Big Ships and Great Beers on the Shores of Lake Superior
Story by Kendall Jones. Photos by Kim Sharpe Jones
It’s a very Duluthian thing to do, and it pairs nicely with a Duluth-brewed beer. Even for the locals who’ve seen it dozens of times, it never gets old. As a big freighter approaches the harbor, steaming in from across the expanses of Lake Superior, people gather around the canal. A loud bell clamors as the aerial lift bridge is raised. The ship’s crew stands dutifully on the deck, waving at the spectators who’ve gathered to watch another 1,000-footer pass through the narrow, manmade channel between the lake and the harbor, moving quicker than you’d imagine, so close that it seems you could reach out and high-five the crew as the behemoth passes by.
When you visit Duluth, Minnesota you simply must make time to go down to Canal Park to witness this magnificent feat of maritime engineering and seamanship. After you’ve seen a ship that is longer than a football field pass through a canal that is only about 80 yards wide, you’ll be ready for a beer. Luckily, Hoops Brewing is just two blocks down the street. (When will the big boats be there? Check out the online schedule. )
Duluth is home to eight breweries, with some others in the nearby area, including two in the town of Superior, Wisconsin, just a couple miles away across the bay. Here are the beery highlights from my recent visit to Duluth.
Shootin’ Some Hoops
No, it’s not a typo. The name is Hoops Brewing, not hops. The brewery’s namesake, Dave Hoops, was a brewer at a nearby Fitger’s Brewhouse for 17 years. Now he’s the brewmaster at his very own brewery but admits the real work is done by head brewer Melissa Rainville, who he recruited from the aforementioned Fitger’s Brewhouse.
At any given time you’ll find as many as 30 different beers on tap at this 250-seat beer hall. Yep, it’s a big ‘un. A 250-seater! Hoops Brewing doesn’t aim for wide distribution but instead focuses on providing the local beer community with a continually rotating selection of beers and beer styles.
It’s not surprising that the beer is so good once you know a bit about the man behind it. Dave Hoops is a Duluth native and a graduate of the University of Minnesota Duluth. He attended the Seibel Institute in Chicago, apprenticed at Goose Island Brewing, was the head brewer at Pyramid Brewing in Berkeley, California, and eventually returned home to Duluth for a long stint at Fitger’s Brewhouse. After that, he and some partners started a successful brewery consulting business. That’s some serious street cred in the beer world.
I was particularly impressed with Hoops’ lagers. The Helles and the Pilsner were both exceptional. Light and refreshing, with crisp malt flavors. The pilsner, as it should, offered more hop character. Light, refreshing beers are great, but I’ve never been one to shy away from a robust, boozy beer bomb, like the Cognac Barrel Aged Wheat Wine, which tipped the scales at 13 percent ABV.
No food on the menu, but you’ll find plenty of restaurants in the nearby area and you’re welcome to bring it with you. Kids welcome.
325 S Lake Ave
Duluth, MN 55802
Bend That Paddle
Bent Paddle Brewing is located in an industrial part of town now known as the Lincoln Park Craft District, as are two other breweries, a couple cider makers, various food producers, and an assortment of other artisan businesses. Since it’s opening in 2013, Bent Paddle Brewing has grown into one of the larger breweries in the state. Not surprising given the quality of the beer. Last I heard, it ranked sixth.
In 2017 Bent Paddle Brewing opened a spacious new taproom in a big old building just a block away from the existing brewery. It’s a warehouse-style taproom, with a large yet cozy main room where tables are comfortably scattered beneath large, rough-hewn beams. Out front, a partially covered patio that once served as the loading dock at the Enger and Olsen furniture warehouse.
The taproom does not serve food, but plenty of local restaurants will deliver to your table. Might I suggest a delicious, meaty sandwich from nearby Corktown Deli? Other patrons opted for BBQ-fare from OMC Smokehouse.
The flagship beers are solid, like the Kanu Session Pale Ale, which clocks in at 4.8 percent ABV but packs the hop-forward character you might expect in an IPA. Those flagship beers, and especially the Bent IPA, are widely available across Minnesota, so focus on less-common creations when you visit the brewery’s taproom, like the Wilderness Tuxedo, a sour ale with mango and guava, or whatever other, less-common beers you find on the menu. Kids welcome but dogs are not.
Bent Paddle Brewing
1832 W Michigan St
Duluth, MN 55806
The Little Bear (Ursa Minor)
Ursa Minor Brewing, also located in the Lincoln Park Craft District, is a quickly rising star on Duluth’s beer scene. According to the local beer nerds, when the brewery opened in 2018 it took a while to get up to speed, which is not unusual for a new brewery, but today the beers are excellent.
With 28 taps, most of which are dedicated to house-brewed beers, fed by a relatively diminutive five-barrel brewing system, expect lots of one-and-done beers. Rotation is the name of the game, but some beers are featured frequently.
The Lillydipper is a great, low-ABV (5.0 percent) pale ale with gobs of hop flavor. Helmet Hair NE-Style IPA is not as hazy as many, but just as fruity and hop-centric.
The kitchen is proud of its wood-fired pizzas and the menu includes a few other noshable options. Outside, the patio is large with fire pits for the colder months, of which there are plenty in Duluth. Stubborn Duluth Pale Ale is a nod to the kind of fortitude it takes to live this far north, on the banks of the largest lake in the world (by area) that creates its own weather. Family friendly, dogs are welcome to accompany their well-behaved masters on the patio.
Ursa Minor Brewing
2415 W Superior St, suite b
Duluth, MN 55806
We All Ride the Same Earth
A couple miles South of Duluth, across the bay, Earth Rider Brewing operates its brewery and tasting room in Superior, Wisconsin. The brewery is over there, but the tasting room is over here, less than a block away. The tasting room, called The Cedar Lounge, is a free-standing, two-story, old brick building that you might mistake for a neighborhood dive bar at first glance. No doubt this watering hole has stories to tell and secrets to keep.
Stepping inside, the Cedar Lounge is as comfortable as your oldest, best-loved pair of blue jeans. It just feels right. You can easily imagine that once upon a time, long before the craft beer revolution swept across America, this was a place where hard-working people with calloused hands and dirty work boots came to wash away the worries of the day.
The beers range from expected styles, like Superior Pale Ale and Caribou Lake IPA, to more creative concoctions like a Scotch Ale aged in whiskey barrels from a local distillery and a coffee pale ale brewed with coffee from a nearby roaster. Curiously, I found another Cognac beer—Cognac Barrel Aged North Tower Stout—the second Cognac-aged beer I encountered during my three-day beer tour.
We happened to wander in during an afterparty for the local roller derby team. The atmosphere was festive, to say the least, despite the team having lost the bout. Food options are limited. Not much beyond bar snacks and some pub pizzas. Family-friendly before 8:00 P.M.
Earth Rider Brewing
1016, 1617 N 3rd St
Superior, WI 54880
Located about 30 minutes north of Duluth on the “north shore” of Lake Superior, Castle Danger Brewing operates its brewery and tasting room in the small community of Two Harbors. If you spend any time at all in Minnesota you’ll very likely come across Castle Danger Cream Ale, one of the state’s most ubiquitous craft beers.
It is worth the drive up to Castle Danger for the beer alone, but taking a drive up the lakeshore is its own reward. The locals and the tourism board refer to this area as The North Shore. Stay off the expressway and take the old highway—known as Scenic Drive, Congdon Blvd., or old 61. Stop at Kendall’s Smoke House and get some smoked fish, cheese, and crackers. Stop at Great Lakes Candy Kitchen for some chocolate treats. You’ll thank me later.
Once you and your recently acquired picnic snacks arrive at Castle Danger, relax in the expansive, park-like beer garden. Play some cornhole and enjoy the lake view. Dawdle away the hours as you sip on delicious beers of all kinds. The Ode IPA and the Cream Ale are always safe bets, but consider something that will pair better with your chocolate treats, like George Hunter Nitro Stout or the Baltic Porter aged in Jack Daniels barrels. Families, dogs, all are welcome.
Castle Danger Brewing
17 7th St
Two Harbors, MN 55616
Other Breweries in the Area
Canal Park Brewing – A brewpub in Duluth (near Canal Park).
Carmody Irish Pub – An Irish bar and brewpub.
Dubh Linn Brewpub – An Irish bar and brewpub.
Fitzger’s Brewhouse Brewery and Grill – Brewery, restaurant, and taproom.
Lake Superior Brewing – Brewery with taproom.
Moose Lake Brewing – Brewery with taproom (in Moose Lake, 45 min south of Duluth).
Thirsty Pagan Brewing – Brewery and pub (in Superior, Wisconsin, 10 min south of Duluth).