By STEVE KARNOWSKI, Associated Press
FALCON HEIGHTS, Minn. (AP) -- Hundreds of horses, cows, pigs, goats, sheep and even llamas will face the judges -- and the public -- when the 2012 Minnesota State Fair begins its run Thursday.
The brand new AgStar Arena will be open for its first Great Minnesota Get-Together since replacing the fair's dingy old judging barn. Fair officials expect that 4-H, FFA and other farm families showing off their livestock will love it, while the new facility will provide a friendlier environment for city folk to appreciate how much work goes into raising and showing animals.
Other new exhibits that connect with the fair's agricultural roots will include Minnesota Wine Country, serving locally produced wines from 13 wineries paired with foods, and the "Land of 10,000 Beers." The latter is hosted by the Minnesota Craft Brewer's Guild, which will explore the state's brewing heritage, showcase the brewing process all the way from the farm to the glass, and sell samples from more than 20 of the state's breweries. For the kids, there's root beer.
The AgStar Arena has warmed up with several horse shows since it opened this spring -- it's already picked up the distinctive smell of horses -- but its packed fair schedule will offer the first look for most Minnesotans. The arena will host the fair's new high school rodeo cutting horse competition, as well as its traditional livestock shows, 4-H and FFA events.
Fair spokeswoman Brienna Schuette said the new facility, with its modern sound system and better sightlines, will make it easier for visitors to follow the judging and learn how State Fair competitions work.
"The No. 1 compliment we've had actually is just the lighting -- how nice and clean and bright everything is in there," said Ryan Donelly, manager of the fair's livestock events.
The shows will offer people without farm backgrounds "a really good variety of the livestock that Minnesota has to offer," Donelly said. They'll get to share in the excitement of competition and get a better chance to experience how much pride and time farm families put into raising and showing their animals.
"It kind of culminates right here at the Stare Fair for a lot of those people," he said.
Spectators who work up a thirst can stroll just a few blocks to taste some the best made-in-Minnesota beers and wines around.
The 13 participating wineries at Minnesota Wine Country outgrew their old booth in the Agriculture Horticulture Building, so they've taken over the old Epiphany Diner and converted it to showcase the state's growing cold-climate wine industry. It will offer a broad selection of drier and sweeter red and white wines, as well as fruit wines, with daily special wine and food pairings, said Paul Quast, CEO of the exhibit and a partner in Saint Croix Vineyards in Stillwater.
People new to Minnesota' winter hardy varieties -- such as Edelweiss, La Crescent, Frontenac and Frontenac Gris -- can try a sampler and even buy a full glass to walk around the fair with if they find one they like, he said. Wine flights will sell for three samples for $7 or six for $13, with full glasses going for $7 and $12. Food offerings include an antipasto plate featuring Minnesota bison sausage, caprese salad on a stick, portobello mushroom bites and beef bourguignon in a sourdough bread bowl.
Winemakers will make presentations every afternoon and there will be live music every night, Quast said.
Minnesota won't rival the Napa Valley, but the state's wine industry has seen rapid growth in recent years and is gaining respect for its improving quality despite the harsh climate.
"Not only are people getting better at making wine, people are of course getting better at growing grapes," Quast said. "That is probably where you've seen as much improvement as anything, because you can't make good wine if you don't have a good source of grapes."
Local wine may be a novelty for Minnesota but local beer is not.
"Barley and brewing has been a huge part of Minnesota going back into the 1800s," said Dan Justesen, vice president of the Minnesota Craft Brewer's Guild, which will offer beers from more than 20 breweries at its new hall in the Agriculture Horticulture Building.
Each day will feature rotating $8 flights of four different beers. Drinkers can choose from light, dark, hoppy or sweeter brews from larger Minnesota craft breweries such as Summit and Schell's, as well as microbreweries such as Justesen's Vine Park Brewing in St. Paul. Locally made root beers from several brewpubs will also be on tap, he said.
The "Land of 10,000 Beers" will also feature speakers on a wide range of topics, such as Minnesota brewing history and the potential for beer tourism.
"We don't want to make this a place for beer geeks. We want to make this a place for Minnesotans who like beer and want to experiment and bit and try what some of their fellow Minnesotans are making," Justesen said.