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Thirsty Pagan serves up microbrews, pizza and fun

When Barker's Island Inn was looking to shake things up in their bar, they didn't have to look too far. "We always thought it would be fun to have our own branded beer," says Charlie Johnson general manager of the hotel, bar and lounge. He took t...

Thirsty Pagen
Steve Knauss, above, owner of the Thirsty Pagan, Superior's own microbrewery, pours a glass of one of his own creations at the bar. At right, he stands behind beer kegs in the brewery. . (Jed Carlson/jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)

When Barker's Island Inn was looking to shake things up in their bar, they didn't have to look too far. "We always thought it would be fun to have our own branded beer," says Charlie Johnson general manager of the hotel, bar and lounge. He took this idea to his old friend Steve Knauss, owner of the Thirsty Pagan Brewery.

Now in a small kitchen in the former Russell Creamery building, the Thirsty Pagan crew goes through several steps to achieve the right flavoring for the hotel's custom brew.

"It's a blend of caramel malts with a bitter nut character to it," says Knauss describing the amber beer now known as Captain Barker's Ale. "It has a nice roasted character with a creamy finish from malt that's warmed up just a bit."

The description of each of the eight beers the Thirsty Pagan brews goes on ... and on until they reach the complication level of a wine tasting seminar.

Some of the beverages will "scrape your palette clean like a good merlot" or "have a chocolate aromatic malt with a coffee creamy taste upfront" and others possess "a sweet grain flavor with lager characteristics." One is left with an appreciation for the artistry behind the beer brewed entirely on-site in a series of shiny vats and coils and refrigeration tanks.

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Brew it and

they will come

It's hard to tell if it's the high-end beer, the homemade pizza sauce with an herby kick or the live music, but for whatever reason people come to the Thirsty Pagan, they're coming -- despite lackluster financial times. Knauss snorts, "Don't even try to scare us. We're Duluth-Superior," implying the area is used to tough times.

In fact, in the three years since Knauss bought the business it's "grown exponentially." He believes their success comes from serving quality products in a fun atmosphere that is one of a kind in Superior.

That fun starts when you hit the door and take in the hole-in-the-wall charm. The white tiled walls are adorned with historic regional beer signs and the bathrooms are painted whimsical colors and decorated with old album covers. "I'm trying to grow out my hair like that," says Knauss pointing to a Shaun Cassidy record jacket. He's nearly there.

In the dining room there are 10 tables some featuring booths covered in the back with old grain sacks. More seating is available at the bar side of the building, which also has a stage for performers. "It can get a little wild here on the weekends," says Knauss. But if a beer is spilled, there's no worries. The tile floors all slant to central drains, a reminder that the building was built as the Russell Creamery in 1905.

Though the building may be old, time has not stood still at the Thirsty Pagan. The restaurant bar recently became a completely smoke-free establishment on March 1st. "We used to be smoke-free only up to 9 p.m. Now we're going all the way like the bars in Madison," says Knauss who says the rest of the state has been slow to catch on.

Coincidentally, the Captain Barker's Ale is also being served in a smokeless environment.

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"It's kind of a no-brainer," says Johnson of Barker's Island Inn recent smoking policy change. "We've had almost nothing but positive responses and it's healthier for our bartenders and patrons."

It's all in the name

Knauss is often asked about the unique name of the establishment and wishes the story were a more interesting one. "Should we make one up right now?" he asks earnestly.

The truth is the brew house used to be the Twin Port Brewery and often went by its initials, TPB. In a nod to the past, Knauss kept the initials and came up with an original a name that matches them.

"My dad didn't like it," says Knauss mimicking a grumpy, old voice. "People will be offended! People won't come!"

If people are offended, Knauss isn't worrying, especially as his logo merchandise enjoys a brisk Internet business. "It doesn't seem to be keeping anyone away."

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