Cue “One Shining Moment” (or should we say One Sessionable Moment?): We have our 2018 Ultimate Beer Bracket champion.
After playing the role of runner-up last year, Castle Danger finally reached the pinnacle, first cutting down the competition and then cutting down the nets. Perhaps the most interesting part of the Two Harbors brewery’s journey? That it managed to simultaneously play the roles of both favorite and Cinderella.
The brewery, which debuted in 2011, has maintained a fairly modest operation, making about 15,000 barrels of beer a year ago. And with its enterprise based on the North Shore, Castle Danger feels farther away from the Twin Cities craft scene than a half-court moon shot.
Still, it managed to earn a No. 2 seed when readers voted for the field, landing second only to mammoth Surly. Of course, when the title matchup came, it took Surly down, too, by a stunning victory margin of 46 percentage points.
So just who are these Cream Ale-toters from Up North? And how did they pull off the greatest upset since last year’s great upset?
We talked with Castle Danger co-owners Lon Larson and Clint MacFarlane about leaning into their lack of strategy, making beer with Lake Superior water and whether they’ll be playing any pickup basketball with Surly anytime soon.
Q: This was your second straight year in the Ultimate Beer Bracket title matchup. This time you won it. How have you approached the competition?
Lon: Well, we really haven’t had any strategy whatsoever. In the big picture, we’re just honored to be a part of it. I have to admit I think we’re both extremely humbled to be with the company we’re with, but to be the No. 2 seed, that was kind of shocking. We posted the Strib articles as they came up, but nothing more than “Here’s the link,” and “Go vote for your favorite.”
And when you look at who we were matched up against, like Steel Toe and Dangerous Man, great beer, great people, and in the Twin Cities. And frankly, I never thought we’d get past that just because of the demographics of our brewery being in Two Harbors. And then to go against Surly with their size and capabilities and 90,000 Facebook likes, that’s quite a difference from a cute little brewery on the North Shore.
Q: What did you think of the field?
Clint: All those breweries are obviously well respected, and most of them are distributed companies so they get a little bit wider of a reach. There is plenty of great beer in Minnesota and we’re just happy to be a part of the conversation.
Q: Do either of you have a favorite brewery that was in the field, other than Castle Danger?
Lon: That’s a loaded question right there.
Clint: I’ve drunk a lot of different beers from the breweries in the bracket, before we were a brewery. Surly and Summit and Schell’s were obviously early favorites and we’ve gotten to know a lot of these people, so it’s hard to pick just one. So, I can’t.
Lon: Yeah, I’m going to do the strategic cop-out on that one, too.
Q: In the Ale-ite Eight, you met up with Dangerous Man, which we dubbed the Danger-Danger matchup. It got us thinking that would be a great name for a collaboration between the two breweries. Have you considered it?
Clint: Yeah, we’ve actually talked about it before … and we just never really got around to doing it.
Q: Why were you shocked to beat Surly in the bracket?
Lon: I jokingly refer to myself as a recovering accountant because I’m a former CPA. And if I look at the numbers — whether it’s Facebook likes or beer production, you’re talking about six times or more what we are. So I felt it was a stretch and a long shot, so yeah, I was shocked.
We don’t necessarily have the big, big numbers, but the numbers we do have seem to be fiercely loyal. The return visits. The repeat buys. That’s a platform you can build from.
Q: How would you describe the identity of Castle Danger?
Clint: For me, it’s a beer at the end of the day, it’s something that’s very communal, and we’ve really tried to make our brewery welcoming to all. They’re very approachable and drinkable.
Q: And what does Castle Danger mean, anyway?
Clint: That’s an area on the North Shore, a little township, it’s where I live. The name itself came from way back when people were settling into the area. There is a big reef, the Castle Danger reef, and on each end of the reef are cliffs that resemble castles from the water. So when people are coming by boat, they knew between the castles is danger.
Lon: I think it’s a fascinating story because there was a time that people got up the North Shore much more by boat, by water, than Hwy. 61, which wasn’t developed yet. It’s a great little happy hour trivia.
Q: The Twin Cities is a huge market for beer and there are tons of breweries opening. What’s it like to be on the North Shore and watch all of this?
Clint: It’s pretty incredible. When we opened, we were the 25th brewery in the state. Since then, over 100 have opened and the majority have obviously been in the Twin Cities. I’ve been saying it for a while now, but if I was going to open a brewery today, would I? I don’t know. Just because it’s so hard to stand out now.
Lon: It’s a little quiet in the middle of winter in our taproom, but that’s an easy sacrifice for the point of distinction that we do have in a crowded marketplace. And it doesn’t hurt to be next to the largest freshwater source in the world, either.
Q: How does using Lake Superior water affect the quality and taste of your beer?
Clint: Lake Superior water, there isn’t a lot of minerals in it, so it’s a really nice, blank canvas to brew with. You can make those softer beers, the pilsners, the more delicate beers that are typically more challenging to brew just because of the base water. It just kind of gives us a very easy platform to start from.
Q: There’s a rumor going around that Surly is trying to start a pickup game with you guys. Does that have any legs?
Lon: Boy, that’s interesting. I haven’t heard about that, but I’m intrigued.
Q: What do you guys plan to do with the Ultimate Beer Bracket trophy? We may have done some, uh, research and found that beer can be drunk out of it.
Lon: Like drinking out of the Stanley Cup. It sounds like a wonderful addition to the taproom.