After Years of Not Having One, North Dakota's New Craft Beer Scene Is Growing

Jul 21, 2016

 


 

 

A glass of KC's Imperial IPA at Fargo Brewing Company.
Credit John Corley

 

It’s no secret that people in North Dakota drink plenty of beer. According to the Brewers Association, legal drinking North Dakotans drink more beer per capita than any other state except for New Hampshire. Despite the states affinity for beer, the movement for craft beer has become a more recent trend.

At six years old, Fargo Brewing Company stands as North Dakota’s oldest craft brewery. Operations manager Zachary Click is fully aware of the state’s beer history. “North Dakota, the upper Midwest in general is just behind the times,” he says. “It’s the consumers in the long run, a lot more rural, a lot of them are just day to day beer drinking.”

“Day to day beer drinking,” people just drinking whatever without thinking much into it.  This mentality meant that North Dakota didn’t have much demand for craft beer and thus there was not much supply.

While the rest of America was turning toward beer that is local, different, and fresh, North Dakota was stuck with beer you see on TV ads. 

As being a part of North Dakota’s oldest craft brewery, Click believes North Dakotans tastes could change to craft beer through education. “They’ve never had to drink it or wanted to drink it,” he says. “But now that it is in front of them they’re drinking a lot more of it and it’s continuing to grow.”

 

Zachary Click, Operations Manager at Fargo Brewing Company.
Credit John Corley

One may wonder though what craft beer even means. Isn’t beer just beer? According to the Brewers Association, a craft brewery must meet three criteria: small, independent, and traditional.

Small means the brewery can’t ever produce more than 6 million barrels of beer a year. While that may sound like a large amount, by comparison, the largest U.S. brewer, Anheuser-Busch, can produce around 94 million barrels in a given year domestically. Only a few craft breweries such as Boston Beer Company, known for their “Samuel Adams” beer lineup, even hover around 6 million barrels of annual production. Most other craft breweries don’t come close to that.

Independent refers to the brewery needing to be at least 75 percent owned by the craft brewer. Goose Island in Chicago was once considered a craft brewery until recently it was taken over by Anheuser-Busch.

Finally, craft beer must be made using the traditional beer ingredients; malted barley, hops, yeast, and water. A flavored malt beverage, for example, would not be considered beer.

On a given night at Fargo Brewing, the taproom can be full of people drinking beer that was made just a few feet from them. But even if a beer is considered craft, people such as Drew Syverson, care about how it tastes. “Crisp, clean” he says, describing one of the brewery’s signature brews, Helle’s Lager. “Each time you have a glass poured it’s unique.”

When asked if he ever drinks beers like Bud, Miller, or Coors, local Mark Hagen was emphatic in his response. “No, no, none of those” he states. “We’re spoiled now, this has flavor.”

The craft beer growth in North Dakota is recent compared to the overall growth of the industry nationwide. Currently there are four craft breweries in Fargo, three in the Bismarck-Mandan area, one in Minot, and one in Grand Forks.

 

Cases of Fargo Brewing Company's Original Lager ready for distribution.
Credit John Corley

According to the Brewers Association, from 1980 to 2010, the number of breweries in the U.S. increased from 92 to 1,813. Over the past six years alone, since North Dakota gained it’s first craft brewery, the number of breweries in the U.S. has more than doubled, from 1,813 to over 4,200.

North Dakota currently ranks 50th in the nation for number of craft breweries, however because of its relatively small population, the state is 35th in breweries per capita. 1.64 breweries per 100,000 people places North Dakota ahead of large states like Texas and Florida. Having a sparse population also means that any additional breweries would boost the per capita number rather quickly.

Another challenge that breweries face is where they source their ingredients. According to the U.S Department of Agriculture, North Dakota leads the nation in the production of barley, which when malted, happens to be one of the four vital ingredients in beer. Barley produced for beer had historically been exported for malting, so if North Dakota brewers wanted malted barley it would need to be imported back into the state.

Todd Sattler, Co-Owner of Laughing Sun Brewing in Bismarck, believes that the trend is shifting. “Producers now in North Dakota are becoming very interested in selling grains and hops to North Dakota breweries,” he says. “I think that will be a large part of what happens in the future with craft brewing in North Dakota.”

As ingredients become easier to source, people that could only brew from home before may be able to now open a brewery. But there could be other obstacles for opening a brewery, so says Sattler.

“In the 1970’s, North Dakota along with other states passed what are called Franchise Laws to protect beer distributors.” Sattler believes that those laws once made sense because there were only a few large breweries and a lot more small distributors, meaning that at the time distributors needed protection. If a brewery broke a contract with a distributor, the distributor would have been at risk of going out of business. The laws were put in place to prevent breweries from breaking contracts so easily. But because breweries now outnumber distributors, Sattler says that the legislation needs to meet more modern times.

Because of Franchise laws, Sattler believes the decision on who should distribute their beer “is probably the most important decision that a brewery in North Dakota will ever make.” Sattler says because of the difficulty for a brewery to exit a relationship with a distributor, if the situation turns sour, is one reason why North Dakota doesn’t have more craft breweries.

 

Patrons at Fargo Brewing Company sit only a few feet away from where the brewing takes place.
Credit John Corley

 

However difficult opening a brewery may be, it isn’t impossible, especially as the thirst for craft beer grows. In fact, according to the Brewers Association and FM Beer, North Dakota is slated to eventually open new breweries in Fargo, Bismarck, Grafton, Mapleton, and Williston.

More craft breweries means more opportunity for community engagement in them. Yuriy Atanasov appreciates this about Fargo Brewing. “It’s a good place to meet people,” he says. “And have different beer every time.”

For Fargo Brewing operations manager Zachary Click, he has some simple advice for people who still may be hesitant to jump on board the craft beer bandwagon.

“Don’t be afraid to try something new,” he says.

As more people in the state care about the flavors, ingredients, and locality of their beer, the movement for craft beer will only continue to grow. North Dakota won’t be behind the times anymore.