For Trekkies, space is the final frontier. For nerds of another flavor—beer geeks—there’s always somewhere new to explore, some vast area of beer to pioneer if only on a personal level. With a rapidly growing number of hubs that vie for the title of Beer Town, USA, what about places not yet steeped in suds? Imagine being the Lewis or Clark of a new ale trail, or swapping a growler for a coonskin cap as the Davy Crockett of the last remaining frontiers in American beer.
No one’s ever said, “Let’s go on a beercation to North Dakota!” In early 2012 North Dakotans were the only ones without a home state brewery! Now there are five active breweries, and soon that may double. Down in Alabama, the Tide has turned and they’ve joined the rest of the union in legalizing homebrewing, which is sure to be a boon to upstart breweries. And in Alaska, the true last American frontier, Anchorage has long developed a beer scene, so it’s time Juneau is added to the list.
The Flickertail State has the dubious honor of being the least-visited state in the nation. Freezing winters. Flat year-round. Unless you’re visiting Saskatchewan or Manitoba, you don’t even drive through it. But at last, there’s beer. The format of this column usually focuses on a city or region, but for this budding brew spot, we’re looking at the whole state.
West in Medora there’s the Theodore Roosevelt National Park with the cabin Teddy lived in before he became president. The park features cool badlands (but it’s no Badlands National Park in South Dakota). The park ushers in fewer than half a million people annually, roughly the same crowd Disneyland welcomes over a week or so. If we’re being honest, more famous is Fargo, simply for being the title of the Coen Brothers film that made death by wood chipper a concept.
It’s one of the three states I’ve yet to visit, but with brewing activity it’s now the top of my list. For beer guides, I enlisted Tom Roan and Nancy Bowser, members of the excellently named Prairie Homebrewing Companions (at least to fans of Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion”). The Fargo club, founded in 1990, is the largest and oldest in the state (there are clubs in Dickinson, Bismarck and Grand Forks, too) and puts on annual events including Hoppy Halloween (HoppyHalloween.com). I was on a tasting panel to determine the best flagship beer from each state’s largest independent brewery, and noting North Dakota didn’t have one at the time, I reached out to the club to solicit authentic ale from the northern Great Plains. Tom and Nancy entered an American barley wine, putting most entries at a disadvantage in the blind tasting—and won.
Bismarck, the state capital located near the middle along I-94 with a population of just over 100,000 for the greater metro area, now holds a worthy claim to fame. It’s home to three breweries, including the first of the current operators to open, Edwinton Brewing Co. For a brief year before the name changed to Bismarck in 1873, the town was called Edwinton. I think the brewery’s founders, the Nelson family (brothers Brent and David, sister Kristen and father Dave) picked a great name. This Belgian-style nanobrewery introduced two beers in late 2012—Dæsy Saison and Lou Belgian IPA.
The newest brewery is Buffalo Commons Brewing Co., which opened in spring 2013 in Mandan, part of Bismarck Metro. You’ll find its Salem Sue Stout and Hoppy Trails Pale Ale along with Edwinton’s beers at Peacock Alley (422 E. Main Ave., Bismarck) offered in a BAM (big-ass-mug) among its regionally oriented beer menu with 23 taps. You’ll also find them at Reza’s Pitch (304 E. Front Ave., Bismarck). Where Peacock Alley is casual fine dining where you can pair craft beer with great steaks, Reza’s is a soccer-themed burger joint, so you can’t go wrong either way. Another great beer spot in Bismarck is The Walrus Restaurant (1136 N. 3rd St.), boasting over 40 rotating taps and “excellent” burgers and sammies.
Bismarck’s third brewery is a pub, Laughing Sun Brewing Co. (107 N. 5th St.). Roan points out this “very nice place” was started by a homebrewer active in the Muddy River Mashers. But co-founder Mike Frohlich is more than that. He brewed professionally at Rattlesnake Creek Brewery, a defunct brewpub up in Dickinson back in the ’90s. Some of the beers coming off Frohlich’s 3.5-barrel system include Feast Like a Sultan IPA, Hammerhead Red ESB and, depending on the season, Sinister Pear Belgian Golden Strong Ale or Black “Eye” PA, among others. Espousing the idea of supporting local, you’ll find artwork by local artists on the walls and bands, poets and writers on the mic.
It bears mentioning that some of the top spots Roan and Bowser recommend are North Dakota institutions with multiple locations around the state. JL Beers is a “small but popular beer and burger bar” that’s opened four (of its six) locations across the state starting with downtown Fargo (518 1st Ave. N., downtown). There’s also one six miles away in West Fargo (810 13th Ave. East), and you’ll find 30 taps spanning the style spectrum from around the country.
The real draw for Fargo as far as beer is soon to be Fargo Brewing Co. (610 N. University Dr.), which is currently contracting beer from a Wisconsin brewery, but the brewery and taproom construction are nearly complete. Brothers Chris and John Anderson, Jared Hardy, and Aaron Hill are the four co-owners, all native North Dakotans, with Chris serving as brewmaster, having honed his chops at Ice Harbor Brewing in the Northwest. Look for five core beers—Stone’s Throw Scottish Ale, a porter, a pale ale, a Kölsch-style, and the guaranteed favorite, Wood Chipper IPA—of which perhaps three will debut in cans, seeing as they’ve already procured the canning line. And they’re looking to brew a dozen or so seasonals on top. As for terroir, it should be noted that they’re getting malt from Rahr Malting in neighboring Minnesota, and even then they source much of their barley from North Dakota.
You’re sure to find Fargo on tap at Sidestreet Grille & Pub (301 3rd Ave. N.), “the original craft tap bar in downtown” with 27 taps and some 60 bottled beers. For a sports bar with even more pool tables, a 15-minute drive away is Fargo Billiards & Gastropub (3234 43rd St. S.), not only boasting predominantly craft taps, but also a billiard parlor with 56 tables.
As far as where to rest up during this pioneering beercation, check into the Hotel Donaldson (101 Broadway), where each of the 17 rooms is inspired by local artists. What’s more, this downtown hotel features the HoDo Lounge, primarily a martini/cocktail venue that taps six craft-only beers to be enjoyed listening to live music, or pop up to the rooftop Sky Prairie Lounge.
Speaking of rooftop lounges, don’t forget that there’s life between the I-94 corridor and Canada. Due north of Fargo in Grand Forks is the original of three Rhombus Guys Pizza locations (312 Kittson Ave.) also found in Fargo and Mentor. Perfectly complementing its craft offerings is a monstrous list of specialty pizzas, starting with T-Rex, crowned best pizza in Grand Forks from 2007-2011. The pie features pepperoni, sausage, Canadian bacon and ground beef, perfectly named for the carnivore whose fossils collectors used to flock to North Dakota to unearth. Save room for the S’mores pizza.
Over in Minot, one of the country’s newest and smallest breweries is Souris River Brewing (32 3rd St. NE), brewing a single barrel at a time, which explains why of its nine recipes, you’re only apt to find around three at a time. The brewpub takes care to serve locally sourced beef and bison, and don’t miss the baked fries. Don’t leave town without checking out the Blue Rider (118 1st St. SE), a quirky dive bar with a few craft taps that was started by cowboy artist Walter Piehl, who was clearly influenced by Der Blaue Reiter (the Blue Rider) German expressionist movement, for all you Kandinsky fans.
For years—34 to be specific—Bible Belt neighbors Mississippi and Alabama waged a battle to see who could hold out the longest to keep homebrewing illegal. It was neck and neck, but in the end the Yellowhammer State held out longer. But now we can all raise our pints high since the hammer has finally come down and garage-based brewers in ’Bama are no longer outlaws. It stands to reason that places that embrace homebrewing foster talented and creative craft brewing cultures, so I suspect that even more new breweries will join an already impressive bunch.
My last trek through was back in 2008, a quickie that took me down I-65, so naturally I hit the sole brewery in the state, Montgomery Brewing Co. (now closed, but I think it was legal only because it’d been grandfathered into the historic building). That same year, the brewing climate changed for the better. Free The Hops, a nonprofit organization founded in 2004, has been instrumental in raising awareness and abolishing legal limits in the state’s beer and brewing culture. Fortunately, president Gabe Harris and VP Nick Hudson agreed to serve as tour guides to the burgeoning scene, primarily in Birmingham, with a population of over 1 million.
The story starts with Good People Brewing Co. (114 14th St S.), the oldest (2008), largest, and easily one of the best breweries in the state. The founders were also instrumental in effecting the change for better beer fans and Good People’s expansion is emblematic of their own efforts. Indeed, among brewmaster and co-owner Jason Malone’s five core beers, he frees the hops in their American Pale Ale and grows progressively more liberal with them in Snake Handler Double IPA. They release four seasonals a year, but stand back when a coveted Bearded Reserve Series beer is released.
Situated by Railroad Park, a 19-acre green space that Hudson recommends for the way it “celebrates the industrial and artistic heritage of our city,” Good People has two very excited new neighbors. Already open is Regions Field, where the minor-league Birmingham Barons play; it boasts a craft beer garden that definitely supports locals. Coming soon is the brick ’n’ mortar home of Beer Engineers, which will shift from contract brewing at Back Forty Beer Co. over in Gadsden to in-house production. Owner D.B. Irwin III has said the forthcoming brewpub will consist of a 30-barrel system for core brands and contract beers plus a five-barrel system dedicated to taproom specialties. This from a brewing company already famed for its Peanut Butter Porter.
Just over a mile away in the Lakeview District is Cahaba Brewing Co. (2616 3rd Ave S.), founded in 2011 and named for the Cahaba River. Harris points out that brewing takes place in a 3.5-barrel system “so they are a small batch brewery and proud of it,” but it’s tucked into an 8,000-square-foot space, meaning the brewery is prepared to expand. Until then, enjoy its core beers, including Ryezome, an intriguing rye-based stout, or Oka Uba, a well-balanced IPA. There are always six beers on in the taproom, where you can hold your pint in one hand and play skeeball with the other.
Lastly on the brewery front there’s Avondale Brewing Co. (201 41st St. S.), named for the historic section of town a mile farther from Cahaba. So historic, in fact, it’s been said that the brewery building had served as a brothel in another era. Here you’ll find eight taps “with a great outdoor area,” adds Harris, including live music, and certainly check out whatever’s seasonal from the early-spring Strawberry Kolsch to the winter holiday No Joka Mocha Stout.
When it comes to beer bars in Birmingham, the requisite stop is the J. Clyde (1312 Cobb Lane) in Five Points. Not only does it have roughly five dozen beers on draft, but you’ll likely find 20 ’Bama-brewed beers on, including breweries beyond Birmingham, such as Druid City in Tuscaloosa, Railyard in Montgomery and all of the Huntsville brewers (see sidebar), as well as three cask engines. Harris adds that it hosts “lots of beer dinners and blind beer tastings” and generally offers traditional pub fare and great atmosphere.
As for enjoying local elixirs with regional cuisine, you can go for chic pies at Slice Pizza & Brew (725 29th St. S.) back in Lakeview, creating gourmet pizzas with toppings such as Gulf oysters or braised short ribs and serving tap-only beers brewed in state with some package (bottled beers) as well. Or go a bit more upscale at Ollie Irene (2713 Culver Road in Mountain Brook), a gastropub on the James Beard Award radar with six well-curated taps from Alabama and Belgium to pair with Southern fare, including boudin balls for starters, then onto cornmeal-dusted catfish complemented by asparagus and Cajun ham.
Harris mentions local buzz for Carrigan’s Public House (2430 Morris Ave.), a craft beer bar opening in downtown with plans for 50 taps plus a killer package/bottle list, and special sandwiches to go with them.
As for taking home a taste of Alabama, do your bottle shopping at Hop City (2924 3rd Ave. S.), the follow-up to Hop City’s first location in Atlanta. Not only can you get your growlers filled or quaff a pint as you shop, but the operators also vow to stock every single available bottled beer distributed in the state. “If they don’t have it in package,” Harris says, “then no one does.”
Lastly, what look at the last frontier of beer would be complete without America’s actual Last Frontier? It took 183 years after the birth of our nation to attain statehood. It may take that long for most Alaskans to be able to drive to the capital, Juneau, since it can only be reached by sky or sea; there are no roads as yet that lead from, say, Anchorage (see Beer Travelers Vol. 31, Issue 6). So ixnay on the roadtrip to Juneau, or practically anywhere in Alaska, since it’s over 2,000 miles from Seattle and as such, it’s another of the three states I haven’t visited. So I enlisted the expertise of local Heidi Carlson with added tips from James “Dr. Fermento” Roberts and Chaz Lakip.
Juneau’s home to Alaskan Brewing Co. (5429 Shaune Drive), creator of the most decorated beer in Great American Beer Festival history. Alaskan Smoked Porter earned 19 of the brewery’s whopping 47 medals. Shortly after launching the brewery in 1986, founder Geoff Larson looked across the street, where Taku Smokeries smoked salmon over alder wood—hence the porter’s suggestive lox flavor. Tours and tastings are offered daily, and shuttles now run from the retail outlet, Alaskan Brewing Depot (219 S. Franklin St.) downtown. Try the Pilot Series, including Perseverance, in honor of the brewery’s 25th anniversary. It adds local birch syrup to the Russian Imperial Stout base. Some people can see Russia from the brewery.
Carlson’s tour stops at the Red Dog Saloon (278 S. Franklin St.), “a tourist-stop must. This quirky, Alaskan-ish venue is appointed with loads of stuffed animals and fish, “Wyatt Earp’s gun” and more kitsch as well as live entertainment.
Tapping local beers means there are three offerings from Alaskan, like the amber, that nicely wash down the crab cakes or reindeer sausage.
For the best view of the water and taps to boot, hit The Hangar on the Wharf (2 Marine Way #106). “The Hangar’s food is pub grub, but you can get soups, steaks and seafood,” Carlson says. It’s open year round and, during the summer, weather permitting, you can dine al fresco on the dockside patio. At the far end of the same building “is a little place called the Flight Deck” open from May to September where Carlson recommends halibut and adds, “Try the salmon chowder; it’s noteworthy.”
From there, watch seaplanes come and go below as they whisk passengers to the Taku Glacier Lodge. Sign up for the “flightseeing” tour of five glacial peaks within the Juneau Icefield or opt for the tour that includes an Alaskan feast at the lodge looking out on the Taku Glacier and river. That package costs $297.
Speaking of great heights, the Timberline Bar & Grill, on top of Mount Roberts, is accessible via the Mount Roberts Tramway from downtown. The 1,800-foot-high bar offers breathtaking views, plus beer and Russian delicacies such as pelmeni, or dumplings. Visitors are treated to “wildlife displays, hiking trails, and native artists’ crafts on display.” There are even platforms for viewing brown and black bears.
Lakip points out that The Rookery Café (111 Seward St.) recently launched a monthly beer dinner series that’s been sprucing up the beer scene. “I think the head chef was looking into starting a Belgian bar and bistro a couple years ago,” explains Lakip of the former head chef at “the best and most innovative restaurant in town,” referring to nearby Zephyr (200 Seward St., ZephyrRestaurant.com).
The historic Alaskan Hotel and Bar(167 S. Franklin St.) originally opened in 1913. Even locals like Carlson pop in “for a beer once in a while due to the large selection of draft beer and friendly service.” It’s one of Lakip’s primary watering holes, given its 20 taps and live music. Fall back into a room (or bar) at the end of a long day of dogsledding, sport fishing, whale watching, or perhaps panning for gold. No, you can’t take any of Alaskan Brewery’s gold medals.
Brian Yaeger is the author of Red, White, and Brew: An American Beer Odyssey.