Duluth-area beer production holds tight through pandemic

When Perfect Duluth Day last tallied regional craft beer production in 2018, the Twin Ports and surrounding region had tripled output over the previous five years, quenching area thirst with about 57,000 barrels of beer. Suds production has certainly slowed and dipped a bit since the previous audit. This mirrors the national trend, which indicates a 9 percent decline in production by small and independent brewers in 2020.

A recent survey of the state’s craft breweries by the University of Minnesota Extension attempted to quantify the pandemic’s repercussions on the industry. The report showed 1,050 jobs were affected by COVID-19; the economic losses amounted to an estimated $186.6 million.

While the 2011 “Surly Bill” was a boon for Minnesota’s small breweries because it allowed on-site sales directly to consumers, pandemic taproom shutdowns paralyzed pint sales. With taprooms closed, many beer producers were forced to swiftly adapt their operating models and leverage all possible revenue streams to cope with this major loss of income. They also had to contend with supply chain issues, such as can shortages.

The good news is that the local industry overall appears to be holding steady, buoyed by federal COVID-19 relief programs as well as loyal customers, creativity and cautious optimism.

Adapting in an unpredictable year

“It’s been like a saga of ups and downs and craziness and volatility,” said Ben Hugus, Ursa Minor Brewing’s CEO. “Everything from supply issues to COVID issues, to price issues on ingredients and shutdowns. It’s been a wild and crazy year of dodging and weaving and adapting.”

Hugus noted that Ursa Minor’s diversified business model, which includes food as well as both wholesale and taproom beer sales helped the business survive the worst part of the pandemic. The brewery made what some would consider a bold move, getting rid of parking spots to expand al fresco seating options in 2020. As it turns out, the patio is beloved by patrons and will be one of the enduring changes post-pandemic.

Thirsty Pagan Brewing celebrated its 15-year anniversary this month. The brewpub had the benefit of food sales but not wholesale revenue in 2020. Owner Steve Knauss said he started working with staff to plan ahead as early as February for a shift in operations. “We’ve had to learn how to be a delivery company,” he said, noting that it’s been a frustrating but helpful learning experience and evolution. “It really helped to be proactive versus reactive and I’m prouder than hell of my staff for that.”

Blacklist Brewing Company produced 1,500 barrels in 2019 despite Superior Street construction in front of the taproom. That number held steady in 2020 even amidst the pandemic. Blacklist had the benefit of a hybrid model that includes wholesale distribution according to owner and head brewer Brian Schanzenbach, though he noted, “it’s shockingly obvious that we could have sold more beer.” A move to a substantially larger location this summer is sure to boost the company’s beer sales moving forward.

Cans in hands

Schanzenbach credited loyal customers for helping the company persist and said Blacklist had surprisingly good crowler sales from the taproom during shutdowns. “I’m shocked at how many people would go out of their way to do that versus just going to a liquor store, that was really cool to see.”

Tasha Klockow, owner of Klockow Brewing in Grand Rapids, also gave patrons a shout-out for their support. “We could not have remained in business without the incredible support from our community and can never thank them enough. We are very lucky we can continue making great beer and support the community that supports us.” Klockow adapted in part last year by expanding its packaged options in 2020. It brought in a 16 oz. canning line after the first shutdown in March, which “helped production immensely,” according to Klockow.

The Hoops Brewing model relies heavily on having its Canal Park beer hall open for the majority of its sales. But owner Dave Hoops was also pleased to see customers embrace expanded to-go crowler sales. The brewery spruced up its megacans last year with designs by local artists like Chris Monroe.

When the beer hall was operating at one-third of its capacity, Hoops was “proud of the fact that staff felt safe and customers also reached out to let us know they did too” due to the brewery’s safety precautions. Hoops said he’s also proud and thankful that the brewery retained most of its employees despite the fact that the service industry overall is having staffing issues.

Like Ursa Minor, Hoops Brewing increased its outdoor drinking space as a result of the pandemic. Starting Memorial Day weekend, a new beer trailer with eight taplines and a tent will be set up in its back parking lot, adjacent to the William A. Irvin.

Pandemic fallout

The region’s largest brewery didn’t have the option of selling crowlers directly to consumers. Castle Danger Brewery surpassed the 20,000 barrels per year mark in late 2019 and is now prohibited by Minnesota law from selling beer to go from its taproom. Not being able to do off-sale of any kind was a big loss for the brewery, which has become a destination for tourists.

The brewery was on track to produce 30,000 barrels in 2020, but instead only produced 22,950, according to owner Jamie MacFarlane. Revenues were down 30 percent from the prior year with taproom sales down 50 percent in 2020. “During both shutdowns, the ability to sell growlers or crowlers would have made a major difference in not having to furlough staff and keeping some kind of revenue stream and keep the connection going with our customers,” said MacFarlane.

One move by the brewery proved to be serendipitous in the past year. “In regards to adapting to COVID, we were fortunate enough to introduce our variety pack in April 2020, right when liquor stores were the only way people could get their beer. The launch of this had been planned for months, so the timing was pretty lucky,” said MacFarlane.

South Shore Brewery has the distinction of being one of the oldest breweries in the region, which may be both a blessing and a curse. Owner Bo Bélanger says COVID’s impact was “real and extensive” for the brewery. “We are very fortunate to have a flagship brand, Nut Brown Ale, that helped us mitigate it somewhat. On-premise sales are the principal makeup of our sales,” he said. “Off-premise sales of that flagship brand no doubt has saved us thus far. I just never tallied production numbers for 2020. Too depressing.”

On the bright side, the brewery was able to invest in projects to hopefully aid in its rebound and move forward in an industry that is much more competitive than when it started in 1995, according to Bélanger. South Shore’s Nut Brown Ale is now available in 12 oz. cans and 12-packs. “We have done more to diversify our portfolio by adding kombucha and hard seltzer. We have been more sensitive to the ever-changing beer styles and have made several new releases.”

Taking stock and looking forward

Twenty-four breweries and brewpubs now exist in northeast Minnesota and northwest Wisconsin. One of the most notable changes since 2018 is that Lake Superior Brewing ended its reign as the area’s longest-running microbrewery when it closed at the end of 2019. Warrior Brewing is poised to open soon in Lake Superior’s former Lincoln Park location. Lake Superior Brewing and its popular recipes like Kayak Kolsch will live on in a brewpub in the works in Duluth’s Lakeside neighborhood.

Business North reported in its November issue that Dubh Linn Irish Brew Pub head brewer Seth Maxim made the decision to buy the Lake Superior Brewing brand after the steam service that provided the hot-water system used at Dubh Linn was removed as part of the Superior Street reconstruction project, resulting in an end to brewing operations there.

Four beer-forward establishments entered the regional scene in 2019 — Rapids Brewing in Grand Rapids, Adventure Club in Bayfield, Raven’s Breath Brewery in Iron River and Block North Brew Pub in Aitkin.

Below is a breakdown of 2020 stats, from largest to smallest producers. Note: Some businesses did not respond to requests for information in time for publishing. Numbers will be added as they come in.

Castle Danger Brewery
30-barrel brewery and taproom; brewery founded in 2011, taproom opened in 2014
17 Seventh St., Two Harbors
Clint and Jamie MacFarlane, owners; Lon and Mandy Larson, owners; Bjorn Erickson, head brewer
2018 production: 23,500 barrels
2020 production: 22,950 barrels

Bent Paddle Brewing
Bent Paddle Brewing
30-barrel brewery and taproom with 7-barrel pilot brewery, founded in 2013
1912 W. Michigan St., Duluth
Colin & Laura Mullen and Bryon & Karen Tonnis, co-founders/owners; Tim Wilson, head brewer
2018 production: 17,347 barrels
2020 production: 14,101 barrels

Earth Rider Brewery
20-barrel brewery, opened October 2017; taproom next door at Cedar Lounge
1617 N. Third St, Superior
Tim Nelson, owner; Frank Kaszuba, director of brewing operations; Allyson Rolph, head brewer
2018 production: 2,180 barrels
2020 production: 3,586 barrels

Voyageur Brewing Company
20-barrel brewery and taproom, founded in 2015
233 W. Highway 61, Grand Marais
Mike Prom and Bruce Walters, owners; Evan Barnett, head brewer
2018 production: 1,448 barrels
2020 production: 1,545 barrels

Blacklist Brewing Company
Founded in 2012 as a 3.5-barrel brewery; upgraded to a 20-barrel system with taproom in late 2016
120 E. Superior St., Duluth
Mark Cool, TJ Estabrook, Tyler Kocon, owners; Brian Schanzenbach, owner and head brewer
2018 production: 1,400 barrels
2020 production: 1,500 barrels

Ursa Minor
5-barrel brewery and taproom, opened in September 2018
2415 W. Superior St., Duluth
Ben Hugus, CEO and founder; Mike Franklin, head brewer
2018 production: 270 barrels (opened September 28, 2018)
2020 production: 1,150 barrels

Hoops Brewing
15-barrel brewery and taproom, opened in June 2017
325 S. Lake Ave., Duluth
Dave Hoops, owner and master brewer; Casey Tatro, head brewer
2018 production: 1,500 barrels
2020 production: 1,000 barrels

South Shore Brewery
Founded in 1995; 10-barrel brewery in Ashland; 15-barrel production brewery, tasting room and event center added in Washburn in 2016
808 W. Main St., Ashland; 532 W. Bayfield St., Washburn
Bo Bélanger, president, owner, production manager; Justin Bohn, head brewer; Joe Bélanger, brewer
2018 production: 2,000 barrels
2020 production: not tallied, “too depressing,” according to owner Bo Bélanger

Fitger's Brewhouse
Fitger’s Brewhouse
10-barrel brewery supplying four pubs and a retail store, founded in 1995
600 E. Superior St., Duluth
Rod Raymond, owner; Dylan Ice, head brewer
2018 production: 1,300 barrels
2020 production: 803 barrels

Moose Lake Brewing Company
Moose Lake Brewing Company
7-barrel brewery and taproom, founded in 2016
244 Lakeshore Drive, Moose Lake
Shawn Wigg, partner and head brewer; Travis Anderson, assistant brewer
2018 production: 379 barrels
2020 production: 560 barrels

Klockow Brewing Company
8.5-barrel brewery, opened in October 2017
36 SE 10th St., Grand Rapids
Owners: Tasha Klockow, owner and general manager; Andy Klockow, owner and head brewer
2018 production: 420 barrels
2020 production: 540 barrels

Three-Twenty logo
Three Twenty Brewing
7-barrel brewery, founded in 2018
135 Fifth St. SE, Pine City
Nick and Cassandra Olson, owners; Nick Olson, brewer
2019 production: 362.63 barrels
2020 production: 350.89 barrels

Canal Park Brewing Co.
15-barrel brewpub, founded in 2012
300 Canal Park Drive, Duluth
Rockie Kavajecz, owner
2018 production: 1,100 barrels
2020 production: did not respond

Angry Minnow Brewing
10-barrel brewpub, founded in 2004
10440 Florida Ave., Hayward
Will Rasmussen, general manager; Jason Rasmussen, brewer (both are owners)
2018 production: 1,000 barrels
2020 production: did not respond

BoomTown Brewery & Woodfire Grill
7-barrel brewery, opened in January 2018
531 E. Howard St., Hibbing
Owners: Erik and Jessica Lietz; Dennis Holland, head brewer
2018 production: 650 barrels
2020 production: did not respond

Boathouse Brewpub & Restaurant
3.5-barrel brewpub, founded in 2012
47 E. Sheridan St., Ely
Mark Bruzek, owner; Ben Storbeck, head brewer; Joe Colarich, assistant brewer
2018 production: 300 barrels
2020 production: did not respond

Thirsty Pagan Brewing
2 and 7-barrel brewpub founded as Twin Ports Brewing in 1996; became Thirsty Pagan in 2006
1615 Winter St., Superior
Steve Knauss, owner; Rapids Brewing Company, contract brewer
2018 production: 259 barrels (brewery only operated from late May through December)
2020 production: 251 barrels (predicted output 600 barrels)

Gunflint Tavern & Brewpub
5-barrel brewpub, restaurant founded in 1998 with beer production starting in late 2014
111 W. Wisconsin St., Grand Marais
Jeff and Susan Gecas, owners; Paul Gecas, head brewer
2018 production: 225 barrels
2020 production: did not respond

Block North Brewpub logo
Block North Brewpub
3-barrel brewpub, founded in May 2019
Rich Courtemanche, Peter Lowe Jr., Dake Olson, owners; Bo Martin, head brewer
302 Minnesota Ave., Aitkin
2019 production: 220 barrels
2020 production: 220 barrels

Adventure Club Logo
Adventure Club
2-barrel nanobrewery, opened May 2019, started brewing in October
35265 S. County Highway J, Bayfield
Matthew Gerdts, owner and head brewer
2019 production: 11 barrels
2020 production: 67.75 barrels

Raven's Breath Brewery Logo
Raven’s Breath Brewery
1.5-barrel nanobrewery, opened August 2019
Corner of US 2 and County H, Iron River
Rick Sauer, owner and head brewer
2019 production: 24 barrels
2020 production: 31 barrels

Carmody Irish Pub & Brewing
5-barrel brewpub; bar founded in 2006 with beer production starting in 2009
308 E. Superior St., Duluth
Liz Gleeson, brewery owner; Ed Gleeson pub owner; Bob Blair, brewer
2018 production: 89 barrels
2020 production: 17 barrels
Note: Carmody closed on March 17, 2020. Ed Gleeson says Carmody intends to reopen in 2021.

Cuyuna Brewing Co. Logo
Cuyuna Brewing Company
5-barrel brewpub, founded in January 2017
1 E. Main St., Crosby
Nick and Laura Huisinga, owners; Nick Huisinga, brewer
2020 production: did not respond

Rapids Brewing Logo
Rapids Brewing Company
7-barrel brewpub, opened August 2019
214 N. Pokegama Ave., Grand Rapids
Bill Martinetto, general manager; Darin Jensen, head brewer
2020 production: did not respond

Source: Individual breweries.

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