The Minnesota Brewery Boom

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

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.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

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.”

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

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.'”

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

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.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

“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.”

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

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.”

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

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?

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

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.

Michael Agnew is a certified Cicerone, and the author of the beer blog A Perfect Pint.

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40 Comments

  1. BrianJ 06/10/2010 Reply

    Nice article. I’ll give them all a shot but I’m skeptical.

    Some of the post-Surly upstarts have been pretty blah or just plain bad. “Me too” is not a good business plan. I’m rolling my eyes at the idea that pale ale, IPA, porter and Pilsner are underrepresented styles.

    The positive effect Surly had on the MN beer scene aside from their own product was getting Summit and Schell to raise their game and in showing out of state brewers that the market was ready for them. I’m not sure yet whether the boom of new breweries will be a positive or a negative effect.

  2. I’ll echo Brian’s skepticism.

    I’ll give them a shot too…when they’re actual breweries with a real product.

    If I want a pale ale, IPA, porter or pils the choices are vast. Good luck with that as a business model.

  3. Woohoo! Congrats Jason and YAY for home Who knows what’ll come with basement, garage and hidden away brews starting up. I’m a happy camper knowing that the future of the twin cities is being filled with wonderful new home brews. Thank you all! Mmmhmm Harriet Brewing! Keep it up.

  4. The idea that styles on the “extreme” (though I’m sort of unsure what that exactly means) end of things are something that people (especially beer-drinkers in MN) are less likely to buy is just…foolish. Good beer is good beer, and that’s that.

  5. RealBigHuge 06/10/2010 Reply

    Preach on njg, the fact remains that consumers will flock to what is known as “good quality beer”. I completely agree with Brian that several of the local upstarts have been lackluster and it is reflected(unverified) in their business results.

    Contrary to your beliefs, however, I believe a sound business model which focuses on quality and continuous improvement throughout their processes will succeed ala the megaton Surly. Quality reigns in the beer scene now with so many choices for the consumer, the only repeat/high volume purchases are those that the buyer believes is truly worth his dollar spent.

    Best of luck to all these startup breweries mentioned in the article. It’s awesome to see this great state of beer drinkers getting the opportunity to get their locavore on.

  6. Certainly the business community is starting to take real notice of the craft beer scene. The media coverage has been steadily increasing for several years. Another case in point – Omar Ansari of Surly fame, won Ernst & Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year award last night in the consumer products category in the Upper Midwest region. This isn’t a fluff award.

    http://mnbeer.com/2010/06/10/entrepreneur-of-the-year/

  7. David Berg 06/11/2010 Reply

    @BrianJ

    Post hoc ergo propter hoc?

  8. BrianJ 06/11/2010 Reply

    @David Berg
    Are you trying to discuss something I said or just trying to be cute?

  9. David Berg 06/11/2010 Reply

    With all due respect to Surly, their existence has no effect on what we do at Schells. To flatly state that they were the cause of any changes here is a logical fallacy…and a bit insulting.

  10. @ Berg

    Knock it off with all that cute stuff, mmmkay?

    Great article, Michael!

  11. BrianJ 06/11/2010 Reply

    The Schell lineup at the time Surly launched was solid and a bit underappreciated but not all that inspired. What you’re putting out now is pretty damn good. The same could be said about Summit.

    You would obviously know what happened to cause that change more than I did and I’d love to hear about it. But I’d be surprised to hear that the success that Surly had didn’t influence you or Mark in any way.

    BTW, I say a lot of nice things about you guys here, at BA and to my friends and family. I pimp your beers a lot harder than I do Surly’s. Be nice ;)

  12. “But I’d be surprised to hear that the success that Surly had didn’t influence you”

    I’m not trying to be argumentative, but I can’t think of a beer we make which would lead you to that conclusion. What am I missing?

  13. @ David Berg

    Maybe 151 years of brewing tradition will start to awaken people’s perception of beer. Give it one more year and see…..

    Hope you make it!

  14. Way to say, Dave Berg! Unfortunately these people forget about 15 years ago when Omar was in diapers (well, he couldn’t drink) Schells produced Schmaltz Alt. How soon we forget!
    Minnesotamike

  15. If it was not for Schell’s and Summit, I doubt I would have been as receptive of Surly. I was introduced to Schell’s and Summit more or less at the same time and it was those brewers (along with James Page) that opened my eyes to locally-made beer.

    I remember when Schell’s came out with Schmaltz Alt. It was a big hit with my roommates and me.

  16. BrianJ 06/14/2010 Reply

    @David Berg
    You’re not? If you want to chat without the peanut gallery you can PM me at BA. Otherwise keep doing your thing and I’ll keep buying it.

  17. Nick Pederson 06/15/2010 Reply

    This is a great article. There is much much more room for more breweries and beer style’s and variations of those style’s in this market. If you’re not convinced, look to our neighbor’s in Wisconsin. They have 4 times as many breweries in WI compared to MN. Yeah, some small, some big, but many that I have tried are putting out great beer! We don’t need more big breweries, we need lots of little guys!

    Funny to hear Schell’s getting a little ‘surly’! Don’t fret Schell’s you will always have a place in MN!

  18. Why do people who don’t have production facilities or those that contract brew in WI qualify for any significance in the local market? MN breweries include Summit, Surly, Flat Earth, Brau Brothers, Schell’s, Lake Superior, and Cold Spring. That’s it. The rest seems to be largely marketing and fluff.

  19. Bubbly 06/16/2010 Reply

    @Suds

    So on that logic, Do you consider 21st Amendment a MN Brewery since they brew their beer at Cold Spring? Just a thought…

    Love Schells Schmaltz Alt, oh the memories.

  20. No. They’re a SF brew pub contract brewing in MN to expand their market. Not a local beer.

    My point was about “localwashing” where upstarts have a contract brewer brew something for them out of state or out of town and then claim it as being specifically local. Seems local should mean, and be, local. Craft beer is about brewers actually brewing their own product right? And regional contract brewing should mean, and be, contract brewing. Which in the case of 21st makes some sense.

  21. Author

    I have been watching this conversation with interest and intentionally staying out of it. Now you have dragged me in.

    Many of these contract breweries use contract brewing as a way to enter the market on the road to establishing their own facility. That is the case with Fulton, Lift Bridge, and even the intention of the 612 Brew guys. Should following a sound, conservative business plan in the interest of increasing the potential for success mean they are somehow less-than?

    These brewers develop their own recipes. Most of them trek to the breweries where their beer is made on a regular basis and oversee and/or participate in the brewing process. Does this mean they are or aren’t brewing their own beer?

    And what of Lift Bridge. They started out contract brewing in St. Paul. Then they went to Wisconsin. Now they contract brew in Cold Spring. By the end of the year they plan to have their own brewery up and running in Stillwater. So have they gone from being local to not being local to being local again? If their beer is the same as it was before, have they been somehow less “craft” than they will be once their own brewery is up and running?

    And what of a Beer company like Shmaltz (Hebrew). Owner Jeremy Cowan is based in San Francisco and the beer is brewed in New York. It can’t get much further apart. Does this make the beer any less delicious or any less craft? Or any less Shmaltz? It wouldn’t happen without Jeremy. Jeremy sets the tone and is actively involved in recipe development.

    To me the whole contract vs non-contract argument is in most cases a silly one. There are many ways to start up a brewery. One has to look at a bigger picture. Contract brewing options are extremely limited in MN. Are all the concerned parties based in MN? Is the corporation registered in MN? Are the brewers working toward getting facilities in MN? Yes? Then they are a Minnesota brewery or beer company.

    Until one has attempted to start one’s own brewery, perhaps one shouldn’t criticize too harshly the route others take to get there.

  22. @aperfectpint

    Great Article Michael- and great insight in your last post, you beat me to it.

  23. Aah, now. That’s a big assumption in your last line.

    I’m with Lucid on this one.

    It’s not just semantics. I may define local and craft more tightly than some. But I think it matters. I dunno, where do you draw the local line? Is it local stationery if a local designer designs it but it’s printed in China? I like the stuff printed by my friends here in the cities. Is it local if the beer is brewed in China? My contract brew experience led to an understanding of the level of control you have, or don’t, over production. I don’t fault anyone for choosing this route I just don’t define it as being in the spirit of craft, or local. If I want something brewed by Sand Creek I’ll go for an Oscars. We’ll all support the businesses we feel good about supporting. I look forward to welcoming more local breweries and I’ll support the ones we have until then. When others are up and running I’ll check them out, and if they’re good I’ll buy again. Tonight, it’s Brau Brothers. Beer me.

  24. Hmmm, According to google, Minneapolis to Lucan, 129 miles. Minneapolis to Black River Falls, 145 miles. Looks like they are both in China.

    Cheers to Beer, I’m just happy we all can be satisfied.

  25. Nice use of Google, but you’re missing my point. Or I’m not making it very well. In any case, my intended point is that Brau Brothers crafts their product start to finish in Lucan as their labels clearly state. And they have complete control of the quality of what they craft. I respect and appreciate the way they do things. And their product. Nice to feel that way about the beer in your hand. And I agree to disagree. I appreciate the dialogue and consideration. Enjoy your beer folks. Cheers.

  26. Author
    aperfect pint 06/18/2010 Reply

    @suds
    Yes, my last line was a big assumption. My apologies if you are a local brewer.
    I understand that contract brewing lessens your control. (unless you are Jeremy Cowan who seems to be able to get Saratoga Springs to brew whatever he wants.) I just don’t want to criticize someone for choosing what seems to me to be a very viable option for getting a brewery up and running. From your reply it would seem that we are not SO far off in our thinking.

  27. Brent H 06/26/2010 Reply

    I’m appreciative of all local and regional brewing, “craft” or otherwise, whether it comes from brewpubs, microbreweries, contract breweries, or even regional breweries like August Schell and Leinenkugel. The geography that defines “local” beer in my book includes the Minneapolis brew pubs, beer bars, and liquor stores that I can bike or walk to in 30 minutes for a decent local tap brew or bottled beverage (Town Hall, Busters’ on 28th, Zipp’s Liquors, etc.) and what I can reach on an 8-hour road trip in the general directions of Bismarck, Green Bay and Chicago. The truly robust local action on the beerist path that I’ve been traversing since 1990 is, however, unquestionably in Wisconsin. In spite of the still quite very recent improvements locally here and there around MN(Brau Bros, Boathouse, Mantorville, etc.), MN is sadly 10 years behind the WI beer rival scene now, and has been since I first compared 15 years ago. Including the historic large local operations at Stroh’s, Schmidt, and MN Brewing, I can think of 18 various brewing concerns in MN that launched and/or folded since I moved to this state in 1993. MN local brewing actually went backwards in the last 10 years. Compared to what’s been happening in similar sized states like WI or OR during the past decade, the local/craft beer scene in MN has remained woefully adolescent and MN beer drinkers have, frankly, not been that responsive or devoted to local brewing efforts. I’ll throw all my enthusiasm behind any operation willing to multiply the craft beer scene anywhere in MN. God bless their recipes, business plans, and branding schemes. Some of the upstarts in this article are going to need more help than others. Maybe the apparent recent local brewing trend towards microbreweries vs. the erstwhile brewpub efforts of the 20-ought years will prove more enduring for the local beer enthusiast.

  28. Brent H 06/26/2010 Reply

    I also have to say that given the nearly unrivaled 150-year brewing history at August Schell, which lacks a “craft” brewing designation but remains an incredibly successful business by any measure(89K barrels in 2008), and the 24-history of Summit which was the #17 craft brewer in the U.S. in 2008 (82K barrels), the idea that the arrival of 4-year-old Surly (5K barrels in 2008) somehow kick-started any serious brewing changes at either Schell or Summit seems like a stretch.

    BrianJ, what current brews at either Schell or Summit do you consider to be responses to Surly brews? I would say that each of these three breweries has a very different and successful game going on. I just don’t notice any new brews or old brew changes at Schell or Surly that I would attribute to what Surly is up to.

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