No illness, but several violations at Twin Cities breweries and distilleries

Mark Stutrud, the President and Founder of Summit Brewery in St. Paul, has been in the beer game for 31 years.

"Sadly I have to say that I'm surrounded by amateurs," he said. “You have substandard products and you have customers who pay for their learning curve."

For decades, it was the big three in Minnesota: Schmidt, Hamm's, and Grainbelt.

But the growth among craft breweries in Minnesota has been exponential, from 20 just a few years ago to 110 licensed breweries located throughout the state, according to the Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild.

It's also a highly regulated industry--licensed through the Alcohol and Gambling Enforcement division of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, inspected by the Minnesota Health Department and the Department of Agriculture, as well as various city, county, and federal regulators. 

Ben Miller supervises food safety inspections for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, which inspects microbreweries every 18 months.

"Alcohol is a food product, so we want to make sure that is how it is being produced--in a safe and clean environment," said Miller. "We haven't seen any health issues per se, or microbial risk with beer here in Minnesota. No complaints or cases of illness.”


But there have been problems.

The Fox 9 Investigators looked at health and agriculture inspection reports for the last three and a half years. 

28 businesses had one or more violations, the most common: not having cleanable surfaces, no hand sink, or chemicals stored above food.

But the most unusual violations were found at Excelsior Brewing Company, where they added two unapproved ingredients to their brew: zebra mussels & milfoil in 2014.

The owner, John Klick, admits it was a gimmick.  A little surf and turf to bring awareness to the invasive species out their back door. 

But it was only 24 hours before agriculture department inspectors were at their front door.

"So that resulted in a lot of questions, how did we get the milfoil?" Klick said. "How did we get the zebra mussels, how do we contain and store them?"

The Department of Natural Resources slapped Excelsior Brewing with a $500 dollar fine for harvesting an invasive species, but much to his surprise the DNR turned around and offered Excelsior a permit to harvest.  Milfoil beer will be back on tap next week, minus the zebra mussels.

"They said we are beer enthusiasts, we'd like to show you how to do this and gave me the permit process," Klick said.

At Norseman Distillery in northeast Minneapolis, they took infusion to whole new level. 

State inspectors found leather soaking in aquavit, vodka flavored by chunks of concrete, and pieces of iron immersed in gin, all unapproved for food products. 

Inspectors also discovered unwashed fruit rinds used for infusion and pre-mixed cocktails left sitting out for longer than 72 hours.

Despite repeated requests, Norseman declined to talk to the Fox 9 Investigators. 

At Burning Brothers Brewery in St. Paul, where they specialize in gluten free beer, state inspectors found a more common problem: rodent droppings, right by a mouse trap.  

Like a lot of microbrews, it's located in a large warehouse space, where the raw ingredients are an easy target for rodents.

"If we did something wrong in the brewing process and then served it, we can certainly make people sick,” said the owner Tom Foss. “I don't know if we are going to kill anyone or anything like that."

A similar rodent story with Surly Brewing Company--not at the popular beer hall in Minneapolis, but its production facility in Brooklyn Center where inspectors found rodent droppings and several dead mice in the milling area and warehouse. 

In a statement, Surly said it was an "isolated incident" and they "work around the clock to guarantee the highest level of sanitation and quality."

State inspectors also found rodent droppings at Summit in a storage area. 

Stutrud says it's a constant battle.
"It's their job to really find something in a lot of ways,” he said. “I give them credit for that because their due diligence is pretty acute."

But the state believes any health risk from rodent droppings is very low. 

That's because the raw ingredients, like hops, malt and yeast are boiled, fermented, then filtered.   

And the risk of pathogens, like Salmonella, that could actually survive in alcohol is extremely low.

"The risk might not be high, but the ick factor might be kind of high," Miller said.

The real problem with contaminated beer, is one of quality. The wrong bacteria can alter the flavor of beer even after it's been packaged.

At Summit, an in-house micro-biologist runs a dozen tests on every batch of beer, making sure there's no contamination.

“You are always fighting the fight with pests, no matter what they are, whether that is small rodents or insects," said James Fetherston, a Microbiologist for Summit.

“That's a heavy responsibility, not to only make sure the beer is palatable and enjoyable but is also something that should not be a threat to the public health," Stutrud said.