Duluth would welcome your palate. There’s more than enough local beer to keep you busy.

Top 5 northern growlers

If across-the-board beer sampling doesn’t fit into your schedule, stock up with a takeout jug or two of some of the Twin Ports area’s best beers that are available in growlers.

Bent Paddle: Bent Hop

Pick up a park-friendly stainless steel growler of this well-balanced golden IPA ahead of a summer camping trip. (1912 W. Michigan St., Duluth, 1-218-279-2722, www.bentpaddlebrewing.com.)

Castle Danger: Danger Ale

Far from timid, this versatile, medium-bodied American strong ale is prime cabin-cookout accompaniment. (3067 E. Castle Danger Rd., Two Harbors, Minn., 1-218-834-5800, www.castledangerbrewery.com.)

Fitger’s: El Nino Double Hopped IPA

Hop junkies need look no farther than this bold, lip-bitingly bitter beer made with six different types of hops. (600 E. Superior St., Duluth, 1-218-279-2739, www.brewhouse.net.)

Lake Superior: Kayak Kolsch

This light and crisp German-style brew is a refreshing all-day option with palate-pleasing repeatability. (2711 W. Superior St., Duluth, 1-218-723-4000, www.lakesuperiorbrewing.com.)

Thirsty Pagan: Burntwood Black

Using seven varieties of malt and barley, the small-batch brewpub’s dark session ale is surprisingly complex. (1623 Broadway St., Superior, Wis., 1-715-394-2500, www.thirstypaganbrewing.com.