Fitger’s Brewhouse (Duluth, MN)

As we spent a few extra days around Duluth, one of my goals was revisiting an old favorite: Fitger’s Brewhouse. In this era of “craft beer” and seemingly even small towns sprouting microbreweries, Fitger’s is getting to be one of the venerable Old School places. Originally a 100,000 barrel a beer major regional brewery that opened in 1857, the original Fitger’s Brewing closed in 1972. In 1984, the old brewery complex get reopened as a combined hotel (where we stayed this visit) and shopping center crafted from the old building. In 1995, new owners of the complex, inspired by new craft breweries opening out West, decided to add the Fitger’s Brewhouse and Grille. At the time, the microbrewery thing was still in its infancy, and on various trips to Duluth I’d often enjoying stopping by Fitger’s for a pint of their Big Boat Oatmeal Stout (back in those days, the only other oatmeal stouts I regularly encountered were Samuel Smith’s Oatmeal Stout, and Oil Change Stout from Flat Branch in Columbia, MO.

So, this trip, we wanted to see if Fitger’s quality has held up. Our first challenge? Getting to Fitger’s. Normally, their waterfront location on Superior Ave would be easily accessible (indeed, back on my first trips to the North Shore, you’d usually just drive along Superior Ave through downtown), but in 2020 and 2021, there have been some major public works going on, and Duluth was detours layered on detours, and it took us several rounds of Google Map reading and, quite frankly, ignoring recommended detour routes that would just direct us in circles, to finally figure out that we had to approach Fitger’s from the east to actually arrive. Hopefully any of my readers will arrive after construction has completed. Once there, aside from some minor renovations, the brewhouse itself is mostly unchanged (although it has grown a bit, with secondary fermenters and brightening tanks located throughout the building).

Starting off with beers, I ordered their Wildfire Lager, a jalapeno-spiced lager. The “taco lager” has become a thing, and this version was actually very nicely executed: a clean, crisp basic lager with just enough jalapeno spice and pepper woodiness to give it a bit of body, it’s not just a pleasant beer, but a great accompaniment to a burger. Carol, meanwhile, went for the old classic, the Big Boat Oatmeal Stout, and we both agreed it was every bit as good as we remembered from our last visit 20 years ago. The brewing is still going strong after more than 25 years in operation.

But the real visit for me wasn’t the beer, enjoyable as it was. It’s their burger. I first had a burger at Fitger’s relatively late in my tenure living in Minnesota: it was on a trip in 1999, and we stopped by Fitger’s for dinner on the way back from a trip to the North Shore. Upon ordering one of their pub burgers, the waitress actually recommended that I instead try a variation that’s popular at several Duluth-area restaurants: a wild rice burger. This wasn’t wild rice on a regular burger, but a vegetarian burger patty made from hand-harvest, wood-parched wild rice. Their exact recipe is a well-guarded secret, but the patty is primarily quality wild rice, some sort of bread-crumb filling, eggs, and spices, and the result is sublime. Unlike most vegetarian patties from the pre-Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger era that were usually some combination of textured vegetable protein and beans, resulting in a mushy, unsatisfying patty, the wild rice works perfectly. It doesn’t taste like beef, instead, like good wild rice (with flavor that’s somewhat nutty and tea-like), but texturally it works splendidly: the burger itself has a nice firmness resembling medium-rare beef, the rice itself retains just enough moisture to stay juicy, and the exposed grains of wild rice lightly toast up to give a texture highly reminiscent of a well-smeared, smashed-on-the-grill burger. Add in a good bun, some chipotle pepper pub sauce, and some cheese, and this isn’t just one of the best vegetarian burgers ever made. In fact, it’s one of the best burgers (vegetarian or not) that I’ve ever had.

I was very anxious to see if, 20 years later, Fitger’s wild rice burger was still as good as I remember, and, I’m quite happy to report, the wild rice pub burger I had on this visit was everything I remembered: perfect texture, perfect crisping, a nice moist interior, and a rice, umami-laden wild rice flavor that was quite satisfying. This was, indeed, a great burger.

So yes, Fitger’s remains one of Minnesota’s old school microbreweries, and is still putting out some great pub food, including the still excellent, vegetarian wild rice burger. It’s worth checking out.

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