Kevin Welch of Boom Island Brewing

Lars Swanson / Heavy Table

Just across the river from the old Grain Belt Brewery, Kevin Welch has wedged what he calls a glorified home-brew setup into a tiny warehouse space. His bottling equipment is still in his garage; he personally welded and retrofitted some of his tanks.

But this Chinese-speaking, concert French horn-playing brewer has a secret weapon to help him make waves in the ever-expanding Minneapolis beer scene. He’s culturing multiple strains of yeasts personally imported from breweries across Belgium.

The result is a quartet of traditional, bottle-conditioned, Belgian-style ales. Welch released his two core ales at Pig & Fiddle last Thursday, and as of this morning, it’s the only place with Boom Island Brewing on tap.

Silvius, a 5.5% ABV pale ale, delivers a crisp rush of apple and mild spice flavors. Malt and yeast mingle on the light finish, creating a clean, autumnal flavor where the hops take a backseat. Thoprock, on the other hand, is a burly, deep amber-colored IPA that smacks you right away with a distinctive hop and earthy spice flavor. A healthy dose of alcohol (it’s 8% ABV) rounds out its full-figured profile. Batches of a Dubbel and Tripel (named Hoodoo and Brimstone, respectively) are currently in the works.

Lars Swanson / Heavy Table

Bottles of both Silvius and Thoprock will be available at Four Firkins on Monday, and more tap and retail accounts will be added shortly.  We headed to Welch’s glorified home brew shack to learn more.

HEAVY TABLE: Tell us about the conception of Boom Island Brewing.

KEVIN WELCH: About five years ago we [Welch and his wife] lived in China and built a little one-and-a-half barrel home-brew setup.  We traveled around, experimented with Tibetan spices and cool stuff. We came back and pursued the classical thing, playing with Minnesota Orchestra and St. Paul Chamber, while coming up with the plan for Boom Island. I’ve been a Belgian freak ever since I tried my first one, a Westmalle Tripel. We did two summers of travel around Belgium, visiting small family breweries, learning tricks and techniques.

HT: What is it about Belgian beers that really turned you on?

KW: I was a huge hophead, I mean, I still am. But when I had that first Tripel, it had all of these, what I learned later were, esters and great yeast flavors that come from the high fermentation temperature. I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time so I started studying them.

HT: You are, to my knowledge, one of the only commercial-scale breweries around here that cultures all of its own yeast.

Lars Swanson / Heavy Table

KW:  I have a good friend at the University of Minnesota who’s a microbiologist. He’s offered to take the slants and keep them under perfect laboratory conditions. I learned plating and slanting myself, and then I bounced a lot of ideas off of him.

HT: And how many unique strains do you have under culture?

KW: Thirteen. That was part of my trips, to go research which breweries were using which strains. It wasn’t always possible for me to grab some out of their primary fermenter, but when it was, I carried 25 autoclaved test tubes.

We were very happy to get them, including the one very special strain that you can’t get anywhere but at one monastery. That’s the secret for the Dubbel and Tripel. Without naming any specific names, that’s the special yeast. You can draw your own conclusions on where that is. [Editor’s note: It seems likely that the beer being alluded to here is the famous Westvleteren 12 of Belgium’s St. Sixtus Abbey.]

HT: Compared to the other brewery startups in town, your fermenters are tiny. You’re doing really small-batch stuff.

Screenshot from boomislandbrewing.com

KW: On a weekly basis, we can do about 500 gallons running them simultaneously. But all the small batches will always go in this one – 100 gallon, two and a half barrels – that’s for the Thoprock, Dubbel, and Tripel. And those were intended to only be bottle-conditioned beers, but Mark [van Wie of Pig & Fiddle] was excited to get it going and asked for kegs of the two [Silvius and Thoprock]. The hoppy beer ended up selling better than the pale, so that’s when we decided to start doing big batches of Thoprock here and there to keg.

HT: How would you compare your IPA to everyone else’s around town?

KW: It’s hopped in a similar way, I don’t want to go completely in your face, which is more of a Belgian approach. The one notable difference is I do a candy sugar addition the same way I do the Dubbel. It brings the alcohol up to 8 percent. I heard a lot on Thursday, “This is great. I get the hops, and I don’t have to drink four of them.” It’s a Belgian way of getting the ABV up without thinning out the body.

And all the hops in the IPA through batch four will be grown right here in Minneapolis – Cascades and Centennials. I was talking to Omar [Ansari of Surly] and he said, “Really nice hop aroma on this. You mind me asking?” I said they’re Centennials. “I knew they were!” he said. “Where did you get them? Everyone’s sold out for the year!” Well, I grew them myself and for that aroma I’m going to stretch them as far as they can go.

Lars Swanson / Heavy Table

HT: And what batch are you on now?

KW: Three. At some point I’m going to have to regroup and figure out the strategy like everyone else. I keep thinking I’m going to archive some of it, but hop aroma and flavor degrades by 50 percent over the course of a year. You have to drink hoppy beer fresh.

HT:  Would you recommend laying down your Dubbel and Tripel when they come out?

KW: Yeah, those could lay down three years. The first few batches, we will archive those and release some as vintage.

HT: And you won’t be kegging them?

KW: The Dubbel and Tripel will only be bottle-conditioned and Four Firkins is likely the first place you’ll find them. But all the kegs are unfiltered too, which makes it living beer. In Belgium, it’s a big thing, if there’s not something in there growing, it’s not worth drinking.

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About the Author

John Garland

John Garland is a freelance writer living in the East Isles neighborhood of Minneapolis. His area of expertise is wine - thanks to schooling from the International Sommelier Guild and more than a few winery visits during his time at the American University of Rome. He also contributes to Beer Dabbler's Growler Magazine and is always available for writing opportunities and happy hours.

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23 Comments

  1. Ack! So many beer stories!!

  2. Never can have too many beer stories. Will have to get my hands on some of these soon!

  3. Great story. Love Belgians and I can’t wait to try these. Any availability in Wisconsin?

  4. Whatever on the yeast. Yawn. It’s marketing baloney. You can buy the same damn yeast from the commercial suppliers Wyeast and White Labs. It’s not a big deal at all.

  5. A large number of Belgian breweries use the same yeast from the same source.

    It’s not the strain that matters, it’s how you treat the yeast that creates the unique profile at each brewery.

    Crap like this on the Boom Island web site about their IPA: “It’s 8% ABV is elusively achieved through a special Belgian fermentation process” is so much bunk.

    Elusively? Does that mean it can’t be repeated?

    C’mon people. Enough with the passion crap and art BS.

    What a bout skill and real knowledge and technique? This isn’t magic. The art, just as in cooking, comes from the chef’s(brewers’s) take on basic, solid skills and the use of fresh quality ingredients and NOT some “elusive” hokum and magic fairy dust.

    It’s time that as knowledgable beer consumers that we stop suffering the crap shoveled our way.

  6. And you so-called beer writers need to learn a thing or two about beer so you can write from some basis and not swallow every load of crap.

    Tell me what passion tastes like?

  7. “Brewer,” I tasted to 2 Boom Island beers Thursday night at the launch party and was quite impressed. Being the beer critic you seem to moonlight as, I am surprised that you weren’t there. Those of us who showed up did so to support the newest brewery in town, not trash their procedures.

    Passion, Art, and “elusive” ideas are what make small, artisanal breweries unique and therefore, more fun marketable. This is why we call them Craft Breweries.

    As for “skill, real knowledge and technique,” maybe you should head down to Pig and Fiddle and grab a glass of these two fantastic beers before you start questioning the brewers credentials.

    We, as homebrewers and beer enthusiasts should all be in this together. Those who are not interested in supporting craft beer should just stay home and drink their own homebrew. I’m sure it’s propably better anyways.

  8. Seems there’s a particularly viral strain of anti-marketing oriented brewers in the TCs. Lighten up, Francis.

  9. What, no pictures of the Frankenbrewery?

  10. Great story. So happy to see Minnesota grown craft breweries growing in number. Can’t wait to try their beer out.

  11. “Brewer” aka “ARealBeerGeek”, aka Fletty, and all your sock puppet identities, go find something productive to do with your time, other than bash people who are out there making things happen. Get out of your Mom’s basement.
    If you’ve never tasted passion, you don’t know what you’re talking about.

  12. yeahyeahyeah01/05/2012Reply

    I can understand the annoyance with the whole secret yeast, special fermentation blah blah blah. It is more or less smoke and mirrors marketing jargon. But my question is, why be a dick about it? Does this individual not have the ability to be civil? Guess not.

  13. Brewer’s green-eyed monster just creeped up when he read the words “friend” and “exclusive.”

    Whatever if the yeast thing is moot point, Welch seems to put a lot of effort into his beers and I wouldn’t be surprised if that lent itself to a pretty good tasting beer. I just wish we didn’t have to trek all the way down to Edina to try them.

  14. I did make it to the launch party; I was really impressed with both Boom Island offerings! I’m excited anytime a new brewery opens in the area, but they really have something special going on.

    I just went to the website; it looks like there’s a tasting at Four Firkins on Monday, and will be on sale there and Ale Jail next week. I’ll definitely be buying some–good luck, Boom Island!

  15. Wrong guess, Al….whoever you are….?

    Artisanal is great. I love it, but artisans should educate people about their craft and not stoop to the “triple hopped” and “rocky mountain cold” and “banquet beer” level of BS marketing.

    If you want people to appreciate craft beer and for craft beer to proliferate, then a little knowledge is a good thing and much better than a load of marketing bullshit.

  16. As a cook and a brewer I hear about passion all the time. It’s meaningless unless you have the technique to go with it.

    I like to watch a number of thing on Food Network. You hear chefs sliming around the passion crap and love on a plate. More bullshit.

    Passion guarantees nothing. Two year olds are passionate.

  17. There are plenty of beer myths that get repeated without anyone thinking about it.

    Anyone remember the old saw about bock beer? How once a year they cleaned the gunk from the brew kettle and used that to make bock? The whole IPA origin too is a myth.

    The facts are often more interesting and much more useful.

    How about the perception among the un-informed that dark beers are strong and thick? Maybe by teaching people about milds and dry stouts or schwarz beers they’d be more open to trying different things.

    Or, screw it. Just make shit up. It’s art. It’s passion. No. It’s bullshit.

  18. Sounds like Brewer is doing enough educating for all of us, one comment thread after another.

    Craft beer drinkers don’t have to learn anything about beer to appreciate it. They certainly don’t have to take your advice on how to educate themselves. All they need to know is that they enjoy it.

    Your patronizing, beer snob attitude would less than welcome a prospective convert to craft beer.

  19. I agree with Posaune–if I wasn’t already a craft beer enthusiast, I’d probably be turned off after reading Brewer’s posts.

    And not to change the subject, Brewer…what do you think of Boom Island’s product? I’m guessing you’ve tried it by now; enlighten us!

    Heavy Table–keep the beer articles flowing!

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  1. […] Heavy Table: Kevin Welch of Boom Island Brewing Audio MP3AudioPlayer.embed("f-BGP Episode 33: Boom Island", {soundFile: "http://beergeno.me/wp-content/web-audio/BGP_episode33.mp3"});Audio MP3AudioPlayer.embed("f-BGP Episode 33: Boom Island", {soundFile: "http://beergeno.me/wp-content/web-audio/BGP_episode33.mp3"});if (jQuery.browser.mozilla) {tempaud=document.getElementsByTagName("audio")[0]; jQuery(tempaud).remove(); jQuery("div.audio_wrap div").show()} else jQuery("div.audio_wrap div *").remove(); […]

  2. […] mushroom sandwich, three spots in Minneapolis parks, and a taste of Boom Island Brimstone (our profile’s here). » Memorial Day Mixed Grill Tags: Boom Island, Lakefront, morning roundup, soup, […]

  3. […] Welch (above, right) and his wife, Qiuxia, were bottling some Boom Island Brewing Hoodoo a while back and began talking about how they hadn’t lately seen a gathering of their […]

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