Experiencing the Duluth Experience

Fill up this glass in Duluth.

Fill up this glass in Duluth.

No, the title of this post is not an unintentional repetition.

Mr. NN and I got married on Labor Day weekend eight years ago. The choice of that holiday weekend was partly out of necessity (other weekends at our church / reception site were already booked) and partly out of a realization that it would be good to have a three-day weekend fall right around our anniversary every year. Last year saw us venture to Minnesota’s North Shore, and this year it seemed that the date

Dave at the wheel, Paul with the spiel.

Dave at the wheel, Paul with the spiel.

came up quickly and we were scrambling to get something booked. Then, out of the blue (and I mean that quite literally), I saw a sign to point us north once again, but this time just to Duluth: A cheery blue advertisement at Northern Brewer for the Duluth Experience, a guided tour to a handful of Duluth-area breweries. Our anniversary plans were made!

For $72/person, two of the men behind the Duluth Experience, native Duluthian cousins Dave Grandmaison and Paul Helstrom drove us and four other “brewery tourists” around various parts of Duluth and Superior, stopping at various breweries for tastings and chats with the brewers or owners. Along the way, Paul explained some of Duluth’s history. One venue supplied us with an early dinner of pizza, and savory snacks were available aboard the bus. Those are the rough outlines of the Sunday Funday Brewery Tour. Now the details and why you should consider a Duluth Experience tour for your next jaunt Up North:

  • Dubrue. Our bus pulled up to  a garage, and if one bay door hadn’t been open, revealing a stack of kegs, I would have thought we were at an auto repair shop. Such are the humble digs of Dubrue, a 15-barrel operation that scraped together brewing gear from auctions and farm equipment. We were met by Nick Cameron, one of the owners, and were immediately poured samples of the Pub Ale, an
    Nick Cameron of Dubrue

    Nick Cameron of Dubrue

    English-style session ale, and the India Black Ale, which was actually more of a brown color. The Pub Ale had enough hop presence and malt backbone to make it a flavorful session ale. (Newbies: Session ales are low-alcohol beers, usually below 5% ABV. This does not include non-alcoholic beers like O’Doul’s, which… well, honestly, I don’t quite understand. By the way, non-alcoholic beers still contain some alcohol, though less than 1%.) Nick posited that tasty sessions beers are a growing trend, especially after the onslaught the past few years of Big Beers, the high octane beers that could knock you off your feet (literally) if you drink two or more in a sitting. Session beers allow consumers to kick back with friends and have a few cold ones without getting drunk — not to mention that the brewers like to drink these beers while brewing. I think Nick may be onto something here. (By the way, he would like for Dubrue to make a Belgian-style single some day. Yes, a single. I’d never heard of that, but it’s what you get from the leavings of a Big Beer: a low alcohol, less intense but still flavorful and highly quaffable beer. Surly did something similar with Damien, the “son of Darkness.”) The Dubrue India Black Ale was even better, in my opinion. It had citrusy hops to lend a good bitterness but that was balanced out by a stable malt platform that almost gave it a caramelly hint. This is not a punch-in-the-face, hyper-hopped beer but a well-crafted version of an IPA.

Interestingly, Nick, Paul, and Dave discussed how “IPAs are over,” that the market saturation point for highly hopped beers had reached its peak. What do they think is the hot, new style for beer? Sours. And guess what Dubrue has in a barrel, waiting to reach its prime sourness level? My pick for Beer Style of the Summer, a Berliner weisse! I almost

Dubrue's equipment

Dubrue’s equipment

started jumping up and down when I heard that. Paul also cleared up a mystery for me: Woodruff syrup, which is commonly added to Berliner weisse in Germany, apparently tastes something like melon. He added that the style is considered a “kiddie beer” in Deutschland, as it’s low alcohol and sweet syrups are added.

We noticed something curious at Dubrue as we were about to leave. There were boxes of corked beer bottles. On a counter, there was a beer glass with the name “Blacklist” on it. Below, in a bin next to what appeared to be a crushed can of Budweiser, lay a few bottles of Blacklist beer. And then there was the Blacklist banner. What’s all this, then? It turns out that Blacklist is another area brewing operation. It is currently “nomadic,” meaning it has to rent out space from other brewers to make its product. We did not get to sample Blacklist, but Mr. NN and I bought a couple of bottles at the store to try later. (Tasting review to come.) Note this in your evidence file for “collaboration in craft brewing.” Mark it as “Exhibit 1” — we’ll return to this issue later.

  • Canal Park Brewing. The next stop on our tour was a marked contrast to Dubrue. One is a small operation producing 15 barrels on used and MacGyver’ed equipment, hoping to raise enough funds to move to a bigger location someday. The other is also a 15-barrel operation, but it does so on state-of-the-art equipment, engineered to specific purposes, all housed in a brand-spanking new brewpub with
    A rainbow of flavor

    A rainbow of flavor

    full restaurant, gift shop, and a fabulous view right on Lake Superior. Lots o’ money behind this one, clearly. Tinga, a brewing assistant and our guide, showed us the gleaming equipment, and I was impressed. Of course, with all that precision machinery, my expectations are also raised. The beers had better be spot-on, flawless. We were given a four-sample flight, including Ankle Deep Pilsner, Stoned Surf IPA, Nut Hatchet Brown, and Foggy Jack Porter. All respectable for their styles, though not necessarily eye-popping. (Have we become too accustomed to the unusual to appreciate the well-done normal? Let’s discuss that over a pint….) However, that porter was very good. In fact, Mr. NN, who is not normally a fan of porters, declared it to be one of the best he’s had. As Canal Park writes in their description of the beer, it’s a good one to have while watching “a storm roll in across the big lake.” Or even when the lake is calm. Anytime, really.

We did not have time to buy other samples at Canal Park Brewing, so Mr. NN decided to have lunch there the next day before returning home. (Yep, I’m jumping ahead in time.) Though the food menu is pub-style (read: sandwiches, burgers, and salads), there are some interesting twists on it and many

Tinga explains the super-shiny equipment

Tinga explains the super-shiny equipment

options for vegetarians or “pescatarians” (vegetarians who eat fish). I am in neither of those categories, but I enjoyed the plantain burger, and we will definitely try the mussels next time we’re there. The maple maibock was out, so I ordered the Dawn Treader Tripel, which is a great name and a good tripel, and Mr. NN ordered the Kessel Run ESB, which is the best name and a “spot-on” ESB. Yes, we will be back for more. Now back to the Duluth Experience tour.

  • Thirsty Pagan Brewing. Ah, I am a sucker for a good name, and this one is right up there for breweries. Paul explained, as we crossed the bridge from Duluth to Superior, Wisconsin, that Thirsty Pagan
    Good beer here

    Good beer here

    has one of the only two female head brewers in the state of Wisconsin, which got my attention immediately. (By the way, if you know the other brewery with a female head brewer, let me know!) Does it matter that the beer is made by a woman? From the strictly consumer perspective, the answer to this question, as well as to whether it matters if a person of a racial minority is the brewer, is no. “Just make good beer!” However, from the more global perspective, it does matter. Not seeing similar faces working in a certain career field often acts as a deterrent to people wanting to enter that field or feeling uncomfortable when they do. Any career that is dominated by one race and one gender, as brewing is, would only benefit from increased diversity. (I’ll get off my soap box now.) Inside, we were met with a colorful display of “breweriana” and the wonderful aroma of pizza. Our first sample was Sadie,

    Paul does some talking for the crowd-shy brewer Alison

    Paul does some talking for the crowd-shy brewer Alison

    a blueberry sour. Though the blueberry wasn’t necessarily a pronounced flavor, it was a very good, balanced sour ale. Thirsty Pagan offers flights of their sour ales because — YES! — they brew more than one at a time. I would love to get a flight and do a side-by-side comparison tasting to tease out the various flavors. We then met Allison, the head brewer, and got a tour of the facility while waiting for our pizzas to cook. Again, we saw ingenuity and hodge-podge equipment and a dedication to the craft. We also got to see the creepy basement where kegs of different sour ales slumber ’til their time arrives. In one of the rooms, I noticed what appeared to be yeast starters and asked Allison about it. What she said is Exhibit 2 in the evidence of cooperation in the craft beer world: Much of the yeast the Thirsty Pagan gets comes from Canal Park Brewing. Canal Park has more than they need, so they kindly allow a brewer across the bridge to get the rest.

We ended the tour in time for pizza, with thick crust and a tangy tomato sauce. As a group, we had to decide on one beer of which to get a pitcher. That’s a hard enough decision to reach when it’s a group consisting of beer fanatics, but it’s even harder when there are one or two people who are either new tp beerto beer or don’t really like many styles. Of course, that means we end up in the middle of the road with an amber, so everyone can be at least slightly appeased (or slightly disappointed, if you’re a glass-half-empty kind of person). It was a decent amber but not what I would have chosen, given the other interesting beers on the list. Oh, well. Guess that means we will have to return! (Yep, we most definitely will.)

So if you visit the Duluth / Superior / North Shore area (and you really should), I highly recommend taking a tour with the Duluth Experience. These guys are friendly and enthusiastic and know their stuff — not just about the breweries and brewing but also about the history of the area. (They do history tours without the brewery stops, too.) These fellows are not provincial local yokels who never left their hometown and so don’t know any better; in fact, both Paul and Dave lived in much warmer places (California and Arizona, I believe) before returning to Duluth. (Nick Cameron of Dubrue lived in Hawaii …. and he still came back to Duluth. I think it’s not so much “something in the water” as the water — that is, Lake Superior — itself. It is a magical inland sea that pulls one to it.) So they know, comparatively speaking, that they have something special there. Not too terribly long ago, Duluth was in danger of going the way of other iron-mill towns, but it was and is thanks to the efforts of people like the founders of the Duluth Experience that the city is reviving and becoming a must-see destination.


Though our tour only hit these three breweries, other area brewers were mentioned, as well as restaurants with local beer on tap. I wish we had stayed another day or so, just to pack in all the eating and beer-tasting we wanted to do. Here are some other notables for your trip to Duluth:

  • Lake Avenue Café. Good and largely local ingredients prepared with an innovative twist. Impressive cocktail list, in addition to the beer. Chorizo-stuffed dates, ceviche, and the best coconut cake I’ve ever had.
  • Borealis Fermentery. A one-man brewing operation doing Belgian-style ales. We had the Speckled Ghost Abbey Ale, which was lovely.
  • Fitger’s. The oldest brewery / brewpub in Duluth. The Duluth Experience leaves from outside Fitger’s and we hadn’t had lunch yet, so we popped in for a smoked whitefish salad, which was wonderful. We were sorely tempted by the beer list, especially the cherry sour ale, but we figured it would not be wise to have a beer before starting a beer tour. We’ve been there before, though, and the quality is good.
  • Bent Paddle Brewing. Featured on other tours given by the Duluth Experience, we had to settle for buying a couple six-packs of their canned beer. So far, we’ve tried the Black Ale and approved. It “drinks like a porter but is opaque like a stout.” Even Mr. NN liked it. Soon we’ll break into the Golden IPA.
  • 7 West Taphouse. We did not go here, but it has a decent beer list and often carries some of the breweries mentioned.
  • Duluth Grill. They don’t even serve beer here, as far as I know, but they serve a mean pancake. Mr. NN is a breakfast fiend and a pancake connoisseur, and he rated the pancakes very highly here. They also grow a lot of their vegetables right in their parking lot. Lots of vegetarian options, too.

So get thee to Duluth!

The area by the canal and lift bridge is quite bustling, even at night, but the lake still seems peaceful.

The area by the canal and lift bridge is quite bustling, even at night, but the lake still seems peaceful.

Mr. NN relaxes on the beach.

Mr. NN relaxes on the beach.



Filed under New Places, Road Trip, Tastings, Travel, Trends

2 responses to “Experiencing the Duluth Experience

  1. Thank you so much for sharing your experience with The Duluth Experience. We really enjoyed having you and Mr. NN on the tour and hope that we’ll see you again for another one – after all, we do have more breweries to show you! Thanks again and FYI, we posted a link to your blog article on our website at:


    From myself, Paul and the rest of the team – Thanks for Experiencing The Duluth Experience!

  2. Pingback: Mad-town Beer Tour | Ninkasi's Niece

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