Tapping Duluth's brewing history
DULUTH — As a longtime beer salesman, Pete Clure is happy to be a cog in the local scene — even if the craft beer explosion has intruded on brands he sells. Casually talking suds, he can tell you that "Castle Cream Ale is on fire." The 51-year-old Duluthian might also mention how the rise of Bent Paddle Brewing forced him to redouble his efforts at Michaud Distributing.
Not that he minded.
"The competition for draft lines is fierce," Clure said, using industry speak for the tap real estate behind the bar. "When Bent Paddle showed up, I lost 30 Bell's (Brewery) accounts. It's extremely intense."
But referring to Clure as a beer salesman doesn't tell the half of it. This week, Clure and Duluth historian Tony Dierckins will release their co-authored book, "Naturally Brewed, Naturally Better: The Historic Breweries of Duluth & Superior" — a book both timely and timeless for the way it compiles nearly 160 years of Northland brewing history into 200-plus pages foaming over with glossy images, inside scoops and an overall story come full circle with the craft libations revival.
"For a historian, this is a rare opportunity to talk about the past and the future," Dierckins said.
Despite attending the University of Minnesota Duluth at the same time in their stein-toasting youth, the two men met just a few years ago, after Dierckins began tossing around the idea of a beer book.
"Nine out of 10 people said that you have to talk to Pete Clure," said Dierckins, author of more than two dozen books and publisher of Zenith City Press. "It became pretty clear pretty early that if I was going to do this book right I was going to have to get together with Pete. He's been an endless resource."
Clure's home is not like other homes. Unassuming on the outside, it's a veritable brew-seum on the inside. The dark wooded home abounds with Twin Ports-heavy beer memorabilia, or breweriana, as it's come to be known culturally.
At first, it's hard to describe the claustrophobia one feels when surrounded by it all — as if having fallen into a beer bottle peering out at an amber world.
"I won't apologize for it," Clure said.
Overflowing with nostalgia, his home is a wonderland filled with 40 years worth of his scooping up of promotional tins, neon signs, bottles, calendars, clocks and cans.
"In the 1970s, all the kids were collecting beer cans," Clure said, "but I thought the signs were way cooler than the cans."
Sporting Pabst Brewing Co. denim, Clure guided a tour that stretched down into the basement. Asked if he could say how many items were either on display or being stored, Clure was cagey.
"I have an idea," he said.
The larger the collection grows, the more discriminating his scouring gets. He's got a case of Fitger's bottles he didn't know existed until he came upon it as one does a hidden ruin.
"I have to be careful," he said. "It's gotta be rare."
Some of the pieces could fetch thousands of dollars. Others are more ubiquitous, like the Fitger's prismatic signs, classy black pieces that look like a classic car emblem.
"One of my favorites," he said.
Clure stopped below a Duluth Brewing & Malting Co. sign from 1900. It features an alarming image of a renaissance woman being ogled by a high society peeping tom. Is he looking at her through the window, or the three champagne-sized bottles of beer on the nightstand?
"It's rare, it's creepy," Clure said. "They call it 'The Voyeur.'"
Clure was 11 when he and a group of friends cracked open and passed around the beer can that started his collection. Dierckins, too, described taking his first swig as a boy.
Different dads, different times, they said.
Growing up, Clure drew inspiration from going to Grandma's Restaurant in Canal Park.
"There was so much stuff on the walls to look at," he said.
The story of beer in the Twin Ports isn't just the story of overalled men and daring women, historic buildings and the iconic breweries that filled them named Peoples and Northern and Moose. It is also the story of Lake Superior and its soft, ice-cold water — a point that comes across well throughout the book.
"This place attracts brewers to its water," Dierckins said. "Local brewers say it's like working with an empty canvas. The brewer doesn't have to brew around chemical impurities."
Recently, Clure endured a treated bout with stage 2 colon cancer. It's been tougher for him to lift the heavier signs as a result. He pointed to a keg.
"I used to be able to lift that like nothing," he said.
But he's still in the game, as he called it. And with the book launching on Thursday, Sept. 20, he and Dierckins are hoping for an easy reception — akin to the consumption of delightful new brews issued around town every weekend.
"I can tell by the reaction," Dierckins said, describing something other than a frosty, cold reception. "Some books, it's crickets."
Others, a pint full.