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Craft beer explosion evident at local bars

From the outside, Brady's Brewhouse in New Richmond, Wis., doesn't look much different than the other bars that line the main street through downtown there. Once inside, though, it is the smell that informs customers that the establishment is, in fact, unique.

The air is filled with the scent of malt. In the back of the restaurant, the source of the scent is easily determined: Two brewers can often be found back there, hard at work crafting a number of different beers for the restaurant. It may seem like a bit of a stretch for a town of 8,000 to support a brew pub, but owner Chris Polfus said it's anything but. As craft beers have exploded in popularity across the nation, the movement is taking hold in the river valley.

"People just appreciate the quality, the freshness and the flavor of craft beers," Polfus said.

While bars used to simply offer domestics and imports, most have quickly adapted to include the word "local," and for good reason. More and more customers want good, fresh beer from area breweries.

At Paddy Ryan's Irish Pub and Restaurant in Hudson, Wis., owner Mike Fassino has seen a real spike in craft beer interest, and he thinks patriotism and values have a lot to do with that. When MillerCoors was sold to a firm from South Africa, and when Budweiser was sold to a Belgian company, there were no major American-owned brewers left.

"That's why you're seeing what you are seeing with microbrews," Fassino said. "It's more localized. People feel more connected to it than they do to a bigger brewery."

Plus, small breweries have been bolstered lately by the quality of their product, which is increasingly unique. One regular at Paddy Ryan's has a beer bucket list. He'll come in with his list, try a new one, mark it off the list and then come back down the road to see what is new at the pub.

"To me, I take it like someone who is in a wine club," Fassino said. "That's exactly what is happening with beer."

Among the Wisconsin beers that Paddy Ryan's serves are those from Rush River, Sprecher, New Glarus, Potosi, Hinterland and South Shore. Brau Brothers, based in the small town of Lucan, Minn., is also regularly in the fridge.

At Kelly's Bar in Red Wing, Minn., 41 beers are now available on tap, including one from Rush River.

Brady's Brewhouse, meanwhile, takes local and fresh to a new level, as they brew eight different beers in house. What starts as malt, hops, yeast and water in the brewery can end up in a customer's pint glasses in as few as 14 days.

Across the river in Stillwater, Minn., Trevor Cronk and his fellow owners at Lift Bridge Brewing work to get their craft beers bottled, then see the product hit store shelves just days later.

The same thing can be said for the quickly expanding Rush River Brewing Co. in River Falls, Wis., where one of the owners, Dan Chang, can often be found hard at work.

"The mass-produced beers are all very similar," Chang said. "Craft beers are all small businesses. People like to support local businesses. People are willing to spend more for a six-pack. That says a lot, especially during a recession."

Rush River and Lift Bridge have obviously benefitted from area bars and liquor stores making the change to include more local beers, and more and more bars and liquor stores are seeking out their beers. Rush River can be found from Red Wing to Hastings, Rosemount to Cottage Grove and Woodbury on the Minnesota side to just about every town imaginable in western Wisconsin. Lift Bridge, which is newer to the game, is growing quickly and adding new bars and liquor stores all the time.

If you're new to the craft brewing game and aren't sure what you like, Brady's Brewhouse offers a beer tour, where you can order up a sampler platter. They have their beers as part of the sampler, and also include dozens of other craft beers that they sell, including a gluten-free option from Redbridge, made from sorghum, not with wheat or barley.

If you want to learn more about craft beer, you can hire someone like Nick Rondeau to come to your house and walk you through a beer tasting. Rondeau operates Lupulin Libations out of Hastings, Minn., a business specializing in beer tastings. Rondeau works many parties and gatherings, explaining the subtle nuances in beers, covering history, the variations in brewing, regions and ingredients.

The Willow River Blues and Brews Fest is also planned in New Richmond, Wis. It will be set along the St. Croix River Valley on Friday, June 1, and Saturday, June 2.

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It's not just craft beer that is making bars such as Brady's and Paddy Ryan's popular.

Among the favorites at Paddy Ryan's is the barbecue pork, braised in Irish ale, doused in barbecue sauce and served between two Irish potato pancakes.

The half-pound stuffed burgers at Brady's are certainly memorable. There's the Brady burger, which is stuffed with Ellsworth cheese curds and Dijon-honey mustard. And, for the more adventurous, try the Silly Good burger, stuffed with peanut butter and jalapenos, then topped with bacon and pepperjack cheese.