Brau Brothers, Flat Earth, and Lift Bridge present new school of microbrews

Three young microbreweries try their hand at estate beers, fruit-infused concoctions, and...the "Facemeltör"?

As it turns out, the three brothers behind Brau Brothers Brewery, southwest Minnesota's newest microbrewery, really are named Brau. And when your surname is the German word for beer, the profession is practically fated, jokes Dustin Brau, the middle brother and head brewer who runs the business with his siblings Trevor and Brady and several other family members. On a Saturday morning a few weeks ago, Dustin offered me a tour of the brewery and a sample of his seasonal Oatmeal Stout. Taking the lead from Dustin's father, Dale, who wheeled past us pushing a keg with one hand and carrying a beer in the other, I said yes to both.

Dustin looks a bit like a graduate student, with his buzz haircut; small, round glasses; and, on the day we met, a mechanic-style shirt with a Brau Brothers logo. He says he's in his 30s, but if he asked me to sell him alcohol I would definitely card him. In 1998, after graduating from college with a degree in hotel and restaurant administration, Dustin, an avid home brewer, opened a brewpub called the Brauhaus in his hometown of Lucan, a blip on the map between Redwood Falls and Marshall. By 2006, he had sold the brewpub and launched the Brau Brothers Brewing Company just a few blocks away. The Braus intended to focus on customers in southwestern Minnesota, but they've become successful enough that they're now distributed across the Midwest, including to many Twin Cities bars and liquor stores. "If it weren't for the internet, this place wouldn't exist," Dustin says.

Brau Brothers' offerings—they make five year-round beers, plus several seasonals—are rather eclectic, likely because of Dustin's brewpub background, which encourages a small-batch, experimental approach. While beer has only four basic ingredients—water, grain, hops, and yeast—its various formulations can create seemingly infinite flavor profiles. Dustin credits Surly Brewing for helping spur the local thirst to taste as many of them as possible. "Surly pushed the limits and made other beers more mainstream," he says, noting that even the most conservative drinkers were encouraged to at least trade their mass-market lager for a more interesting Summit or Schell.

Brau's most notable beer is arguably its Scotch Ale, which beer historian Doug Hoverson, author of Land of Amber Waters, believes stacks up so favorably against Scottish imports that he put it in the starting lineup of his "Minnesota Beer All-Star Team." After sampling the unusual brew, I too was quite taken by its unique sweet and slightly smoky flavor (the malt is smoked with peat). Though they're totally different beers, I also liked Brau's smooth, malty Cream Stout and the light, delicately carbonated Strawberry Wheat. I realize I just lost about half of you on that one, but it'd be a shame to dismiss it as a typical "chick beer." It has a heavenly scent, and its flavor isn't nearly as sticky-sweet as that of many of the artificial-tasting fruit beers on the market. On a chilly spring day, this is a beer that could inspire one to turn up the thermostat, throw on a pair of shorts, and push the lawnmower across the living room carpet.

As Dustin explained how his brewing operation had been assembled, I was struck by how closely the Braus' approach resembled that of a self-reliant farmer. Finding equipment can be a major challenge for mid-size brewers like Brau, as most commercial systems are built for large-scale operations. (Microbreweries, by most definitions, are those that produce 15,000 barrels or less each year; Brau's capacity is about 4,000 to 5,000 barrels.) Instead, the Braus constructed their tunnel pasteurizer and bottling machine from a deli-sandwich production line purchased on eBay, and built their keg-washer from a modified Hobart commercial dishwasher. "Being in Lucan, you can't pick up the phone and call over the robotics engineer," Dustin acknowledges.

Brau Brothers' biggest advantage may be its rural location, which Dustin hopes will enable them to become the first American brewery to make a single-origin "estate" beer from locally grown hops and barley. Like wine, beer can have its own terroir, based on the way soil and climate affect the character of its ingredients. If this year's hop yard and barley patch prove as successful as last year's initial planting, we can expect a batch of Brau Brothers' fresh hop ale on tap by the end of the year.

On a recent Thursday afternoon, fans of Flat Earth Brewing gathered around the open garage door of an unmarked warehouse near the Pearson's candy factory off West Seventh Street in St. Paul to sample new beers and buy growlers. Flat Earth, which is also a family-run operation, was launched in winter 2007 by Jeff Williamson, a former assistant brewer at the acclaimed Town Hall brewpub in Minneapolis, and his wife, Cathie, who set out to brew beer styles not often produced in Minnesota. (Minnesota's respected brewpub scene, which also includes Great Waters in St. Paul and Fitger's Brewhouse in Duluth, among others, deserves credit for training and inspiring many of our new brewers.)

According to Cathie, there's an unwritten rule among Minnesota brewers to stake their own territory and to avoid competing with similar styles of beer. (One exception may be Summit's recent introduction of Horizon Red Ale, which approaches Surly's characteristic hoppiness.)

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