Unified by rugged landscapes, history, and residents with hardy attitudes, it’s an understatement to say Ontario and Minnesota share a few things common. In celebration of what we share, Lake of the Woods Brewing Company is working on opening up breweries in both Minnesota and Manitoba this year. In this piece, I intend to explore this budding relationship between Ontario, Minnesota, and one brewing company.
Lake of the Woods makes a presence on maps in Ontario, Minnesota, and Manitoba. With the lake being a celebrated gem of all three regions, we are honouring that connection by making beer without borders! The Rainy River that now defines the borderline between Canada and the USA was once a main artery of the fur trade. It’s about time Lake of the Woods Beer made its way down both sides of the windy river. So, feeding a curiosity for our Minnesotan neighbours, I took a drive down to Grand Marais (awarded “the coolest small town in America” in recent years) to see what Minnesota was all about. I planned my visit around North House Folk School’s annual Winterer’s Gathering & Arctic Film Festival event. The event proved to be a perfect backdrop to dive into Minnesotan culture. While in Grand Marais, I also wanted to get a sense of what the Northwoods meant to people, and how that might differentiate the identity of the coming Minnesotan Lake of the Woods Brewery from our current one in Northern Ontario.
I arrived in Grand Marais in the early evening to sun glistening off the harbour ice. North House’s little campus of refurbished coastguard boathouses and brightly coloured fishhouses makes a charming first impression. The school hosts an incredible number of workshops, from birchbark canoe-building to basketry to woodturning and even blacksmithing – choreographed by a small collection of folks dedicated to sharing traditional crafts and folk art. At this particular event, the courses and seminars are geared toward winter survival, travel, and general enjoyment. I watched films about crazy octogenarian climbers, listened to a speaker tell gripping stories about multi-day dogsledding journeys, and participated in a massive gear swap of skies, parkas, and wool sweaters. In the evening there was an ever charming contra dance, a poetry reading, and an elbow-to-elbow chili feast. It was a cozy way to celebrate the oncoming winter, hearkening back to the feelings captured in our beer video, Blazing Trails Since 1898. Being around for this gathering helped me to see how much Minnesotans appreciate the woods and related bushcraft and backcountry travel. They don’t have quite the expanses of boreal forest that we have in Canada, and so, what they do have is really valued and intentionally explored. It was great hearing people talk about the Northwest Angle, for example, and how proud they are of this northernmost part of the state. It is a finger of land jetting up into Canada, which extends way more north, and yet to Northwoods folk, the Northwest Angle represents a very northern feeling. All that to say, they embrace and celebrate what North they do have, in a way many of us Canadians could learn to do as well.
So who and what is the Northwoods, anyway? I canvassed folks at the North House Campus, the local Voyageur Brewing Company taproom, and the long-standing Java Moose cafe to try to get a sense. I gathered that the region known as the Northwoods in Minnesota is more or less the upper half of the state, where forests are shared with Canada. Similar to Northwestern Ontario, the first Europeans came to this area with the fur trade, and eventually settled as fishermen, loggers, miners, and farmers. Many of these early travellers were Scandinavians, and their rich heritage plays a significant role in Northwoods culture. Just like the popular seasonal migration between winter homes and summer cottages that happened in the old world, Twin Cities cottagers seasonally migrate en masse to rustic vacations in Minnesota’s northern swath of forest. Minnesota is home to 30% of Scandinavian Americans – more than any other state. – and many of which inhabit the Northwoods. Today, you can see that in the clothing styles, the appreciation of cross-country skiing and saunas, and in the upkeep of Scandinavian folk craft and food. I am excited to see how this Scandinavian heritage may influence the tone of Minnesota’s Lake of the Woods Brewing Company, and set it apart from ours in Ontario! Perhaps they’ll name some beers after Scandinavian towns, just like such Minnesotan towns as Finland, Kalevala, and Toimi.
They may not call their plaid shirts the Kenora dinner jacket over in Minnesota, but they sure do love the outdoors and identify strongly with the woods and lakes of this boreal northern region we all call home.