The Twin Ports Are the Napa Valley of the Northland for Beer

It seems like each week a new brewery is opening up in the Northland, making the area like the Napa Valley of beer.

On Sunday night at Thirsty Pagan Brewery, the chalkboard sign near the door said to seat yourself in the bar area. At 8 p.m. there was a great trio of musicians playing that the bartender referred to as Joe’s Band. There was an accordion, bass guitar, and electric acoustic guitar giving an excellent backdrop to the evening. The board behind the bar said that at 9 p.m. the open mic would begin, and people began trickling in with their gear at 8:30 p.m.

It isn’t often that on Sunday night you have live music, deep dish pizza, and unique beer, but the inviting atmosphere of TPB makes it all feel natural. After Joe’s Band had finished their set, the lead singer walked to each table and talked with the handful of patrons in the bar area. To call it welcoming would be much too modest of a description.

There is a charm to Thirsty Pagan that reflects the identity of what a Superior bar looks and feels like. Duluth guts its older buildings and makes them new again, while Superior takes what is there and personalizes the shell. Windows were added recently to the front of TPB, and there are murals of factory workers from what looks like a century ago flanking them.

When I first went to the Pagan about seven years ago, or Twin Ports Brewery as it was called then, it was a small bar with hard rock bands playing under the giant moon-girl mural. Today it is family-friendly and completely remodeled, but as I said before, it is redone by taking what is there and building on top of things. That is quite different from Tycoons, which looks old on the outside but like a new bar on the inside.

The walls at TPB are covered with classic Fitger’s Beer signs and there are more at TPB than at the Brewhouse in Duluth. The pizza at TPB is the best I have ever eaten, and whenever someone comes to Duluth, I bring them there. So far everyone I have taken there has totally agreed with me.

The beer at TPB has its own unique taste. My favorite is the North Coast Amber and its caramel bitter goodness. My wife loves the Derailed Ale, but it is a bit too bitter for me. Burntwood Black and North Coast Amber have artwork that was done by Rick Allen. His engraving skills and style are amazing. TPB’s logo was created by Allen, and recently his illustrations were featured in “Dark Emperor and Other Poems of the Night” by Joyce Sidman, a 2011 Newbery Honor Book.

What catches my eye at TPB and many other places around the area is the artwork on the walls. Take for example the amazingly large tree painting by Jeredt Runions hanging above the stage at TPB, and the large Miller logo painted on the wall. There are sports team photos, newspaper articles, and a great old-fashioned picture of a constipated child hanging on the women’s bathroom door.

Across the bridge in Duluth

On that same Sunday night in Duluth, there was a trivia contest that began at 9 p.m. at Carmody Irish Pub. They also have their own beers and style to fill your Irish needs.

The Agnes Irish Red that I tried was excellent, but the trivia being offered on Sunday was difficult. The winners were awarded a dirty duck ball, used sunglasses, and a headband.

The other beers at Carmody are Fammine 47 Stout, Scanlon IPA, and Tippler’s Golden for the newbies. Brewer Mike Miley works a two-and-a-half-barrel brewing facility downstairs to supply the beer, and their scotch comes straight from the Napa Valley itself.

It is always funny to watch someone who isn’t from this area walk into the bars that brew their own beers and order a Grain Belt Premium. When they ask about the microbrews, there are a few patrons who will try the Northland ales and a few others who are not brave enough.

Which got me thinking about how we are the Napa Valley of beer, but many people don’t know it. If people understood that concept better, they wouldn’t walk into bars ordering the old reliable. I mean, who would go to the wine country of California and order a tall glass of Boone’s Farm?

Dubh Linn in Duluth has its own beers now, too, and an updated food menu. The comedians who pass through town are the top in the nation, and Saturday night features headliners straight off the Tonight Show and Comedy Central.

The Brewhouse in Fitger’s has been around the longest and is the largest restaurant brewer in Minnesota. If you haven’t been there yet, you must be just visiting town, but be brave and try to finish a sampler. Brewers Dave Hoops and Frank Kasuba make beers that are authentic and have a rich taste. Their hefeweizen tastes the closest to real Munich, Germany beer of any I have tried in the area. There are the staple beers like Lighthouse Golden, but Witchtree is usually my favorite.

Across the hall at the very posh Red Star, you can also order a handful of the Brewhouse’s beers, but you can order the harder stuff, too. While this article is about -beer, I cannot help but mention Red Star’s cherry-soaked Woodford Reserve whiskey. They also have a happy hour now with a few martini specials, but the cherry whiskey out of California is not on there…yet.

There also is a new brewery opening in Canal Park to attack the tourists’ beer cravings where they sleep. Lake Superior Brewery deserves mentioning as they make excellent brews that are available around town. When you are watching a concert at the DECC it is usually available, and the Special Ale always hits the spot.

While northern California amazes the world with its wines, northern Minnesota is tickling the taste buds with its brews.