“It's almost impossible (to) brew bad beer here,” said Dave Hoops, owner of Hoops Brewing.
That’s because the area’s nearly dozen breweries use great, clean water from Lake Superior, he said.
Since the 1990s, the Duluth-Superior area has seen the number of breweries dramatically increase, with a little help from the water. And for some who have watched the industry expand, like Hoops, they're staying focused on what their breweries do well.
When Hoops arrived in Duluth from California in 1999, he said everyone was drinking bad beer. He used his California brewing expertise at Fitger's Brewhouse, where he worked for 17 years before starting Hoops in Canal Park.
“I just started making West Coast beers,” he said. “And so I got all this unnecessarily unfair praise for being some kind of wizard brewer.”
As the only craft brasseries in the city at the time, Fitger’s did the “heavy lifting” to help develop the industry, he said. During his time, they created hoppy beer while a culture grew that was centered around breweries.
“Like water in the desert, people just went crazy over hoppy beers,” he said.
To Hoops, a longtime Duluth brewmaster, brewing is a combination of art and science.
The art side is creating the beer from scratch, just as one does for a recipe. And, for the science aspect, beer requires attention to microbiology and chemistry to manage fermentation, the reaction of yeast and more.
“It’s a great combo,” Hoops said.
Tim Nelson co-founded Fitger’s in 1995, making it the fifth brewery in the state. During the early years, Nelson said they were often educating customers about the basics of craft beer.
They even created a gateway beer for customers who were new to craft drinks.
“We were educating consumers one pint at the time,” he said.
Now, he said breweries have the opposite problem.
“(Customers are) so transient in their lust for new flavors, you have to be constantly innovating,” Nelson said.
Nelson eventually left Fitger’s and co-founded Earth Rider Brewery in Superior.
The industry further developed when a second round of breweries opened, which was largely driven by a chance in state laws that allowed taprooms and the sale of growlers, Nelson said.
Now, they see growth in smaller breweries.
Hoops cited Bent Paddle Brewing in the Lincoln Park neighborhood as one of the newer breweries that “hit it out of the park.” It has a perfect storm of great beer, a clear vision and a well-balanced group of owners.
“At that point that everything started going crazy,” Hoops said.
He's made his brewing space at 325 S. Lake Ave. one for community gathering, he said. With TVs displayed across the walls, board games piled in a corner and plenty of seating, Hoops aims to draw people to drink in the facility.
With numerous choices in the area, he said “brand loyalty is something that is kind of hard to find.”
And Hoops avoids trends and says his beer quality is paramount.
"I really tried hard to have people be original and true to themselves as brewers, and everybody has a different idea of what that is," he said.
Hoops believes the industry will continue changing. He has numerous ideas on what may happen, but he highlighted three: a greater emphasis on natural ingredients, a natural consolidation in businesses and more focus on health issues related to drinking.
"We are (lucky) in Duluth to have this many breweries.," he said. "A lot of people want to push the fact that we are a beer destination. I believe to be a beer destination, you have to have a number of world class breweries. But we certainly are a tourist destination that has great beer."