Nate McAlpine of Thirsty Pagan Brewing in Superior, WI

Eric Faust / Heavy Table
Eric Faust / Heavy Table

“To make better, more complex beers in the future, I am experimenting and learning about ingredients now,” says Nate McAlpine, head brewer at Thirsty Pagan Brewing in Superior, WI. Starting out as a home brewer, McAlpine graduated from the University of Minnesota Duluth with a degree in chemical engineering, but has quickly risen to the top position at one of the three breweries in the Duluth / Superior area (In addition to Thirsty Pagan, there are Brewhouse and Lake Superior Brewing).

“We only make about 420 barrels a year,” says McAlpine. He purchases most of his ingredients from the Brewhouse in Duluth. He knows the brewers at the Brewhouse, but has worked most¬†intimately¬†with Dale Kleinschmidt, head brewer at Lake Superior Brewing. McAlpine worked as an intern at Lake Superior Brewing from June to December 2006.

Prior to working at Thirsty Pagan, McAlpine applied for a scholarship for the Master Brewer Program at the Siebel Institute of Technology in Chicago. After being promoted to head brewer at the Thirsty Pagan, McAlpine received the scholarship and went on to complete the 12-week course. He spent the first seven weeks in the classroom in Chicago and the last five weeks in Germany. In Germany, McAlpine spent three weeks doing hands on brewing and two weeks touring breweries and hop fields. McAlpine says,”The school is in Munich, but we went as far north as the Netherlands to visit the Heineken brewery.” Visiting the Heineken brewery was contrasted with a visit to the Cantillon Brewery in Belgium, one of the oldest Lambic breweries in Belgium. “At Cantillon, they ferment in all wood barrels and they only brew in the winter… you will see barrels that have been aging for three years with bugs and worms all over the top.”

Eric Faust / Heavy Table
Eric Faust / Heavy Table

McAlpine’s formal training though Siebel is the backbone of his understanding of beer, but with each brew he learns more about ingredients and the effect that they can have on beer. Starting out, McAlpine says, “I was doing a lot of single variety pale ales, using just Amarillo or Columbus hops so that at a young age I could learn what those hops do.”

Due to the small amount of production, all of the grains and most of the hops that McAlpine uses are purchased from the Brewhouse in Duluth. “We use some different hops that I can’t get from the Brewhouse, so I have to go right to the distributor,” says McApline. “Being a small brewery our ingredients go very far, so we can keep a lot on hand to play around with,” says McAlpine.

The small brewery has limitations — McAlpine is not able to control all of the variables that he would like to. The Thirsty Pagan is in the process of building a cooler for their kegs; until now all of their beer has been cask conditioned. McAlpine explains cask conditioning: “After fermentation I let the yeast settle out and put sugar in the keg and the beer on top of that. The yeast then gets activated by the sugar and carbonates the beer.” With the fluctuation in temperature between summer and winter, McAlpine has not been able to control the natural carbonation of his beer. “This is my name and my reputation on the beer, so I want what I put out to be good,” says McAlpine. A cooler would allow for force carbonation to preserve his beer longer.

McAlpine brews four regular house beers: Gitche Gumee Gold, North Coast Amber, Burnt Wood Black, and Derailed Ale. Alongside the house beers, McAlpine has made close to 80 different seasonal recipes that he has seldom repeated. “Everybody likes to try different beers and different styles, and being as young as I am I like to try different things,” says McAlpine. With the large stash of ingredients and the small amount of production, McAlpine has the ability to experiment with new ideas and new flavors as he learns and develops the complexity of his beers.

Thirsty Pagan Brewing

1623 Broadway St
Superior, WI 54880
OWNERS: Steve and Susan Knauss
Sun-Thu 4pm-2am
Fri-Sat 4pm-2:30am
Sun-Thu 4-10pm
Fri-Sat 4-11pm

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