- Associated Press - Saturday, July 26, 2014

DULUTH, Minn. (AP) - Mining and shipping built Duluth. Beer and tourists are fueling its future.

A new brew pub opening this week in the city’s thriving Canal Park tourist district marks the latest step in that evolution, what Mayor Don Ness calls the “new Duluth,” a place also defined by the arts and the outdoors.

That transformation may well have begun two decades ago. Long before the current craft beer craze hit Minnesota, Fitger’s Brewhouse opened in Duluth. At the time, it was one of only a handful of micro-brewers in the state.

Of course, the idea for the brew house was first hatched over beer.

Co-founders Rod Raymond and Tim Nelson, and Nelson’s younger brother Brad - teammates on the University of Minnesota Duluth’s cross country ski team - traveled out west to race. They fell in love with the burgeoning micro beer scene in towns like Bend, Oregon.

“It already involved all the people and things we loved, music, the outdoors,” Brad Nelson said. “In Bend, the places where that was already happening, after a ski race weekend, it was, ‘after party at the Deschutes Brewery!’”

Today, the younger Nelson handles marketing for the brew pub’s parent company, Just Take Action. His official title: “minister of culture and information.”

Tim Nelson recalls thinking, why not do this in Duluth?

“We saw the similarities in the towns and the cultures, at least among our friends,” he said.

Originally from Brainerd, the Nelson brothers are now in their mid-40s. Bearded, and with shoulder-length hair, they have a passion for good beer - and their adopted hometown.

After Tim Nelson earned his MBA, he and Raymond leased a space in the century-old Fitger’s Brewery complex last used as a Rocky Roccoco pizza franchise that had sat empty for 10 years. They opened Fitger’s Brewhouse in 1995. Today, it brews 3,000 barrels a year here.

The scene they were so attracted to out west barely existed in Duluth when they opened. The original Fitger’s had stopped brewing beer two decades earlier and many Minnesotans had never heard of craft beer.

But in a city with only one venue where local musicians played original music, the Nelsons - who are also musicians - saw an opportunity.

“We wanted places to play,” Tim Nelson said. “It was kind of more driven by that, we wanted to do good, but we wanted to be a part of it, we wanted to build something we could be a part of.”

Their gamble paid off. Nationally known acts like Low and Trampled by Turtles honed their skills on the brew pub stage. Soon the Homegrown Music Festival emerged. Meanwhile Brad Nelson founded Duluth’s first alternative paper, the Ripsaw. It chronicled the growing music and outdoors culture.

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