612 Brew, Fulton Beer, Surly, and the craft beer renaissance

Raise a pint to local breweries

THERE WAS SOMETHING STRANGE happening in the garage behind Sarah Schroth's apartment. She had only been living in the duplex for a few months, but in just that short time she had witnessed a string of unusual occurrences.

"One night our garbage cans were just missing," she said. "We were like, 'Where the hell are our garbage cans? Someone stole them. Why would anyone steal them?' But then the next day they just reappeared."

Other curious events followed, all centered around the two-car garage at the rear of the property, a separate building which the lease stipulated was unavailable to tenants. There were strange lights that sometimes glowed from the building in the night.

The Fulton Beer team raise a glass: Joe Diely, Ryan Petz, Brian Hoffman and Peter Grande.
Tony Nelson
The Fulton Beer team raise a glass: Joe Diely, Ryan Petz, Brian Hoffman and Peter Grande.
The 612 Brew crew at their garage brewery: Robert Kasak, Joe Yost,
Emily Yost, Adit Kalra and Ryan Libby.
Tony Nelson
The 612 Brew crew at their garage brewery: Robert Kasak, Joe Yost, Emily Yost, Adit Kalra and Ryan Libby.

One evening, an unfamiliar man walked out of the garage while Schroth watched from her second-floor balcony. The stranger was not her landlord or a tenant, yet here he was going in and out of the garage. Sarah decided to investigate.

"Hey! Who are you?" she yelled down at the man.

He looked up at her and flashed a smile. "Oh, I'm Joe's friend."

"Landlord Joe?" she yelled back.

"Yeah, Landlord Joe," he answered. "We're brewing beer! Come down and have one!"

Bundling herself into her winter clothes, Schroth set out into the cold night and tromped down the concrete driveway to the garage. She knocked on the door and was surprised to find that she'd stumbled upon the home of 612 Brew.

"Inside, it's a man pad," she says, describing the scene. "There was football on the TV, swimsuit girls on the wall. And I was like, 'Oh, you took the garbage cans and forgot to put them back. You're the creepy man in my backyard in the middle of the night.' We were creeped out for a little while, but then we were like, 'Okay good, they're just brewing beer.'"

The beer market is dominated by a few huge companies with very familiar names. Largest is Anheuser-Busch InBev, the monolithic company behind Budweiser, Michelob, Stella Artois, Rolling Rock, and a dozen others. Following closely behind is MillerCoors, a joint venture between the parent companies of Anheuser-Busch's two biggest competitors. These two companies account for more than 90% of the beer sold and consumed in the U.S.

But in the last decade, the market share of small, independent microbreweries has been ticking steadily upwards. Cities such as San Diego, San Francisco, and Seattle are already home to dozens of microbreweries, while independents like Dogfish Head in Delaware, and Magic Hat in Vermont, distribute across the Eastern Seaboard.

The midwest, despite being the birthplace of some of the biggest breweries in the world, has lagged behind the craft beer renaissance until recently. In the past few years, though, craft brewing has returned to the Twin Cities in a big way. And with the recent passage of an ordinance allowing Minneapolis microbreweries to sell half-gallon jugs of beer called growlers, the local craft-beer scene has taken another important step forward.

"The microbrewery business grows in stages," says Ward 9 Councilman Gary Schiff. "I think the first batch of microbrewery owners are going to show people that there are things that we can do to show people that Minnesota's not clamping down on entrepreneurship, and that you should be able to go get your favorite beer on the shelf or at the bar."

THERE'S A HUGE shelf of vinyl records in Jason Soward's living room, with even more stacked on the floor in front of his turntable. Downstairs in his garage is a thick metal turbine magnetically attached to a refrigerator that houses several kegs of beer. Sowards made both the turbine and the beers himself.

"I got laid off in June 2009, and I started Harriet Brewing and my other business, Advanced Process Consulting, within 24 hours of each other," Sowards says. "And I immediately started working on this turbine project with a guy through Advanced Process Consulting, but in the meantime I'm brewing like a madman. And I was entering competitions and winning."

Long-haired and tattooed, Sowards's first brewing experience was part of a college project. While that first batch was merely an experiment in fermentation, it sparked an interest in craft beers that offered a respite from his career as a chemical engineer.

"There's a lot I don't know, but what I do know is that I'm making a product that people like," Sowards says. "And I also know that I'm a pretty smart guy with a scientific background. So if I can do it once, I can repeat it. And if I can repeat it, I can make money off of it. So I said I'm going to give it a go."

It was Sowards that first agitated for the growler law. He noted that small breweries such as Flat Earth were allowed to sell growlers in neighboring St. Paul, which provided a strong disincentive for breweries to start up in Minneapolis.

When Sowards learned this potential source of income wouldn't be available to him if he built his brewery within the city, he contacted Schiff.

"I brought the growler law up to Gary Schiff first and I said, 'Hey dude, I really want to be in Minneapolis, but I can go to St. Paul and sell growlers. Let's do something about this,'" Sowards recalls. "He was just immediately a proponent of the whole idea."

Next Page »