by T.W. Budig
ECM Capitol reporter
Across the suburbs the alchemy of malt, barley, hops, yeast and water is producing liquid gold.
Craft beer is being brewed in Minnetonka, St. Louis Park, Brooklyn Center, Roseville, Lino Lakes, with breweries planned in other suburbs.
Elk River city officials have hope of landing a brewery and/or restaurant. They have already crafted and adopted a tap room ordinance so they’re ready when a one comes knocking at the door.
In Stillwater, Lift Bridge – the first brewery in the city since Prohibition, the company claims – produces craft beer for the St. Croix Valley.
“They’re popping up like crazy,” Michael Agnew, an adjunct professor at the University of Minnesota, who teaches a craft beer course, said of craft breweries in Minnesota.
In a sense, the growth of small breweries is as much a leap back as forward. A century or so ago, small breweries dotted Minnesota. Little Falls had Little Falls Brewing. Pine City boasted Buselmeyer Brewery. Sauk Centre had Ahrentz & Co. Caledonia was home to the Philip Wagner brewery, and the P. Schebach brewery, according to Manfred Friedrich and Donald Bull’s Register of United States Breweries 1876 to 1976.
According to the Department of Public Safety, currently the state has 62 licensed malt beverage manufacturers. Six are large breweries – such as Surly Brewing Company in Brooklyn Center, rolling out about 20,000 barrels of beer last year – with 37 small breweries and 19 retail brew pubs.
Small breweries specialize in variety
The number of small breweries has shot up. Between 2010 and 2012, DPS issued 26 small brewery licenses.
Surly Brewing Company President Omar Ansari recalled a different brewing scene seven years ago when Surly began brewing.
“We were only the second production brewery in the Twin Cities,” Ansari said.
Agnew and others view the growth of the craft brewing industry as reflecting the maturation of the American palate.
“You’re talking about an almost infinite number of variations,” Dan Schwarz, CEO, owner, of Lift Bridge Brewery in Stillwater, said of flavors achievable through shadings of ingredients, duration of brewing and other factors.
The Brewers Association, representing the craft brewing industry, defines more than 100 kinds of beer.
“They’re making millions and millions of barrels of beer, and it all tastes the same,” Zac Carpenter, owner and co-founder of Bad Weather Brewing Company in Minnetonka, said of big brewer brands. “Whereas with small craft brewers, you’re buying flavor.”
Not that all craft brewers are dismissive of big brewers. As technicians, they admire the ability of big brewers to produce beer at different breweries with consistent tastes.
Jason Schoneman, of Steel Toe Brewing in St. Louis Park, with a smile, described big-brand beers as “ethanol delivery systems.” There is a time and place for all beers, he added.
“On a really hot day when you’re out working, that might be the right time to have one of those beers,” Schoneman said, noting the lower alcohol level compared to some craft beers.
But while admiring technical expertise, craft beer brewers, often former home brewers, leave a sense they’d rather be reaching for something unique.
“I don’t know how many Budweisers I’ve drank over the last five years,” Schwarz said when asked. “Not many,” he said.
As might be expected in a growing market, individual craft brewers have different stories and different strategies.
Brooklyn Center’s Surly Brewing is currently the fourth largest brewer in Minnesota, according to the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal. And they may stay in fourth for awhile, Ansari said. Cold Spring Brewing Company, ranked third, brews about 75,000 barrels of beer per year.
Surly to expand into Minneapolis
But Surly is on the move. The company recently released the drawings of its proposed $20 million destination brewery to be built in the Prospect Park neighborhood of Minneapolis.
“Hopefully, come late fall, we’ll be pushing some dirt around,” Ansari said.
Once built, the destination brewery, which will have a restaurant and be a stage for events, will also allow Surly to brew more beer.
“It will probably double our production off the bat. And then we can keep growing from there,” Ansari said.
Surly will keep its Brooklyn Center facility. But its tap house, where patrons can drink the beer, will be in Minneapolis. Minnesota recently made taprooms legal; the so-called Surly bill was signed into law in 2011.
Like other craft breweries, it’s pounding rock and roll, not oompah music, that serves as the sound track at Surly.
The brewery itself – with its stainless steel tanks producing year-round beers like Furious, Bender, CynicAle and Hell, a beer the company insists Ansari’s German mother will drink – is hot and humid in the summer. And active. The company has 25 employees and a certain edge. Its name, Surly, describes a beer lover unable to find a good beer, Ansari explained, smiling.
Steel Toe grows in beer market, gradually
Over at Steel Toe, Schoneman, of St. Louis Park, is guiding his brewery along a more gradual track.
“And that’s by design. I’m in no hurry to grow,” Schoneman said.
Producing about 1,000 barrels of beer last year – a barrel being 31 gallons – Steel Toe beer is available at about 35 restaurants and a dozen or so liquor stores in the metro area.
“They’re all selling very well,” Schoneman said of beers like Provider Ale, Rainmaker Double Red Ale and Size 7, the brewery’s top seller.
“With Steel Toe, it’s all about the quality – keep the quality of the beer really, really high,” Schoneman said.
A native of Iowa, one of the things Schoneman likes about brewing is the process. Although the analytic equipment on a table in the brewery is reminiscent of a high school chemistry lab, testing by taste and aroma are still the best analysis in brewing, Schoneman said.
A former toolmaker, Schoneman home brewed for a number of years before considering starting his own brewery. Thirsting for more expertise, he attended a brewing academy, then accepted brewing jobs in Montana and Oregon.
“It took 10 years from the idea to actually going for it,” Schoneman said. For a time, he did everything himself. “Oh man, it was brutal,” he said, smiling, of starting the brewery. “It still is.”
The name of the brewery, Steel Toe, refers to the workingman. He’s worn steel-toed boots the majority of his working life, Schoneman said.
“They represent hard work and the rewards that hopefully go along with it,” he said.
Steel Toe also has a taproom.
“Our taproom is busy. We get a lot of people who come here and try our beer,” Schoneman said. “It’s fantastic.”
Bad Weather focuses on seasonal beers
While Steel Toe has been in business two years, Bad Weather only began brewing late winter.
Carpenter, of Farmington, head brewer, along with business manager Joe Giambruno, has an arrangement with Lucid Brewing and Badger Hill Brewing that has all three using the same facility in Minnetonka.
“This isn’t a permanent solution for anybody here,” Carpenter said.
Beyond a certain meteorological accuracy for Minnesota, the brewery’s name, Bad Weather, evokes a business model.
“Bad Weather Brewing is focusing on the seasonality of beer,” Carpenter said. “That’s a big focus for us.”
Windvane, a red ale, is the brewery’s flagship beer. Ominous – warming from the inside out, boasts the brewery – is a winter seasonal, with other offerings rounding out the seasonal brewing cycle. The brewery likes melding different beer styles into their beers, Carpenter said.
Currently, draft Bad Weather beer is available in about 50 bars and restaurants in Minneapolis and St. Paul. The company looks to begin bottling in a few months.
“We’re not too far out into the outskirts yet,” Carpenter said of the suburban market.
For now, Carpenter looks to Facebook, Twitter, beer festivals and word of mouth, as forms of advertising.
“No. 1, you need to make good beer,” Carpenter said of achieving success. “That’s absolute No. 1.”
Carpenter, a graduate of the American Brewer’s Guild, formerly worked in finance and banking.
Stillwater’s Lift Bridge raises the barrel bar
Lift Bridge operates at a different level. The brewery rolled out about 3,400 barrels of beer last year, but is on pace this year to produce as much as 6,000 barrels.
“It’s a big jump,” Schwarz said.
“We invested in some new equipment this year. And that’s really moved us forward quite a bit,” he said.
Lift Bridge, which is located off Highway 36 in a newer, industrial area, has a spacious taproom.
“It’s really an opportunity to sit down with the customer and talk to them about your beers,” Schwarz said. “I think that’s where the largest value lies,” he said.
Over its five years of business, Lift Bridge has seen its distribution increase from seven accounts to being available at more than 1,000 locations.
Farm Girl, a pale golden ale, is the brewery’s flagship beer and its most popular. But its menu of beers is extensive. Indeed, one beer, an English-Style barleywine ale, The Commander, is aged in bourbon barrels.
One driving factor behind the growth of craft brewing, Schwarz believes, is the community nature of local beer.
“It’s a focal point, a place where people can come together,” he said.
Schwarz is upbeat about the future.
“I think we’re going to continue to grow for awhile. It’s hard to see an end to the growth at this point,” he said of Lift Bridge.