Hard seltzer isn’t the only alternative to beer and wine. An increasing number of Minnesota companies are quenching drinkers’ thirst for unusual beverages with alcoholic and nonalcoholic elixirs.
Never heard of switchel, baiju or fernet? Here’s a guide to locally made sips that just might steer you away from that IPA.
NA beer: “Party like there’s a tomorrow” is the motto at Hairless Dog (drinkhairlessdog.com), the first nonalcoholic craft brewery in Minnesota. The company wants people to keep celebrating, but without the morning-after headache. Hairless Dog’s flagship black ale is available at some Twin Cities area liquor stores and a few restaurants, with more to come as the brewery releases a coffee stout and spring lager in the months ahead. Co-founder Paul Pirner hopes the product erases the stigma of nonalcoholic beer, which has been “horrible since Prohibition.” It can be treated as a replacement for standard beer, or as a supplement, like water, between hard drinks. “As people who don’t drink but really enjoy good beer and going out and being social, we wanted to craft a beverage that would respect the users,” Pirner said. “This isn’t a pity drink out of the rest of a lineup.”
Switchel: Sometimes referred to as haymaker’s punch, switchel is a simple mix of water, ginger, apple cider vinegar and a sweetener (honey or maple syrup) used as an electrolyte replenisher among hay farmers in the late 17th century. “It’s kind of like a combination between ginger ale and kombucha, but the taste is a lot less pungent and polarizing than kombucha,” said Superior Switchel (superiorswitchel.com) founder Melina Lamer. She started mixing up her own homemade switchel in 2015 for a hydrating boost after hockey practices at St. Olaf College, and when she went commercial with it post-college, she launched something of a trend. There are now three Minnesota companies (out of seven in the U.S.) making the brew, which can be served hot or cold. Lamer’s Good Food Award-winning switchel is available in most co-ops and local groceries, as well as in 14 states.
Craft soda: One of Jesse Hopkins’ favorite childhood memories is going with his father Saturday mornings to soda shops in the Twin Cities and buying a mix-and-match case of soda. “I wanted that to come back,” he said. A former teacher in White Bear Lake, Hopkins joined with three other local educators to create Northern Soda Co. (northernsoda.com) their Arden Hills factory, they make small-batch syrups and carbonate filtered water that they’ve chilled in brewing tanks, “re-creating old-school soda with modern equipment,” Hopkins said. Their 12 flavors come from 1950s era recipes, and Hopkins hopes to make a sugar-free sparkling water line in the future. He also hopes to build a tasting room where families can play games and drink soda. In the meantime, the factory is open to the public on Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., and all the sodas are available to mix and match, just like Hopkins remembers.
German-style liqueurs: Family trips to Germany for the Loeffelholzes often included a return with suitcases filled and clanking with bottles of fruit brandies and herbal liqueurs. Husband/dad Ralf grew up there and was lamenting those spirits’ absences in the U.S., said his wife, Mary Loeffelholz. “With all the emigration out of Europe, we all know that the German beers came over,” she said, “but a lot of the spirits did not.” So the family started making its own. St. Louis Park-based Dampfwerk Distillery (thedampfwerk.com) produces Bavarian apple brandy, pear brandy and the new Pfeffersack fernet, with plans for more spicy and barrel-aged spirits in the works. And, at Mary’s insistence, Dampfwerk also makes gin. The liqueurs are meant to be drunk neat, and Dampfwerk is introducing Minnesota bartenders to its products, which are popping up in the larger liquor stores. “2019 will be a good year,” Mary said.
Baiju: Over three months studying in China back in 2012, Andrew Hoogerwerf fell in love with the culture. He also fell in love with baiju, a traditional Chinese spirit made mostly of sorghum. Its extreme popularity in China makes baiju the bestselling spirit in the world, according to Forbes. But Hoogerwerf could not find it back home, so he set out to bring it here. He and two partners toured seven distilleries in China and found one willing to make a unique blend of baiju for the U.S. They now import their Ganbei baiju (drinkganbei.com) in bulk and bottle it in Minneapolis. Co-founder Alec Fotsch describes their version as having “an almost tropical, like pineapple, smell, and a lot of stone fruit flavors, and an earthy middle — farm barnyard flavors, in a positive way.” Restaurants are beginning to stock Ganbei and incorporate it into new cocktails and in classics, such as a gimlet at Marvel Bar. “It’s like bartenders in the U.S. didn’t have the color purple,” Hoogerwerf said. “They were painting their entire lives without a color on their canvas and we’re just watching how they combine it with everything else in their arsenal.”
Ready-to-pour cocktails: Lee Egbert, the president and founder of local bitters maker Dashfire (dashfirebitters.com), was always tasked with making cocktails for guests at his home. Tired of making one after another, he realized there could be another way. Now, Dashfire is mixing up batches of Old Fashioneds and selling them in 750mL bottles, ready to pour and enjoy neat or over ice. “A lot of people do base spirits, but we wanted to do something different,” he said. But to bottle a cocktail, he knew it had to be more complicated than a three-ingredient drink that someone could easily whip up at home. And he had to find the right juice that wouldn’t oxidize in a shelf-stable product. So Dashfire’s Old Fashioned has nine ingredients. “It’s an absurdly complicated Old Fashioned for the sake of flavor,” he said. Dashfire’s drink is distributed nationally and internationally, as will additional cocktails in the future. “We don’t have a cocktail room,” Egbert said, “so this is our way of bringing cocktails to people who want to enjoy them.”
Organic spirits: Mark Anderson grew a big business importing organic cane sugar and other non-GMO foods from South America, and it turned into something more when his clients — General Mills and Kraft among them — started asking for organic and non-GMO extracts, such as vanilla. To make extracts, he needed alcohol, and “if you want organic, non-GMO extract, you have to have organic, non-GMO alcohol.” So he started making his own. Drake’s Organic Spirits (drakesorganicspirits.com) bottled its first rum in 2016, and it didn’t stop at organic and non-GMO. It’s also gluten-free, vegan and kosher — the first spirit brand in the world with all five certifications. “The growing trend in the consumer food and beverage industry has been health and wellness, with more people looking for better food and beverages for them,” Anderson said. Drake’s has since added vodka. It’s sold at local liquor stores and in 40 states.