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

Raise a pint to local breweries

Schiff credits Sowards for bringing growlers to Minneapolis.

"The rules have been on the books forever, and it took someone like Jason to decide to try to change this," said Schiff. "I was amazed once I got into this about how many people were waiting for the change to happen, but the push hadn't happened yet. It was really Jason picking up the phone that got the ball rolling."

If nothing else, Sowards seems happy to have played a small part in making Minneapolis a more microbrew-friendly city.

"In these economic times, anything that promotes small businesses, how could you not?" he says. "Do we really want Minneapolis to be viewed as the most archaic in the whole state in respect to alcohol laws? It was an easy one to pass."

THREE OF THE FOUR founders of Fulton Beer walk into the Edina Grill immediately after finishing one of the most important meetings in the young company's history. In Jim Diley's hands are several keys that are the start of an important transition for the Fulton. They are the keys to the company's new brewery in the warehouse district of Minneapolis.

It's been a long road for the group of friends who met in college at St. John's, and they celebrate by ordering a round of their own beer, a hoppy India Pale Ale called Sweet Child of Vine. The bartender recognizes them and waves.

"When my wife and I were dating back in college—and she probably kicks herself for this—she bought me a Mr. Beer kit," says Diley. "When we all got out of school, we decided that instead of going fishing or something on the weekends, we'd start brewing."

After three years of brewing, the friends began discussing expanding their hobby into a full-fledged enterprise.

"I was in business school at the time and looking for an internship for some real-world experience," says Fulton president Ryan Petz. "And I was taking the classes that exposed me to the academic side and bringing that back to the group."

The search for an internship wasn't going as well. The sour economy was forcing experienced workers who should have been looking for jobs into the internship market, and openings were scarce.

Then Petz had a brainstorm: As a summer internship, he'd start up the brewery that he and his friends had been talking about for years. The others agreed, and Fulton Beer was born.

But they needed a place to make the product. The answer came in the form of contract brewing. Rather than immediately finding a space of its own, Fulton leased space and equipment from another established brewery, the Sand Creek Brewery in Black River Falls, Wisconsin.

Contract brewing is a relatively common practice for start-ups—Minneapolis-based non-profit Finnegan's is made at St. Paul's Summit brewery—but that doesn't mean it was an easy decision.

"We never wanted to be a 'contract brewer,' whatever that is," says Petz. "Lots of contract brewers just hand over their recipes to the bigger company and let them do the work. We were never going to do that.

"But once we looked into it, it actually made a lot of sense. Because we can get into it, we can do the brewing, and it can help us save up and buy that brewery that we can't afford right now."

The decision to contract brew helped Fulton land a business deal with a local distributer, which has taken on much of the heavy-lifting in getting the product into bars around the Twin Cities. Last October, Fulton had seven tap handles. Now they're at nearly 100.

The sales have helped generate revenue, which has brought Fulton one step closer to moving its operations to Minneapolis. The brewery is still a long way from operational—there's much construction to do before brewing tanks can even be purchased—but getting the keys to the space is a major milestone in the growth of the company.

Their beers are delivered. They each raise a glass and drink to success.

IT'S HOT AND LOUD inside a converted factory space that once made industrial grinding discs. Rock music blares through huge speakers that poke out between pallets of beer cans. A small core of black-clad, tattooed workers buzz around, completely ignoring Surly Brewing president Omar Ansari.

Even if you're not a beer drinker, you can't reside in the Twin Cities and not know something about Surly. In only five years, Surly Brewing has become a local institution. The first of the local renaissance brewers, Surly's beers spread from a handful of accounts to become a staple of nearly every bar in the Metro.

Known for bold, strong beers that defy easy classification, Surly's has raked in national awards, its events attract hundreds of fans, and its logos can be seen on shirts and jackets all around town. Twin Cities Business Magazine named founder Ansari's one of Minnesota's Entrepreneurs of the Year for 2010, and the respected experts at Beer Advocate magazine named Surly the "Best Brewery in America."

"There were two huge reasons I was able to make this happen: My folks had this building, and I was doing a shitty job running their business," says Ansari, mincing no words. "I was running it into the ground. We got smaller every year. And my wife, she's a physician, so if this thing doesn't work, my kid won't starve."

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