Stumbling distance from CHS Field in Lowertown St. Paul, there’s a line of people staring into the front window of Barrel Theory Beer Company, hands shielding their eyes from the glare.
It’s an auspicious, high-trafficked spot on the sunny corner of Wacouta and Seventh Street that’s sat unused since Twin Cities Magic and Costume vacated the location in late 2012, rousing plenty of suspicion in the locals. Since Dark Horse Bar & Eatery opened two years ago in the adjoining space, it’s been assumed something would follow its lead in revitalizing the neighborhood. The buzz has been building to the point where passersby are glaring, noses piggled on the glass, in anticipation.
What awaits them inside is a gorgeous sunlit taproom that lives up to the escalating neighborhood. A repurposed Parallam bartop divides the reclaimed magic shop between the brew floor and the taproom, featuring original 1880s limestone and wood siding that shine in the pre-Prohibition glow of Edison bulbs.
The Rain Drops IPA and the Java Oats stout
Anticipation isn’t the only high standard Barrel Theory will be held to when its doors open at 3 p.m. on Thursday. Co-founders Brett Splinter and Timmy Johnson both bear the legacy of Minneapolis' Surly Brewing Co. -- where they met and conspired to open Barrel Theory -- with them into the new venture.
“I don’t wanna be another guy that just made the jump,” says Johnson, who started by volunteering at Surly back in 2008, eventually graduating to cellarman and sometimes-brewer. “At Surly, you’re held to a higher expectation. If you leave a facility like that, you want to make sure the beers are good.”
Splinter and Johnson owe a lot of their success to the advice and guidance of Todd Haug, the erstwhile Surly figurehead who imparted his exacting standards onto Barrel Theory. Everything from the brewery’s quarry tile floor to its sanitization procedures is gleaned from the bearded local beer godfather. As such, the co-founders know they have a lot to live up to.
“The biggest takeaway we got from Surly is good processes,” Splinter says. “That was from Todd Haug.”
When asked if he was worried about living up to the legacy of his beer dad, Johnson was nonplussed.
“I’m not worried,” he says. “I’m more nervous about Todd drinking my beers and saying something.”
Barrel Theory co-founder Brett Splinter
At Barrel Theory, Johnson's tribute to the Surly pedigree is to master three core styles -- stouts, IPAs, and sour beers -- in equal measure. Leading the way is their malleable base Berliner Weisse, which Johnson will interpret into a slurry of different beers. It’ll first hit taplines as Key Sublime, a 4-percent ABV tart monster that drinks more like a cocktail than a beer, before returning as a to-be-named mango, guava, passion fruit elixir.
For IPAs, Johnson has concocted a pair of diametrically different brews born from the same malt base. Rain Drops is a hazy northeast IPA that goes down creamy and with big gobs of juice. There’s no centrifuging at Barrel Theory, so Rain Drops’ sister beer Drop Top -- an atypical West Coast IPA with pert bitterness -- pours with a similar opacity and a touch of grass. (No word on whether a Smokin' on Cookie in the Hotbox IPA will join family.)
As the name suggests, sturdy, boozy stouts will soon be the staple of Barrel Theory’s menu. When it opens this afternoon, the brewery will feature the Java Oats stout on tap, which is made with Bootstrap coffee. But things won't really get kicking with dark beers until late July.
In the basement below the brew floor is a freshly refinished Douglas-fir-and-limestone cask that holds 150 barrels for quality beer aging. Soon, a fleet of Kentucky bourbon barrels from Buffalo Trace will play host to the brewery’s first Russian imperial stout. After that, Johnson will fill other wine, whiskey, and virgin oak barrels with stouts and saisons, eventually moving into spontaneously fermented sour beers.
“I was always a big sour head,” Johnson says. “But there are only a few breweries in the country that do all three styles really well. That’s what I’m working towards.”
Barrel Theory co-founder Timmy Johnson
Splinter clarifies that the cask won’t be open to the public; the high-ceiling taproom space is a much better environment for enjoying a pint. Food in the taproom will be provided via a special, pared-down takeout menu from Dark Horse consisting of pizzas, french fries, and sandwiches. Eventually, there will be a stainless steel pass-through counter in the back, but the space is covered in drywall for the time being.
“It’s two completely separate businesses,” Splinter clarifies. “We’re just really good neighbors.”
For now, the focus for Barrel Theory is on making a good impression on beer alone. They’re not occupied with co-opting the freshness of Dark Horse any more than they’re trading on the cachet of Surly. The folks breathing condensation all over the front glass don’t care much about either, anyway. They’re just parched for something new in the neighborhood, and Barrel Theory will have no problem satisfying that thirst.
All photos by Jerard Fagerberg