Lake Superior Makes Superior Beer

December 13, 2018

By Jerard Fagerberg, December 13, 2018

In the 1950s, Hamm’s Beer released a jingle that would make the St. Paul beer world famous: “From the Land of Sky Blue Waters comes the water best for brewing.” In the 1960s, its chief competitor in Minnesota, New Ulm’s Grain Belt Beer, followed suit by proclaiming its product was made with “perfect brewing water.” The wellspring both brands were alluding to is Lake Superior, arguably America’s greatest beer resource.

Settlers and voyageurs began drawing water from Superior to brew beer 350 years before Hamm’s and Grain Belt co-opted the lake’s water quality with their marketing—before neighboring states Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin were granted statehood. Today, Northern Minnesota’s Voyageur Brewing posits Lake Superior as “the world’s largest body of perfect brewing water.” Wisconsin’s South Shore Brewing cites Lake Superior water as one of its six secrets to success. In South Range, Michigan, Keweenaw Brewing was established after the two founders were “seduced by... the crystal clear waters” of the neighboring lake.

But in recent years, Superior’s pristine reputation has been called into question. In 2017, Superior was surpassed by Huron and Michigan as the clearest of the Great Lakes. 40% of Minnesota’s waters are currently listed as impaired or polluted. Most damningly, earlier this year, The Public Library of Science published a roiling study that tied microplastics found Minnesota beers back to Lake Superior.

Superior is a marvel in every measure. Its 31,700 square miles stretch from the Northern Minnesota taiga to the desolate forests of Ontario. It’s not only the largest Great Lake, it’s larger than all the other Great Lakes combined, containing 10 percent of the world’s surface-accessible fresh water. But what if these threats compromised this great lake? What toll would it take on the American beer industry if one of its best resources were rendered unusable?

Every weeknight, when the refineries and the train yards go quiet, the stools at the Cedar Lounge start to fill up.

There are few places in America like Superior, Wisconsin. A gritty factory town on Lake Superior’s North Shore, Superior and its Minnesota sister city Duluth comprise the Twin Ports, the largest freshwater port in the world. The Cedar Lounge has been a watering hole for blue-collar locals since it was built as a tied house for the Northern Brewing Company in 1912. It’s this history that led Tim Nelson to purchase the Cedar Lounge in 2016 and repurpose it as the taproom for his new brewery, Earth Rider.

“In order to make great beer, you need a great location,” Nelson says, paraphrasing August Schell. “Our location infiltrates our brand. It even goes into the styles that we brew. They’re brewed for the people that work here first, because they’re the ones coming in here after work.”

Earth Rider’s signature beer is Precious Material, a bready unfiltered helles that mashes European brewing tradition with American utilitarianism. The beer not a coincidence. Lake Superior is renowned amongst brewers for its chemical similarity to the waters of Pilsen and Bohemia. It is remarkably low in both calcium and phosphates, meaning that the water is soft and inert.

“Whenever I travel out of the Twin Ports, coming back, I’m relieved to put a tap water in my hand,” Nelson says. “It has a certain terroir. Large brewers that can use reverse osmosis to take that minerality out of the water, we don’t have to do any of that.”

Nelson’s been brewing with the Superior water for more than 20 years, having previously opened Fitger’s Brewhouse in Duluth in 1995. Like Hamm’s and Grain Belt before him, Nelson has hinged Earth Rider’s brand on the quality of its water source. And he’s not concerned about things like microplastics spoiling that quality.

“Lake Superior water is some of the cleanest, clearest, safest water in the world,” Nelson says, confidently. “Microplastics have been discovered in 94% of U.S. municipal water sources. Everyone should try to limit their plastic use.”

In the wake of the PLOS study, Bent Paddle Brewing leapt to defend its water source. Bent Paddle has been unabashed in their support of Lake Superior and the conservation efforts around it. In 2016, they opposed a PolyMet copper-nickel mine on the lake’s North Shore. Their activism got them banned from municipal liquor stores in the town of Silver Bay.

“It’s important for our brewery to have access to a sustainable and reliable source of clean water,” says Bent Paddle co-owner Laura Sayers-Mullen. “Having 10 percent of the world's fresh surface water on our doorstep is a major reason we chose to open our brewery in Duluth.”

There’s no greater authority on Lake Superior than Robert Sterner. The current director at the Large Lakes Observatory at the University of Minnesota Duluth, Sterner became enamored with the lake as a child and he’s been studying its biochemical makeup since the early 1990s.

“It’s much closer to its original state than the rest of the Great Lakes are,” he says. “The amount of time water spends in the lake is around 200 years, so anything that gets in has a long time to be processed. The level of nutrients in the water is quite low, it’s one of the lowest-phosphate waters ever measured.These things don’t make [Lake Superior] unique, but they do make it valuable.”

Sterner’s research focuses mainly on Superior’s nitrate concentrations, which have been rising over the decades. These levels are not a human health risk yet, and Sterner believes that other factors such as climate change (Superior is one of the fastest warming lake in the world) and invasive species (such as the quagga mussels that have ravaged Lake Michigan) are more imminent than human-induced pollutants like nitrates and microplastics. But the sheer idea that the lake is deteriorating could be threatening enough.

“Human perception is as important as anything else,” Sterner says. “If something happened where the region lost some of its reputation, that could be really bad for the brewing industry. It needs to be emphasized that, here in the middle of North America, we have this gigantic reservoir of freshwater that, so far, isn’t too terribly screwed up.”

Copper Harbor sits undisturbed at the northernmost tip of Michigan’s upper peninsula. Only 90 people call the town home, but it’s here that Jason Robinson chose to open Brickside Brewery in 2012.

“Drinking the water straight out of the tap has ruined me,” Robinson says. “Some places, you end up having to do reverse osmosis or UV filtering or proceedingly fine microfilters with active charcoal, and at the end, you basically just get water. Not here.”

Roughly 23 breweries and brewpubs dot the shores of Lake Superior, and Brickside is among the smallest. Robinson’s three-barrel system is only slightly larger than a sophisticated homebrew setup. Last year, Brickside topped out at 350 barrels, most of which were served in the taproom. Maintaining such a small operation in a remote town is no easy task, but Robinson attributes his brewery’s success to the shallow, sandy well of Superior water that he’s tapping into.

“The water comes out ridiculously clean,” he says. “I make a 120 IBU double IPA. It should be a really strong beer, but it’s not this overriding bitter beer. With a stout, it helps to create a better mouthfeel. It makes it seem a little bit smoother.”

Robinson’s reverence for the water’s effect on his beer is procedural, almost matter-of-fact. To him, it's a given that beer from his home is higher-quality than anywhere else. When you grow up in birch country, everything seems more pristine.

In Copper Harbor, the views of Lake Superior are panoramic—the Twin Ports 250 miles to the left, Sault St. Marie 300 miles to the right. It may have been a half century since Hamm’s and Grain Belt made a ruckus about the quality of the water up there, but to stand on those shores, questions about its purity dissolve with the horizon.

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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