Wednesday, January 15, 2020

The Rise & Fall of Lake Superior Brewing

Last week, it was revealed that Lake Superior Brewing had closed its doors. What makes this news so different is that it not only one of Duluth's first microbreweries but it was also one of Minnesota's first breweries that was established after prohibition had ended. The closing of Lake Superior Brewing has certainly grabbed the attention of the craft brewing scene in Minnesota since it is the most high-profile closure to date. The reactions have, understandably, been that of shock and sadness.

However, it's an entirely different feeling for myself.

Sure, whenever a brewery closes its doors, I feel sorry to see it go and that's the case here with Lake Superior Brewing but I can't say that I'm surprised. In fact, I'd even go as far as to say that I'm shocked at the fact that it didn't happen sooner and....well I'm going explain why this is. Bear in mind too that a lot of what I’m going to say is speculation but keep in mind that I'm taking into account information, statistics and my own personal experience with the brewery.

To start out, it's worth noting that Lake Superior Brewing, which opened in 1994, has always been on the smaller side, with distribution being limited just to Minnesota and Northwestern Wisconsin. To put that in perspective, peak production for Lake Superior occurred in 2014 around 2000 barrels before dwindling to 736 barrels in 2018. Bent Paddle, which opened in 2013 in the same neighborhood, produces just under 20,000 barrels a year and they distribute all over Minnesota, North Dakota and Northern & Western Wisconsin.

Now I want to make it very clear that Lake Superior Brewing was not a bad brewery, far from it. They were one of the first breweries that I tried out when I first got into craft brewing and I can safely say that their offerings have been consistent throughout the years. When it came to quality, they were certainly no slouch in that department. In fact, I consider their Old Man Winter to be one of the best MN-Based barleywines that I've ever had and is standard for what English-style barleywines should be like.

However, my criticism lays in the fact that innovation was never really their strong suit. Prior to 2018, with the release of their Riptide IPA, they had not released a new beer since 2013, with their Deep Water Black IPA.

This strategy might’ve worked 15-20 years ago but we’re living in an age of craft brewing that it’s not only expected that there’s a new beer on a regular basis but it’s pretty much an unspoken requirement if you want to survive. Many breweries, both new and seasoned, have followed suit with this rule but Lake Superior seemed to be an exception to that rule and yet they pushed on.

The other factor lies in branding. It’s no secret that for the longest time, the branding of Lake Superior Brewing was, for lack of a better term, outdated. It was by no means aesthetically offensive, but it wasn’t what I’d call eye-catching. Rather it was just…..boring. It had been around for the long time and at no point did they change their label and branding up 2017 (More on that in a bit.)

Now in terms of quality, they had no issues in that department. As I mentioned before, they were always consistent with their products and there was nothing wrong with their offerings but with the exception of their Old Man Winter Warmer, there was never anything that I would necessarily go out of my way to try unless I was at a friend’s house or if it was offered to me. I guess what I’m trying to say here is that when it came to their lineup, there wasn’t necessarily anything exciting about it and the lack of new offerings really hurt them in the grand scheme of things.

Now I mentioned before that their branding was, for the longest time, on the dull side. In fact, prior to 2017, myself and many of my peers saw Lake Superior’s branding as somewhat outdated in terms of look and design and it we just accepted it as it was. I bring this up because this changed in 2017.

What happened? New ownership!

At the time of hearing this news, I was excited for Lake Superior because I read about the plans the new owners had in mind. This included revamped branding, growth and even new offerings from them. At the time, I was excited for them and happy to see what changes would come. The rebranding of Lake Superior hit the shelves and I, for one, was pleased with it. It was an updated design while also staying true to its roots.

Another change that was made was the overhaul of the website. For example, here’s the website as it is right now:

Looks great right? I think so to! Everything is sleek and thoroughly designed. Thing is, it wasn’t always that way. Here it is from 2016:

And here it is from 2014:

Now I’m going to reserve judgment since I’m aware that my own website design hasn’t changed since 2014, which I’m working on, but I will say that the current design definitely is the strongest of the three.

All of the pieces were there to help raise Lake Superior’s status once again but I can’t help but feel that these changes came too little & too late. I mentioned before that their first new release in five years occurred in 2018 with their Riptide IPA…..but nothing else further materialized from that and I took notice. Steps in the right direction were most certainly taken but I keep thinking that these long overdue changes were too little & too late. I am by no means disregarding any of the changes made by the new ownership but I feel these changes would’ve been much more impactful had they occurred four or five years earlier.

However, the story might not be over just yet. The current owners of LSB (Lake Superior Brewing) are looking to sell the brewery and is, at the time of writing, up for sale. In any case, all of this is just my personal view on how things are and anything that happens at this point. Who knows? Maybe something else will start up in its place?

As always, thanks for reading!

Sources used:

Minnesota Department of Revenue

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