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Travel: Craft beers greet visitors seeking suds

Dan Chang watches over a batch of beer at Rush River Brewing in River Falls, Wis., one of several small breweries in near the Minnesota and Wisconsin border. The breweries offer tours and unique craft beers for visitors. chad richardson | forum communications co.

STILLWATER - When visitors think of the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, they often are quick to think of places like Mall of America, Target Field and popular attractions like the Minnesota Zoo.

But get out away from the city a little bit, and you'll find some hidden gems. This is especially the case for those travelers who like to sip on suds. Breweries are popping up in many nooks and crannies throughout the eastern part of the metro area, including the small college town of River Falls, Wis., and the bustling suburb of Stillwater, Minn.

A popular brew pub is also in operation in New Richmond, Wis.

All three businesses are a testament to the craft beer craze that is sweeping across the United States. Even better is that the two breweries are open for free public tours, often populated by people who simply like drinking good beer and people who are dedicated home brewers. In either case, the tours are light-hearted and include, as you could probably guess, free beer.

At Rush River Brewing Company in River Falls, a gray warehouse building hides from passersby the magic that lies inside. Upon entering the facility, the smell of malts lingers in the air as one of the firm's owners,

Dan Chang, glides up and down a ladder to check on a brew. For Rush River, it all happens here: Beers are brewed, bottled, chilled, kegged and shipped right out of the building. In most cases, local ingredients are used, including barley grown in Chilton, Wis.

Most days at 6 a.m., Chang gets to work on a batch and by the time he heads home at night, he will have brewed the equivalent of 30 kegs, or 19,000 bottles.

"We do everything here," Chang said. "We're proud of that."

The story is similar at Stillwater's Lift Bridge Brewery, tucked behind a Herberger's in a big warehouse-style building. Again, from the outside it doesn't look like much. Inside is a different story.

The location includes a unique tap room, the first in Minnesota. In 2011, legislation was passed allowing brewers to sell their own beers on site and Lift Bridge got to work setting up the tap room, which is open for business while tours are run every Saturday from 1 p.m. until about 4:30 p.m.

The tap rooms aren't the only time the local breweries dispense their beer to locals. Both Rush River and Lift Bridge offer 64- ounce growler fills.

Trevor Cronk, one of the owners, said private tours have also become popular. The facility is often opened for birthday parties, bachelorette parties and corporate team-building exercises. Food is often catered in by a local firm, and the food is paired with the beers.

Brewery tours aren't the only option for beer samples from Lift Bridge. Three Brews Cruises on the St. Croix River are planned for the summer. This Friday and again on July 20 and Aug. 24, guests can travel the river on a large paddleboat while they sip on Lift Bridge beers and eat artisan cheeses, all the while listening to live music.

Lift Bridge's most popular beer, the Farm Girl Saison, is available now at Target Field in a portable stand near sections 126 and 320.

From the outside, Brady's Brewhouse in New Richmond doesn't look much different than the other bars that line the main street through downtown there. Once inside, though, it is the smell that informs customers that the establishment is, in fact, unique.

The air is filled with the scent of malt. In the back of the restaurant, the source of the scent is easily determined: Two brewers can often be found back there, hard at work crafting a number of different beers for the restaurant. It may seem like a bit of a stretch for a town of 8,000 to support a brew pub, but owner Chris Polfus said it's anything but. As craft beers have exploded in popularity across the nation, the movement is taking hold in the river valley.

"People just appreciate the quality, the freshness and the flavor of craft beers," Polfus said.

While bars used to simply offer domestics and imports, most have quickly adapted to include the word "local," and for good reason. More and more customers want good, fresh beer from area breweries.

At Paddy Ryan's Irish Pub and Restaurant in Hudson, Wis., owner Mike Fassino has seen a spike in craft beer interest, and he thinks patriotism and values have a lot to do with that. When MillerCoors was sold to a firm from South Africa, and when Budweiser was sold to a Belgian company, there were no major American-owned brewers left.

"That's why you're seeing what you are seeing with microbrews," Fassino said. "It's more localized. People feel more connected to it than they do to a bigger brewery."

Plus, small breweries have been bolstered lately by the quality of their product, which is increasingly improving and unique. One regular at Paddy Ryan's has a beer bucket list. He'll come in with his list, try a new one, mark it off the list and then come back down the road to see what is new at the pub.

"To me, I take it like someone who is in a wine club," Fassino said. "That's exactly what is happening with beer."

Brady's Brewhouse, meanwhile, takes local and fresh to a new level, as they brew eight different beers in house.

What starts as malt, hops, yeast and water in the brewery can end up in a customer's pint glasses in as few as 14 days.

Across the river in Stillwater, the owners at Lift Bridge Brewing work to get their craft beers bottled, then see the product hit store shelves just days later.

The same thing can be said for Rush River Brewing Co., where one of the owners, Dan Chang, can often be found hard at work.

"The mass-produced beers are all very similar," Chang said. "Craft beers are all small businesses. People like to support local businesses. People are willing to spend more for a six-pack. That says a lot, especially during a recession."

Chad Richardson is editor of the Hastings (Minn.) Star Gazette, a Forum Communications Co. newspaper.