Over the past few years, the number of Minnesota beers has multiplied faster than a polygamist family with a cabinet full of Viagra. But in any crowd there are standouts. To honor the road-pavers, game-changers and red-hot newcomers, we present the Vita.mn Six-Pack — a Hall of Fame of Minnesota beer, now available for sale exclusively at Zipp’s Liquors in south Minneapolis.
We convened some of the savviest beer minds in the state to help us choose six beers of distinction, by weighing their iconicity, taste and impact on Minnesota beer culture. One of the six was chosen by 1,200 Vita.mn readers in our Skirmish of Beers online vote. Our panel discussion was limited to production breweries’ year-round offerings, so we added categories for growlers and seasonal or limited releases.
What would you have put in a quintessential Minnesota six-pack? You can weigh in in the comments section. Click the left-right arrows to read about the Vita.mn Six-Pack, plus the Vita.mn Growler Six-Pack and the Vita.mn Specialty Six-Pack.
The Vita.mn Six-Pack
Where: On sale at Zipp’s Liquors, 2618 E. Franklin Av., Mpls. 612-333-8686, www.zippsliquors.com.
Price: $12.99 (while supplies last).
Summit Extra Pale Ale
Twenty-plus years before every beard at the bar was a homebrewer, Summit was laying the foundation for craft beer in this state. Though the St. Paul juggernaut has since outgrown the “micro” tag, every microbrewery in Minnesota owes a tip of the cap to Summit for blazing the sudsy trail, thanks largely to its Extra Pale Ale. Chances are Summit EPA was the first craft beer you drank before you knew what craft beer was. Nearly 30 years after gracing its first pint glass, the delectably temperate English-style pale ale still holds up in blind tastings, panelist Michael Agnew said.
The Vita.mn readers’ champion also had the resounding endorsement of our panel. Hitting the market in 2006, the potently hopped and malt-buttressed IPA was integral in kick-starting Minnesota’s craft-beer renaissance, serving as a gateway for domestic swillers and, as panelist Doug Hoverson noted, martini sippers alike. Not only is the crimson-canned Furious largely responsible for making India pale ale the state’s unofficial beer style, but the fervor-spiking brew also helped spawn the Surly cult, er, Surly Nation and gave Minnesota beer some national shine. Where would the Brooklyn Center brewery (and Minnesota’s beer scene) be without Furious?
Grain Belt Premium
To be clear, there are hundreds of better-tasting beers made in Minnesota. But perhaps none is more iconic than Grain Belt Premium. The grandpa- and hipster-approved brew — which Hoverson describes as an American lager with a banana nose — has been ingrained in our culture since the 1940s. Though it’s no longer brewed in northeast Minneapolis (it’s now produced by Schell’s in New Ulm), the famous Grain Belt sign still looms over the city’s downtown, and Primo remains a dive bar/rock club favorite. “It is Minnesota beer,” said panelist Joe Alton.
Steel Toe Size 7
Trotting out an IPA has become de rigueur among Minnesota beer producers. But this St. Louis Park brewery’s big and beautiful offering is no perfunctory style-filler. The nectarous Size 7 isn’t only the crown jewel in owner/brewer Jason Schoneman’s small but strong fleet. It just might be the best India pale ale in town, and considering the abundance, that’s no small statement. Size 7 drinks like a blooming hop bouquet, with a faint hint of caramel swept under flush citrus layers. For a fairly small brewery, Steel Toe has left a formidable footprint on our craft-beer landscape.
Much like the New Ulm brewery that makes it, Schell’s Pils has stood the test of time. The second-oldest family-owned brewery in the country first made this effectively hopped pilsner in 1984, and it has won two Great American Beer Festival Medals nearly 30 years apart. The sharp and floral brew is a standout in the portfolio of the state’s largest beermaker. The German-heritage brewery’s Bavarian pilsner offers a taste of the old country and plays well with both connoisseurs and Joe Everyman itching to knock back a cold one after work.
Bent Paddle Black Ale
Minnesota’s craft-beer awakening isn’t confined to the Twin Cities — Duluth has cultivated a vibrant beer scene of its own. Geography aside, the six-month-old Bent Paddle (whose brewers’ pedigrees include Barley John’s and Rock Bottom) has been a breakout among 2013’s rookie class, and its addictive Black Ale is a big reason why. A sprightly carbonation makes this medium-bodied beer lively on the tongue without masking its nuanced chocolate and light-roast coffee flavors (you can try an actual coffee-fueled version at the Bent Paddle taproom). Between its outdoors-appropriate stainless steel growlers and use of Lake Superior water, Bent Paddle screams Minnesota.
The Vita.mn Growler Six-Pack
They won’t fit into a traditional sixer, but you can enjoy these lofty brews by the 64-ounce jug.
Town Hall Hope and King: Scotch ales are a somewhat underappreciated style, but the Minneapolis brewpub’s Hope and King deserves its crown, and has the Great American Beer Festival hardware to prove it.
Barley John’s Wild Brunette: The 13-year-old New Brighton brewpub produces one of the most unique flagships in town – a nutty, wild rice brown ale made with locally grown rice.
Fitger’s Starfire: Like a lighthouse, this venerable Duluth brewpub beckons ’em in with the balanced Starfire pale ale, a citrusy palate-sweeper.
Fulton Worthy Adversary: Considering this mammoth Russian imperial stout’s winter-only availability, we suggest going with the larger growler over the 750-ml bottle.
Dangerous Man Chocolate Milk Stout: A taproom takeover has gripped northeast Minneapolis, thanks in part to the always-slammed Dangerous Man. This ultra-smooth milk stout is a steady main attraction.
Pour Decisions Patersbier: While this eclectic Roseville brewery’s sour beers may be too extreme for some, this accessible, multifarious golden ale is a paragon of brewing precision.
The Vita.mn Specialty Six-Pack
Fawn-worthy seasonals and limited releases we wish we could get our hands on at will.
Town Hall Czar Jack Bourbon Barrel Stout: This small-batch Russian imperial stout is aged in Jack Daniels barrels to impart their whiskey-kissed woody flavors for added complexity.
Fitger’s Cherry Batch: Every autumn the Fitger’s faithful are treated to this cherry-spiked anniversary ale, which disappears well before the leaves do.
Indeed L.S.D.: Don’t worry about a bad trip with this springtime honey ale – gingerly laced with lavender, sunflower honey and dates (hence the acronym).
Olvalde Brynhilder’s Gift: On his family farm in southeastern Minnesota, Joe Pond brews this unfiltered farmhouse ale made with rye and juniper each spring.
Schell’s Star of the North: This low-ABV sour brew, fermented in a restored 1936 cypress tank, kicked off Schell’s Noble Star Collection to raves this summer. Here’s hoping for a second batch someday.
Surly Darkness: Kudos to Surly for inventing a way to bottle hysteria — and also making it taste like a colossally rich Russian imperial stout. The annual Darkness yearning marks the height of Minnesota’s beer craze.
Skirmish of Beers: The reader vote
For all the cordial talk of our local “beer community,” Vita.mn’s Skirmish of Beers was a bloodthirsty, eye-gouging dogfight for suds supremacy. OK, in reality readers just voted for their favorite beers online, but still the competition was stiff among the field of 32 predominantly year-round, Minnesota brews. Surly Furious – the Kentucky Wildcats of arbitrary local beer tournaments – was the last can standing, eclipsing Summit Saga IPA in the final round. Saga had a formidable road to the championship bout, slaying Town Hall Masala Mama, Surly Darkness and Indeed Day Tripper (which manhandled heavyweight Summit EPA for a top-four finish) in its path. Steel Toe Size 7 fought its way into the hop-dominated final four, besting a pair of Fulton beers before being overwhelmed by Surly Nation. The championship title won’t help Furious with recruiting or improve its draft stock (because, you know, it’s a beer). But it has earned the mighty IPA a spot in the Vita.mn Six-Pack.
Minnesota’s first certified cicerone (i.e. a beer sommelier). Hosts education and tasting events with his company A Perfect Pint. National rank Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) judge. Growler and Star Tribune contributor.
Editor of the Growler magazine. Beer Dabbler project manager. Former co-host of “The Beer Show” on ESPN 1500.
Gera Exire La Tour
Age: Old enough to order a beer.
Member and former president of the Minnesota Home Brewers Association. National rank BJCP judge with a mead endorsement. Organizes and teaches BJCP exam prep classes.
Author of “Land of Amber Waters: The History of Brewing in Minnesota.” American Breweriana Association board of directors. National rank BJCP judge. Growler contributor.
Founder of Minnesota Beer Activists and Longfellow Community Hop Garden. Cicerone Certification Program certified beer server.
Bars, beer and nightlife contributing writer for Vita.mn.