Drinking is easy. Finding the right bar, not so easy. We’re here to help. As a public service to all of you thirsty explorers, every week we highlight the best bars in America and tell you what makes them so damn great. This week we’ve got a craft beer bar in Minnesota that plays by its own rules.
LOCATION: Seven Corners, Minneapolis
ON THE JUKEBOX: Atmosphere, Bright Eyes, Stevie Wonder
WHAT TO ORDER (NEWBIES): Fair State Brewing Cooperative Roselle hibiscus sour (Minneapolis); Fulton Beer Lonely Blonde American blonde ale (Minneapolis)
WHAT TO ORDER (REGULARS): Steel Toe Brewing Size 7 IPA (St. Louis Park, Minn.); Sweetland Orchard Cherry-Rhubarb cider (Webster, Minn.)
WHY WE LOVE IT: Matt O’Reilly, owner of Republic in Minneapolis, will be the first to tell you his bar is not for everyone. “We send a clear message: quality over popularity,” he says. “We don’t sell Budweiser. We don’t need to sell Budweiser.”
Republic, located a block from the University of Minnesota campus, is serious about beer. And it doesn’t have things to distract you or influence your choices like video games, neon signs or TVs. “We literally just have tables and chairs and a kick-ass beer list,” he says. “And people keep coming. Every year is busier than the one before. We took a gamble and we won.”
O’Reilly, who has lived in Minneapolis his whole life (save for a misguided, year-long sabbatical in Chicago) opened Republic five years ago with Rick Guntzel. His best friend from high school. They had both been working in the restaurant business for a while and began to notice an uptick in the number of craft breweries opening around the state. And when O’Reilly traveled, to San Diego or Portland, Oregon, for example, he was seeing them opening even faster.
“We anticipated the craft beer boom here,” O’Reilly says. “The Midwest is always a little behind on trends, whether it’s fashion or food or beer. We figured it was just a matter of time.” Opening an all-in, craft beer bar in 2011 was very much ahead of the curve in Minneapolis—especially one that didn’t sell any of the big brands. People told O’Reilly that he was crazy, that Republic would go under. But the bar found its audience very quickly.
The craft beer scene blew up in Minneapolis, as it did in the rest of the country. In 2004 there were six craft beer breweries in the state. When Republic opened there were 18. Today there are 110. And now beers that you couldn’t buy before are now entering the Twin Cities. For example Crooked Stave out of Denver didn’t come to Minnesota until this year. “Companies of that size and nature are still entering the market, making it more competitive, interesting and vibrant,” he says. “You add that in with all of the local breweries that are opening up and there’s just a huge statement now that we’re part of.”
Republic has 100-plus taplines and each one is precious and hand-selected. O’Reilly tries to hit all of the styles within each category, for instance, the IPA list includes beers made with different kinds of hops. The bar even has 16 taps reserved for unique draft ciders, 15 more than most bars. “I pick them individually so they don’t cannibalize each other within the category,” he says. “So they’re not all the same. The way I look at it, it’s like this perfect mixtape you’re giving your girlfriend in high school. It’s just got to flow.”
It also has to keep selling, so it stays fresh. One way O’Reilly ensures this is by stocking plenty of one-off kegs. He has personal relationships with brewers and requests they send him beer that is only available in their taprooms, versus the ones that are the biggest sellers. “We kill it with that stuff because no one else can find it,” he says. “People don’t want the same beer they can buy at the bar down the street.”
For this reason, when breweries launch or emerging ones come to town, they want a tap line at Republic. And if they’re good, O’Reilly will make space for them. But not all of them. He tastes brews side-by-side and if a new one isn’t as good as one that he already has, he doesn’t bring it in. “The reality in Minnesota is there’s a brewery around every corner now, but not all of them are good,” he says. “People flock to these places just because they’re new and novel. But some of the beer is undrinkably bad.”
He tells brewers this to their faces. “I’m not afraid to be honest with people; I don’t think they hear it enough,” he says. I’m like, ‘you should work on the consistency. The last time I had this beer it was way different than this time. What happened?’ I can call them out on these things because they know I’m thoughtful about what I do.”
O’Reilly, who spins stories about breweries the same way a sommelier talks about wine regions, knows that bringing on new beers comes at the expense of old ones. And in the craft beer world, Belgian beers are usually the first to be bumped. “These are expensive, inaccessible and a horrible price-per-ounce,” he says. “But these are the dudes who 500 to 1,000 years ago paved the way for a good beer to exist.” Republic has 20 Belgians on tap with no plans of ever replacing them. The same is true for craft brands that are a few decades old. “If you’re a craft beer bar and you don’t have a Stone line or two, you’re not doing your job right. It’s important to me that we don’t lose sight of what made all of this happen.”
O’Reilly’s choices have a much larger influence than just what ends up in pint glasses at his bar. “Bar mangers come in and see what we have and are just like, ‘ooh, it must be good—they have three lines on at Republic.’ Then they take them on,” he says. “Watching this thing build over the past few years has been really fun. We’ve seen breweries grow up but still stay small. We’ve seen people try things they never normally would. If we didn’t exist, it’d be happening, but our impact has been undeniable.”
Alyson Sheppard is the resident hangover specialist at Playboy.com. Find her on Twitter: @amshep