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Turning on the tap: Northwest Minnesota towns turn to breweries as attractions

THIEF RIVER FALLS -- Northwest Minnesota cities are taking steps to attract craft breweries, an industry that has caught on in metropolitan areas but also has found success in small towns across the state.

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THIEF RIVER FALLS - Northwest Minnesota cities are taking steps to attract craft breweries, an industry that has caught on in metropolitan areas but also has found success in small towns across the state.

The Thief River Falls City Council approved an ordinance allowing for licensed brewpubs and taprooms, and the East Grand Forks City Council has discussed similar policies. Officials from both cities said there isn’t a specific brewery set to open there.

“We really wanted be proactive instead of reactive,” Christine Anderson, the Pennington County economic development director, said of the move last month. That would help an interested party establish a business instead of waiting for the city to set up its laws, she added.

Those city-level policy discussions follow the 2011 passage of the so-called “Surly bill,” named after the Twin Cities company Surly Brewing Co. That state law allowed Minnesota breweries to serve their own beer for consumption on site.

The Twin Cities has become a hotbed for craft breweries, and Surly itself opened a “destination brewery” in late 2014 in Minneapolis.

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But the Twin Cities isn’t the only place to see craft breweries open. The city of Bemidji developed a taproom ordinance in 2013, and Bemidji Brewing Co. opened a brewery and taproom in the city’s downtown that summer.

Tina Kaney, a co-founder of Bemidji Brewing Co., said the concept wasn’t necessarily illegal in Bemidji, but “it just hadn’t been done before, so it wasn’t on the books.” And now after three years in business, Bemidji Brewing Co. is expanding to larger space in town.

“We knew with that law passing that it was only a matter of time before there would be breweries popping up in all sizes of towns, as we’ve seen,” Kaney said. “This taproom concept now is pretty well understood, but even five years ago, that was a really new law.”

‘Very trendy’ As in Thief River Falls, the city of East Grand Forks aims to be proactive in its approach to a potential brewery.

“We don’t have an application yet, but we assume that something is most likely going to be coming -- that’s the trend,” said City Administrator David Murphy. The East Grand Forks City Council discussed potential policies during a May 10 meeting, and the idea will be brought back at a later date, according to meeting minutes.

East Grand Forks Council Member Mike Pokrzywinski called craft breweries “very trendy.”

“I think we need to knock down any obstacle that we have (for) people who are interested in opening that sort of thing here,” he said. “If it takes amending our local ordinance, let’s get it done and let the world know that the doors are open.”

Tom Whisenand, president of the Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild and co-founder of Indeed Brewing Co. in Minneapolis, said he’s seen a number of breweries in “stand-alone towns in Greater Minnesota.” Officials in those cities have been aggressive in their attempts to land a brewery by changing ordinances and pointing to available properties, he added.

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“Which is pretty incredible if you look at how far we’ve come with that, that craft beer is one of those things where it’s not seen as being a bar where people go drink and get drunk,” Whisenand said. “It’s seen as being a positive part of a community.”

Even the small northwest Minnesota town of Hallock is poised to get its own brewery and taproom. Revelation Ale Works is replacing an old service station in the town of roughly 950 people.

The number of craft breweries in Minnesota has jumped from 35 in 2011 to 105 last year, according to the Brewers Association. The state’s 2.7 breweries per capita is 14th highest in the country.

Whisenand said breweries opening in small towns helps the whole industry “rise up.”

“We still are just a small piece of the pie,” he said. “The more we can introduce people to beer, the more these small breweries in smaller towns can educate their consumers, the more our industry is going to grow.”

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