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Fifteen Years of Cold Weather Brews at Winterfest

The annual beer festival grows up while staying true to St. Paul roots.

The beers are usually darker and stronger this time of year.
The beers are usually darker and stronger this time of year.
Minnesota Craft Brewer's Guild Facebook page

With over 100 Minnesota breweries, things have changed at Winterfest. The first one, per Sean O’Byrne’s jumbled decade-old notes, took place on February 8, 2002 in Great Waters’ event space. Today that space is a law firm and, with possibly 90 more breweries participating, the annual St. Paul-hosted winter beer festival has moved from Great Waters to the Landmark Center to the Minnesota History Center and, finally, to a two-day beer-for-all at Union Depot in Lowertown.

As the industry booms and beer fests pop up at every event space imaginable, it’s harder to stand out and it’s harder to get the right people interested. People come to festivals for a variety of reasons, says Indeed co-owner Tom Whisenand: for something to do, because they see it as an all-you-can-drink ticket, or because they’re passionate about craft beer. While each festival varies, one unifying aspect of Winterfest through its growth is that it leans toward the latter crowd: beer enthusiasts who want to meet the makers of their favorite beers. “These events are for our customers,” he says. “There are a lot of beer festivals and Winterfest has changed,” he adds, referencing its current two-night format, “but if you come to Winterfest either night you’re still going to be at what I think is the best beer festival the entire year with the best beer with the people who run the breweries there.” It’s intimate and accessible, focusing on relationships instead of numbers. “It wouldn’t be that much fun at the Convention Center with fluorescent lighting and 100 breweries in the same room,” he feels.

Winterfest started as a Minnesota Craft Brewer’s Guild winter event to showcase the local industry. “It was sort of a tasting of winter beers and a get together,” says O’Byrne. At the time, that meant breweries like Great Waters, Summit, Town Hall, Schell’s, James Page, and others forgotten to time. They gathered on the second floor of Great Waters (which is no longer an event space), overlooking St. Paul’s Christmas lights over seasonal beers, typically dark in profile and high in alcohol content.

St. Paul was always the focus. Minneapolis had the Guild-sponsored Autumn Brew Review and they wanted to celebrate across the river. “We’ve outgrown places as we’ve gone,” O’Byrne summarizes of the passing years. In 2014 Winterfest moved to the remodeled Union Depot and, in 2015, the Guild and organizers One Simple Plan re-tooled to keep it small in scope as the number of participating breweries continues to grow. It’s now a two day party with approximately 50 breweries per day and a handful of anchor members featured on both nights. It showcases new breweries and spotlights those already celebrated. It’s also a coming together of competitors with like minds and backgrounds. For brewpubs like Great Waters and Town Hall, who first employed many of the new wave’s start-ups, it’s a reunion where old friends gather and share their work with friends in the industry as well as with friends they’ve made at beer events over the years.

“If you talk to most brewer’s it’s their favorite event,” Whisenand says. “It has a special feel,” and a cause to celebrate. “It puts us on display for customers to see: look what we can do, look at the camaraderie,” he says, adding immodestly, “and to show off.”

With the growth of the industry, the two-night feel has been different, and it remains an evolution. “I think in a sense it’s having a little bit of an identity crisis, not in a negative way,” Whisenand says, “Trying to find a balance of having everybody participate and also keep it special.” As breweries pop up in all corners of the state and new festivals capture different crowds, Winterfest remains focused on Minnesota made beers, thematically winter seasonals, while honoring achievements of craft and camaraderie between companies.

“Last year I made an effort to stand in front of our booth and talk to people,” Whisenand says. “You get to meet the people behind the breweries and there are some real characters.”

An interesting development has been the growing formality. “It’s winter, so it’s not flip slops and shorts,” says O’Byrne. In Union Depot especially, the event is getting dressier. Brewers are known for rubber boots and burly beards, but last year Indeed donned special orange ties and, while unlikely, have considered upping their game to tuxedos this year.

“We try to get a little more fancy and formal at Winterfest,” Whisenand explains. “I’d like to see people pushing that further.” Regardless of a dress code (or lack thereof), he concludes that from the early days at Great Waters, to his first festivals in the 2010s, “It’s about authenticity. That’s what our industry is all about: quality, authenticity, comradery. Winterfest puts all of that forward for us.”

Visit the Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild or ticket information and a full listing of breweries. Indeed will have approximately 12 beers on tap at Winterfest, including the debut of Wooden Soul #6. Great Waters is undecided on their offerings, but expects it to be a high ABV winter warmer.

The 15th Annual Winterfest will be held February 26-27 at Union Depot.

Saint Paul Union Depot

214 4th St E, Saint Paul, MN 55101 (651) 224-6000 Visit Website