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Published June 17, 2012, 12:00 AM

Vacation on tap

When visitors think of the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, they are often quick to think of places like the Mall of America, Target Field and popular attractions like the Minnesota Zoo.

By: By Chad Richardson, Forum Communications Co.

When visitors think of the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, they are often quick

to think of places like the Mall of America, Target Field and popular attractions like the Minnesota Zoo. But get out away from the city a little bit, and you’ll find some hidden gems. This is especially the case for those travelers who like to sip on suds. Breweries are popping up in many nooks and crannies throughout the eastern part of the metro area, including the small college town of River Falls, Wis., and the bustling suburb of Stillwater, Minn. A popular brew pub is also in operation in New Richmond, Wis.

All three are a testament to the craft beer craze that is sweeping across the nation. Even better is that the breweries are open for free public tours that are often populated by people who simply like drinking good beer and people who are dedicated home brewers.

In either case, the tours are light-hearted and include, as you could probably guess, free beer.

What’s not to like?

At Rush River Brewing Co. in River Falls, a gray warehouse building hides from passersby the magic that lies inside. Upon entering the facility, the smell of malts lingers in the air as one of the firm’s owners, Dan Chang, glides up and down a ladder to check on a brew.

For Rush River, it all happens here: Beers are brewed, bottled, chilled, kegged and shipped right out of the building. In most cases, local ingredients are used, including barley grown in Chilton, Wis.

“We do everything here,” Chang says. “We’re proud of that.”

Most days at 6 a.m., Chang gets to work on a batch and by the time he heads home at night, he will have brewed the equivalent of 30 kegs, or 19,000 bottles.

The story is similar at Lift Bridge Brewery in Stillwater, located behind a Herberger’s in another one of those big warehouse-style buildings. Again, from the outside it doesn’t look like much. Inside is a different story.

The location includes a unique tap room, the first in the state of Minnesota. In 2011, legislation was passed that allowed brewers to sell their own beers on site and Lift Bridge got to work right away to set up the tap room. The tap room is open for business while tours are run from 1 p.m. until about 4:30 p.m. or so every Saturday.

The tap rooms aren’t the only time the local breweries dispense their beer to locals. Both Rush River and Lift Bridge offer 64- ounce growler fills. In fact, at Lift Bridge, growlers can be filled from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Thursdays and Fridays and in the afternoons on Saturdays, too. Tours are held there at 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. and registration should be done online.

Brewery tours aren’t the only option for beer samples from Lift Bridge. Three Brews Cruises on the St. Croix River are planned for the summer. On June 15, July 20 and Aug. 24, guests can travel up and down the river on a large paddleboat while they sip on Lift Bridge beers and eat artisan cheeses, all the while listening to live music.

Tickets are available at www.stillwaterriverboats.com and are $30 per person.

On a side note: Lift Bridge’s most popular beer, the Farm Girl saison, is available now at Target Field in a portable stand near sections 126 and 320.

From the outside, Brady’s Brewhouse in New Richmond, Wis., doesn’t look much different than

the other bars that line the main street through downtown there. Once inside, though, it is the smell

that informs customers that the establishment is, in fact, unique.

The air is filled with the scent of malt. In the back of the restaurant, the source of the scent is easily determined: Two

brewers can often be found back there, hard at work crafting a number of different beers for the restaurant. It may seem like a bit of a stretch for a town of 8,000 to support a brew pub, but owner Chris Polfus said it’s anything but. As craft beers have exploded in popularity across the nation, the movement is taking hold in the river valley.

“People just appreciate the quality, the freshness and the flavor of craft beers,” Polfus said.

While bars used to simply offer domestics and imports, most have quickly adapted to include the word “local,” and for good reason. More and more customers want good, fresh beer from area breweries.