As long as I live in the Golden State, I’ll never make it to all 980 breweries in California. North Dakota, on the other hand, has a very reasonable 19 (20 if you count Black Leg Ranch Brewing, which is located on a private ranch). That’s why, in May of this year, I decided to visit every one, and I did it in three days.
My journey would take me though 600 miles of wheat and sugar beet fields (plus over still-frozen lake with ice crystals resembling Superman’s Fortress of Solitude), traveling with the singular purpose of leaving no brewery unticked. Before I arrived, I met a Norwegian-American whose brother lives in Fargo—land of hospitable Norwegian-Americans. This stroke of luck led to having a chaperone, Ron, drive me to all seven breweries in the metro area that made up the first leg of the trip. We started shortly after I landed in Fargo.
By the time we arrived at the oldest brewery in the state, Fargo Brewing Co., which flung open its doors in 2013, the afternoon sun was setting and dogs were sniffing around for dropped popcorn. A Diego Rivera-style mural of a laboring farmer carrying North Dakota grain—it’s one of the few states that gets to brew with homegrown barley—sets the scene in this bustling taproom. One of its four core beers is Woodchipper IPA—an homage to the Coen Brothers film that put Fargo on our collective map.
It was here where I met Riley, film production major at MSU Moorehead. He overheard Ron and me discussing my statewide quest and volunteered—beseeched, really—to be my videographer. Following his impromptu petition to tag along and make a documentary of sorts about my journey, I agreed that it would become our journey and he did tag along the rest of the night, despite his admission that he doesn’t love beer. Well, truth be told, he’s more of a confessed domestic beer drinker. He hangs out at Fargo Brewing, because it's a congenial social hub. Alas, in the morning, with very few of the state’s breweries under his belt, he was faced with a choice between being my videographer or keeping his job, seeing as his boss told him that if he left for the next two days, his job wouldn’t be waiting for him. I’m happy to report that we bid farewell.
Drumconrath Brewing in suburban Mapleton is named for the Irish town of owner and brewer Sam Corr’s parents. Visitors are treated to Corr’s beer (drinker, beware of homophones). There’s an Irish red, dry Irish stout, and Irish cream ale on nitro. The Irish-sounding Gael-force IPA was deliciously bitter like West Coast IPAs, but I was most taken with the Marchtoberfest. And why not? Oktoberfests are, stylistically, Märzens, which means March, so this lager posed some truthfulness down to its coppery, minerality. The Celtic folk music and some Pogues tunes were a great touch.
FlatlaND Brewery in West Fargo has the motto, “Great beer from the Great Plains.” Located on the ground floor of a mixed-use building, this brewery is all about playfulness. And not just because when you enter you’re greeted by an A-shaped bean bag game with three holes named A-holes. There’s a delicious braggot, meaning half the fermentables come from honey. (Fun fact: North Dakota is the largest producer of honey.) Because it’s barrel aged, the sweetness results in a Jack ’n’ Coke flavor. Speaking of sweetness, they make a cream soda (not to be mistaken for their Yahnke Cream Ale) made with Minnesota maple syrup which made for a perfect cleanser between other barrel-aged treats like a Belgian Golden Strong aged in a gin barrel.
Back in Fargo proper, Prairie Brothers Brewing is a spacious brewhouse tucked into a strip mall that just celebrated two years of brewing easy-drinking beers, including a house favorite, Coco Boingo, a 4.3% milk chocolate stout. Kilstone Brewing isn’t afraid to get playful with their beers such as Polyphonic American Pale Ale (code for session IPA, since it’s 5.2% ABV and 65 IBU) along with a version hopped with Lemondrop hops and accentuated with lemongrass, to say nothing of Cinnamini Donut, a brown ale with apple juice and cinnamon added to kick up the Vermont-style cider doughnut vibe, all before having the serving glass rimmed with cinnamon sugar. And speaking of playing beer games, the newest brewery in town is Pixeled Brewing Co. I can’t recommend going for the beer, but hey, it’s open until midnight and houses banks of vintage arcade consoles from Burger Time to Zaxxon to, naturally, Tapper.
This leaves Drekker Brewing in the greater Fargo area, which has completed a move to its second location deserving of its nickname Brewhalla. Given that this is the land of hearty Viking stock, Brewhalla is a massive realm for welcoming a number of weekend warriors. Housed in a hundred-year-old Northern Pacific Railroad building, it’s still the beers that steal the show. Half of the 20 house taps fall into the IPA category and brewers let their Viking freak flags fly with hazy, lactose-laden DIPAS like Loki Is My Homeboy, Thor Is My Co-Pilot, and Odin is My Overlord. Naturally, the brewers also play around with Norwegian Kveik yeast whenever possible.
Due north up I-29 for 80 miles, there’s a chocolate shop called Carol Widman’s Candy Co. that opened in Grand Forks in 1949, but the Widman’s candy-making history dates back to 1885. Chippers are what keep the lights on. They’re chocolate-covered ridged potato chips. But these guys will enrobe anything in chocolate: Jalapenos? Surprisingly works. Sliced pickles? Sure. Green olives? Must be a NoDak thing. Next door at Rhombus Guys Pizza, you can order a pizza with jalapenos and pickles. This pizza joint, which opened in 2002, happens to have great beer selection. The beer was so popular, the team opened Rhombus Guys Brewing in 2015. Among the dozen-or-so taps is a light, fruit beer called Beach Bod (not that people do much sunning on the banks of the Red River during a blustery bomb cyclone). Maybe it was the weather that kept locals from drinking up the fresh-hop IPA (from a SoDak hop farm) I found in May, but it still tasted like all the pine trees not grown around here.
A three-minute walk down the road is Half Brothers Brewing, where I found a dozen beers on tap, largely in the IPA and kettle sour territory, but also a delightful coffee brown ale available both on CO2 and NO2. The former goes great with the pub’s food, the latter tastes and feels like dessert. Be one of the first 15 people each day to order the “Giant Meatball and loaf” and you’ll get just that, a nearly full-pound single meatball. It’s topped not with pickles, olives, and jalapenos, but with honeyed marinara sauce plus a fresh-baked individual loaf of white bread served with honey butter.
From Grand Forks, the 210-mile-drive west goes through the town of Rugby that claims to be the geographic center of North America (though there’s a town outside Bismarck that also makes that claim and is also named Center). It was around that time I pulled over to get a closer look at the frozen waves along a lake as well as began praying I’d make it to Minot, since my rental car was coasting on fumes ever since the low-fuel light came on some 60-miles-back with nary a gas station in sight.
Minot (rhymes with “why not”) earned the nickname “The Magic City” because David Copperfield and David Blaine were born here. No, they weren’t, but Wiz Khalifa and Josh Duhamel were. Situated an hour due south of the Saskatchewan and Manitoba provincial border—just in case standing on the three corners is on your bucket list—the fact that Minot now supports two breweries is no illusion. And while there is a historical reason for the nickname, I’m convinced it’s that travelers like me who don’t get marooned with empty tanks is what makes it magical.
In the shadow of SunPrairie Grain’s grain elevators is Minot’s oldest brewery, Souris River Brewing. As a brewpub, the scent of meat smoking overpowers that of beer mashing. I enjoyed a trio of appetizers—bison meatballs, fried pierogi, and poutine—commemorating the Northern Plains trinity of North Dakota, Northern European, and French-Canadian cuisine. They paired perfectly with Dark Helmet, the subtly astringent schwarzbier.
Minot’s newest brewery is Atypical Brewery and Barrelworks. Housed in a funky building that looks like it could be a forest gnome cobbler’s workshop on the banks of the Souris River, the truth-in-advertising brewers made their mark in town with London Fog—named after the coffeehouse drink—a cream ale with Earl Grey and vanilla. It makes a range of British ales and IPAs—including some that are actually typical—but the mixed-fermentation ales will help lure the geeks to Minot. Overdressed Beggar is a beer-wine hybrid fermented with Valiant grapes, similar to Concord, grown for the area’s cold climate wineries.
Wine and fruit is nice, but since we’re beer travelers speaking about terroir, it’s worthwhile, even vital, to note that North Dakota is home to Two Track Malting, the state’s only craft maltser—a big deal considering the number of Budweiser billboards proclaiming, “Proudly made with North Dakota barley.” The fields are located all over the state, but the malting house is in Bismarck.
Bismarck is the fourth and final city that is home to breweries. It’s also the state’s capitol. With a population of 72,000, there are eight breweries, including Black Leg out on the ranch. It’s basically the Asheville, North Carolina of the Dakotas. One of its newest, Bismarck Brewing, opened its doors in 2018. From the look of the doors and stained-glass windows decoratively hanging from the ceiling, the abbey-esque aesthetic complements the Belgian Wit. There’s a downstairs bar and restaurant as well as an upstairs tasting room—thanks to a bizarre state law—but the whole dual-sided operation is a family affair. And best of all, you can order the pretzel-breaded fried chicken and waffles upstairs to pair with the lemony Sorachi Ace hopped pils or English Cucumber Sour.
West of Bismarck in Mandan, there’s Dialectic Brewing, an utterly charming brewery and taproom with a baker’s dozen taps (four of which are actually housemade sodas). The name means the art of investigating or discussing the truth of opinions, and after drinking their beers, I am of the opinion that chokecherries make for a delectable beer. Chuckleyum is a kettle sour with the fruit—which tastes more like a crabapple than a cherry—picked by the young couple that owns the brewery, Hannah and Dylan (plus his brother, Jacob). That said, their beer knowledge and tastes are quite worldly, as evidenced by Rhythm Rug, one of the finest American-brewed Berliner Weisses I’ve tried. It’s 3.7% and served with one’s choice of a sidecar of raspberry or woodruff syrup (get the woodruff if only to drink an emerald-green beer).
Less than two miles away is Buffalo Commons Brewing, which is tucked into a junkyard. Technically, the brewery’s neighbors are auto repair shops and storage units, but I saw vehicles that look like they’re neither being repaired nor stored. There’s a beer named Buffalo Commons, a dry brown ale, while Salem Sue is named for an uncommon cow. She’s the 38-foot tall, 50-foot long fiberglass cow planted almost 30 miles west in New Salem, where the co-owner is from. You’d expect the 4% ABV stout to be a milk stout. You would not expect a brewery to serve its beers in red Solo cups.
Some 12 miles southeast on the border of Bismark and Lincoln is Gideon’s Brewing (though the owner and brewer’s name is David, a Marines veteran). The beers skew heavily to the sessionable which is perplexing since the brewery boasts its own cornhole league —yes, league—and the custom score posts come with drink holders, as if you ever put your beer down while playing.
The three remaining breweries were all in the downtown core and lie in a straight line two and a half miles long. By this time, it was late afternoon on my third day and I’d checked into the EverSpring Inn where, before tackling the last of the watering holes, I took a ten-minute power nap and splashed some water on my face. Down in the lobby, the general manager Mike Motsenbacher (whose name, I believe, means someone who lives down by the river with a smile), caught wind of my mission and volunteered to be me de facto Uber driver.
Our first stop was Bird Dog Brewing, which feels like a duck blind tucked into a strip mall. If you’re lucky and you’re there when owner and brewer Dennis Kwandt is there, he’ll play a round of the North Dakota dice game 6-5-4 with you. I was extra lucky and beat him, thus mandating that he bought my next round. It was dealer’s choice, so he brought me some Night Hunt Imperial Stout that’s ideal for Bismarck winters. From there we hit the high-end feeling Stonehome Brewpub, part of the statewide Shooters Hospitality Group. The brewpub among their restaurants with a sister pub in Watford City, Stonehome offers around 17 taps, including guests, and an equally long food menu of pub grub that could be complemented by the slightly smokey McClendon’s Scotch ale, Mike’s favorite.
Mike returned to his family after dropping me off at Laughing Sun Brewing, a fitting conclusion to a statewide brewery odyssey. One of the state’s OG breweries, it features live music most nights and along with it a lively crowd. Co-founded by Mike Frohlich, who previously brewed at Rattlesnake Creek Brewery during North Dakota’s first wave of breweries in the nineties, Laughing Sun offers around 20 taps, with the most popular being the top four on the board: I Heart ND (a 4% ABV golden), Feast Like a Sultan IPA, Red Dwarf raspberry sour ale and Sinister (a bodacious 9% Belgian strong ale). But for my money, or maybe it was because the band featured a banjo player, pints of Legislative Session Ale just topping 5% ABV and smacking of a California Common felt like the right way to go.
After quaffing at all seven breweries, I seem to remember walking back to the EverSpring Inn and discovering fleischkuechle (whose name, I believe, means meat cake with a smile). Not so much a cake as burger inside a calzone. Honestly, I'd only asked what it was after I'd ordered a pizza, but in that condition, I ordered it too and wolfed down both. The next day I hit a doughnut shop famous for making a devil's foodcake doughnut decidedly not shaped like a circle but, rather, like a piece of poo. Bear poo to be specific. The shop's name is Bear-scat. What I loved most about it is that they also make lots of Bismarcks, which people outside the Northern Plains may refer to as jelly doughnuts, but around here, anything stuffed or filled is called a Bismarck, making this the only city named after a type of doughnut, unless you can find Fritter or Longjohn on the map. I waited in line for perhaps thirty minutes and I was the only tourist. Because as North Dakota knows, they get the least amount of tourists of any state. But it may be the only one where you can visit every brewery over a long weekend.
Illustration by Sunny Eckerle