This is the second in a series of six stories underwritten by the Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild. Their financial support allows us to dig deeper into the craft, culture, and personality of Minnesota’s brewers.
In its third year, Duluth’s All Pints North Summer Brew Fest has nearly tripled in its attendance. But even with almost 3,500 attendees, the annual beer festival still feels small, fresh, and friendly, mirroring the city that hosts it. Like most beer festivals, APN has a difficult balance to strike: It must be fun, to draw in the summer outdoor party people, but also offer tasting experiences for the craft beer aficionado looking to try something rare or rub elbows with the local brewteratti. Like a well-balanced IPA, All Pints North achieves this, with the added bonus of the sparkling Lake Superior backdrop.
To prepare for the event, some of the more seasoned breweries curated a list of beers to bring in advance, a mix of their standbys with a little something special to sweeten the deal. Aaron Herman, one of the brewers from Town Hall, told us about the brewery’s process: “We set our beer lineup a couple of weeks ago… we had to bring Mango Mama and Russian Roulette because it tied for best beer of the festival last year with Bent Paddle’s coffee-infused black ale. But besides that, we like to bring something hoppy, something barrel aged, since we do a lot of barrel aging at Town Hall, something refreshing.”
There’s also a subgroup of brewers that brings the same special edition festival beers, like Surly and its Cacao Bender or Indeed, which brings a different variation on its infused Shenanigans. This time, the variation had hibiscus, not unlike the lemongrass from the St. Paul Summer Beer Festival, but divergent enough to excite the beer fest repeat offender. Bringing these special beers ensures buzz and lines that form out under the extra branded tents shielding patrons from the sun as they wait. At peak times, it can take 20 minutes to get a sip of Surly, but as the day goes on, that break is what some samplers need. The longest lines were those at hometown heroes Bent Paddle, which slowly ran out of each of its beers on cask and nitro, leaving only the 14 degree ESB and the Venture Pils on standard taps by closing time.
According to event organizer Amanda Buhman, the recommended amount breweries were told to bring was three to four half barrels, roughly 3,000 2-oz. pours, which is enough for one pour for each attendee from each brewery. And even then, it’s not enough. But in comparison, like a high school popularity contest, some of the lesser known, not-so-local brewery booths like Finch’s Beer Company (based out of Chicago) remained relatively empty.
Outside of the festival, getting a chance to go up north to a place other than their cabin, many participants made a day out of it, getting a tasting flight at the Vikre Distillery or a brewery tour at Bent Paddle before heading to the festival. Colin Mullen, co-founder of Bent Paddle, describes All Pints North as somewhat of a vacation for brewer and drinker alike: “A lot of people are coming up here for the weekend and enjoying it. What’s really cool is that the brewers come up here and it’s like a mini vacation. [At] festivals down in the Twin Cities, everyone just goes home and goes to bed because that’s where the concentration of breweries [is]. But up here everyone comes up, we all have a good time together, we go out at night, we get to chat. [One of] the reasons the brewers guild exists is to communicate, and we get to have that chance. Everyone is on this little mini vacation not too far from home.”
Co-founder Jeff Moriarty of new-to-the-fest Tin Whiskers made it into a family vacation himself, manning the booth with his wife, six-week-old baby, father, and other extended family. He brought Tin Whiskers’ newest beer and another festival special, the Parity Pilsner. “[It’s a] really classic pilsner with a little hop flavor at the end with a nice lemon hop zest. We have it in the tap room and we just released it yesterday,” he said. “This will probably be the only time we have it this year.”
With 66 breweries total, there were some newbies besides Tin Whiskers, including out-of-staters Nebraska Brewing Company. Since the company is a recently expanded brewpub, its beer was made available in Minnesota a few weeks ago, and this was its first festival appearance in the state. Co-founder Paul Kavulak told us, “We’ve always wanted to be above the breweries that we respect. Minnesota was always one of those targets, so now we’re able to get here… hopefully we’ll get a chance to get out there and try some of these other breweries.”
Sleeping Giant, a Thunder Bay-based brewery invited by the guild, officially made the festival an international one. Waiving the $250 stipend for participating and donating its beer to the event in order to easily cross borders and proudly pour its beers, the Canadians were more than thrilled to be part of something that celebrated what they believe to be their local beer scene too. “We feel like we’ve been embraced by our Minnesota brothers,” said Matt Pearson, Sleeping Giant’s owner. “We have an Ontario brewing family too, but we’re 865 miles from Toronto. To have Duluth 100 miles away feels a lot closer. This, being our first beer fest ever, gives us a chance to see what a really good one looks like. When we start doing them in Ontario, we won’t go in so green.”
As the event neared a close and the storm clouds began to roll in, the brewers unscrewed tap handles and tossed leftover ice into the grass under a slight drizzle. But then above it all, the sun peeked out, a rainbow appeared, and it felt as if the magical day of camaraderie — between breweries and between brewers and patrons — wasn’t over just yet.