Duluth's microbreweries are coming of age

The taste of witchcraft. Maybe that's what people first thought when grain and water turned into beer. And it still might be what you think when you taste the Witchtree ESB (English-style bitter) at Fitger's Brewhouse. It is a brew with real ale ...

The taste of witchcraft. Maybe that's what people first thought when grain and water turned into beer. And it still might be what you think when you taste the Witchtree ESB (English-style bitter) at Fitger's Brewhouse. It is a brew with real ale flavor compared to the "yellow beers" pumped out by the national breweries.

Microbreweries and brewpubs are not a new phenomenon, but a trend that has come of age. If you're 21, you were born at about the time that microbreweries started popping up all over North America. With two brewing companies in Duluth alive and growing, it is a trend that Duluthians have embraced.

Fitger's Brewhouse just completed another expansion of its brewing capacity, and it just opened the new Red Star Bar April 15, also in the Fitger's Complex.

Lake Superior Brewing Company in Duluth's West End will make a record six seasonal brews this year. A heffeweissen, which is a wheat beer, is scheduled for release in mid-May.

But it hasn't been an easy road.


Fitger's Brewmaster Dave Hoops was born in Minnesota and lived in Duluth until he was 12. He started home brewing in San Francisco in 1985 and worked for free in San Francisco microbreweries and brewpubs to learn the craft, also attending Siebel Brewing Institute in Chicago. He came "home" to Duluth to brew beer. "The second week of May 1971 is when I entered the brewing field as a home brewer ... a few years before it was legal," said Dale Kleinschmidt, head brewer at Lake Superior Brewing. "When it became legal under Jimmy Carter, then the variety of quality ingredients became available and the hobby just took off nationwide."

From a hobby, a lot of home brewers tried to take it up to the next level. But the renaissance of craft-brewed beers has seen its hard times. Of the 37 microbrewery start-ups in Minnesota since the trend began, 12 of them, almost a third, no longer brew beer.

"A lot of people who didn't have a solid structure fell by the wayside," Kleinschmidt said. Lake Superior Brewing started on a shoestring in 1994 with used dairy equipment and the ingenuity of its three founders, including current president Don Hoag. It was the first microbrewery in Duluth, brewing once a week on Sunday in six-barrel batches (31 gallons/barrel), in a 200 square-foot space in the Fitger's Complex.

This is why people confuse them with Fitger's Brewhouse, Kleinschmidt says, but the two operations are not connected.

Lake Superior Brewing moved in 1998 to a converted garage at 2711 W. Superior St. and expanded where it currently brews 500 gallons per day.

Lake Superior brews four core brands, two contract beers for local restaurants, and they will brew more seasonals in mid-summer, early fall and November. They also make a root beer that is sold only in kegs because their bottling equipment can't handle the higher carbonation. But at some point, "We would love to bottle the root beer," Kleinschmidt said.

Lake Superior Special Ale is the company's flagship brew. Besides their full flavors from malted grains and hops, the beers have amusing locally-inspired brand names, like Kayak K'lsch, Mesabi Red, and Sir Duluth Oatmeal Stout. Old Man Winter Warmer is a "barley wine" being made now to age until November. At about 10 percent alcohol, "it'll start your hair on fire," said Kleinschmidt.

In Minnesota, you can either serve on the premises only, or you can sell by the keg or bottle to distributors, but not both. Lake Superior Brewing Company sells its beers through distributors, mostly in the eastern half of Minnesota and the north coast of Wisconsin.


Fitger's Brewhouse is Duluth's brewpub. They brew and serve their beer in their cozy pub restaurant on the Superior Street side of the Fitger's Brewery Complex.

Tim Nelson and Rod Raymond opened the Brewhouse in the building that had been Fitger's Brewery from 1881 to 1972. Dave Hoops gives the Duluth location 100 percent credit for their success, which includes six expansions within the building since they opened only 10 years ago. "It's just crazy. We are doing far bigger numbers than any other brewpub in the region," Hoops said, because of Duluth's non-conformist population. Tourism is a big boost as well. "All summer we are standing room only. Duluth is the last big city before the Boundary Waters."

Kleinschmidt and Hansen echo that opinion. Nowhere else, they say, do you have a city the size of Duluth that supports such a high "alternative" population, and that is their customer base. Kleinschmidt enjoys what he does, but says brewing will never make him rich. "It's a love of craft, and if you can stay in it, most people do."

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