Beer drinkers in Central Minnesota, like most of the rest of America, enjoy a wide selection of beers, thanks to the recent popularity of small craft breweries.
Today’s local craft brewers, such at St. Joseph’s Bad Habit, can trace their heritage back more than 150 years. That lineage is the subject of a new book, “Central Minnesota Beer – A History,” written by Jacob Laxen.
Laxen and I worked together at the St. Cloud Times for five years, first when he was a sports reporter and a few years later when he established himself as the “beer beat” reporter. He’s since moved on to Fort Collins, Colorado, where he’s a digital managing editor for that region’s Townsquare Media radio stations.
He still has time for beer.
The book traces Central Minnesota’s German immigrants who built a thriving brewing culture.
“History repeats itself,” Laxen told me. “In the 1800s, a lot of towns had their own breweries, then consolidation took over. Now communities are getting their own taprooms again.”
Laxen not only writes about the beers, but thanks to his talent for revealing personal stories, we can read about the characters behind the beers.
To find Laxen’s favorite character, we head to New Munich, where the Froehler family hired Hungarian immigrant Mathew Pitzl in 1889. He transformed the brewery and eventually bought it in 1900 for $5,000. Ten years later, it was Stearns County’s largest brewery. During Prohibition, Pitzl kept brewing and discreetly selling beer. Eventually the feds caught on, raided the brewery and destroyed the beer. Pitzl went down swinging, fracturing the skull of a federal agent.
Laxen credits Tim O’Hara for starting Central Minnesota’s first craft brewery. Tim and his brother and co-owner, Mick, updated what began in the 1940s as Sid and Cecil’s Little City on the west side of St. Cloud. The restaurant expanded and added a full liquor license. After taking sole ownership, Tim opened his brewery in 1996. O’Hara hired beer hobbyist Chris Laumb, who soon became his head brewer. Years later Laumb achieved beer fame at Beaver Island Brewing.
“Tim was way ahead of his time. If they would have started 10 years later, they would have still been in business,” Laxen said of O’Haras.
Laxen devotes an entire chapter to St. Joseph, home of Bad Habit Brewing and Milk & Honey Ciders. Laxen tells the story of how Bad Habit found its name – a play on the traditional garb worn by nuns and how co-owner Aaron Rieland’s family described his brewing interest. The light humor continues with Bad Habit’s slogan – “Be Good, Drink Bad.”
Habitual IPA is Laxen’s favorite Bad Habit brew. “I like the extreme hop flavor and bitterness,” he said.
Milk & Honey Ciders is “incredibly unique,” Laxen said. “There are not many cideries in Minnesota. The product is fantastic. It’s not the cheap hard cider college kids drink. They bring a unique, high quality and a lot of care into their craft. It’s an experience there you can’t get anywhere else in Central Minnesota. You can’t get it anywhere but St. Jo(seph).”
Laxen’s interest in Stearns County beer began when his family would vacation in the area. They’d pass by the Cold Spring Brewery on the way to the campground.
“I was always curious about the history,” he said.
The book would not have been possible, he said, without the archives and assistance of the staff at Stearns History Museum.
Childhood beer curiosity, the beer beat and finally a hobby that became an obsession led to a book that ties together the region’s rich brewing history and stories of the brewers’ fascinating personalities.