The Craft Brewers of Minnesota, Part 1: “Style”

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

This is the first in a series of six stories underwritten by the Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild. Their financial support allows us to dig deeper into the craft, culture, and personality of Minnesota’s brewers.

How does a brewer develop their brand’s style? What does it mean for a beer to be, say, a “Surly” as opposed to a “Summit”? Is a brewery’s style an extension of the brewer’s personality, or is it calculated based on what the market wants?

Questions about how brewers develop their array of products have been on our minds lately, especially when our friends make a blanket statement about a brand. Oh, I don’t like [X]’s beer. What does that even mean? Have you tried all of them? Do you think they’re objectively bad, or do you just not like their particular style?

We talked to three local brewers with markedly different styles. We wanted to know why they brew what they brew, and how their finished products are conceived.

Schell's Framboise du Nord bottle
James Norton / Heavy Table

Jace Marti, head brewer at the August Schell Brewing Co., finds his brand at a unique intersection of tradition and innovation. A company that has been continuously operating since the mid-1800s isn’t going to turn their back on history. But that doesn’t mean they can be complacent, either.

“We’ve hung our hat on being a traditional German-style brewery,” Marti says. “All of our beers, with the exception of Snowstorm, stick to very traditional German styles.” When it comes to the need for innovation, he believes there’s enough wiggle room within “traditional German” to do something different.

“In the fall, we’re doing a fresh hop beer, and in Germany that’s pretty unheard of,” he continues. “It’s a pilsner: When almost all fresh hop beers are ales, ours is a lager. And we use the new American varieties of hops — last year it was mosaic, the first year it was citra, and this year it’s equinox. It’s fun to use these big bold American hops with a pilsner that’s usually such a delicate style.”

And while Marti’s Noble Star series might seem innovative for the Schell’s brand, the style is anything but. “Berliner weisse is very traditional, though it’s more or less vanished from Berlin,” he explains. “The first and third were our takes on that traditional style. Definitely, the Framboise du Nord was a little venture outside the lines, blending it kind of with a Belgian fruit lambic. But also, it was a nod to the tradition of adding fruit syrup to a Berliner weisse.”

Andy Pucko / Heavy Table
Andy Pucko / Heavy Table

And Marti is quick to point out the traditions they draw from on both sides of the pond: “So, for an American lager, it may not be cool for the beer geeks, but we’ve made the style of beer for 150 years. So that’s as traditional as it gets in America, anyway.”

Schell’s brews their American lager (Deer Brand) with 30 percent corn. It started as a way to lessen the overall protein content when the mashbill was predominantly six-row barley malt (at a time when the less protein-rich, higher-quality two-row malt wasn’t available in the US). But since corn is used by macrobreweries to water down lagers, and is therefore considered an adjunct, it prompted the Brewers Association to label Schell’s a “non-craft brewer” in 2012. They revised their definitions in early 2014, and Schell’s was once again considered “craft.”

“We don’t cut corners on any styles,” says Marti. “Contrary to what you might believe, they’re hard to make and expensive to make. It’s what we’ve always done. It’s part of our heritage. And we were at the forefront of making craft beer as well. This year, we’ll be celebrating our 30th anniversary brewing Hefeweizen. When the craft beer movement started, we were right there.”

Lars Swanson / Heavy Table
Lars Swanson / Heavy Table

Kevin Welch, brewmaster at Boom Island Brewing (above), has carved out a particular niche for himself in the area of Belgian-inspired, bottle-conditioned beers. In the face of a craft beer movement full of hopped-up ales, he’s turning the other direction.

“Hops are just one element,” he says. “A lot of microbreweries have done spectacular job of exploring new hop flavors and varieties. But it’s never been my primary focus. I like hops as much as the next guy, but the Belgian tradition is not generally known for hops. But that said, I’m not doing traditional Belgians. My dubbel doesn’t taste like any other dubbel exactly, but you can taste the inspiration.”

This story is underwritten by the Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild
This story is underwritten by the Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild

Welch’s new tap room has allowed him to flex his brewing styles to accommodate the beer drinker with a hoppy palate. That’s how he came up with Noire, his Black IPA, a style he tweaked using more traditional Belgian ingredients:

“I only have one other beer with a lot of hops, Thoprock, our Belgian IPA,” he says. “I didn’t want to make just another IPA. Most Black IPAs generally use CARAFA III malt from Weyermann, and that does a great job of giving a slight roastiness, but mostly contributing a lot of color. So you can still get a traditional IPA flavor without it becoming stout-like. Instead, it occurred to me use dark Belgian candi sugar as the color derivative. It leaves behind a lighter bodied beer; the simple sugars will more or less ferment out, leaving the color behind. I can’t claim I’m the first person who’s ever done it, but I haven’t heard of it, at least.”

John Garland / Heavy Table
John Garland / Heavy Table

Welch cites different concepts, thoughts, and philosophies as inspirations for new beers, rather than looking at a style and working within those parameters. LomomoPalooza, his fundraiser beer for the locked out Minnesota Orchestra musicians, was conceived as many diverse elements coming together, like an orchestra.

His celebration beer for Boom Island’s upcoming Boom Days festival, called Cuvee de Boom, was inspired by a mistaken preconception of a special Belgian he once tasted. “I had the impression that it was going to be a nice, light estery beer — literally a champagne that’s a beer, and it ended up not being that at all. It was just a nice, strong blonde ale. So, I thought, here’s a perfect opportunity to meet my original expectation. That was a great beer, but it wasn’t what I was expecting. So, I’m brewing what I expected that beer to be. So mine is 55% blonde ale, 45% pinot grigio juice: a nice light, champagne-like beer.”

So where Schell’s uses tradition like a bulwark, Boom Island uses it as a springboard. But Joe Pond, owner and brewer at Olvalde Farm and Brewing Company, uses tradition to dictate literally everything he does, though he doesn’t always know where that will take him.

“I don’t pay any attention to styles,” he admits. “I wanted to set up the farmhouse brewery first, and then experience tells me what flavors that dictates.” His interpretation of tradition means he eschews modern conveniences for the sake of authentic flavor. It may be more labor intensive, but his old-school techniques give him the opportunity to create truly unique beers.

“I have opportunity with some equipment that other people don’t,” Pond explains. “I have a direct-fire kettle, instead of the steam-heated kettle most people prefer. That allows me to caramelize stuff. Brynhildr’s Gift, my spring beer — I scorch it on purpose. It has a nice orange color; it looks like I use caramel malt, but I don’t. I just use pale malt and rye, but I make sure it gets caramelized in the kettle. It’s one of the ways of harkening back to the farmhouse way of brewing, where you have your raw ingredients and everything you derive for your beer, you have to create.”

But that style also limits his options; for example, his lack of actively cooler fermenters. “Every single brewery has fermenters that are set to maintain a certain fermentation temperature, even though it’s generating heat. My fermentations warm up as they go along, which usually increases yeast growth, which increases ester formation. If you want to make a real light American lager, that’s not something I’m able to do.”

To approach a new style, Pond first looks at what’s available. “I start with some kind of interesting flavor,” he says, “and when that ingredient is growing, when I need to use it fresh, then that season could dictate the beer, with the flavors that are appropriate for that season.”

What is next for Olvalde? Pond is getting closer to releasing a recipe he’s spent years perfecting. “I’ve made myself barleywine for a long time, to drink with the rich stews and winter foods I like,” he says. “But I don’t like how American barleywines with a ton of hops really pair with that. I want to get comfortable with a recipe, to make sure it’s good to cellar and to know a little better how they age. It takes a while, two or three years, but I want to know that you’re going to have something good.”

One Comment

  1. Robert Holton

    Excellent example of how the traditions in the Great lakes region are being honored by being re-interpreted. The tradition becomes living, dynamic and not simply a static history. Great work by theses brewers. And by the author to capture these examples.

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