Duluth's claims of superior beer? Science says they hold water

Duluth breweries
Brewer Shad Baggenstoss checks out the recirculation of the wort on Friday, Sept. 21, 2018 at Hoops Brewing in Duluth.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Minnesota beer makers have bragged about the quality of the state's water for decades — who can forget the old Hamm's jingle, "From the land of sky blue waters"?

But beer makers in Duluth tout that in the land of 10,000 lakes, the water they use, from the cold depths of Lake Superior, is a splash above all the rest. It's a claim that Duluth breweries have made for decades — and it's picked up steam in recent years as craft breweries seek to set themselves apart from the crowd.

A great marketing tool — with some science to back it up.

Ursa Minor Brewing is Duluth's newest brewery; it opens next week in the city's Lincoln Park neighborhood. Director of brewing operations Mark Hugus said Lake Superior water was a big reason they chose to open their brewery in Duluth.

"It's a blank canvas," he said of water from Lake Superior. "The total dissolved solids of the water here is as close to zero as you're going to find anywhere in the world."

Duluth breweries
Ursa Minor Brewing general manager Andrew Scrignoli measured hops Thursday in Duluth. The brewers at Ursa Minor call the Lake Superior water a "blank canvas," meaning they do not have to add or subtract much to the water to make beer.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

The water is naturally soft. Which means they don't have to spend a lot of time, and money, removing unwanted minerals and salts.

And that's a big deal, since at its most basic, beer consists of only four ingredients — yeast, grain, hops and water. Water is the big one, making up more than 90 percent of the beer.

Ursa Minor isn't alone — it's now the ninth brewery in Duluth. That breaks down to one brewery for every 9,500 residents. And there are other breweries along the North Shore of Lake Superior.

The biggest in Duluth is Bent Paddle Brewing. They opened five years ago, and already are one of the top 10 largest brewers in the state. Co-founder Laura Mullen said the water was a big reason they chose to open in Duluth, and not the Twin Cities. And she says it's also a big part of their marketing.

"Ten percent of the world's fresh water is in Lake Superior, (and) 100 percent of our beer is made with that water," she said. "That's pretty much on everything that we do."

Duluth breweries have been marketing their water since at least the 1940s, when Fitger's promoted its "Pure Lake Superior Water."

Duluth breweries
Ursa Minor co-founder Ben Hugus (from left), co-founder and head brewer Mark Hugus and general manager Andrew Scrignoli pose for a portrait during a break while brewing beer.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Authors Tony Dierckins and Pete Clure detail other instances of early Duluth brewers promoting the lake's water in their new book, "Naturally Brewed, Naturally Better: The Historic Breweries of Duluth & Superior."

The claim holds water, according to Aileen Beard, dean of the School of Sciences at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth. She's also a professor of chemistry, and a homebrewer; she teaches a class called "The Chemistry of Beer."

"It's a blank slate. There's not a lot in it ... of the standard minerals that affect the flavor of beer — the calcium, magnesium, chlorine, sulfates — those kinds of things are in really low concentrations in Lake Superior."

It's not so much what's in Lake Superior water, but rather what's not in it, Beard said. She said all the wetlands around the big lake help filter out many of those minerals.

And it's a lot easier to add back in minerals that brewers want to brew a specific style of beer, than it is to remove what you don't want.

Longtime Duluth brewer Dave Hoops, who runs Hoops Brewing in Canal Park, said Lake Superior water mirrors some of the most famous brewing water in the world, in the Czech Republic and Germany, that's used to make pilsners and lagers.

Duluth breweries
Water condenses inside a vat at Hoops Brewing as brewer Shad Baggenstoss (not pictured) begins the process of recirculating the wort on. Breweries across the city and along the North Shore say Lake Superior water has relatively few minerals, salts and dissolved solids that can affect the flavor of the beer.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

"We kind of get it out of the tap almost," he said. "I have to do just the mellowest of rough filtration to just remove the slightest bit of chlorine, otherwise the water is almost perfect," Hoops said.

Hoops comes from a family of brewers. His brother Mike Hoops is in a unique position of having spent years immersed in the Duluth brewing scene — he was the original brewer at Fitger's Brewhouse in Duluth — before spending the past 19 years at Town Hall Brewery in Minneapolis, where he's the brewmaster.

Mike Hoops agreed that Duluth brewers have a right to brag about Lake Superior water, which he said is exceptionally easy to make good beers with. In other places, it takes a little more work.

In Minneapolis, for example, the water comes from the Mississippi River, and Hoops said the chemistry of the water changes from summer to winter, or after a big storm.

"So I've got to monitor different pH levels and the chemistry of the water to get consistency," he said. He also has to filter out more sanitizers used in the water, disinfectants known as chloramines.

The bottom line, Hoops said, is that brewers across Minnesota are blessed with great water, and with hard work, skill and patience, you can make great beer anywhere. But brewers have fewer excuses if they can't do it in Duluth.

His brother Dave Hoops agreed.

"I always joke that it's pretty hard to make bad beer in Duluth, thanks to our amazing brewing water," he said. "So it's not just a tag line."

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