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Craft-beer scene draws tours to Twin Ports area

A tour-goer from Minneapolis holds a glass of anise-strawberry beer, one of Carmody Irish Pub's seasonal brews, during a tour and tasting there recently. (Clint Austin / / 8
A group from the Twin Cities enters Carmody Irish Pub & Brewing in downtown Duluth on Aug. 3 during an all-day tour of Duluth and North Shore craft breweries. GetKnit Events of Minneapolis has been offering the monthly motor-coach tours since last spring. (Clint Austin / / 8
Neil Caron of Bent Paddle Brewing Co. leads a Duluth Experience group on a tour of the new production brewery in Lincoln Park. (Clint Austin / / 8
Carmody's head brewer Jason Baumgarth (from left) talks to Devin Whelan and Emily Pazdernik, both of Minneapolis, during a recent GetKnits Events brewery tour at the pub. (Clint Austin / / 8
Carlton Bennett of Denver looks over the beer choices at Thirsty Pagan Brewing in Superior after a behind-the-scenes tour of its brewing operation on Thursday put on by The Duluth Experience, a new local tour company. (Clint Austin / / 8
Paul Helstrom, a co-owner of Duluth Experience, talks about the history of Duluth as last Thursday's bus tour heads to its first brewery, Bent Paddle Brewing Co. Participants Judy Ridinger (left) of Sanford, Fla., and Terese Ridinger of Phoenix listen. (Clint Austin / / 8
Terese Ridinger of Phoenix leaves The Duluth Experience bus for its first stop at Bent Paddle Brewing Co on Thursday afternoon. (Clint Austin / / 8
A tour group from the Twin Cities exits a motor coach for a stop at Carmody Irish Pub & Brewing on Aug. 3. It was one of six stops during the all-day tour of Duluth-area craft breweries put on by GetKnit Events of Minneapolis. (Clint Austin / / 8

A scattering of customers lined the bar at Carmody in downtown Duluth on a recent Saturday afternoon, drinking in quiet conversation.

But downstairs a party was going on.

In the brewpub's micro-brewery, voices filled the air and laughter rang out. Twenty-five people crowded near the fermenting tanks as brewer Jason Baumgarth explained the brewing process and they sampled anise-strawberry beer and other house creations.

They had come by luxury motor coach from the Twin Cities that morning for the all-day tour of craft breweries in Duluth and the North Shore

put on by GetKnit Events in Minneapolis.

Carmody Irish Pub & Brewing was their fifth stop, after Bent Paddle Brewing Co., Canal Park Brewing Co., Lake Superior Brewing Co. and Castle Danger Brewery. After dinner at Tycoons Alehouse & Eatery they would head back to the Twin Cities.

"It's great," said Sara Wessling of St. Paul. "You get on a bus. They drive you here, and it's a great way to meet other people who like beer."

Spurred by Duluth's growing status as a craft beer hub, GetKnit started the monthly tours last spring, bringing up as many as 50 at a time. Cost is $109 for the 13-hour daytrip that includes two meals and lots of beer tastings.

"People are aware of what's happening in Duluth with craft brewing; not the masses, but definitely beer geeks," said Matt Plank, GetKnit's owner. "People in Minnesota are super excited to see these breweries start up and are making a point of trying these brews."

He said Mayor Don Ness declaring Duluth as Minnesota's beer capital is not so far-fetched.

"Some of the beer that comes out of there is truly good," Plank said from Minneapolis. "In the Twin Cities, we're spoiled. We have so many craft breweries. Some of the things Castle Danger does up there is cool. People are beyond excited about these flavors."

Duluth-based tour

While GetKnit is bringing people from the Twin Cities to Duluth for brewery tours, four Duluth men have teamed up to start The Duluth Experience, offering brewery bus tours from Duluth pickup sites.

One-and-a-half years ago, Dave Grandmaison, Paul Helstrom, Tim Wilson and James Sanders saw a niche to fill, not only for multi-brewery tours with convenient, worry-free transportation, but for outdoor adventure and historical tours as well.

Such tours are part of a trend in the country. GetKnit Events also offers adventure tours out of the Twin Cities.

"Tourists want to feel that they're experiencing something outside the norm," Grandmaison said. "People want to experience more while they're on vacation. And there's a strong trend for people to want to be connected to a sense of place. What better way to do that than through local food, drinks like craft beer, the local history and then meeting the people who are making the food and the drink? People are really into that right now."

This year, their idea moved from talk to reality. After a round of practice tours, The Duluth Experience started offering brewery tours last month, with history and adventure tours to follow. The narrated brewery tours are sprinkled with information about Duluth's history as well as breweries.

The brewery tours are five hours long, cost $72 and are offered five times a week Thursday through Sunday. The sleek little bus can accommodate 13 tour-goers.

"Our idea was to make this experience intimate and not be big groups," Grandmaison said. "With big groups, people get lost in the shuffle. We wanted a small, interactive experience, and the breweries like this. Some of the breweries we go to are small, so it works out better to have a smaller group."

Duluth Experience has teamed up with nine craft breweries in the Twin Ports and up the North Shore for the behind-the-scenes tours. That allows for a changing lineup of three craft breweries on each tour. The tours also includes a meal at a brewpub or restaurant that serves local craft beers.

"We anticipate a large portion of our business will be folks from out of town," Grandmaison said. "A lot will be people who come here to visit people who live here. That's where we're putting a lot of our marketing effort."

Carlton Bennett of Denver was visiting Duluth with family last week when they saw The Duluth Experience brochure around town. He was among five family members who signed up for last Thursday's tour.

"It's very fun," Bennett said during the stop at Bent Paddle Brewing Co. "I heard Duluth has some up-and-coming breweries. I love beer, and I'm into micro-breweries."

Brand exposure

Beer enthusiasts like Bennett who visit Duluth are prime candidates for the tour. But the tours draw a diverse group, from non-beer drinkers to avid home brewers. They include people on group outings, couples celebrating special days and people who opt for a daytrip instead of a weekend getaway.

"There's so much buzz going on right now about all the craft breweries starting up," Grandmaison said. "What we offer is a good opportunity for people to get to know what's going on with the craft beer scene."

And a lot has been happening in Duluth. In the past couple of years a half-dozen craft breweries have sprung up in the area. Within a few blocks' radius in downtown Duluth, beer from every brewpub and production brewery in Duluth can be tried.

For George Masmanides of Minneapolis, who took the last GetKnit tour, brewery tours are a family activity.

"We've been using brewery tours as an excuse to get together," he said of his wife's family. "It got us interested in seeing other breweries."

When family members started going on brewery tours five year ago, Masmanides cared little about beer. Now he's becoming a beer connoisseur.

"I'm learning about all the nuances of beer," he said. "It's as complex as wine."

Wessling of St. Paul, who took the GetKnit tour with her fiance, Brady Sloan, was surprised by how each of the five breweries toured had its individual style. Sloan, meanwhile, was struck by how the relationship between the breweries was more a collaboration than a competition.

For brewery owners, it's a way to expose more people to their beers. And many go home with growlers of craft beer and T-shirts they've purchased.

"The more people we get through the door and learning about our beer, the more they become ingrained to our brand," said Bent Paddle co-owner Laura Mullen. "Just getting people through the door is the best way to do that."

A few breweries charge the tour companies to be stops on the tours, but Bent Paddle doesn't for Duluth Experience's small groups. And Carmody doesn't charge at all.

"Samples are free," said Carmody's Baumgarth. "It's a way to showcase our beer. It's a way to connect with the Twin Cities crowd. We want to expand our reach."