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Traveling from Duluth, pill Minnesota to Hayward, Wisconsin takes you on winding two-lane highways through the beautiful northern Wisconsin landscape. It’s the kind of country that makes me want to pull off the road and head into the woods for a hike. The thick snow that blanketed the ground when I made the drive last December made it just that much more enchanting. But I didn’t have time to stop. Having spent the afternoon sampling beers at Fitger’s Brewhouse, I was on my way to do more sampling at the Angry Minnow Brewpub in Hayward.
At the Angry Minnow I was met by Jason Rasmussen, brewer and co-owner with his brother Will. While touring the brewery, located in the basement of the historic building that houses the brewpub, Jason explained the Angry Minnow’s development. Will Rasmussen dreamed up the idea during a 2002 ski trip to Colorado. After visiting several of the state’s renowned brewpubs, he thought the concept might work in his hometown of Hayward, a center of outdoor activity in both summer and winter. He brought Jason on board, who at the time was an avid homebrewer, and in 2004 the Angry Minnow opened.
Jason started homebrewing in college, but never really thought of doing it professionally. When Will approached him about brewing at the Minnow, he left school and finagled an apprenticeship at the Great Dane Brewpub in Madison. The apprenticeship afforded him invaluable hands-on experience. From there he headed to Chicago’s Siebel institute for some deeper textbook knowledge.
Jason offers patrons a wide range of beers, from a “lite” golden ale to an imperial IPA. His personal taste is for big, hoppy beers, but he recognizes a need for easier-drinking session beers as well. He also tries to craft beers that will challenge the mostly lager-drinking locals and satisfy the palates of the steady stream of homebrewers that come through.
On my visit I sampled a very nice smoked porter, a medium bodied beer with smooth roast and subtle but noticeable charred-wood smoke character. The standout beer for me was Redhorse Ale, a seasonal “Midwestern” red ale, slightly malt-forward with toasty, biscuit flavors blending nicely with sweet caramel. Citrus and pine-resin hops offered a bright contrast to the malt, and moderate bitterness with a clean, light finish made it a delightfully drinkable beer. Angry Minnow’s year-round beers include Oaky’s Oatmeal Stout, River Pig American Pale Ale, Honey Wheat, Minnow Lite.
The food has an intentionally Wisconsin bent. Menu items include several varieties of freshwater fish from Lake Superior, wild rice, and locally grown pork fed on spent grains and food waste from the brewpub. Dishes are more upscale than traditional pub food, but still reasonably priced with entrees topping out at about $18. The cheese curds were spectacular with a light, crispy crust and firm texture. The only downside to the curds was their lack of a dipping sauce.
The atmosphere is decidedly different from the typical brewpub. High ceilings, exposed brick, and dim lighting give an elegant but inviting feel to the dining room. It is an ambience that would serve well for a romantic date or a round of drinks after work. The building itself has a unique and storied past, having served as the offices of the Northern Wisconsin Lumber Company, an auto body shop, and possibly a brothel. Windows in the walkway from the front to the back dining room provide a bird’s eye view of the basement brewhouse.
Hayward is an outdoor mecca. While you are there you have to check out the Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame with its giant walk-thru walleye. During the winter there are ample opportunities for cross-country skiing. Every February the town hosts the American Birkebeiner Cross-Country Ski Marathon.