A guide to beers of the Heartland

Lee Svitak Dean
Star Tribune (Minneapolis)
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How far would you drive for a good pint of beer? For Michael Agnew, it was more than 10,000 miles.

That’s what it took for the author to drive around four states as he checked out more than 200 breweries of the Midwest. The results of his very tasteful exploration can be found in “A Perfect Pint’s Beer Guide to the Heartland” (University of Illinois Press, 217 pages, $24.95), a travel reference to the breweries of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois.

Agnew, a certified cicerone (the beer version of a wine sommelier) had no idea what he was getting into when, in 2010, he drew up a list of 160 breweries to visit. By the time he turned in his manuscript, the number of regional craft breweries exceeded 230.

What he found on his travels was that no-frills Midwesterners have a distinctive approach to beer: Much of it is brewed to appeal to a broad palate. Although our preferences vary by state, as a region we reach for sweet rather than bitter, hence the popularity of what Agnew calls “the Midwestern IPA,” an example of which is Fulton’s Sweet Child of Vine, produced in Minneapolis.

Agnew, who writes a monthly column for the Star Tribune Taste section and for other publications, can be found at www.aperfectpint.net.

After two years of working on this and a whole lot of pints, do you think the Midwest is the next big beer region?

It’s one of them. The craft beer thing is going crazy all over the country right now, but I still think this is one of the fastest-growing regions in the country. We have a lot of good and interesting stuff happening.

Why do you think that it’s growing so fast here?

Historically, this is a beer-drinking region, part of our Germanic and Scandinavian heritage. It’s something that stretches way back. We like beer.

How do trends start in the Midwest?

They tend to filter in from the coast. This is changing a little bit as consumer palates become more educated. But here in this region, the styles tend toward maltier and a little bit sweeter; even those that focus on hops and bitterness tend to be a little sweeter. I think we brew more lagers than other places. Then again, that reflects our history.

Do we as Midwesterns seem more cautious in beer trends?

Yes, if you look at the big picture. People dispute this with me because they are looking at a few of the big-name breweries who are making the super-hopped-up beers or the experimental beers. But I’ve visited and sampled beers at 200-plus breweries across the region. And if you look at the big picture, I think things stay a little more cautious. But we have several standout breweries that are pushing some boundaries.

Which ones are those?

I would put Surly in there. I would put New Glarus (of New Glarus, Wis.) in there. There’s one little tiny brewery in far western Iowa called CIB Brewery. Pipeworks Brewing in Chicago. As palates advance, that is becoming more and more what’s happening. We’re moving slowly away from this cautious stance.

Did you find that styles vary by state?

Yes, somewhat. Minnesota, particularly in the Twin Cities, is definitely hops. We like the big hoppy beers, the IPAS, the double IPAs. Wisconsin generally has more lager breweries than other places. In Illinois, everything is focused in Chicago, which is a pretty cosmopolitan place, so you find more experimental boundary-pushing beers there. Iowa generally is more meat-and-potatoes, just as you might expect, with classic styles, brewpub standards: amber ales, porters, stouts, blond ales, pale ales.

Do you think the Midwestern style will change over time?

I think it is gradually changing. We’re developing a more educated consumer base that’s more willing to push things, that will gradually develop into something like you’d find on the coast. But I don’t know that it will go away altogether. You still have a bunch of folks that like sweeter beers.

Is there an average age for those interested in craft beers?

It’s all over the board, but I would say it’s more prevalent for those under 40. Those in my generation (he’s 50), we grew up without good beer. Beer for us is pale yellow lager. And I think in that generation there’s a little less interest in reaching out to try things, whereas for those under 40, good beer has always been available. It’s never been a crazy thing. It’s not the “weird” beer, as some people would say to me.

The Minnesota brewery boom began with Summit Brewing Co. in 1986. How does that compare with craft brewing in other states?

Summit was pretty early. The whole craft beer thing didn’t really kick off till 1990 on the coasts. In terms of the Midwest, Summit was a real pioneer.

Did they start out cautiously?

Not for the day. Back then, all you could get around here was Schmidt, Grain Belt, Hamm’s _ all the lagers. Then they came out with what, for the day, was a really hoppy, bitter beer that was an extra-pale ale, and a porter, a rich full-bodied black beer. The kind of beer that makes people say, “Ooh, that’s dark.” So I wouldn’t say they were cautious at all for the day. People think of them now as staid, but that was unheard of then.

What excites you the most about the craft beer movement?

I think it may be the social thing. Beer brings people together. I think good beer is becoming something that people are coming together around. You have a lot of sharing in the community. It’s exciting that all these breweries are opening and always releasing new beers, but to me that’s less exciting than that social feeling in the community. And this is coming from someone who isn’t particularly a social person.

Do you have any particular favorite breweries?

Oh, there are a bunch. But I realized over time, it wasn’t necessarily about the beer the place made, because some of my favorite places didn’t have the best beer. It is about the whole package. What’s the ambience of the place? Is it friendly and welcoming? What’s the unique story that’s there? So don’t get hung up on if they make the best beer in whole world. Enjoy the whole thing.

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