The Minnesota Brewery Boom
Minnesota is experiencing a brewing boom. The fuse was lit in 1986 when Summit rolled its first keg of Extra Pale Ale out the door. Summit was followed by a handful of microbreweries that mostly came and went with only a few survivors, including Lake Superior and Brau Brothers. But 20 years later the scene exploded when Surly released Furious and Bender in 2006. Since then, at least five new breweries and beer companies have opened in the state. Including brewpubs, Minnesota currently boasts nearly 25 beer producing entities. And that number is about to grow.
Around the state there are several would-be brewers in various stages of the start-up process. Located in both the Twin Cities metro and out-state, these up-and-comers include one-man operations, husband-and-wife teams, and one tight-knit group of friends. They range from homebrewers going pro to experienced business people seeking new entrepreneurial outlets. One thing that they all have in common is a desire to craft great beer and sell it fresh to a local market.
Leech Lake Brewing – A lake of beer… Handcrafted one small batch at a time
Located in the north central Minnesota town of Walker, Leech Lake Brewing is nearly ready roll. According to Greg Smith, co-owner with his wife Gina, they plan to have beer in Walker’s bars and stores by July 4. The town has been very supportive of the new venture; the mayor’s wife wants to act as a sales rep for their beer and they already have commitments from several area businesses for both on and off-premise sales. Don’t expect to see Leech Lake beers in the Twin Cities — they intend to keep it local, counting on the brisk summer tourist traffic to drive most of their sales.
Leech Lake’s story is representative of many of Minnesota’s would-be brewers. Greg Smith started homebrewing 17 years ago and his obsession with making beer quickly grew. Starting a brewery remained just a thought in the back of his head until recent circumstances gave him an opening. A long-time IBM employee, he was laid off when the economy turned. Where most people would see a setback, he saw an opportunity. He took his severance package and rolled his 401(k) into the new venture. He enrolled in a web-based brewing course offered by Chicago’s Siebel Institute and shifted his brewing practice from one that was “all over the map” to one that was about perfecting recipes. After receiving loans from the Small Business Association and a local bank, he was ready to go.
With a three-barrel brewing system, Leech Lake will be one of the smallest microbreweries in the country. Planned initial offerings include the flagship Loch Leech Monster Scottish Ale, as well as Minobii ESB, Blind Side Pale Ale, and Driven Snow Robust Porter. They will also bottle 3-Sheets Imperial IPA for sale from the brewery. All Leech Lake beers will be naturally keg-conditioned and unfiltered. As Smith says, “We want to keep it natural.”
Mankato Brewery – Full-flavored ales, but nothing extreme
Tim Tupy is looking for a brewmaster. He wants someone with the drive and creativity to seize the opportunity of starting a brewery from the ground up. This person must also be willing to re-locate to Mankato.
Tupy is the brains behind the Mankato Brewery. He is an experienced businessman with a developed passion for building brand awareness. He and his wife have owned an Aveda Lifestyle Store in Mankato for the last 17 years and that business has done well enough that Tupy is able to invest some energy into other endeavors. When he started thinking about new businesses, his homebrewing hobby led him to start a brewery. “There hasn’t been a brewery in Mankato since the 1960s,” says Tupy. “I’m connected to several economic development boards and people just kept bringing this idea up. The idea just seemed right for the time.”
Mankato Brewery is looking to start big with a 30-barrel brewhouse. They have secured a building and anticipate taking possession in about four months, once some necessary repairs have been made. They plan on moving equipment in by the end of the year with a first-quarter 2011 target for starting production. The initial distribution will focus on the local Mankato market, but an eventual move north into the Twin Cities is in the plans.
Tupy wants to launch with two beers. He says they have styles in mind, but wouldn’t elaborate as they want to leave the final determination to the brewmaster. They are looking to make beers with broad appeal, nothing extreme. He doesn’t want Mankato Brewery to find itself in the position of other brewers he has talked to that “have made these acclaimed beers or award-winning beers that they then can’t sell.” He sees Minnesota State students as a potential source of new customers and a means of getting into the larger Twin Cities market. “When students graduate and move to the Twin Cities, they will call their friend and say: ‘Bring me some of that Mankato beer.'”
612 Brew – “This is what I remember drinking”
When I first started hearing about 612 Brew I couldn’t figure out what it was. It appeared to be a group of homebrewers who threw a big party whenever they tapped a new creation. It turns out I wasn’t far off, but there is more to it than that.
612 Brew began with a group of homebrewing friends, Robert Kasak, Adit Kalra, Ryan Libby, and Emily and Joe Yost, who together developed a passion for beer that was “deeper than what most people would have.” They still brew together in a garage just south of Uptown in Minneapolis. But now the brews are test batches for possible commercial release.
“Our target date to have beer on the market is literally as soon as possible.” says 612 Brewer Kasak. “There are a lot of constraints to getting beer out there. It’s a very highly regulated industry. You have to jump through a lot of hoops even just to get an application to the TTB. But we found out that the agencies are very helpful. They’re really open to answering questions.”
They are currently weighing the pros and cons of contract brewing versus purchasing their own system. “In terms of getting beer out, the fastest way is doing contract brewing,” says Kasak, referring to the practice of renting and using another brewery’s equipment on-site. “But a part of this is that the contract breweries are in Wisconsin or in the suburbs. It’s important for us to brew in Minneapolis. We’re 612 Brew, not 952 Brew.”
Wherever they end up brewing, their aim will be to bring back traditional style beers. They want to buck the current trend in craft brewing toward high-alcohol “imperialized” and barrel-aged beers in favor of the easier-drinking, classic-style beers that they feel are underrepresented in the market. They plan to launch with a Pale Ale and an India Pale Ale, followed by a porter and a pilsner. According to Kasak: “I want to make a pilsner [about which] my light-beer drinking dad can say, ‘This is what I remember drinking back when I was your age.'”
Lucid Brewing – A work in progress
When the husband and wife team of Eric Bierman and Alyssa Dwyer met in 2004, one of the things that brought them together was an interest in entrepreneurship. They often talked about taking control of their own destinies by starting a business and working together to build a brand. They also enjoyed homebrewing. As they shared their creations with friends, a frequent response was, “This is good. I would buy this.” They began to think that maybe they could make a go at brewing — sharing their dream by doing something they both love.
Making the dream a reality has been a challenge. According to Eric, “We had a rough time-line for starting production. We have since pushed the date back to be more realistic.” “I got pregnant,” added Alyssa. “That’s the difference between the dream and the reality. We’ve talked about it and theorized about it, but we’re spread very thin between two full-time jobs, family, and all kinds of other things. But ultimately we just have to leap in and do it. We have to simplify our lives. We’ve taken steps in the last year to do that so that we can focus on the brewery. It’s like another child.”
The challenges have not stopped them from moving forward. Eric has nearly completed a course at the American Brewers Guild and is researching equipment. “We’re looking to start out getting own brewery rather than contract brewing,” says Eric. “We really want to be known as a Minnesota brand and there aren’t a lot of brewery options if you want to contract brew in Minnesota. Plus, you lose a lot of control of the recipe. To us it seems important to have really tight control of our recipe.” Alyssa adds: “And we just fundamentally love brewing. We don’t want to give that up.”
Lucid Brewing beers will aim for flavor with subtlety, beers with enough complexity to appeal to extreme beer drinkers, but that they can drink with their Bud drinking friends. Says Eric, “It’s about being more delicate in your blending of ingredients and balancing everything well. I’ve been to pubs in Germany where you can sit and drink these great beers, and have one after another and just enjoy it. I want the beer that you can sit there and enjoy. Maybe the beer is not the main focus of the conversation; it’s just part of the conversation. It’s just part of the whole environment.”
Harriet Brewing – Brewing with intention
Jason Sowards (above) is Harriet Brewing. “I’m in it by myself. At this point it’s all me.” A chemical engineer by degree, Sowards brewed his first batch of beer as a class project. After homebrewing seriously for nearly two years, making beer became an obsession. And making beer professionally became a goal. “It’s a great melding of my hobby and my engineering background. It substantiates everything that I like and that I’m good at.”
Sowards had enrolled in a course at the American Brewers Guild but was forced to withdraw when he was laid off from his engineering job. However, unemployment has allowed him to focus on getting the brewery up and running. Since losing his job he has written a business plan, scouted a location, chosen equipment, and started the legal applications. He’s currently seeking financing to bring his plans — which include a possible brewery tasting room and art gallery in Longfellow — to fruition. “Things have come together really quickly. It’s only been four months and when I look back I’m amazed at how far I’ve come. Being unemployed, it occurred to me that this is the time to start the brewery. This is the opportunity. If I don’t do it now I might not get it done.”
In designing the brewery, Sowards is putting his engineering skills to good use. He wants to make Harriet Brewing a poster child for environmental responsibility. “The brewery idea is so much more than just brewing beer. It’s also the sustainable brewery. We’re going to geek out on the process optimization and try to get a zero carbon footprint.” His plans include technology to recycle wastewater and reduce energy use for heating and cooling.
Sowards’ approach to brewing is almost Zen. As he says, “I have a motto that I have used recently and that is ‘brew with intention.’ If I brew a beer because I have to give people something rather than because I want to brew it, it changes things. It causes me not to pay attention to process. It’s easier to make mistakes and to make a beer that isn’t up to my standards. I try to have the mindset that brew days are sacred. I try to focus on doing a perfect brew every time I brew.”
Harriet Brewing will launch with two year-round beers, a double IPA and a pilsner. These will be supported by a range of rotating seasonal including hefeweizen, doppelbock, saison, Baltic porter, and a tripel. When will we see these beers in bars? “Everything is set up now so that I can start in October. But I don’t know how optimistic that is really. Ultimately as fast as I possibly can. It’s my full-time job every day.”
Minnesota has become an attractive market to brewers. In addition to the boom in local breweries, a number of regional and national craft brands have begun distribution here. While this may be exciting for beer drinkers, it poses a dilemma for start-ups; how do they differentiate themselves in an increasingly flooded beer market?
I posed this question to each of the brewers I interviewed. Aside from Leech Lake Brewing, whose very existence in small town Walker makes them unique, they all gave very similar answers. In every instance they cited the growing market for craft beer as a reason for optimism. Craft beer sales increased 10 percent last year despite declines in the beer market overall. For these would-be brewers, an expanding market means there is room for at least one more. They are also counting on the support that Minnesota beer drinkers give to local brewers.
While these things may be true, a growing market is not limitless and craft beer drinkers are famously fickle. None of these brewers-to-be directly addressed how they would make their beers stand out in the crowd. I guess the future will tell. I, for one, am looking forward to welcoming them into the Minnesota beer scene.