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What'll you have, Rochester? Is this a bar town or brewery town?

With many changes to the city's drinking scene over the last five years, the question to ponder is whether Rochester is now a brewery town or still a bar town. What do you think? Answer our poll in the story.

Little Thistle
Sarah Jackson, left, and her partner Conor Murphy play a game alongside their dog Duke on Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2022, at Little Thistle in Rochester.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
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ROCHESTER — They're no longer swigging the Coors Lights at Legends Bar & Grill. The downtown drinking establishment made its temporary closing in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic permanent in early 2021.

Pints are no longer poured at Dooley's Pub.

Downtown drinking destinations such as Dooley's, Legends and The Loop have left, relegated to mere hazy memories of those who once dropped in for a drink. In fact, the last decade has seen the once thriving downtown casual bar scene dwindle to one locale staying open for the 2 a.m. crowd: Kathy’s Pub.

Bar Scene: Pre-COVD vs. 2022

That's not to say you can't find a place serving drinks in downtown Rochester. Restaurants such as The Half Barrel – the establishment has a two-page whiskey menu – and the bar Bitter & Pour will serve up adult beverages late into the evening. But both stop the libations by midnight at the latest.

So, if so many bars are gone, where is Rochester drinking these days instead? More and more, the places to enjoy an adult beverage are the establishments that make their own: Rochester's growing number of breweries.

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The rise of the brewery

The brewery scene began in 2012 Rochester's first post-Prohibition craft brewery, Kinney Creek. While arcane laws both in Rochester and from the state of Minnesota made operating a "microbrewery" difficult, those laws began to change. And with those changes, Rochester's craft brew scene began to grow.

Forager Brewery
Bert Guter pours a flight of beers at Forager Brewery in Rochester on Thursday, Aug. 11, 2022.
Tucker Allen Covey / Post Bulletin

First LTS (Life’s Too Short) and Forager joined the Rochester brewery scene in 2015, and two years later Little Thistle Brewing joined the club. Finally, in 2018, the last of the five breweries in town today opened, Thesis Beer Project.

In fact, the brewery scene has seen its own closing, with the brewery at Grand Rounds starting up then moving on (to Pine Island to become South by Southeast Minnesota Brewing Co.).

As craft breweries across the country gained in popularity, the five beer destinations in Rochester became the go-to stops for a friendly drink, and the bar scene in Rochester saw a decline in venue options.

This, then, begs the question: Has Rochester's drinking identity changed from a bar town to a brewery town?

Rochester Breweries
A map of breweries in Rochester.
Created with Data Wrapper

Change of scene

Corbin Holmen, bar manager at Bleu Duck in downtown Rochester, has worked in the service industry since he was 15, and has been bartending for six years downtown.

“The main thing I've noticed over the last five years, the lack of the downtown bar scene lately, I feel like has definitely pushed people towards breweries a little bit more," Holmen said. "Now, with the options being so limited compared to 2019, and spread out as far as spirits and bars selection. I feel like people would be more tempted to go to a brewery seeking to have a beer and hop around to another brewery.”

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Andrew Ferguson, general manager of Rochester’s modern downtown speakeasy Bitter & Pour, said COVID was the greatest indicator of change in downtown’s nightlife. When bars such as Dooley’s and Legends closed down, the crowds that went to those places tried restaurants and bars that were not accustomed to staying open until 2 a.m. and that has brought the Rochester drinking scene to where it is today.

“We're a town of 120,000 people, and I can't think of another bar that stays open regularly until 2 a.m. other than Kathy’s in this entire city," Ferguson said. "I think that's sad. If we want a thriving downtown, you have to have some dancing and other late night options. You can get food downtown after nine, 10 o'clock most nights, even on weekends.”

Bitter and Pour
Bartender Andrew Ferguson serves up drinks on Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2022, at Bitter and Pour in Rochester.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin

Too late for drinks

With no venues for dancing, and the lack of dining menus available to midnight or beyond, Rochester's drinking scene generally turns in for the night earlier than in years past. And that, said Brandon Schulz, owner of LTS, fits his customers' vibe.

“I still spend some time out at bars and I would say that the majority of people who go out to bars late at night are not our crowd here," Schulz said. Schulz pointed to Kathy's, Charlie's Eatery & Pub and the two Rooster's locations as places that are open past midnight for drinks. "They're the bars that stay open late, but that's more of the bar scene sort of people. And the majority of those people are more cocktail or like domestic sort of beer people."

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Schulz said LTS toyed with the idea of being open late, but the experiment was "kind of a bust."

"Honestly, the people who come to a craft brewery are not the people who want to stay out until one or two o'clock,” said Schulz.

Even for downtown bars, it's more about a relaxed atmosphere and the drink menu, said Chris Tokin, a regular at Bitter & Pour.

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"I like the scene down here. The bars can have a good atmosphere but it’s a bit mellower here, and I also like the drinks. This place is open until midnight," Tokin said. "So I'll be here till midnight, but after that, it's pretty much I'm going home because I’m tired.”

A community in craft brew

Barb Depman, general manager at Forager, said one reason the brewery is different is that it's a venue where families often come.

“When we have a big beer release, we get all the beer-heads coming in to try the newest beer," Depman said. "Community was where (owners Annie Henderson and Austin Jevne) were starting from, it's like, how can we serve a lot of different demographics in the book and not just in our neighborhood.”

Tierny Parker, a server at Forager, added that each of the breweries offers something a little different, so there is room for a variety of breweries in town.

Caria Jorgenson, Keri Norman, and Amy Gunlogson, three friends and longtime Rochester residents who found themselves as patrons at Forager one night, each spoke on the bar and brewery scene in Rochester from their own experiences.

Keri Norman, who was scouting Forager on night for her daughter's bridal shower, said the variety in the different brewery venues made them "really fun."

"They've got great beers here at Forager, and Rochester is pretty lucky with all the unique breweries that we have,” said Norman.

Her friend, Amy Gunlogson, said that growing up in Rochester, she was used to a vibrant music scene, and the breweries – especially Forager – have kept that scene alive.

Little Thistle
A group of coworkers sit together on Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2022, at Little Thistle in Rochester.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin

Caria Jorgenson added, “I would say what differentiates bars versus breweries in town, all of their atmospheres, they exemplify the characteristics of the owners. They are the owners so you get the vibe based on the different people that operate them.”

For out-of-towners such as Brian Crouse, who was visiting from Jefferson City, Missouri, the mellow atmosphere at Bitter & Pour was one draw to downtown drinking, but that was a trait he enjoyed in Little Thistle as well.

"The beer is phenomenal and the food is really good," Crouse said. "Low-vibe atmosphere, as far as just consistent quality. It speaks well for us.”

Answering the question

So, is Rochester a bar town or a brewery town?

A rather unscientific poll of readers did not come to a conclusion. Twenty-one responses were split evenly between "Brewery," "Bar" and "Neither."

What those respondents did say is that Rochester has enough bars and breweries to cater to people who are drawn to one drinking scene or the other. With five breweries and 33 bars in town, according to Experience Rochester, there are plenty of places for the tens of thousands of drinkers in Rochester to go wet their whistle.

Little Thistle
Patrons sit under the pergola on Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2022, at Little Thistle in Rochester.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
Bitter and Pour
A group of friends talk over drinks on Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2022, at Bitter and Pour in Rochester.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
Little Thistle
Trivia begins on Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2022, at Little Thistle in Rochester.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
Little Thistle
Conor Murphy and his dog Duke sit together on Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2022, at Little Thistle in Rochester.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin

Related Topics: RESTAURANTS AND BARS
Theodore Tollefson is a business reporter for the Post Bulletin. He is originally from Burnsville, Minn., and graduated from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls with a bachelor's degree in journalism in December 2020. Readers can reach Theodore at 507-281-7420 or ttollefson@postbulletin.com.
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