Trail Pairings: Southern Minnesota Gravel

Sep 2, 2020Gravel Biking, Trail Pairings

 The last time I visited Sleepy Eye, MN in November of 2019, the fields were bare, the lake was frozen and Sleepy Eye Brewing Company was a month away from opening. Luckily, Sleepy Eye Coffee Company occupies the same space and I at least got a look at the shiny new tanks while clutching a steaming, hot mug of coffee and plotting my return. On a steaming hot weekend last August, the time had come to pay another visit.

The Route

The plan was to ride the paved 3-mile bike trail around Sleepy Eye Lake and expand on that with a nice ride on the many gravel roads the area is blessed with. That’s all the pre-planning Jen and I did. During some in-depth route discussions over dinner the first night, we realized that those gravel roads would take us almost to the doorstep of Starkeller Brewing in New Ulm. A perfect plan was born.

Even before the sun was all the way up, the air was thick enough to drink on the day of our ride. Sure enough, about a mile into it the first drop of sweat, one of many, hit my top tube. Another mile later, the first bottle of water was gone. Luckily, a steady wind kept things cooled.

We headed east out of Sleepy Eye, through a few miles of cornfields, until we hit the little town of Essig, where they were having an auction on Main Street. From on top of a cargo trailer, the auctioneer rattled off items for sale. People were milling around, inspecting the merchandise and walking off with porcelain figurines, shiny brass floor lamps and boxes of Christmas decorations. The lady who had hired the auctioneer said it was her parents’ things and that the house was for sale, too, but nobody had made an offer, yet. We moved on.

North of Essig we stopped at the Milford State Monument. On August 18, 1862, during the very early stages of the US-Dakota War, 53 settlers of Milford Township were killed by Dakota warriors who passed through on their way to New Ulm. A granite cross and statue were put up in 1929, replacing an earlier stone tablet. A newer interpretive sign gives additional context. More about the Milford State Monument and the US-Dakota War

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Just after the Milford Monument, our next right turn took us down a short, very steep hill and spit us out on a gravel road that followed the south bank of the Minnesota River. Within a mile, the scenery had completely changed from cornfields to lush river bottoms, flanked with huge trees and bisected by little streams on their way to join the Minnesota River.

It turned out to be a great ride on a very quiet road and it was hard to believe that it would take us directly into New Ulm. We never did see the river through the dense woods, even though we came within 500 feet of it in some spots.
During our bike trips we often find curious things by accident. This time it was the auction in Essig, the lone plastic, pink flamingo in a cornfield, and the Milford Monument. I now wonder how many cool things I’ve missed over the years just by looking left when I should have looked right, i.e.

Just outside of New Ulm, Jen had stopped to check out a brightly decorated tree stump in front of an old stone house. When I turned around to get back on my bike I noticed a squat, grey concrete block tucked into the cornfield across the street. On it was a round plaque with an arrow and a rectangular plaque with an inscription in German. “From here, 717 feet in the direction of the arrow, the New Ulm Gymnastics Club was founded on November 11, 1865.” At the time the arrow was pointing at an eight-foot tall wall of corn, so I don’t know if there’s really anything to see. I envisioned men with handlebar moustaches working pummel horses in an open field, moving in the comical fast-forward mode of old silent movies. That gave me a chuckle. And to think I almost missed it! Good thing Jen was busy looking at the tree stump and didn’t notice me giggling at corn.

We finally reached New Ulm’s northwestern edge and got on the 13-mile bike trail that circles town. It was a bit too early for Starkeller to open and we decided to head toward downtown for lunch. On the way we passed by an unusual place in the city of New Ulm. At Art Wall Park, an abandoned concrete building serves as a canvas for graffiti artists. Occasionally, it’s painted over to provide a fresh canvas. After lunch at Lola Bistro, we checked out the Glockenspiel, the German candy selection at the Guten Tag Haus and the farmers market nearby.

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Starkeller Brewing

The taproom is right off the bike trail on the northwestern edge of New Ulm, in an industrial building that’s so nondescript, it’s easy to miss. The inside is a different story. The first thing I saw was the brightly lit bar at the far end of the room, then the high ceilings and the beer hall benches. Once my eyes had adjusted to the low lights I noticed the huge, wooden tanks that lined the sides of the room. Clearly, a lot of thought had gone into making the place look like it had been there for 100 years. It would have been the perfect place for the mustachioed men of the Turnverein to cap off a day of lifting kettlebells.

Taproom manager Denise welcomed us and we dug in with a flight. The thing to know about Starkeller is that it’s owned by Schell’s Brewery and dedicated to their Noble Star Collection of Berliner Weisse style, sour beers. The only encounter I’ve had with this beer style was in the Germany of my youth, where it’s served with either woodruff or raspberry syrup to take it from undrinkable to refreshing on a hot summer day. At Starkeller, the flavor is added during the aging process in the gigantic 145-barrel cypress tanks along the walls. This process can take up to three years.

Their unflavored Basin of Attraction beer is the starting point for a sour beer exploration and it’s offered with the woodruff syrup. After working our way through the flight two favorites emerged. Jen chose the original sour with the woodruff syrup, a close match to Berliner Weisse, in her opinion. My money was on the Berry-Go-Round, aged for three years on a medley of blue, black, rasp and strawberries.

We were just about to get back on the road when we heard a noise like a low hissing and rumbling. By the time we realized it was the sound of rain hitting the metal siding of the building, our helmets and gloves had blown off our bikes and were scattered across the parking lot. A strong storm had popped up out of nowhere and brought a deluge with high winds and we had no choice but to wait it out and stay dry inside (By the way, thank you Denise for offering to find us a ride back to Sleepy Eye). It was terrible to be forced to spend even more time inside the taproom, but the storm eventually gave way to clearer skies and we headed back.

Rather than risking soft, waterlogged gravel, we chose to take paved Highway 14 for a shorter ride back to Sleepy Eye. After all, we had another appointment that day.

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Sleepy Eye Brewing

The Sleepy Eye movie theater closed for good in the early 1990s after being in almost continuous operation since the 1920s. If it hadn’t been for Adam Armbruster and his friends Adam Fischer, Judd Walter, Dan Schmid and Blair Folkens, chances are the building would be razed by now. The group had started homebrewing together in recent years and initially was just in search of a better setup. At some point, they decided to open their own brewery in the empty Pix movie theatre-with a coffee shop thrown in. “Our biggest motivation was to bring something new and exciting to downtown Sleepy Eye,” Adam told me.

The brewery opened in December of 2019 with a 3BBL Alpha Brewing Operations system and is currently offering at least 10 beers. Their Social Distancing Blood Orange IPA and other brews like Home Schooler and Immunity are inspired by the times we live in. “Prior to the pandemic we did not sell much off-sale at all.  Now we’re probably selling more beer in crowlers than we sell from the taproom,” Adam said.  Because of tremendous local support, he said, they have been able to keep things going and look forward to once again hosting bands in the taproom and holding outdoor events like 5ks and bike rides. “We’ve had a huge following from Sleepy Eye as well as the surrounding area,” he said.

The two-story red brick building on Main Street Sleepy Eye still looks like a movie theatre on the outside, complete with a lit marquee that now announces new beer releases rather than the latest from Hollywood. (There’s a good chance that the first movies shown at the Princess Theatre, renamed Pix Theatre in 1936, were silent films-the kind that might feature certain athletic men with moustaches, perhaps sternly swinging on parallel bars).

The inside is, of course, a long and narrow space, but the floor is now level and features exposed brick, light wood floors and a tin ceiling, which go well with the shiny fermentation tanks. As a nod to the cinematic heritage of the building, modern chandeliers and old-timey wall sconces work together to give the room a fresh vibe while remembering its past. The mezzanine above the entry door still holds a movie projector, but also seating.

When our flights arrived-on movie reel inspired trays-we began working our way through the samples. While I could totally see myself drinking the Wide Awake Coffee Milk Stout on a cold day and cooling down with a Roadrunner Dan Grapefruit Sour on a crackin’ hot day, my favorite was the Nuthouse Nut Brown. It really hit the spot with 4.2 ABV and 21 IBU. The Nuthouse was Jen’s second choice, but her winner was the Sleepy Eye Cream (get it?) Cream Ale with 5.3 ABV and 15 IBU. What a good way to pair a bike ride with some good beers.

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Sleepy Eye Bike Trail

Our original plan was to ride around the lake on the Sleepy Eye Bike Trail after the gravel ride, but because we had to wait out the rain we were a bit behind schedule on ride day. We decided to ride the trail before departure on Sunday, instead. The cool part about our setup was that we camped at Sleepy Eye Campground, right on the lake and connected to the bike trail. All we had to do is roll out.

 The 3-mile route rounds the lake and, for the most part, travels through the farm fields on the edge of town. When we rode it, the corn was about as tall as it was going to get, so at first we were quite literally biking on a trail carved through the middle of a cornfield, complete with several tractor crossing signs. The scenery then turned to grassy fields before the trail passed through a park and followed the southern lakeshore before entering the campground again. What a cool, little ride!


If you want to do our gravel route, get a hold of me and I’ll fill you in. Out and back with the Sleepy Eye Bike Trail added, it’ll be around 38 miles.

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About me

I’m Jan, the publisher of Minnesota Trails Magazine. I’m looking for that one trail, the next ride, a new discovery and other reasons never to sit still in Minnesota.


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