What a crazy year for craft beer – and every other aspect of our lives. I took a serious step back in 2020. Between COVID-19 limiting travel opportunities, the birth of my son, a growing daughter, and starting a full renovation of a circa 1870s farmhouse, beer took a back seat. Yet I still had great craft beer memories and writing these awards can be cathartic. Let’s go!
A quick reminder of the stipulations. Every award must go to a brewery that I visited in the calendar year. I won’t give a brewery the same award two years in a row. If I’m missing one of your favorites I’d love to hear about it.
Best New Brewery / Falling Knife
Falling Knife came out firing at the end of 2019 with a bevy of high quality beers. They’re following the formula of a modern craft brewery: plenty of IPAs, pastry stouts, and fruited sours. But they’re also mixing it up with imperial stouts and lagers. Each beer I had shined in its own way but two of my favorites are Freischütz and Verbal Tip. Both available in cans, on style, high calibre, and opposite ends of the modern craft spectrum. If you’re lucky enough to find yourself at their Northeast Minneapolis taproom, get whatever they have. It’ll be worth it.
Best Branding / Indeed
Indeed Brewing is one of Minnesota’s craft beer anchors, and they owe some of their success to their branding. Most people’s first experience with Indeed is their cans. It’s where the unique and playful style of Chuck U makes its first impression. That brand experience continues when you enter their Northeast taproom. A mural sets the stage for the experience that awaits you and their distinctive badge is present everywhere from the tap handles to the seating. They’ve got one of the most consistent and encompassing brands in craft beer. I’m a big fan.
Best Patio / Giesenbräu
It wasn’t a great year for patios. COVID-19 put a damper on a lot of things and visiting breweries either wasn’t an option or wasn’t a priority. When restrictions lessened I was able to golf one evening with friends. Of course, I stopped for a beer at Giesenbräu before hitting the course. It was a special moment – the first time I went anywhere after the lockdown order. I had things to myself and it did wonders for my mood. It doesn’t hurt that they have a delicious tap list full of German inspired beers either.
Best Destination / Outstate
We take a yearly getaway up to the Battle Lake area with my in-laws. In the past, good craft beer has been difficult to find. Not anymore. Last year we stopped into the latest brewery to hit Fergus Falls: Outstate Brewing Company. I can’t say enough good things about them. A riverside patio with a modern “up north” taproom. And the beer? Fantastic. I’m already salivating in anticipation for a hot September day with a boat of tasters in front of me.
Best Vibe / Waldmann
When life is crazy I want comfort and I want cozy. Waldmann Brewery delivers both in equal doses. Located in the oldest commercial building in St. Paul, they’ve steeped their taproom in charm and history. It’s a Germany inspired brewery with distinct German varieties – sorry, nothing hazy (maybe unfiltered). Add delicious German fare in the form of pretzels, spätzle, and wurst and you’ve got a perfect evening that brings the feel of a Munich beer hall to Minnesota. Scoot up to their wood fire stove in the winter or grab an umbrella on their crushed rock patio. It doesn’t matter, both are a true delight.
Best Surprise / 22 Northmen
Our visit to 22 Northmen was a complete whim. We were on our way up on a fall getaway when we pulled off the highway and set course for beer. The result was a true surprise. Not only do they have a wood-fired pizza restaurant attached but they’re plopped in the midst of the Carlos Creek Winery. When you can grab a flight of beer, a glass of wine, pizza to share, and your toddler gets to play in the grass – it’s a win for the whole family. A hidden gem that’s now on our yearly itinerary.
Best Food / Wooden Hill
I looked through all my photos of my visits to Wooden Hill and I couldn’t find any of the food. You know why? I’m too busy eating it to remember to take a photograph. For my money I’m getting the House Burger with fries. It tickles my brain with all the right notes of savory and salty. Doing something simple but well is emblematic of the rest of their menu. I’ve met a lot of friends and family at Wooden Hill and I always hear the same thing: “the food was great.” Well and truly.
Best Innovation / Everyone
The photo above is the symbol of craft beer in 2020 – the humble plastic cup. Every brewery had innovation thrust upon them. Craft creativity was in full force with extra takeout options, diversification of offerings, and an embracement of restrictions leading to quiet spaces amidst the chaos. Tip your glasses to every brewery who made it through, and still finds itself chugging along.
Best Individual Beer / BlackStack (Hold for Applause)
BlackStack was the first place I ordered crowlers for pickup last year. I’m glad I did. Until then I had associated them with IPAs and sours. After Hold for Applause my opinion changed. Maybe I had quarantine blinders on, but this German style pilsner hit on everything I was looking for. Crisp, clean, and well balanced – it started smooth and finished with enough bitterness to prime you for your next drink. If you’re wondering if BlackStack can brew lagers, I assure you they can. No idea if we’ll see this iteration again but I know where I’m starting my next visit with them – a lager.
Best Beer / Boathouse Brothers
These awards are personal to me. This is a personal selection. Last fall my wife and I purchased our forever home outside Prior Lake, Minnesota. During our full renovation the brewery of choice to follow our weekend projects is Boathouse Brothers. Convenience is a factor (I’ve never lived this close to a brewery), but it’s the quality that keeps me coming back. Stop right here if you’re expecting high quality NEIPAs or thick fruited pastry sours. However if you want a wide selection of less popular styles brewed well – that’s where they shine. At one point I counted six lagers on tap! My personal favorites were the Mild Tantrum Peanut Butter Brown Ale, Stouty McStoutface Dry Irish Stout, and Ship Wrzeched Czech Pilsener. It’s not a trendy pick for best beer in the state, but I’m digging ’em.
Best Taproom / Portage
In early 2019 Portage announced horrible news: their entire brewery had burned down. “We will rebuild” they claimed. Rebuild they did. What rose from the ashes of the former Portage brewhouse is – simply put – the most beautiful taproom in the state. They’ve elevated the “up north” feel and captured the essence of Minnesota and bottled it into a taproom. Make the trek up to Walker and your reward is a brilliant blue building containing knotty pine, tasteful wood and metal decor, and warm natural light. Add some delicious beer and it’s a no brainer. I get goosebumps thinking about our visit. I can’t wait to return.