A guide to craft beers of the Heartland

LEE SVITAK DEAN | Updated 8/5/2014

A new travel guide maps the evolution of regional craft beer.

Surly and Summit beer makers
Star Tribune file

How far would you drive for a good pint of beer? For Michael Agnew, it was more than 10,000 miles.

That’s what it took for the author to drive around four states as he checked out more than 200 breweries of the Midwest. The results of his very tasteful exploration can be found in “A Perfect Pint’s Beer Guide to the Heartland” (University of Illinois Press, 217 pages, $24.95), a travel reference to the breweries of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois.

Agnew, a certified cicerone (the beer version of a wine sommelier) had no idea what he was getting into when, in 2010, he drew up a list of 160 breweries to visit. By the time he turned in his manuscript, the number of regional craft breweries exceeded 230.

What he found on his travels was that no-frills Midwesterners have a distinctive approach to beer: Much of it is brewed to appeal to a broad palate. Although our preferences vary by state, as a region we reach for sweet rather than bitter, hence the popularity of what Agnew calls “the Midwestern IPA,” an example of which is Fulton’s Sweet Child of Vine, produced in Minneapolis.

Agnew, who writes a monthly column for the Star Tribune Taste section and for other publications, can be found at www.aperfectpint.net.


Q: After two years of working on this and a whole lot of pints, do you think the Midwest is the next big beer region?

A: It’s one of them. The craft beer thing is going crazy all over the country right now, but I still think this is one of the fastest-growing regions in the country. We have a lot of good and interesting stuff happening.


Q: Why do you think that it’s growing so fast here?

A: Historically, this is a beer-drinking region, part of our Germanic and Scandinavian heritage. It’s something that stretches way back. We like beer.


Q: How do trends start in the Midwest?

A: They tend to filter in from the coast. This is changing a little bit as consumer palates become more educated. But here in this region, the styles tend toward maltier and a little bit sweeter; even those that focus on hops and bitterness tend to be a little sweeter. I think we brew more lagers than other places. Then again, that reflects our history.


Q: Do we as Midwesterns seem more cautious in beer trends?

A: Yes, if you look at the big picture. People dispute this with me because they are looking at a few of the big-name breweries who are making the super-hopped-up beers or the experimental beers. But I’ve visited and sampled beers at 200-plus breweries across the region. And if you look at the big picture, I think things stay a little more cautious. But we have several standout breweries that are pushing some boundaries.


Q: Which ones are those?

A: I would put Surly in there. I would put New Glarus [of New Glarus, Wis.] in there. There’s one little tiny brewery in far western Iowa called CIB Brewery. Pipeworks Brewing in Chicago. As palates advance, that is becoming more and more what’s happening. We’re moving slowly away from this cautious stance.


Q: Did you find that styles vary by state?

A: Yes, somewhat. Minnesota, particularly in the Twin Cities, is definitely hops. We like the big hoppy beers, the IPAS, the double IPAs. Wisconsin generally has more lager breweries than other places. In Illinois, everything is focused in Chicago, which is a pretty cosmopolitan place, so you find more experimental boundary-pushing beers there. Iowa generally is more meat-and-potatoes, just as you might expect, with classic styles, brewpub standards: amber ales, porters, stouts, blond ales, pale ales.