Sitting Near the Top of the World: Ursa Minor Brewing in Duluth, MN
I woke up early Saturday morning after an uneasy night's sleep following Friday night's show in Wisconsin. I had blown my throat out towards the end of that show, the temperature had gotten a bit chilly overnight, and I could tell my throat issues weren't any better... and possibly worse.
I bombarded myself with various vitamins, some tea, and ultimately occasional sips of Jameson, and tried to remain silent most of the day. Staying silent isn't that hard when you're traveling alone, although sometimes it's hard not to sing along to the radio... so I tried to listen to stand-up comedy and a little talk to avoid the temptation/reflex.
The trip from Rocky Reef in Woodruff to Ursa Minor in Duluth wasn't bad. It's about a 2.5 hour trip northwest, back up to the coast of Lake Superior. Duluth just sort of appears out of nowhere... you're in the wilderness, and then all of a sudden there's Duluth up ahead of you. I really didn't get to see much of the city, but the area near the brewery was rather cool with lots of shops and restaurants, and I camped out for a few hours at a rustic coffee shop called Dovetail Cafe that was combined with sort of art gallery and crafts workshop. One thing that I had found up this north country, whether it be Wisconsin, Michigan, or Minnesota is that the wireless data coverage was spotty, and finding a place with fast wifi was gold. Dovetail had fantastic coffee and fast wifi, so made myself comfortable, knocked out a blog, and got some other work done.
Ursa Minor Brewing Co. - Duluth, MN
Beers are currently available on tap in the taproom. Cans and growlers are also available. Kegs and some cans are distributed locally.
Ursa Minor Brewing Company was only a couple of blocks up the street, so I got there a good hour early, and the place already had a pretty good sized crowd. I was still a little uneasy about the condition of my voice, but I put some planning into the setlist in order to avoid songs that might give me problems. I don't think I've ever discussed this before, but I don't normally use a setlist. I just read the room and play what seems like it would work best in the moment. I do tend to open with the same song each night, as it works well as a soundcheck for me, but other than that I'm just playing in the moment. This is also why sometimes I'll go blank... for some reason even with hundreds of songs in the bag, sometimes it'll be time to pick one and I'll go totally blank on what I play.
Another sort of rule that I stick to is I use my own sound system. On paper it sounds a lot easier to use one that's on hand if the venue has one, but a rule of the universe seems to be that either a) there will be something wrong with it, or b) you can't figure out how to use it. Plus there's a certain comfort in not only having total control of your sound, but aso having it sound exactly like you like it every night... and that rarely happens when you're using a house system. When a place has a house system, I almost always haul mine in anyway. That said, Ursa Minor had it's own sound system and for various reasons I needed to use it, so now the count is 0-2... my voice is damaged and I'm using a foreign sound system. Without getting into a bunch of details, I was behind the speakers and without monitors, so it was very difficult to hear myself.
Anyway, all that really amounts to is that I was feeling a bit uneasy at the start, and it took a little time to have my head adjust to the sound and get confident not only about how it sounded to the room, but also hear how my voice was holding up (sometimes you can feel it, sometimes not so much).
The good news is that my voice held out pretty well, and the crowd responded well to the material, so all was good.
For only being open for 10 months, Ursa Minor really has it going on. The brewing facility is already running out of room, and both the patio and taproom were pretty full throughout this Saturday night. The crowd was perhaps a little younger than many of the breweries I've visited, but overall it was a good mix, and the patio was full of big dogs. The taproom has a big bay door that opens to the patio, and inside the taproom there are a bunch of tables and comfortable chairs, and really interesting bar stools that had a sort of rustic industrial look to them like I hadn't seen before.
The choice at the taps was extensive, with I think 18 beers on tap, some with a nitro option, and a good representation of the various variants of beer styles. I should mention that I only played a two hour set on this night (as opposed to my usual 3 hours), so the fact that I drank fewer beers is strictly due to the shorter window of time, and absolutely no reflection on what I thought of the beers.
As the ladies running the bar were very knowledgeable about the various beers, I let them choose my beers for me. By popular demand we started with the Goat Hill Gose (4.0%) Session Sour. Brewed with lime, coriander, and salt, this was one of those beers that I just find perfect for a hot sunny summer day. Crisp and extremely refreshing, the lime and hops providing no shortage of citrus goodness, while elements of light spice keep it from being too sappy or sweet, and then the lime providing sour on the back and, and a slight saltiness almost like with a margarita. A slight haze on the pour, citrusy on the nose, yellowish in hue and lighter in body with a fair amount of carbonation, it was thirst quenching, satisfying, yet crushable.
I don't remember if I had this next or came back to it, but the other fruited sour I had that was quite good was the Cherry Creme Float (5.7%) cherry lactose sour. This baby is made with 300 lbs of cherries, so you can just imagine the significant contribution the cherries bring in terms of cherry flavor and sour. I love when lactose is added to sours with cherry, blueberries, etc. as that little extra bit of creaminess can really elevate the enjoyment to a whole other level, with the fruit having a little more heft or body to go along with it, letting you know it's real fruit, whereas a thinner body can sometimes seem like maybe it's just artificial flavoring, or simply implied by the hops and not really fruit at all. Regardless, the lactose added a wonderful little bit of extra creaminess that made this one quite enjoyable.
Juicy Zeusy (7%) NEIPA was my sipper during my extended set. The New England (hazy) style IPAs are obviously all the rage this summer, and this was a tasty one. Made with Zeus hops from Minnesota, it was pretty hop-forward for a NEIPA, which was fine with me, especially after having quite a few fruity sours lately. I'm not sure that I've ever had Zeus hops before, and if I have I'm not really familiar with them, but they seemed to deliver (as the name would also indicate) a juiciness, perhaps a darker edge to it (as opposed to more brightly grapefruit, etc.), a bit piney flavor, and a healthy amount of bitter. If I recall correctly, I think I was intrigued by this one delivering the bitter more upfront with the floral and fruity elements rising more towards the end, which is kinda the opposite of what you find with like a citra hops. Either way, it was a nice, well balanced IPA with a bit but not too much dankness.
Ursa Minor also served food... wood fired pizzas seem to be quite popular. For only being open less than a year, these guys/ladies have really pulled this place together... it comes across like a much more established brewery, not only in terms of the quality of the beers, but just the vibe of the taproom, and the loyalty and enthusiasm of the local crowd.
The crowd got a bit rowdy towards the end, which is always fun, although by the end there were also some complaints that we might have gotten a bit loud.... but like I said earlier, I wasn't using my own system and without monitors I couldn't really hear myself anyway, so it happens sometimes. Regardless, it was a fun stop on the tour, and if you find yourself in Duluth I'd recommend seeking them out and making an afternoon or evening of it, as there is plenty of good stuff to drink, the food looks good, and the people on both sides of the bar quite friendly.
I packed up and headed down towards Minneapolis, where I was playing an early show Sunday at a brewing cooperative. More on that in the next blog....
Have you grabbed a tour t-shirt or CD yet? The Summer Tour shirts are already sold out! We have a handful of Spring, Fall '18, and Winter shirts on clearance for only $10 (50% off!).