ICICLES hung from the red awning of the South Shore Brewery in Ashland, Wis. The door opened and a frigid gust off Lake Superior blew a few more folks inside, their collars upturned and stocking hats pulled down past their eyebrows. At the bar, I turned back to the pint glass of midnight black stout with a foamy head. The beer’s bouquet tickled my nose — zingy peppermint, brisk as the wind off the lake.
Herbal stouts are the consummate winter beer — festive, hearty inoculants against bitter chill. “This is what the body wants at this time of year,” said Bo Bélanger, South Shore’s head brewer.
South Shore is the exclamation point on a 70-mile beer trail of four craft breweries along Lake Superior, from Duluth, Minn., to Ashland. Here winter delivers a hefty wallop: about seven feet of snow annually. With their snowmobiling and their ice fishing, Northlanders revel in it. Northland brewers revel in winter too, savoring the opportunity to experiment with spices and fruits, bigger bodies and higher alcohol contents. It all makes for a kind of north woods Napa Valley for the beer tourist. Instead of temperate sun-kissed valleys, a white winterscape. Instead of haute bucolic, the northern outposts of the Rust Belt. And instead of fine wines, beer — but good beer, with a profound sense of place.
My trip began with a two-hour drive up Highway 35 from Minneapolis-St. Paul to Duluth. Somewhere around the midway point, the oak and maple trees turned to the spruces and firs of the north woods. My first stop in Duluth was lunch at the Clyde Iron Works, once a premier manufacturer of derricks and hoists (some were used to construct the Empire State Building). Today the blast furnaces in the gargantuan 23,000-square-foot former steel foundry have been replaced by the wood-fired ovens of a three-story mega-restaurant that serves pizza, pasta and burgers.
The city, too, has reinvented itself. A century ago, Duluth was an industrial juggernaut, a Lake Superior shipping hub for lumber, grain and ore mined from Minnesota’s Iron Range. In 1907, local newspapers reported, the city’s port shipped more tonnage than New York, and boasted the most millionaires per capita in the nation. In a familiar Rust Belt tale, Duluth withered after World War II. But a slow gentrification began in the 1980s. Amid the ramshackle warehouses down by the port, the Canal Park entertainment district sprouted shops, restaurants and art galleries. Other redevelopments followed, including Clyde’s reopening this past year.
The exposed steel beams, brick walls and old black-and-white photos of factory workers made me feel as though I should be eating out of a lunch bucket. Instead, the waitress brought me a pulled-pork sandwich on oven-baked bread with a side of homemade potato chips. But there were no seasonal beers on tap. So after lunch, I strolled two blocks to the neighborhood brewery.
Tucked into a nondescript office building, Lake Superior Brewingis a bit like a speak-easy. It’s open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays, but on Saturdays (when I visited), it’s open only if you knock on the door and somebody answers — that is, if a brewer happens to be tinkering with the latest batch. In a warehouse setting (concrete floors, unadorned corrugated steel walls), visitors can sample beers and buy growlers (half-gallon glass jugs). Dale Kleinschmidt, the head brewer, has been making beer as a home brewer since the early 1970s, “before it was trendy, and before it was legal,” he said. Lake Superior Brewing opened in 1994 “in a landscape of Bud, Bud Light and Bud Ice,” he said. “Nobody had ever heard of a pale ale.”
And yet, locals bought up every bottle. It turned out that Duluth, seemingly a beat-up blue-collar town, was a market thirsty for craft beers. Mr. Kleinschmidt explained this by pointing to the rocky shores of the Great Gitche Gummee, and to the million-acre Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness to the north.
“People live here for the quality of life,” he said. “And they want their beer to be an extension of that quality of life.”
I tasted a sample of Mr. Kleinschmidt’s barley wine, a sipping beer that he had brewed last winter and let sit for nine months. It delivered a warming afterglow with its 10.3 percent alcohol. Richly fig colored, it indeed resembled wine, with a raisiny, sweet start and a pleasantly dry, bitter exit. I bought a growler to take home and walked back to my car.
It was early afternoon, too soon to visit another brewery, so I drove up to the winter resort Spirit Mountain to hop on the southern leg of the Superior Hiking Trail. I strapped on snowshoes and ambled among pines and birches. Afterward, I stopped by the resort for a quick ride on the Timber Twister, an alpine roller coaster on which riders man the speed controls on their own individual coaster cars. “We run it down to 15 below,” said the attendant as I purchased a ticket. “Colder than that, and the danger of frostbite is just too high.” My cheeks were raw after a two-minute sprint down the mountain at 20 degrees, but the ride was a hoot — mildly thrilling, a scenic swoosh through the winter woods at 26 miles per hour.
Back in Duluth again, I checked into Fitger’s Inn, once the region’s pre-eminent brewery. Fitger’s beer was brewed here from 1885 until 1972. Another example of Duluth’s renaissance, the sprawling brownstone brewery was renovated into an entertainment complex in 1984. Guests can shop, eat, drink and sleep without ever leaving. But I had plans to dine on the other side of the port, so I asked the lobby clerk to call a cab to take me over to Superior, Wis.
Downtown Superior has none of the refurbished charm of Duluth, though it does have the Thirsty Pagan, a brewpub and pizza joint next door to a Salvation Army thrift store. Inside Thirsty Pagan, neon beer signs shone for Pabst Blue Ribbon and Hamm’s. But the head brewer Nate McAlpine’s creations are nothing like the watery beers my dad used to drink. “I brew aggressively,” said Mr. McAlpine, a 30-year-old with a cocked cap and cherub’s enthusiasm. That could mean a ragingly hoppy double IPA, or a spruce Scotch ale scented with real snippets of spruce. For winter, he served up a spiced ale, light bodied with a bit of gingerbread snap. It ably washed down the bready hand-tossed pizza, topped with Italian sausage that had been spiced with fennel, thyme, basil and a little cayenne, and smothered with mozzarella.
Back in Duluth, I stepped into Fitger’s Brewhouse, a gastropub that serves up today’s Fitger’s beers. Diners had claimed all the tables, but I found an empty easy chair in the loft above the dimly lighted, stone-walled bar from which I could sample the winter offerings of Dave Hoops, the head brewer. Mr. Hoops is a Duluth native who worked at the Pyramid Brewery in Berkeley, Calif., before coming back in 1999. He was happy to find a welcome home for his beers.
“It’s cold up here, a little bit isolated, kind of like lower Alaska. And everybody’s got a ‘we’re all in this together’ attitude,” Mr. Hoops said. “The more homegrown it is, the better. So for Duluthians, this beer is their thing. And they like me to be experimental, especially with local ingredients.”
Like the 600 pounds of Wisconsin blueberries Mr. Hoops dumped into his blueberry porter. And yet, he avoided the gimmicky, cloying, fruit-juicy taste that dooms so many berry beers. This was foremost a solid porter, properly roasty with a creamy head. Next I tried the bourbon barrel stout, aged for seven months in an oak whiskey barrel from Kentucky. The stout was like sipping liquid licorice, with a heart-warming echo ( and 10.5 percent alcohol).
Sleep came easy that night, and when the sun rose out of Lake Superior again, I rustled awake for the last leg of my beer tour. Highway 13 is the scenic route to Ashland, as it hugs stretches of wild lakeshore. I stopped at the mouth of the Brule River, where it empties into the big lake, for a surreal winter scene: icy dunes eight feet tall, formed in layers by frozen lapping waves; a parade of mini-icebergs farther off shore, blown here from all over the lake; and a peal, like crystal chimes, of ice shards dancing atop the open water. Wolf tracks traced a path along the ice dunes, and a bald eagle landed on one of the bergs.
In Ashland, I checked into the Hotel Chequamegon and walked nine blocks to the South Shore brewery. Straddling a barstool at the magnificent mahogany bar (stained glass adornments give it the gravitas of a church altar), I sampled the coffee mint stout, then a barley wine, this one sweetened with maple sugar from the local woods. I carried it over to supper in the dining room: barley-malt-encrusted pork tenderloin in a nut brown ale sauce. The waitress brought a weather report with my meal: snow on the way, probably eight inches. I shuddered and sipped my last bit of barley wine.
If I’m lucky, I thought, maybe I’ll get snowed in.
IF YOU GO
Beer tourists can plan a triangle route, driving on Interstate 35 to Duluth, Minn. (about 150 miles from Minneapolis), then just six miles east across a bridge over the canal on I-535 to Superior, Wis., then 65 miles east along State Highway 2 to Ashland, Wis. (or take County Highway 13 for the scenic route along the lake shore).
Lake Superior Brewing Company (2711 West Superior Street, Duluth, Minn.; 218-723-4000; lakesuperiorbrewing.com) sells half-gallon growlers to go, out of a simple, no-frills facility. Call before visiting to be sure somebody will be there. Late-winter beer release will be a hearty, chocolaty bock.
Fitger’s Brewhouse (600 East Superior Street, Duluth, Minn.; 218-279-2739; brewhouse.net) serves up 12 tap beers and sells to-go growlers in the historic Fitger’s brewery. Coming winter beers include a cherry scotch ale, schwartzweizen (black wheat beer), smoked doppelbock and a wheatwine at 11.2 percent alcohol by volume.
Thirsty Pagan Brewpub (1632 Broadway Street, Superior, Wis.; 715-394-2500; thirstypaganbrewing.com) offers eight beers on tap with growlers to go. Winter beers will include a burned India brown ale, potato stout and a black saison.
South Shore Brewery (808 West Main Street, Ashland, Wis.; 715-682-4200; southshorebrewery.com) features an elegant mahogany bar with four regular beers on tap (also growlers to go). Coming winter beers include a wheat doppelbock, an Irish milk stout, and a corn malt liquor.
(Note: because of state law, Minnesota breweries cannot sell growlers to go on Sundays.)
WHERE TO EAT
Clyde Iron Works (2920 West Michigan Street, Duluth, Minn.; 218-727-1150; clydeparkduluth.com) smelted steel in blast furnaces a century ago. Now it fires up Neapolitan-style pizzas and grilled burgers in what’s billed as the Midwest’s largest wood-fired ovens.
Fitger’s Brewhouse (above) is a gastropub with specialties featuring local foods, like a Minnesota wild rice burger that tastes like the meatiest patty (it can be ordered pub style with sautéed mushrooms, onions, Swiss cheese and chipotle pepper sauce) and a smoked fish salad with Lake Superior lake trout and smoked dressing.
Thirsty Pagan (above) is also a pizzeria serving up hand-tossed pizzas with thick crusts, browned and crunchy. Try the spicy Italian sausage, which is hand-mixed on site.
Village Inn (22270 County Highway C, Cornucopia, Wis.; 715-742-3941; villageinncornucopia.com) is the perfect backwoods lunch spot if you take Highway 13 to Ashland. Order the catch-of-the-day fish chowder, made with chunks of Lake Superior herring, whitefish or lake trout and potatoes in a buttery broth.
Deepwater Grille (adjacent to South Shore Brewery in Ashland, Wis.) offers fine dining with standout dishes that use brewery ingredients, such as barley malt encrusted pork tenderloin in a nut-brown ale sauce, a grilled sirloin stew made with potatoes and stout beer and, of course, Wisconsin beer cheese soup (made with nut-brown ale).
WHERE TO STAY
Fitger’s Inn (600 East Superior Street, Duluth, Minn.; 218-722-8826; fitgers.com) has the feel of a grand old Western hotel, with 19th-century furnishings and an ornate cashier’s cage in the lobby.
The Hotel Chequamegon (101 Lake Shore Drive West, Ashland, Wis.; 800-946-5555; hotelc.com) is a 1980s-remake of a classic old hotel by the same name built in 1877 when the railroad came to town.
WHAT TO DO
Spirit Mountain (9500 Spirit Mountain Place, Duluth, Minn.; 800-642-6377; spiritmt.com) is a ski resort with 22 downhill runs, 14 miles of cross-country trails, and the Timber Twister — one of only four alpine roller coasters in the country.
Superior Hiking Trail (shta.org) runs nearly 300 miles to the Canadian border; hop on anywhere along its southern leg near Duluth to go snowshoeing in the north woods.
Shops, restaurants and art galleries abound in Canal Park in Duluth, where tourists can ogle freighter ships as they pass under the aerial lift bridge and enter the port.
The mouth of the Brule River in Brule River State Forest (dnr.wi.gov/forestry/StateForests/SF-Brule/) offers an amazing winter spectacle, with icy dunes formed by frozen lapping waves and a mash-up of mini-icebergs that float here from all over Lake Superior. From Highway 13, pull off onto Brule River Road and keep going until it ends, then walk to the shore.