There is a list of places that every Minnesotan must visit, at least once, and Duluth is one of those places. It’s so easy to get caught up with the excitement and entertainment going on weekly in the Twin Cities, one may never feel the need to leave. But, that would be a mistake.
This is why, when I saw the lineup for the Super Big Block Party over labor day weekend in Duluth, I knew it was the perfect excuse to get out of town. I recruited my favorite affianced couple to join me on an adventure. I visited Duluth as a kid and stood in awe of the giant ships, visited friends in college and became intimately familiar with how cold it can get (and how difficult it must have been for my cousin to navigate the icey, hilly landscape in her manual transmission car). But this trip was going to be different – this time I was going to be a “tourist”, I wanted to casually explore Duluth, get to know the city as if I had never been before. So, with that, here are some highlights from my Labor Day weekend adventure in Duluth.
I was really hoping to hit up most of the breweries while in Duluth and continue my Minnesota Brewery series (read the other two posts here and here) – for reasons I’ll get into later we weren’t able to visit Bent Paddle Brewing or Lake Superior Brewing as intended – but we did make a stop at Fitgers Brewhouse, Friday night after we arrived in Duluth.
So far, with this blog, I’ve made a point to avoid doing much research before I visit a place. It seems to give those places more context when I’m learning about them later. Never has that been more true than with Fitgers Brewery.
I went in with little-to-no knowledge of the brewery. I knew it was in an old building, a hotel, and it’s big. When we walked in, I learned that the building houses much more than just a brewery and a hotel, there are two other restaurants, nightclubs and many little shops. This worked in our favor, as Fitger’s Brewhouse was overflowing when we first arrived, so we had a couple drinks at Redstar – which just happens to be Fitger’s nightclub across the hall. There, we stumbled across a very intimate music show happening, led by Josh Clutter. I left Fitger’s very interested to learn about the building and its history.
The building was constructed beginning in 1881 to house Fitger’s Brewery. The brewing company, which went by several different names before settling on A. Fitger & Co. Lake Superior Brewery in 1883, began in 1857 as Duluth’s first brewery. Named for the brewmaster who, before joining the company in 1882, was trained at Germany’s Weihenstaphan Brewing School (apparently this was one of Germany’s premier brewing schools of the time – say what?). Within a year of being hired he purchased the brewery from, then owner, Michael Fink at the ripe age of 28 (side note: I’m 28 and I don’t own a brewery – way to one up me, Mr. Fitger).
The brewery thrived through a 115 year history – even surviving prohibition by switching business plans from hops and wheat to sugar and chocolate – until closing in 1972. Once vacant the brewery complex went mostly unused for over ten years, until a group of investors stepped in, saving it from demolition and leading a campaign to have the property listed on National Register of Historic Places, with the ultimate vision of re-purposing the building into a hotel. Today, it is home to a 48-room hotel, three restaurants and a retail center.
Maybe you, like me, at this point are wondering – “wait, isn’t there a brewery in the building now, but somehow it closed in 1972?” Enter: Fitger’s Brewhouse. Note the name distinction from A. Fitger & Co. Lake Superior Brewing. Ahh mystery solved – they’re not the same (was that obvious and I’m just an idiot?).
Fitger’s Brewhouse opened in the former brewery complex in 1995, as a way to pay homage to it’s new home, the owner’s took the historic name. But the similarities don’t end there – Fitger’s Brewhouse made history in Duluth by becoming the city’s first “brewpub” and is now one of the highest producing brewpubs in the state.
Northern Waters Smokehaus
The block party didn’t start until later in the afternoon on Saturday. So, we had time to saunter our way around town. There was one place that my adventure cohorts said we needed to go, and that was Northern Waters Smokehaus.
I’m probably the furthest from a “foodie” that you’ll ever find – I know very little about food and, while I enjoy a good meal, I’m much more excited by the cool venue of a new restaurant than the food on the table, plus, as far as I’m aware, I’m not a very good cook (who really knows though because I rarely even attempt to cook). All, that being said this place was really cool and I highly recommend a visit next time you’re in the area.
Turns out, this is a popular opinion. The tiny smokehaus has been featured on Diner’s, Drive-ins and Dives, and I came across numerous blog posts singing its praises in my research.
Northern Waters Smokehaus opened in 1998 as a wholesale supplier of smoked fish. The owner, Eric Goerdt, expanded to a retail deli-style space in the Dewitt-Seitz Marketplace in 2001 (I understand that there is a plan to open a full restaurant, but wasn’t able to confirm the status on that). The setup of the restaurant is sort of like a small sub-shop. As you wait in line to order a sandwich you’re greeted with glass coolers stalked with different cuts of meat, moving along your order is taken at a cash register and you end in a small seating area sectioned off by a short wall separating the retail space from the kitchen and you can watch as your sandwich is prepared.
I had the “Silence of the Lambwich”, which was sort of like a gyro, and it was delicious. Norther Waters Smokehause has a strong focus on locally sourced products, and they even have a profit sharing program for their employees – of which there are 45, which is crazy given how small the space appears to be.
Of course, I had to do some research on the DeWitt-Seitz Marketplace as well. The main building was constructed in 1906 for a furniture wholesaler and mattress manufacturer. It was converted into an office building with retail space on the lower levels and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985. Three of the businesses that opened the same year the building was converted continue to successfully operate in the space today (#funfact).
The “marketplace” was expanded in 1987 when the owner purchased two adjacent properties. One building is structurally contiguous to the original building, constructed in 1954 (the part of the complex where Northern Waters Smokehaus resides), and another across the alley (now connected via a second level skyway), built in 1886 – the current home of Little Angie’s Cantina. The DeWitt-Seitz Marketplace is currently home to over ten locally owned shops and restaurants.
Duluth Aerial Lift Bridge
After lunch we walked to Lake Superior for a good view of the massive body of water and the lift bridge. We eventually ended up on the rooftop of Grandma’s Saloon & Bar which offered a particularly awesome view of the bridge.
Want some fun facts about the bridge?! OF COURSE you do, that’s why you’re reading this… that or your my mom (thanks for being my biggest fan!). Alright, here we go:
- It was built in 1905 (quick math makes that bridge 110 years old)
- It is the oldest extant (meaning still standing) structural landmark in Duluth
- It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973
- The bridge lifts an average of 26 times per day (it is in the process of a lift in my picture above)
- Up until the 1980’s people could ride the bridge as it was lifted
On our way from Northernwaters Smokhaus to the lake we passed by a rather unassuming looking sign that read “Vikre Distillery”. Naturally, my interest was piqued and after looking in the windows it seemed like just the hipster a place I needed to visit. Alas, it was closed at the time. A quick google search led to the discovery that it was opening for the day soon, so after a couple mimosas at Grandma’s we made a stop in.
I seriously LOVED this place. It was my favorite new discovery in Duluth. Vikre Distillery has a great eclectic vibe and the drinks were really good (except for that one I had to send back because it was WAY too strong that early in the afternoon – the staff was very nice, though, and offered me an alternative).
Vikre Distillery came to be out of a conversation between co-owner and native Duluthian, Emily Vikre, her husband (the other co-owner) and her parents. They were casually discussing the natural resources in Minnesota that would be suitable for the creation of a uniquely Minnesotan Whiskey and wondering why there wasn’t already a distillery in Duluth. If you want to read the details, Emily wrote a charming essay about her and her husband’s experience opening the distillery here – she also writes an interesting food blog that you should check out here. I couldn’t find information about the building the Distillery is located within but if you happen to know, please leave it in the comments!
Canal Park Brewery
Our last stop before going to the Super Big Block Party was Canal Park Brewery. By that time the air temperature had become a little cool, and the wind picked up, but we still sat outside to enjoy the view of Lake Superior from the brewery’s patio.
The brewery, which opened in November of 2012, made use of a lot that needed a little love. The site of a former steel manufacturing plant, the brewery’s owner’s went through a 18-month environmental cleanup process, to the tune of nearly a million dollars, before opening. Canal Park Brewery has a full menu with a open and airy interior boasting large windows with views of the lake, or, if the weather allows, you can also spend the day fireside on the patio, taking in views of Lake Superior. If you’re planning a visit to Canal Park, this place is definitely worth a stop.
After a quick beer we made our way to the Red Herring Lounge, who was hosting the Super Big Block Party on the street in front of their venue. We took advantage of the lake walk and caught a couple more views of the Lake Superior. I had to get a picture of The Cribs, which is actually now just The Crib as it’s tower counterpart collapsed last winter.
The show was great – some of my favorite local artists performed such as Charlie Parr, Deadman Winter (a spin-off band led by the front man of Trampled by Turtles), Har Mar Superstar and Lizzo. We missed Heiruspecs set because I delayed us by getting another drink at Vikre Distillery and requiring a stop at Canal Park Brewery – both decisions resulted in getting drinks that I blame for prematurely ending our evening (and a rough Sunday which meant we had to skip our planned stops at the other Duluth breweries… whoops).
All in all I’d say our Labor Day weekend in Duluth was a resounding success. I’m so glad that we went without much of a plan, and just allowed ourselves to explore the city.
What places have you visited in Duluth and what should I add to my list for my next visit?
Until next time…