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Tasting the world at Twin Ports breweries

With International Beer Day coming up Aug. 5, we visited five local breweries to learn how they're tapping styles borrowed from countries spanning the globe.

A beer being pulled.
Ingrid Johnson pulls a pint of Hoops Munich lager on July 26. International Beer Day is celebrated on the first Friday of every August.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — Grabbing a beer and a hot dog at a Huskies game might seem quintessentially American, but beer has always been an international beverage. Even ancient Babylonians drank beer, and throughout history, many countries have developed their own distinctive styles of brew. With International Beer Day coming up Friday, the News Tribune visited five Twin Ports breweries to learn about styles they're borrowing from across the oceans.

Hoops Brewing: Munich Lager

Man talking.
Bjorn Erickson, head of brewery operations at Hoops Brewing, talks about the brewery’s Munich Lager during a break July 26.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

"We're trying to create community here," said Bjorn Erickson, head of brewery operations at Hoops Brewing. He was sitting in his company's Canal Park taproom, which was inspired by German beer halls and features long tables designed to encourage socializing. "The beer is really just a reason to get together ... in the very traditional German sense, it's part of the lifestyle. It's part of the culture."

A glass of beer.
Hoops Brewing’s Munich Lager.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

German brewing styles have become touchpoints for beer drinkers around the world, and "the core of our portfolio is traditional beer styles," said Erickson. Among them is Munich Lager, No. 65 in the Hoops brewing lineup and a taproom standby. "Munich lagers tend to be a little bit more on the malty side, just a hint of roasty toastiness," said Erickson. "They're not as hop-forward as a pilsner. It's a very well-balanced, easy-drinking beer."

The Hoops brewers rigorously adhere to traditional German brewing methods and ingredients, taking "no shortcuts," said Erickson. "We have the luxury and creative license under (founder Dave Hoops') guidance to make the beer styles that we want to and kind of drag our feet and say we're going to be stuffy old guys and be traditionalists."

Wheat tends to lend a mellow flour-like flavor with slightly tart acid notes. This makes beers brewed with wheat highly drinkable.

That means bucking trends, Erickson said. "A lot of breweries can pump out triple-dry hopped IPAs or super-dark pastry stouts, but not every brewery will make a pilsner that tastes good and that is free of flaws."

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Munich Lager's malt-forward characteristics give it a "bready" and "wholesome" taste, Erickson said with satisfaction. "It's not full of pizzazz, but I hope it tastes delicate and refined and well-engineered ... It doesn't leave you wanting, except for another beer."

Bent Paddle Brewing Co.: Jas Hands

Man talking at a bar.
Neil Caron, innovation brewer at Bent Paddle Brewing Co., talks about Jas Hands beer July 27, 2022.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

On the other side of the globe, brewers in Asia and Australia have developed what's known as an "international style" pilsner. Rice is a staple food in that part of the world, and international style pilsners are built on it. That includes Jas Hands, a sunny offering from Lincoln Park's Bent Paddle Brewing Co.

A glass of beer.
Bent Paddle’s Jas Hands.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

"It's going to be great for the rest of the summer," said Neil Caron, Bent Paddle's innovation brewer, who recommends Jas Hands to "anybody that wants a little bit more flavor than our Light Lager, but still wants something really, really light and crushable — drinkable — with just a little bit of hop note at the end."

Rice is a common ingredient in beer, but the rice found in American lagers like Budweiser is cheaper and more sugary than the rice that stars in Jas Hands. Caron "found a good source of non-GMO Thai jasmine rice and decided to make a beer," he said. The truly international Jas Hands also includes "German pilsner malt and German Hallertauer hops. And then obviously our great Lake Superior water."

Caron noted that Bent Paddle tipplers who want to continue their global journey can move on to the German-style Venture Pils, or to the brewery's signature Bent Hop, "kind of an American take on an English IPA." The brewery's 14° Degree is "in between an American ale and an English ESB. Our Wilderness Tuxedo is based on a German Berliner Weisse ... Tropical Hop uses some New Zealand hops."

Inevitably, said Caron, "every day is International Beer Day when you make beer."

Ursa Minor Brewing: Thistle Dew Scottish Ale

Man drinking a beer.
Ursa Minor Brewing founder Ben Hugus sips a Thistle Dew Scottish Ale during a break on July 27.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

"Every beer has a time and place," said Ben Hugus, founder of Ursa Minor Brewing.

He admitted the company's Thistle Dew Scottish Ale is not an example of "the sexy new styles" in the beer world. "It's not like a new hazy or sour or something like that," said Hugus, hoisting a pint on the brewery's expansive patio.

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A glass of beer.
Ursa Minor’s Thistle Dew Scottish Ale.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Thistle Dew may be unusual in the craft beer world, but customers have welcomed the variety. "It goes really well in a lot of different weathers and a lot of different activities," said Hugus. "For being such an odd style, it sold really fast."

Odd, of course, is a relative term. The "malt-forward," "rounded" beer with "wonderful toffee notes" and a "nice crisp finish" is squarely in the Scottish brewing tradition. "The northern British Isles did not have suitable growing regions for hops all the time," Hugus explained, "so they predominantly brewed malt-focused ales."

The Scottish ale is a no-brainer for fans of malty brews, but Hugus also suggests it to "people who like things like a pale ale ... somebody who likes ESBs."

The 10th Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild festival sold about 4,500 tickets and had more than 100 Minnesota breweries and brew pubs in attendance.

Ursa Minor recently unveiled Collaboration Kolsch, a nod to another well-known European beer style. Hop supplier Hopsteiner "had two experimental hops that are grown in the U.S., but mimic a lot of noble hop flavors from the German growing regions," said Hugus.

"A true kolsch has to be brewed in Cologne, Germany. Everything else is technically kolsch style," Hugus explained. "Proud Germans want their beer to be made there, which we get. But that doesn't stop us from trying to brew that beer."

Blacklist Brewing: Or de Belgique

Man pulling a beer.
Blacklist Brewing head brewer pulls an Or de Belgique on July 27.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

"When I first started drinking beer," said Brian Schanzenbach, "the whole goal was to find something new in the liquor store, something we hadn't had before." Now head brewer at Blacklist, Schanzenbach fills that niche with distinctive Belgian-style beers.

A glass of beer.
Blacklist’s Or de Belgique.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

When Schanzenbach traveled to Belgium, he was struck by the beers he tasted, but also the stories behind them. "Some of them take three years before they even put it in the bottle, monasteries that make them. It just seemed really exciting to me, things that took a lot of love and effort."

Or de Belgique is "very, very simple in its recipe," said Schanzenbach. "It's 100% pilsner malt. If you taste it, you're going to get a lot of different fruity notes. That's letting the yeast shine through." Comparing the Belgian to an IPA, where the strong hops push yeast to the background, Schanzenbach said, "It's kind of like the differences in breads. Like, a sourdough versus a wheat loaf or a rye."

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That's not to say yeast-forward beers are plain: quite the opposite, in fact. "Belgian yeast strains in general, kind of have a lot of different funky, fruity, weird flavors that they throw off," said Schanzenbach, reclining on a couch in Blacklist's new downtown taproom. "That's kind of fun to play with."

The country has cultivated interesting yeast strains for centuries, said Schanzenbach. "Belgium was known for their farmhouse ales ... They would just make the beer on their farm, and they'd use a yeast that was there for them. It created this natural evolution of yeast strains."

Who's this classic Belgian for? "We tend to turn people on that are just getting into craft beer," said Schanzenbach. "It's still a light beer in flavor, even though it's seven and a half percent alcohol."

While Blacklist has branched out beyond the Belgians that made the brewery's name, Or de Belgique remains a standard. "We started out with this as one of the first beers that we made in 2012. It's hung on," said Schanzenbach. At the same time, he acknowledged, "it's not for everyone."

Earth Rider Brewery: Royal Bohemian Pilsner

Three people talking about beer.
Earth Rider Brewery head brewer Allyson Rolph talks about making the award-winning Royal Bohemian Pilsner as director of brewing Frank Kaszuba has one and founder Tim Nelson listens July 27.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

All pilsner is Bohemian in the sense that the very name of the beer derives from Plzen, a city in the Bohemia region of the Czech Republic. The city's founder, King Wenceslas II, in all his goodness, allowed his subjects to brew, and by 1842, the Pilsner Urquell Brewery was making a lager that revolutionized the beer world.

A glass of beer.
Earth Rider’s Royal Bohemian Pilsner.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

"At that time, there weren't a lot of light colored beers being made," said Frank Kaszuba, Earth Rider's director of brewing. "Because of advances in technology, you didn't have to dry your malt over an open fire, so it didn't have to be dark."

By the end of the 19th century, pilsner had been brought to Duluth by brewers including the German-trained August Fitger. "Fitger's had Royal Bohemian Pilsner back (at the) turn of the century," said Earth Rider founder Tim Nelson. "We just loved the name."

The beer includes both Czech and German hops, said head brewer Allyson Rolph. "It's a little bit drier than a lot of other Czech pils or German pils," she noted. "I like all of our beers that finish a little bit a little bit drier, crisp, wants me to go back and have another glass or another sip."

A silver medal.
The silver medal Earth Rider Brewery received at the 2020 Great American Beer Festival for its Royal Bohemian Pilsner.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Nelson said that brewing such a classic is "going back in time, and they're not easy to make." Earth Rider specializes in lagers, to an extent that's unusual for the Northland. The brewery's summer mix pack includes four different beers, three of which are lagers.

The brewers' expertise produced a beer that would do August Fitger, and maybe even King Wenceslas, proud. "The beer itself is very basic," said Rolph. "It's a single malt, there's just two hops in there. Lager yeast. If you mess this beer up, it's really easy to tell."

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Arts and entertainment reporter Jay Gabler joined the Duluth News Tribune in February 2022. His previous experience includes eight years as a digital producer at The Current (Minnesota Public Radio), four years as theater critic at Minneapolis alt-weekly City Pages, and six years as arts editor at the Twin Cities Daily Planet. He's a co-founder of pop culture and creative writing blog The Tangential; and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. You can reach him at jgabler@duluthnews.com or 218-279-5536.
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