To the uninitiated, Duluth, MN, may seem like an unlikely beer destination. Mayor Don Ness boldly snagged the title “Craft Beer Capital of Minnesota” for Duluth in 2013. Many would argue that a bigger city with more breweries, like Minneapolis, should get the honor. But Duluth has some brilliant brewers, a burgeoning beer scene and the bonus of being located next to Lake Superior, which provides some of the best-tasting water in the state.
Mayor Ness’ public proclamation speaks of a beer aesthetic that emphasizes authenticity—in beer and beyond. His assertion describes the sort of ideal that creatives and entrepreneurs are constructing in this northern outpost. With that comes an unmistakable sense of pride and connectedness. Camaraderie certainly exists among Duluth brewers. It’s not uncommon for them to share ingredients, and some collaborate on brews. Fortunately, locals appear to have an unquenchable thirst for their beer. Duluth has a population of 86,000, but boasts seven breweries within city limits, as well as two less than 30 miles north and one just across the bridge in Superior, WI.
Lake Superior Brewing Co. (2711 W. Superior St.) sets the tone for your weekend. Grab a pint at the award-winning production brewery’s no-frills taproom. Try the Kayak Kölsch, which exemplifies the crisp, German style, or a seasonal like the Old Man Winter Warmer. At 10.3%, it will warm your bones on even the chilliest Duluth day.
Head to Canal Park Brewing Co. (300 Canal Park Drive) for dinner. The oversized windows overlook Lake Superior, and the patio has a fire pit that burns through the seasons. With this view, the slogan “beer from someplace you won’t forget” is undeniable. The tap lineup includes standouts like the Dawn Treader Belgian Tripel and Nut Hatchet Brown, which earned a silver medal at the 2014 World Beer Cup. Indulge in fried cheese curds or the pickled herring—an appetizer that appeals to locals with Scandinavian heritage. For dinner, try the porter-braised poutine or Lake Superior whitefish tacos.
Duluth has a surprisingly robust music scene. Pick up a copy of the Reader or Transistor to see who’s playing where. When not touring, locally based international stars like Low, Trampled by Turtles and Charlie Parr sometimes play intimate shows in Duluth. If you visit in late April, the Homegrown Music Festival is an impressive showcase of local bands.
Finish the night at Carmody Irish Pub (308 E. Superior St.), a lively brewpub and go-to place for locals, especially for last call. Carmody has a fun cast of local characters, including Eddie Gleeson, the gregarious proprietor. Gleeson happens to be the grandson of the co-founder of People’s Brewing, a Duluth brewery inspired by socialist ideals that operated from 1907 until Prohibition. Carmody has a nice variety of tap beer. Try its house-made Scanlon IPA or Famine 47 Stout.
Enjoy a hearty breakfast at the Duluth Grill (I-35 & 27th Avenue West). It’s a Duluth institution with a massive menu and proclivity for using fresh, local ingredients. Try the decadent Scotch eggs and get a side of red flannel hash—an aromatic, tasty mix of roasted root vegetables and thyme.
Tour the Bent Paddle Brewing Co. (1912 W. Michigan St.) at noon (sign up ahead). A production brewery owned by two dynamic couples, Bent Paddle has skyrocketed since opening in May 2013. Its four flagship beers are available in cans, appealing to canoeists and hikers in Duluth and beyond. Try the Cold Press Black Ale if available in the taproom. It’s infused with locally roasted “crazy juice” from Duluth Coffee Co.
Head north on Minnesota’s picturesque Scenic Highway 61, which hugs the rocky shoreline of Lake Superior. Stop at Castle Danger Brewery (17 7th St., Two Harbors) for a pint or growler to go. Clint and Jamie MacFarlane started the brewery in 2011 near their home and resort in Castle Danger. Their dangerously good ales won hordes of fans early on. They’ve since expanded and built a taproom in nearby Two Harbors. They have two flagship beers and a cast of rotating, experimental seasonals. Look for a maple märzen in late winter.
The Rustic Inn Cafe (2773 Highway 61, Two Harbors) is a charming down-home choice for lunch. Enjoy the Castle Danger beer on tap. Try the walleye cakes or turkey sandwich on cranberry wild rice bread. Don’t leave without ordering the outstanding raspberry cream pie. How they achieve the airy, meringuelike crust is a wonder.
Alternatively, eat at the New Scenic Cafe (5461 N Shore Dr., Duluth). It’s a bit more artsy and upscale, and features a seasonally-inspired menu. Sip a Belgian-style ale like Mon Cherries (dubbel brewed with Minnesota cherries) from Borealis Fermentery—a remarkable one-man brewery in nearby Knife River.
Continue back to Duluth. Park at the Fitger’s Brewery complex (600 E. Superior St.), a historic landmark featuring the prominent industrial smokestack and water tower of the old Fitger’s Brewery. Stretch your legs on the Lakewalk, an over-4-mile path edging Lake Superior. Or check out the retail shops and peruse the Fitger’s brewery museum.
In the mood for a creative culinary experience? Eat at Zeitgeist Arts Cafe (222 E. Superior St.). With a funky, modern atmosphere, it’s one of few places featuring the phenomenal Belgian-inspired brews of Blacklist Brewing.
If you’re looking for heartier fare, go to Tycoon’s Alehouse & Eatery (132 E. Superior St.). Located in Duluth’s historic city hall, Tycoon’s is a nod to Duluth’s storied robber barons and one of five local restaurants owned by the folks behind Fitger’s Brewhouse (Minnesota’s largest brewpub by production). Order a steak; it couldn’t be fresher. The Scottish Highland cattle are raised on a nearby farm, which is also owned by the Brewhouse, and fed with spent grain from the brewery. Renowned brewer Dave Hoops is at the Brewhouse helm. The Starfire Pale Ale features a pleasant hop profile but is deliciously drinkable. Look for stellar seasonals, like the blueberry porter.
Ride the elevator to floor -1. The Rathskeller, tucked away in Tycoon’s subbasement, is reminiscent of an Old World European pub. The beer menu—handpicked by Hoops—features A-list local and international brews.
Looking for entertainment? Saturday is comedy night at Dubh Linn (109 W. Superior Street) an Irish-themed brewpub with beer brewed with the help of Bo Belanger of Wisconsin’s South Shore Brewery. Film buffs can check out an independent flick at Zinema 2 (222 E Superior St). You can even drink local craft beer in the theater!
Breakfast at Lake Avenue Restaurant & Bar (394 South Lake Ave.). Try the Green Eggs and Duck Ham Benedict with kale hollandaise. Sip a Lake Avenue Bloody Mary with garlic- and onion-infused vodka with a craft beer snit (Midwest term for a sidecar beer).
Walk around Canal Park. Check out the shops. Take a gander at one of Duluth’s most impressive landmarks—the Aerial Lift Bridge. Relax and observe as colossal ore boats begin or end their journey across the world’s largest freshwater lake.
Finish off your trip by crossing the bridge to Thirsty Pagan Brewing in Superior, WI (1623 Broadway St.; thirstypaganbrewing.com). Brewer Allyson Rolph makes some top-notch sour beers. Also, they have excellent pizzas. Try the TPB special, a delicious version of a supreme.