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A 2004 Beer and Steam Odyssey through the US Midwest

Part 1: First day in Minneapolis-St Paul

Saturday 19th June

Over the last three decades small and medium-sized American brewers have become leaders in the beer world. They have inspired many, both at home and overseas. In Britain many new small breweries were established during the 1990s and 2000s and in Germany considerable numbers of brew-pubs opened their doors for the first time during the same period. Although I caught the movement in Europe I missed out as far as the USA was concerned.

US Midwest P1 1All of my visits to the USA have been in connection with travelling on special trains with preserved steam locomotives. The golden years of these operations were in the late 1970s and through the 1980s. This was mostly before the great American beer revolution. So back then I had to mostly put up with large and regional brewery’s brews. My last visit was in August 1991 and was mainly to West Virginia where the national brewers still had a stranglehold, although I did have a few good beers in Washington D.C.

However the visit that is the subject of this article was considerably different. I was accompanied by Linda on a mid-western odyssey which commenced in Minneapolis. We flew there on now-defunct Northwest Airlines, whose base was in that city. These days the route to and from London is operated by Delta who took them over. Obviously, with the time differential, we didn’t attempt much on the evening of our arrival.

So the following morning (Saturday 19th June 2004) found us in the Rock Bottom Brewery, around four blocks from our city-centre hotel. This is my favourite of the north American brew-pub chains as they nearly always have a cask beer (sometimes two) available alongside the keg offerings. The Minneapolis outlet was no exception as Itasca Extra Pale Ale (5.4%) was on. (See photograph of pub, above right.)

US Midwest P1 2So, after tasting having the near obligatory sample set of the range on offer, I went for pint of the Itasca. I have to say that I enjoyed it very much. Not over bitter, it was very full-flavoured. Well, the rest of the day was free and we had bought day bus passes so off we went to visit the Town Hall Brewery (photo below right). We went by bus, but these days you get there on a brand-spanking new tram line that runs to the twin city of St Paul.

Interestingly, I thought this pub felt right the moment we walked through the door. It has a traditional type of bar counter on the left and is of a medium size. We settled at the bar and had a sampler tray. If we had tried all of their beers we would have lost the rest of the day as they serve around twenty! Stand out beer was Masala Mama (6.4%), an American-style IPA.

US Midwest P1 3Another great beer was West Bank Pale Ale (4.8%) and I had a pint of this. These days the brewery has acquired a bit of a name for its cask beers. There are up to three offered at any time and the two beers I liked on this early visit are often available on cask now. What a pity that wasn’t the case when we visited in 2004!

Whilst sampling and commenting on these beers we got into conversation with David, a customer.

David was a regular visitor to the pub on Sundays. He explained that he was a member of the Mug Club. This has a limited membership, 100 or 150, as I seem to remember. You pay an annual subscription of $50 or $60 and for that you can get considerable reductions on the price of a pint for a limited period of time every Sunday. After doing the maths it worked out that the initial payment was recouped within about four or five months, well worth doing!

US Midwest P1 4He told us that he lived in the state capital St Paul, in a district about halfway between the twin city centres. I mentioned that it was our intention to go another pub with a brewery in that area, O’Gara’s and he said that he was also a member of the Mug Club there! And, what’s more he was going there after finishing this beer at the Town Hall! What a coincidence, and he offered to give us a lift which was a lot better than the Sunday bus service.

After we crossed the Mississippi River into St Paul we couldn’t help noticing the many statues depicting the characters from the Peanuts cartoon strip. David explained that Charles M. Schultz, the artist responsible for the strip came from the city and it was the authority’s way of honouring him. A very good idea that brightens up the neighbourhoods. We were soon at O’Gara’s, which as the name implies, is an Irish pub.

We tried a selection of their home-brewed beers with favourable results. The pub dates from 1941 and the brewery was established in 1996. Although the pub is still open, they ceased brewing in 2007, so in many ways we were lucky to taste these beers when we did.

US Midwest P1 5cI explained that after a beer or two in O’Gara’s we intended to continue to St Paul city centre to visit another brew-pub and David generously said he would give us a lift.

Our destination was Great Waters Brewing in down town St Paul. This is a more modern set up than the previous two pubs visited. It opened in 1997 and we finished off a pleasant day in David’s company with some very good beers.

This is another brewery that has moved towards cask-conditioned ale in a big way these days, with no less four real ales available at any one time. Sadly, not in 2004.

David insisted in taking us back to our hotel in Minneapolis. Although we thanked him profusely on the day I would have liked to have done the same when we got home but I foolishly lost his Email address. So David, if you ever get to read this, thanks a million!

Bob Thompson
Part 1 of 5