Beer thirty to three twenty – On writing and beer (and writing about beer)



Writing is not fun, and anyone who claims otherwise is just stringing words together. Dave Eggers, in his introduction to David Foster Wallace infinity joke, attests that, among the 1,067 pages, “there is not a lazy sentence”. The poet Joe Millar told me one evening over drinks in Portland that “writing is work; it’s like covering a house. In fact, Michael Pietsch, in his editor’s note for the masterful (and unfinished) final tome of Wallace The Pale King, mentions that Wallace “described working on the new novel as struggling against sheets of balsa wood in a strong wind”. Many writers I’ve worked with have given one piece of advice to people who want to pursue the craft: don’t.

In fact, the truly gifted writers don’t seem to pursue him at all — he pursues them, as an effective appeal, practically monastic in his obligation. There is something of a constraint to this: the writer must be a fluid observer, recording every sensual detail of every experience and synthesizing this galaxy of information into something worth reading. It’s no wonder so many people, like Wallace up there, end tragically. They find ways to cope, or they don’t. My mentor in graduate school told me, equally and chillingly, that “you have to learn to live a sedentary life or this thing will eat you up.” Hunter S. Thompson’s daily routine included “Chivas Regal with the morning papers” and, among a menagerie of other vices, a lunch of “Heineken, two margaritas, coleslaw, taco salad, a double order fried onion rings, carrot cake, ice cream, bean fritter, Dunhills, another Heineken, cocaine, and for the ride home, a snow cone (a glass of crushed ice on which three or four jiggers of Chivas) It’s an exhausting existence, to be a writer, to have to see the world through so many points of view: the eye of a poet, a door mouse, a hurricane.

My compulsion as a writer is to travel, immerse myself and document different experiences. If I don’t do this, I start to feel suspicious and frustrated that my time is wasted. In other words, I didn’t listen to my mentor. It’s a rewarding, if not lonely and exhausting life – there’s a fine line between independence and loneliness.

So I find myself speeding north on a Saturday in mid-March, a few days after the deadline for this story, returning to Three Twenty Brewing Co. in the idyllic village of Pine City, a sort of postcard-perfect Anytown , USA, where children play fast throw in the shadow of the water tower. It’s a cool Twin Cities hour, little traffic today, the sun is shining, the moon like a cataract eye. I had visited before, in October, while covering Saint Croix State Park. But there wasn’t enough editorial space in this story to do Three Twenty justice.

Writing about beer is not easy. There are a handful of descriptors out there – crisp, light, hoppy, refreshing – but these are grated to the point of meaninglessness. Beer can be haunting, multidimensional, surprising, nostalgic. It has transcended to the level of high culinary art, like any good whiskey or wine. Well done, beer is poetry.

Three Twenty is owned and operated by locals Nick and Cassandra Olson, who opened the brewery with a focus on community, a space to gather with family and friends. Indeed, while I am working at the bar, two former high school friends meet unexpectedly. It’s a kind of “is that it? Are you?” moment, followed by lots of back slapping, one of the men on the verge of tears.

There are eight options (plus a non-alcoholic pale) on the board, which rotates with each season. I order a few flights, taking notes on my phone. Pert’Near Cream Ale is balanced and subtle; the Blood Orange Blonde complex, daring, the good tangy side; but the Pert’Near Pear stands out among the rest: weird and sweet, refreshing and delicious – I’ve never tasted a beer like this.

Nick walks in with a bang, waving to everyone in the place as he sneaks into a back room to address a cask of Wild Berry Sandbar Seltzer (light and summery, but somehow another deeply flavorful – like a melted popsicle, in the best possible way).

Physically, Three Twenty resembles a harmonious blend of a brasserie and a small-town bar: an open concept of warm wood (about 120 years old, preserved from the original iteration of the space) and large windows and light natural. The distillers and circulation tanks and fermenters in an adjoining room are clearly visible through huge glass panes: a testament to Nick and Cassandra’s transparency in their process and dedication to quality.

According to something called The beer connoisseur, Minnesota ranks 17th in the nation for its dubious list of “50 states ranked for beer,” but this article was published in 2019 — it’s already out of date. If it had been published a few months ago, it would already be outdated. Breweries come and go, with sparks everywhere, often short-lived. Not to dwell too much on this “50 States” list, but – and it often happens – their Minnesota blurb focuses entirely on the Twin Cities. It’s a huge oversight. Plus, there’s no way we’ll rank behind Wisconsin.

I drank beer all over America. Brooklyn, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland. And Minnesota is, to me, one of the strongest beer states in our country. Highlights include local joints like Venn, BlackStack and Barrel Theory, and outdoor gems like Revelation in the Northwest Frontier, Imminent in Northfield, Forager in Rochester. And, of course, Trois Vingt.

Nick appears beside me, preparing a cold brew. He is exhausted but calm, sweaty but smiling. Owning and operating a brewery, on your terms and according to your recipes, is no easy task: it is a marriage of engineering, artistic expression, tenacity and courage. I shake his hand and comment on the delights of the Kashmirium IPA, holding my pint of honey aloft. He thanks me. But he already knows that Kashmirium is delicious – as poet, painter, chef dedicated to his work, Nick’s standards are high.

That’s what makes these rural breweries so compelling: they imbue an artisanal flair into a stubborn domestic beer population and are welcomed with open arms.

On the way home, I think of art as work. Jack Kerouac wrote On the road on a 120-foot roll, unfolding all over his cramped Manhattan apartment like a thug videotape, the man sweating through his shirts as he uttered around 100 words per minute, all but foaming at his mouth, forced to to write his story, captivating and bizarre and classic, a piece of his soul to be sent and swallowed by the world.


Three Twenty Brewing Co.
135 5th Street South
Pine City, MN 5506

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