The business of being Duluth's lone microbrewery
To anyone else it might've been just a big garage. But to Don Hoag and Lake Superior Brewing Company, that former grocery store warehouse in one of West Superior Street's most nondescript buildings was a chance to take their brewing operation to ...
To anyone else it might've been just a big garage. But to Don Hoag and Lake Superior Brewing Company, that former grocery store warehouse in one of West Superior Street's most nondescript buildings was a chance to take their brewing operation to the next level.
They had already moved around twice inside Fitger's in search of more space, and it was high time to get a bottling machine so they could move beyond just filling up kegs.
"There aren't that many breweries in the world that get by just making draught beer, especially in America," said Hoag, LSB's president and co-owner. "The trend is that there is a lot more consumption at home. ... Your package sales and bottles and cans represent a majority of most breweries' production in the U.S."
Although LSB has been growing since it moved into that "big garage" in 1998, the company is still somewhat of an anomaly in the brewing business.
The National Beer Wholesaler's Association and the Beer Institute (which represents our nation's major brewers) reports that the beer industry provides more than 37,000 jobs in Minnesota, but Hoag says you can probably count the number of the state's microbreweries like his on one hand.
"Microbreweries like us, not being able to have a pub and sell people some beer? There's a lot of money in the retail end of this business," he said. "We keep saying, 'Hey, we're at the wrong end of the food chain.'"
Indeed, the brewpubs are flourishing. Fitger's Brewhouse co-owner Tim Nelson recently announced his outfit was the largest-producing brewpub in Minnesota -- with a production of 1,750 barrels last year (vs. the 2,000 put out by LSB).
Hoag is happy with his company's results, though.
"The overall craft beer segment of the market is solid, and I think it's going to continue to grow," he said. "The lighter-weight beers are always going to have their place, but there are an awful lot of people who want a little more color and flavor."
In fact, the trend of expecting more from brews has grown to such great heights that the nation's big brewers have been reacting to it in the last decade.
"Twenty years ago, who'd a thunk that Anheuser-Busch would make a dark beer," Hoag joked about the brewer's Michelob Amber Bock line.
"It's an extremely competitive business," he added. "The whole craft brewing and small brewery business in the states is barely 25 years old. There's been some shakeout and some consolidation, and there's been some fabulous successes ... like Sierra Nevada."
LSB itself has its roots in the early '80s, when several of the company's owners started home brewing.
Split Rock Bock, one of the company's most coveted brews, sprang from one of those early recipes concocted by his homebrew partner, John Judd (who is also a co-owner of LSB).
They entered it in two of the biggest national competitions ... and won.
"So we said, 'Hey, if we ever open a brewery, we know what the bock recipe is going to be,'" Hoag said. "It's changed a little bit. I mean, we were making five-gallon batches, and now it's 500.
"It's adapted, but it's basically the same beer."
Fueled by their homebrews' increasing popularity, they secured that first space in Fitger's in '94. Hoag said it was a nice place to start, but it was only 250 square feet.
"That walk-in fridge is bigger than our original brewery was," Hoag joked from a makeshift bar within the 4,500 square feet LSB enjoys at 2711 W. Superior St.
With the additional space, LSB was able to add a new bottling machine last year.
Hoag said they can now work twice as fast, filling 80 to 85 cases an hour. He said they could still expand by getting more fermenters, too.
As far as regional domination is concerned, Hoag says LSB is currently in talks with its distributors (they don't do any distribution themselves) to move beyond its current outline -- which includes stores and restaurants in the Twin Ports' corners of Minnesota and Wisconsin, from Hinckley up to the Canadian border and other assorted areas of the state.
For more information on the brewery (or to schedule a tour), call 723-4000 or check out www.lakesuperiorbrewing.com .
Lake Superior Brewing Company's creations
With commentary from company president Don Hoag
Special Ale LSB's flagship brew and best seller is a North American interpretation of British pale ale. "Fairly well hopped, so it's got some bitterness to it," Hoag said.
Kayak K'lsch "That's the closest thing we make to a mainstream beer," Hoag said of LSB's light-colored, mildly hopped "approachable" brew. That said, it is served at many restaurants around town.
Sir Duluth Oatmeal Stout "It's like drinking velvet," Hoag said, adding that their oatmeal was originally brewed as a seasonal, but demand was so high it got bumped up to year-round.
Mesabi Red LSB's American red ale is a stronger brew accented by a dark amber color.
Split Rock Bock (currently available) The star of Fitger's Bockfest, which garnered Hoag and homebrew partner John Judd national accolades in the mid-'80s.
7 Bridges Brown (spring) "A medium brown. Not as dark in color as the bock. Real nice, smooth beer. Real drinkable," Hoag said.
Windward Wheat (early summer) "Our version of a German-style wheat beer that's unfiltered ... it's intentionally cloudy. Served with a slice of lemon," Hoag said.
St. Louis Bay IPA (late summer) "A fair bit of color to it. Real amber color. Fair amount of hops. Little bit of oak character -- we actually take some oak chips and boil them up in the water," Hoag said.
Oktoberfest "It's as close to Germany as you can get without going over the pond," so sayeth LSB's Web site.
Old Man Winter Warmer LSB's strong barleywine contender. Hoag said last year's batch hovered around 9 percent.
High Bridge Root Beer Sweet, "brewer-tested, kid-approved" version of the non-alcoholic soft drink. Currently only available at the brewery via $10 half-gallon "growlers."
Bueno Blanco and Negro Noche Authentic Mexican beers brewed exclusively for Hacienda Del Sol.