August 25, 2018 03:35 PM
Funnel cake. Caramel corn. Key Lime pie. Dill pickles, chocolate chip cookies and mini donuts.
These aren’t the Minnesota State Fair’s most popular foods – they’re beer flavors. And that’s just a short list. Hundreds of craft and specialty beers can be found at vendors all across the fair.
The State Fair, like the Twin Cities at large, may seem overrun with craft beer now, but that wasn’t always the case. It was just over a decade ago when the only beer allowed at the fair was 3.2 percent alcohol. In 2007, the Minnesota Legislature legalized beer stronger than 3.2. That change -- along with the passage of the Surly Bill in 2011, which allowed breweries to serve pints on site – has caused Minnesota's proverbial pint to runneth over.
"I think the craft beer presence at the fair and its growth in the past few years is a direct reflection of craft beer’s overall growth within the Twin Cities culture and scene," said Stephen Davis, Surly Brewing Company’s sales market manager for Minnesota.
Surly – the namesake for the aforementioned bill, if you didn’t know – has been at the fair for nearly a decade now. It began with the Ball Park Café, which offered Furious IPA. Now, Davis said, Surly is at two-thirds of the fair vendors that pour beer.
Davis credits the fair’s craft beer renaissance to a couple of factors, but business is the big driver in his eyes.
"The rise of the unique offerings, the specialty offerings, I think can be attributed to the fact that these beer vendors and restaurants have 12 days to maximize the amount of dollars they make," Davis said.
"A nice cold beer at the State Fair, there’s not a whole lot better than that. But what’s going to get them to come drink a beer at their place?"
And that, Davis said, is why you see beers like Lift Bridge’s Mini Donut Beer, or Tin Whiskers Brewery’s Dill Pickle Ale. But gimmicks come second to quality at the fair.
"The first priority of ours when we want to do something new is we want to maintain our integrity as a brewery and do something innovative and unique and cool but not kitschy," Davis said.
That’s reflected in Surly's fair-exclusive offerings this year: The Gaelic Dark & Stormy, a cocktail-inspired golden ale served at O’Gara’s, the JuicyLuLuLucy, a hazy IPA LuLu’s Public House pours and the Kloser IPA, which was developed with the help of former Twin Glen Perkins and is served at Ball Park Café, where it all started for Surly at the fair.
Ball Park was instrumental for another Minnesota brewery – Bauhaus Brew Labs, whose taproom is located in northeast Minneapolis. Mark Schwandt, who works in sales and distribution for Bauhaus, said Ball Park was key to their success as the fair.
"They took a chance on us and brought us in as one of their first beers in our infancy," he said. "We were one month old as a brewery, and they took us on and we’ve created a really great partnership with them and we’re super happy and proud to be at the fair with them."
Schwandt echoed many of the sentiments Davis expressed. Like Davis, he sees the fair as a microcosm of the Minnesota beer market.
"Definitely a huge increase of craft beer across the board, and I think that’s just representative of the market and the Twin Cities in general," Schwandt said. "Craft beer has just blown up. Craft beer sells well, local craft beer sells well."
And like Surly, Bauhaus has fair-exclusive offerings. Also similar to Surly, Schwandt said Bauhaus is not interested in compromising quality for a hook.
"[Ball Park] wanted us to do something outside of our core product, which is fine, but we weren’t interested in doing something that is interesting," he said. "We wanted to make something that was quality and good."
The result: After two years of serving their Wonderstuff pilsner at the fair, Bauhaus created the Shandlot, a lemon shandy, last year. This year’s iteration is infused with strawberries and hibiscus.
"One thing that we really wanted to strive for was an all-natural shandy, so I mean real lemon zest, real lemon puree," Schwandt said. "And also, it's a beer first and foremost that just happens to have lemon in it."
Dipping their toes into the world of shandies is about as experimental as Bauhaus wants to get, but Schwandt said he loves the creative atmosphere the fair has fostered for brewers.
"The one thing I’ve noticed specifically is people trying things out of left field, trying some zany creations," he said. "And I’m all for it. I think it’s awesome to come up with creative new recipes. Because you only are basically selling it for two weeks, so why not try something and see how it lands?"
Craft beer’s popularity at the fair has led to the opening of a brand-new, beer-centric space on Machinery Hill called The Hangar. Owner Nate Janousek owns restaurants and concessions all around the country, and he said the craft beer scene in Minnesota is nigh unparalleled.
"It’s like a movement," he said. "It’s not like this everywhere."
The Hangar offers fair-exclusive beers like Mankato Brewery’s Cake’d Up Celebration Beer as well as pours and flights of Minnesotan craft brews. Janousek said he hopes to sell hundreds of kegs during the fair’s run, and he hopes The Hangar becomes a destination in the oft-forgotten northeast corner of the fairgrounds.
"When you inject a bunch of energy into anything, people tend to head in the direction of the energy," he said.
Craft beer can be found in every corner of the fairgrounds, but the hub is at the Agriculture Horticulture building, where the Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild will feature beers from around 90 breweries from around the state.
"It’s kind of this great way to bring all of the Minnesota beers together in one place to try new things," said Lauren Bennett McGinty, the guild’s executive director.
Flights of four 5-ounce pours of Minnesota beers cost $10, and drinkers can choose from six different themed sets: Hoppy and Bitter, Malty and Sweet, Minnesota Mix, Dark and Roasty, Crisp and Clean and Fruity and Funky. But the guild’s presence at the fair is about more than just drinking.
"I think for us what it is is the State Fair gave us this opportunity to really highlight how beer is much more than just beer," Bennett McGinty said.
To that end, the guild’s exhibition has educational stations including a brewing display, a history of beer in Minnesota, and even real hops and malted barley which allow visitors to get a literal feel for the brewing process. Brewers from around the state will also be speaking at the fair.
But beer is brewed to drink, after all, and according to Bennett McGinty, State Fair visitors drink plenty of it. She said the guild expects to go through about 800 kegs during the 12-day run of the fair. It’s not just about business, though – the fair offers an opportunity to highlight breweries from all across Minnesota.
"This is a really great way for them to kind of give their beer out to the world and then hopefully bring some people back to their brewery," Bennett McGinty said.
The guild’s growing presence at the fair – seven years in, the number of breweries involved has more than quadrupled – is emblematic of the rise of craft beer in the Twin Cities, and greater Minnesota, in general. It's nearly unavoidable at this point.
As Tom Sullivan, a beer drinker from Prior Lake, put it, "Our neighborhood buzz has been, 'You gotta try this, you gotta try that.'"
So beer fans at the fair have no shortage of options to slake their thirst, but the real value, according to the brewers themselves, lies not in the alcohol content or the number of hops. Instead, education, exposure and experimentation are at the heart of the fair’s ever-expanding craft beer market.
"We want to show people that it’s not just about drinking and getting drunk," Bennett McGinty said. "It’s about really appreciating the art that is craft beer."
A list of specialty beers and beverages is available online, but that is only a small portion of the craft beer offerings at the fair.
Updated: August 25, 2018 03:35 PM
Created: August 25, 2018 09:40 AM
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