Great ideas are made over a beer. Just ask Dan Theisen.
Owner of the Ball Park Cafe on Underwood Street near The Food Building at the Minnesota State Fair, it was a coffee stout beer from Lift Bridge that made him think, if coffee, why not mini doughnut?
Nothing says a fair like a mini doughnut, right?
“At some point, after too many I bet, I looked at my wife, and I said, ‘Do you think they could get a beer to taste like a mini doughnut?’ The next day she reminds me and tells me to call Hans (Lofgren). He was one of my best friends. I call him the next day and he tells me that’s genius,” Theisen said.
That’s where Brad Glynn and the brewers at Lift Bridge Brewery in Stillwater came in. They set out to make the vision of Theisen.
Crafting a low-alcohol Mild style with a warm tan color, a malty base with rich flavor, they were close with the base beer.
“Something was missing. I felt, it’s there, but it’s not,” Theisen said.
“We asked what makes a mini doughnut taste like a mini doughnut, so we used vanilla, the malts we use are breadier, so we have that doughy base. The coup de gras is that sugar on the rim,” Brad Glynn, current VP Marketing and Operations for Lift Bridge, the original brewer of the beer, said.
“The cinnamon sugar really is what puts it over the top. It took a little while to get that down. I remember my wife coming home, finding five kinds of sugar, four different kinds of cinnamon. I had all of these glasses that we rimmed with different combinations and concentrations of cinnamon sugar to get it dialed in just right,” he added.
Theisen’s reaction to the final product?
“It was perfect,” he said.
Now in its seventh year at the Minnesota State Fair, the Lift Bridge Mini Donut Beer grows in popularity each year.
Even with the 53 new beers on tap around the grounds, Mini Donut is on the minds of many.
“It definitely doesn’t get old. We retire it after the fair, so it’s an exclusive. That’s what makes it so special. ... The first few years we didn’t make as much because we didn’t know. People would be disappointed it would run out. We’d hear about it. So now we make enough for the 12 days. We keep making new fans. People talk it about. People keep wanting it more and more,” Glynn said.
TWO DECADES AT THE FAIR
The Ball Park Cafe opened in 1999. Theisen and his brother, Dave, were among 20-some groups to bid on the location. Their sports theme won over the committee.
“We found this spot and we opened it up and turned it into a place where you’re sitting in a stadium with people up above. There were no TVs out at the Fair at time. Nobody had TVs, nobody had sports on, and people wanted to watch the game,” Theisen said. “I think we started with two 27-inch big TVs. That’s all the room we had. This year we just bought two 65-inch skinny TVs to replace 55-inchers.”
The concept was simple. Baseball and beer.
“It’s fun. The game is ending, everyone’s glued to the TV, the crowd is out to the street. ... We’re excited with the Minnesota Twins in first place. It should be great,” Theisen said.
BEFORE THE DOUGHNUT
Now in year No. 21 in business, craft beer began at The Ball Park Cafe 10 years ago, before the Mini Donut Beer.
Opening day, there was Summit, Grain Belt Premium, Miller Lite, Leinenkugel’s Honey Weiss, and Miller Genuine Draft. All 3.2 percent alcohol.
When craft beer entered, Theisen introduced the state fair to Odell and Alaskan Amber. The first year he brought on Lift Bridge and worked friends to get Omar Ansari and Surly to take on another account.
“Steel Toe, the second or third year, I was knocking on his door. I rolled over to St. Louis Park twice. I had to keep bugging him. Now it’s weird, it’s switched over the last four or five years. There’s so many good beers, so many good breweries, it’s hard to choose from. It comes down to relationship with breweries, with distributors. I try to find places with buzz around them. I can’t even get around and try them all anymore,” Theisen said.
In total, 14 new specialty beverages are on tap at The Ball Park Cafe in 2019. Lift Bridge commands four tap lines while Surly, Summit and Bent Paddle each have two lines. Sweetland Orchard of Webster, Minnesota, will feature Cherry Rhubarb, Minnesota Mule and Scrumpy Sweet ciders.
Other breweries — all Minnesota made — include Able, Bauhaus, Bent Brewstillery, Castle Danger, Eastlake, Fulton, Indeed, Steel Toe, and a collaboration between Modist and Barrel Theory, the MN Brew Together Dreamiscle IPA.
One thing is certain, Theisen’s done with gimmick beer. The Mini Donut Beer won’t be beat.
“I didn’t want it to be about the Mini Donut Beer. I wanted it to be about craft beer made in Minnesota. To showcase all the wonderful places we had. ... We’re in a time where people want something different. So that’s what we’re doing,” he said.
So, what beer is Theisen most excited about hosting this year? You’d never guess. It’s one of the four domestic lines.
“Want to know the truth? I’m excited we’re putting Hamm’s on for the first time,” he said.
A St. Paul beer for a St. Paul native.