612 Brew, Fulton Beer, Surly, and the craft beer renaissance
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.
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."
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."
It would be hard to argue that Surly hasn't played a major role in reshaping the beer scene in the Twin Cities. Yet when asked about how his company has influenced the younger brewers, Ansari is in no hurry to take credit.
"The community helped us succeed," Ansari says. "We wouldn't have succeeded without people going to bars and saying 'Hey, why don't you have their beer?'"
A few weeks ago, Ansari was named the new president of The Minnesota Craft Brewer's Guild, the non-profit organization that represents local brewpubs such as Town Hall and Barley John's, as well as the old guard of Summit and Schell's.
Earlier this year, Schell's introduced Grain Belt Nordeast, a brown ale named after the neighborhood where the brand originated. The response has been beyond anything anyone expected. The beer sold out almost immediately, and Schell's has been scrambling to meet demand ever since.
"We always talked about the introduction of another beer in the Grain Belt family. We eventually put it together for this year, and we were obviously caught off-guard by the popularity," says Ted Marti, President of Schell's. "We've got a couple more tanks that are coming in a couple weeks, and then once those get up and online, we should be able to start backfilling our orders."
Over in St. Paul, Summit is also experiencing a boom in sales, bad economy be damned.
"We're doing very well. Our growth is better than what we anticipated," says Summit President Mark Stutrud. "We're spending $1.4 million on equipment this year. We're going to be pretty aggressive with our capital expenditures next year as well."
In Brooklyn Center, Ansari stands behind the bar in the Surly brewery's tasting room and slides across a glass of Bitter Brewer, a toasty pale ale with notes of citrus.
"Have you seen the documentary Beer Wars?" he asks. "I'm not sure why they included the woman who was launching the caffeinated beer. She wasn't really a craft brewer, which was the whole point of the movie, to talk about craft brewers. But she was just trying to do what the big guys do, only with caffeine. Such a stupid idea."
He heads to the back of the bar to rinse out his glass. "But I guess they're scared of craft brewers. They're trying to become us. You see some craft beer you've never heard of and see that it's brewed in St. Louis, then you know who really made it."
THE FOUR FIRKINS doesn't even carry Bud Lite. It's the first store in Minnesota devoted exclusively to craft beer.
The moment you walk in, the layout looks entirely unlike any other liquor store, with dark wooden shelves stocked with exotic beers labeled by style rather than manufacturer. Neatly hand-lettered signs identify the beer categories; posters by Surly label artist Adam Turman hang behind the counter.
As owner Jason Alvey puts it, The Four Firkins looks more like a "library of beer than a liquor store."
Alvey came up with the idea for the store while producing the beer podcast "What Ales Thee." Despite the success of the podcast, some said that his dream of an entire store devoted to craft beers was doomed from the start.
"A lot of folks told us that it couldn't be done," says Alvey. "Banks are not necessarily business owners, and they kept saying, 'If it's such a good idea, why isn't somebody already doing it?' Well, these stores do exist, just not here."
The craft-beer renaissance has come to the bar as well. There have always been beer-centric pubs in the Twin Cities, but in the past few years several taverns have tried to create a beer-snob Mecca. St. Paul's The Happy Gnome offers a selection of 70 rotating craft beers, with special events such as dinners that instruct diners how to pair beers with food.
Stub and Herbs has narrowed its focus from craft beers in general to specifically local craft beers. Along with Preston's Urban Pub and the Town Hall Brewery, Stub and Herbs helped launch the inaugural Minnesota Craft Beer Week last May, an event that celebrated both local and national microbreweries.
News of Minnesota Craft Brew Week reached many local fans thanks to Ryan Anderson's MNbeer.com website, the definitive news source for the Twin Cities beer community. The website is also home to an extensive collection of links to local breweries, bars, liquor stores, and more, making it a one-stop shop for local beer information.
"I always wanted a resource for all the craft-beer and home-brewing stuff out there and I didn't quite find it, so I decided to do it myself," says Anderson, discussing the origins of the roughly five-year-old website. "I was between jobs as a graphic designer and the beer thing just kind of took over for me. I've got about four or five other writers, and we kind of pass out news on home brewing, local beers, restaurants that serve good beers, that sort of thing."
Back at The Four Firkins, Alvey leans on the counter and explains why he's thrilled about Minneapolis' new growler ordinance, even though it might take sales away from his store.
"People are into it if it's local," Alvey says. "The more small local breweries we have, the more people will be exposed to this type of beer who may not have been exposed to this type of beer before. That means more customers for all of us."
ON A HOT SUMMER EVENING, Schroth is laughing and drinking a beer in the small garage with the 612 Brew crew. The group includes her landlords Joe and Emily Yost, who, along with providing the space, are both partners in the company. The stranger from that night was Robert Kasak, brewer and owner of 612 Brew.
"I felt so sorry about scaring her," says Kasak. "But now she drinks the beer a lot."
"And it's gotten a lot better," Schroth interjects. "That first beer I didn't like so much. But this is really good."
612 Brew's goal is reflected in its name: the company wants to bring beer back to a city that hasn't produced it commercially since the Grain Belt brewery closed in 1975. Locating its operations in Minneapolis is a key part of the 612 Brew brand identity. Once the company opens its brewery, the new ordinance will be a big help in meeting one of the company's major goals: building a fan base.
"People can come to the brewery and get to know who's making the product," says Libby. "It helps with getting your product out to the community."
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