Travel

America's Most Overlooked State Is About to Become a Craft Beer Destination

A scrappy, young, burgeoning beer scene is hiding in the heartland.

Beer
North Dakota is low-key one of the beer industry's most important states. | Jason Hoffman/Thrillist
North Dakota is low-key one of the beer industry's most important states. | Jason Hoffman/Thrillist
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Drekker Brewing ticks every box for a beer nerd's dream taproom. Cool repurposed building? Drekker brews in an 1880s locomotive repair facility, a 14,000-square-foot labyrinth of worn brick, fire-scarred beams, and ultra-modern brewing gear. Boozy hazy IPAs and bittersweet juicebox ales come in colors evoking Skittles more than beer, with playful names like Ectogasm and Wheez the Juice. Labels recall heavy-metal album covers, as does a full-wall mural depicting Valhalla-bound Vikings skeletons.

If this were a big beer town like Denver, Drekker would be an easy standout. But Drekker’s smack in the middle of Fargo, North Dakota, a place more readily identified with silo-dotted prairies than destination-worthy beers. That's slowly changing.
You wouldn't know it sipping around North Dakota's busy breweries, but its craft beer scene is America's youngest. The oldest operating brewery, Fargo Brewing, is the same age as a 4th grader. As the rest of America underwent a 30-year craft boom, NoDak was held back by antiquated laws and distribution roadblocks.

Over the past decade, North Dakota has finally emerged into the beer world. Late to the party? Very. But these brewers came to play, throwing down superlative takes on styles that take decades to hone, from super-trendy haze bombs to aged sours with Medieval roots. But to get them -- for now -- you have to go to the source.

Drekker Brewing brings a raucous flair to Fargo's beer scene. | M. Schleif Photography, courtesy of Drekker Brewing

To outsiders, North Dakota is the land of lutefisk, fracking, and brutal winters; of Midwest nice and rural isolation. Fargo's visitor center includes a “Best for Last” wall: Apparently, North Dakota is so commonly the last of the 50 states people visit, it necessitates a commemorative selfie area. It’s right next to the actual wood chipper from Fargo. North Dakota is nothing if not self aware that its most common cultural touchpoint is a 25-year-old film that’s actually set in Minnesota. To call it misunderstood is an understatement. 

On an average Saturday in Fargo, jazz and punk waft out of local dives, taverns, and venues -- the city's diverse musical tastes come from North Dakota's dead-center location on musicians' cross-country tour maps. At Fargo Brewing, patrons sip pints of hoppy Wood Chipper IPA in the garage-like facility. Over at the Irish-infused Drumconrath Brewing, a back-alley cornhole tournament rages, fueled by belly-warming Bison Booze Malt Liquor Ale. On menus at comfort-food gastropubs and candlelit fine-dining spots, local beer is paired with hot dish, hipster tacos, and dry-aged steaks alike. 

Drekker's afternoon crowd is a mix of families, leather-clad punks chilling by fire pits, and a wedding party. Co-founder Mark Bjornstad strolls the grounds like a kid showing off his new room, and he kind of is: Drekker moved into the building two years ago. Over there's where Portland metal darlings Red Fang played the annual DrekkerFest. Over here, a new canning line.

"We always joke, when people say, 'Oh, you guys have brews now?' Yeah, we got the internet now too," Bjornstad said when asked about people's perception of North Dakota. "We're not isolated.”

Laughing Sun Brewing
Bismarck's Laughing Sun is one of North Dakota's true craft pioneers | Laughing Sun Brewing

Chances are, you haven’t had a North Dakota beer. But you’ve absolutely had North Dakota in your beer. Which makes its long absence from craft beer even more baffling. 

North Dakota is the third-largest producer of malted barley, which is the second most prevalent ingredient in beer, behind water. But unlike hops -- for which brewers and drinkers will make pilgrimages to places like Washington's Yakima Valley just to get a whiff of the skunky air -- malt is a modest ingredient. So it makes sense that it comes from a modest place. 

The Roughrider State may have been settled by Norwegians and Germans and embedded in frontier lore, but its booze history makes Utah seem like Sigma Chi: The state enacted Prohibition the same year it was founded in 1889, then stayed dry even three years after national Prohibition ended in 1933. 

In the intervening years, North Dakota established itself among top-five beer-consuming states. Its tailgating scene is collegiate legend. Yet none of the beer swigged outside North Dakota State's Fargodome or in its well-worn bars was made locally. The state is a linchpin in the beer industry, yet it had no beer to call its own. 

“We wanted to be a stepping stone for new craft-beer drinkers, but we also want to push the style envelope."

After a quick boom-and-bust that saw three breweries open and quickly shutter in the '90s, North Dakota's beer scene finally began to bloom. On the eastern border with Minnesota, a group of friends began to lay the groundwork for what would become Fargo Brewing. Meanwhile, 200 miles west in Bismarck, the gang behind Laughing Sun envisioned a plot of industrial-zone real estate as a haven for beer lovers. 

Laughing Sun co-founder Mike Frohlich -- tending bar at his brewery on a packed Thursday night, addressing customers by name like the mayor of his own personal city -- said they originally founded the brewery just to give the community some local ales to drink. He soon discovered people were thirsty for more than his flagship IPAs, pale ales, and wheat beers. They wanted what the rest of the country had.

“We wanted to be a stepping stone for new craft-beer drinkers,” Frohlich said over an assortment of Laughing Sun's funky Belgian ales, a sticky-sweet strawberry wheat, and fruity sours. "But we also want to push the style envelope. Now we’ve got a lot of people drinking sours who before didn’t know what sours were.”

In order to expand, co-founders of Laughing Sun and Fargo began lobbying to change laws that were holding breweries back, from decades-old bans on transferring alcohol between properties to outdated container-size restrictions. In educating the legislature and forming a brewer's association, they helped normalize and pave the way for brewing across the state.

Fargo Brewing is the oldest brewery in North Dakota. If it was a person, it'd be in 4th grade. | Fargo Brewing Company

Laughing Sun holds court along with newcomers like Bismarck Brewing, which has managed, in two short years, to all but master the art of fruity kettle sours (a complex European style monks spend generations perfecting). They’re served up in a neo-rustic farmhouse-style brewery just off the highway. Down the road, Stonehome shares its sprawling taproom entrance with a bank (just go with it). Local beer is everywhere in this quiet capital city, from fancy restaurants to pizza joints and the town's myriad dives.

Even the rural areas that comprise North Dakota's majority are in on the action. Take Black Leg Brewing: Located 7 bumpy miles of dirt road from the nearest highway near McKenzie, the high-tech brewing facility sits on a massive property alongside an organic farm, grassland, buffalo ranch, and wedding venue. If you can't find a pint in nearby Bismarck, your best bet to get a taste is to book a luxury hunting expedition. Or get married. 

Frohlich -- who became so familiar with Bismarck's capital that he even ran for a representative seat, losing by only 60 votes -- sees beer as something that broadens North Dakota's appeal to locals and potential visitors alike.

“It’s always been about creating community. Not just a place where you can buy beer… you can buy beer anywhere,” he said. 

Well, not everywhere. Getting beer in North Dakota means hitting a brewery or liquor store -- no gas stations or grocery stores carry it. And while Drekker, Laughing Sun, and Fargo have found some out-of-state distribution, it’s extremely tough to find most breweries outside state lines. To an extent, that makes North Dakota seem like some sort of hermit state of craft beer: Even as the scene grows, it's still insulated.

Drekker's coveted beers come in many colors. | North Dakota Tourism

It's disingenuous to call North Dakota beer the next big thing. Its scene comprises only 17 of the 6,000+ breweries in the US. But given the tenacity of the brewers, the projected growth of the industry, and across-the-board quality of the beer flowing forth in the state, North Dakota might be the best domestic beer scene we're all sleeping on. As the rest of the country debates whether the craft bubble is bursting, North Dakota's just getting started.  

Experiencing it firsthand might be the key to understanding North Dakota as a whole: the gorgeous landscapes, the excellent food, and the genuinely good people all improve with excellent beer, made with local ingredients that can be traced back to the very malt that forms their foundation. 

And to the naysayers who think North Dakota's all wood chippers, frozen farmland, and roadside dinosaurs? 

"I'm done trying to convert people into believing that Fargo's awesome,” said Bjornstad. “If you come here, you're going to figure it out. This is a place for the people that want it. We're having a blast."

Editor's note: Like the rest of the world, North Dakota's breweries are currently affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. Many local breweries are offering to-go six packs and growlers at their taprooms and via delivery. In the meantime, for a closer look inside Fargo's brewery scene, take virtual tour of local breweries.

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Andy Kryza is Thrillist's senior travel editor. He emerged from reporting this story with his long-dormant mid-Michigan accent back in full swing. Follow him to Red Pop and coneys @apkryza