Call it a reverse April Fool’s joke.
When news got out earlier this week about the launch of a hitherto unheard of Twin Cities brewery called Pour Decisions, skeptical observers (including myself) figured it for a prank. The sparsely populated website; the name which seemed like a satirical jab at the local brewery goldrush; the come-out-of nowhere and anonymous nature of it all — it felt less than real.
“That was the idea,” says co-founder Kristen England (above, right).
“I’m a cheeky bastard, that’s basically what it comes down to,” he says, laughing. “How do you jump big into this market? You start with the beer nerds and you go out from there. There are two things these people hate — they hate being scooped, and they hate being lied to. You combine these two things, we thought, it was like: ‘OK, people may think it’s an April Fool’s joke… but what if it’s true?'”
A visit last night to their cavernous (and still mostly empty) 7,500-square foot brewery space in Roseville suggests that the guys behind Pour Decisions are either real as they come, or master hoaxers who thought two years down the road when they filed for their LLC with the state.
Let’s proceed with the former assumption and go from there.
England and co-founder B.J. Haun (above, left) may have launched unconventionally, but their resumes suggest some serious beer cred. Both have won bushels of homebrewing awards (Haun took Best in Show at last year’s Minnesota State Fair for his Scottish light ale, and England has been Midwest Homebrewer of the Year and Highplains Brewer of the Year) and England is a Beer Judge Certification Program Grand Master Judge and Education Director. Both have also been deeply involved in the Saint Paul Homebrewers Club, which has a local reputation for being both cranky and serious about its beer knowledge.
“We met through the club,” says Haun. “Kris was president of the club and I was looking for a club. The nice thing about the Saint Paul Homebrewers Club is that it’s unlike other clubs around the country where they’ll try your beer and say, ‘Oh, this beer’s good! Yeah, I don’t think there’s anything you could do to improve it!’ [In contrast,] the SPHC is very good at giving it to you straight, so you very quickly learn how to make better beer because they give you honest feedback.”
Haun and England are both PhD-toting scientists (Haun in plant biology and genetics, England in pharmacology) who work for a biotech startup and the U of M, respectively, and the craft aspects of science carried naturally over into the world of brewing. And naturally there’s work-related relaxation to consider.
“You’re in the lab 100, 120 hours a week — if you’re going to have a hobby, it’s making alcohol,” says England.
Beer #1: Pubstitute Scottish Light Ale
Pour Decisions will launch with two debut flagship beers. The first is a very slightly carbonated Scottish light ale (dark in color, light in alcohol content) that drinks fast and smooth, like a malty vapor.
“It’s called the Pubstitute,” says England. “It’s a Scottish-style beer that’s based on recipes from the 1900s — I do a lot of research on historic beers. It uses a couple malts that no one in the US would ever use. If you just drank this, there’s no way you’d say it was 2.8% alcohol. You can sit at a bar and drink it drink it drink it — it’s a great beer to have with Scotch, too.”
“When we work with our distributor, we’re going to make sure every place it goes, it’s a $3 pint,” he says. He’s animated at this point, truly worked up about the price of beer. “Nobody’s going to be carrying this unless it’s $3 a pint. In the UK, you can get a pint for under two pounds. It’s ridiculous to charge $6 for a pint of beer… We’re not a discount brewery — we’re just charging what you should be charging for beer.”
He pauses for a moment and adds: “I shouldn’t go to W.A. Frost and pay $9 a pint for Summit. It’s right there! It’s right down the … road!” he says, using an colorful adjective to describe the road.
Back to That Name…
The (over?)educated duo chalk the “Pour Decisions” name up to a reflection on the craft of brewing versus how they’ve otherwise spent their lives to date.
“Brewing in general is a very mechanical thing — like you can be a cobbler, you can be a brewer… it’s a craft,” says England. “You don’t have to spend a combined 50 years of school to do this. So it just clicked — poor decisions. We could have saved ourselves so much time and energy if we’d done this when we were 19.”
Granted, when they were 19 they might not have approached it with the same rigor. Despite the surge of interest and financial investment into Minnesota craft brewing, Haun and England say that they’re still getting in on the ground floor, relatively speaking.
“We did a market analysis of Wisconsin and Colorado,” says Haun, talking about their business plan. “They’re similar-sized states, both have one major metro area, they support three times the craft breweries that Minnesota does. Granted, a lot of those breweries export more, but they didn’t start making 50,000 barrels and exporting on day one. That had to grow from local patronage. We see it as being in that early stage. Other breweries coming on line, it’s not a problem — the beer drinkers are there.”
To tap into what they see as a still-deep reservoir of local beer demand, Haun and England raised money from friends and family to cover soft start-up and marketing costs, going to banks for financing to cover the cost of their equipment. Their calendar isn’t set in stone, but they’re moving with deliberate speed:
“Best-case scenario, we’ll have beer mid-July,” says England. “Equipment will be here in 2-3 weeks, we’ll have our improvements done in the next month, month and a half. Then we get inspected, and then we can wait for our permits. Once we have our permits, we brew, and we’ll have beer about a month later.”
To a skeptic who wrote to their website asking whether the market was too flooded to support another brewery, England says he answered by explaining his opinion about the many out-of-stater breweries currently sucking up much of the local media and beer geek oxygen:
“These flashes in the pan — Odell’s, Deschutes, Stone — they’ll always come and go. But the Twin Cities do not have a stomach for outside beer. The Twin Cities are extremely local. There’s an untapped potential for local breweries with their own equipment on local soil.”
Patersbier Belgian Golden Ale
The second beer Pour Decisions will debut with is Patersbier, a 6.1%abv crisp golden ale that tastes light, perfumed, and delicately spiced. Except that there’s no spicing it whatsoever. “It’s just one malt, one type of hop, and yeast,” says England.
“It’s a Belgian style, but nothing that people have really had before,” says Haun.
Its origin is deep within the Trappist monasteries that are the origin points of much of Belgium’s beer culture.
“There are a few of the Trappist breweries in Belgium that make a similar beer, but it’s just for the monks,” says Haun. “It’s not for sale, you can’t even drink it… But my good friend Stan Hieronymus wrote a book called Brew Like a Monk. And me and him had been working on this recipe for a long time … It’s kind of like a pilsner, but with all Belgian grains. I’ve probably made it 80 times to get it where it is today.”
And that complex flavor?
“It’s all yeast-derived, no spice,” says Haun. “It’s just elegant, perfumey, crisp, clean… you go to bars, and the Belgian beers are the dubbels, and the trippels, and the quads — you buy a bottle and it’s $40. I don’t like spending $40 on a bottle of wine, let alone a bottle of beer. This is designed to have all that complexity of Belgian beer, but still be approachable to people who don’t like Belgian beers.”
From England’s perspective, the Pour Decisions Belgian triumphs with its crispness. Of other domestic Belgian-style beers he’s tried, “there are very few of them that are crisp. That’s the first thing you’ll notice about this — it’s crisp, it’s clean. There’s nothing to hide behind. If there’s the tiniest thing wrong with this, it’ll stand out like nobody’s business.”
The Power of “Brew It Yourself”
When asked why the duo didn’t step up slowly from homebrewing to contract brewing at another brewery’s location to finally owning a brewery, England was blunt: “I don’t trust contract brewers at all.”
“You give them your recipe and say ‘I want this malt,’ and you get… ‘Well…this is our base malt,'” says Haun. “‘We want crystal 50.’ ‘Well, we have crystal 40.’ Before you know it, it’s not even your beer.”
And so Pour Decisions launches after nearly a decade of intense homebrewing and recipe research — the painstaking acquisition of knowledge that will unlock the door to what is sure to be a number of memorable beers and, of course, many more painstaking years of knowledge acquisition.
“It’s all research, right?” says England. “Our lives are based around research. First thing you learn as a PhD is that you’re not as smart as you think you are. And then you proceed, and you learn from other people, and take the best from what they’ve learned and put it together.”