Duluth holds a special place in my heart. The first time I visited was when we toured UMD with my older brother on a college visit. I didn’t think much of the campus, the PortLand Malt Shoppe was more my style at the time. Yet, Lake Superior and the Lift Bridge must have made a larger impression on me than I thought because when it came time for me to choose a college to attend, it was an easy decision. My most formative years were spent on that snowy hill and it culminated with beginning to date the woman that would eventually become my wife. It’s no surprise that we visit the North Shore multiple times a year and each time we select a new brewery to visit. Last weekend we stopped at one of the newest, Ursa Minor Brewing.
In the early 2000s the only brewery I can remember in town was Fitger’s Brewhouse. I had eaten there but I didn’t really drink alcohol at that point, certainly not beer. The city has changed drastically since then. Not only does Canal Park look completely different, there are six breweries, three brewpubs, two cideries, and a distillery (with a couple extra breweries across the border). The newest crop has sprung up in the Lincoln Park neighborhood. When I attended UMD this was a spot you generally avoided but these days there has been a bit of a craft resurgence bubbling.
It began with Bent Paddle, and in the past year or so they were followed by OMC Smokehouse, Frost River, Love Creamery, Wild State, Duluth Cider, and of course Ursa Minor. These changes have been so drastic that they now refer to this area as the “Crafts District.” It’s a far cry from Asheville, a city with a similar population, but they are well on their way. I’m secretly hoping that my daughter (who is eight months old) plans to attend one of the schools in Duluth, for purely selfish reasons.
In September of 2018, Ursa Minor joined the ranks and has seemingly ascended into the upper echelon of the craft beer scene in Duluth. While it’s not known nationwide, there are heavy hitters up there and that’s high praise. Ursa Minor was a “must stop” for which is why we drove their directly after arriving Friday evening. The locals were out en masse on their street side patio and the interior didn’t look any less busy. After spending 10 minutes desperately looking for a seat we had to change course and walked down the block to Wild State. While I was disappointed, we discussed a shift in our plans for the following day and returned in the early the following afternoon to secure ourselves a spot.
The taproom at Ursa Minor is much smaller than I anticipated. The patio itself doubles the seating space. There are a handful of seats at the bar, one long community style high top, and a handful of tables and chairs. Since most of those seats were completely taken up by a large birthday party we settled on the end of the high top. Burnt into the wood is a map of Duluth along with various trails and nature features done by a local artist. I couldn’t quite read his name, and would love it if someone could point me in the right direction. Lester Park and Hawks Ridge instantly jumped out at me. These are two places that we love to drive through and they are regulars on our Duluth itinerary.
I noticed a couple of things while putting in my order. A wicker moose dominates the wood timbered bar and one of a kind stoneware mugs hang from the top of it. With the addition of a canoe above it’s pretty clear that Ursa Minor is embracing Duluth and its outdoor spirit wholeheartedly. The night before, while waiting for the restroom, I spotted a metal divider with stars stamped out of it. The light at that time of day was at the perfect angle to illuminate the stars including their namesake constellation. Ursa Minor translates to mean Little Bear, which is why the brewery’s logo features a bear’s head that transitions into a hop cone. These details were thought through quite well.
Ursa Minor also serves pizza out of their wood fired oven. I ordered a Voyageur which featured tossed kale, oyster mushrooms, parmesan, ricotta, house red sauce, and a balsamic glaze. All in all a pretty tasty pizza, and my wife enjoyed hers as well. I tasted five of their beers: Hair of the Bock, Sauna Beer Scandinavian Pale Ale, Dad Jams Cream Ale, Grizzly Rooster American IPA, and Stop! Amber Time. Several of the beers that I had spotted the night before were no longer available which was a bit of a bummer as the bartender mentioned they were quite well received. Out of the five I enjoyed Dad Jams and Stop! Amber Time. A cream ale is the perfect drink to follow a hike, and this one was smooth, malty, and creamy. I was very glad I ordered the amber ale because it was easily my favorite. Full bodied, malt forward, with notes of chocolate and a crisp hoppy finish. One of the better amber ales I’ve had in recent memory.
It’s still very early in Ursa Minor’s life. I don’t want to pass too much judgement at this time but I’ve got a couple of minor quibbles. There are two tap lists but they were out of sync. This caused me to order several beers that were not available and had me scrambling to fill out my flight board. There isn’t much you can do about a crowd but during our second visit there were several patrons standing or left sitting on the chilly patio while the birthday party was taking up a majority of the tables and not really sitting at them. It’s possible that I’m just getting old and crotchety too, I don’t want to rule that out. Overall it seems like Duluth’s got another great brewery in its ranks, one that I’m sure we’ll visit many times in the future.