Big Wood Brewery on Morning Wood and how to stand out on the shelf
The makers of the award-winning Morning Wood coffee stout, Big Wood Brewery, clearly don't take themselves too seriously. But there's more to the name than a double entendre. Big Wood's origins tie to owner Steve Merila's past in the wood flooring industry, where he began brewing beers on the side to perk up the spirits of struggling contractors during the economic downturn. That brewing hobby took root, Merila teamed up with Jason Medvec and Ty McBee, and Big Wood was a growing entity... so to speak.
Medvec, who has a background in advertising and also moonlights as the Marketing Committee Chair on the Minnesota Craft Brewer's Guild, epitomizes the ongoing question in the industry: How to establish a strong craft beer market in general while simultaneously focusing on the growth of his own company.
The start-up White Bear Lake brewery has three regular beers in their stable along with a rotation of "Randomly Brewed Beers" -- beers that are similar to seasonal rotations at other breweries, but in styles that are not necessarily tied to the time of year, such as their Bad Axe (double IPA) and Forest Fire (smoke imperial rye). Big Wood hopes to open their taproom to the public this winter. The Hot Dish called up co-owner Medvec to chat about their start-up, taproom construction, and how Big Wood separates itself from its peers.
Hot Dish: How much of the current brand concept was in mind before the brewery opened to the public?
Jason Medvec: Most all of it. Steve and I spent a lot of time up front doing that and brewing small batch beers and going to festivals and introducing people to the brand and getting a feel for if people liked it or not.
You think you've got a great product, but I know from the advertising industry that you need to get that edification from people saying this is as good as you think it is. Obviously we're biased.
Our first year having beer at the Autumn Brew Review we [took] home Best Beer for our Morning Wood coffee stout. Then we won it at another festival in January 2012 and another in July and then September we won Best Beer at Autumn Brew Review again, two years in a row with the same beer. That really gave us the permission: okay, people seem to really like our product and our beer. Let's put this together and make it real. With local beers, pales ales and IPAs are often the flagships. How did you decide to go with the coffee stout?
Our philosophy is making really easy-drinking beers. Our coffee stout is very easy to drink. It's highly carbonated. We wanted to make a beer that you could drink a few of not just a one and done. I think part of the decision, obviously, was the two awards that we won with it. Then we went behind it with the complete opposite, Bad Axe, which is a high alcohol content (9%, 76 IPUs) but is again an easy-drinking double IPA, given the alcohol content and everything. Then we followed that up with Jack Savage (American Pale Ale) and then Bark Bite (IPA).
This is an IPA state. Minnesota is definitely hop-heads and I'm one of them. We decided to lead with the coffee stout to do something a little different and a little unorthodox.
You also do canning. Is that done in White Bear Lake or in Cold Spring?
We have an alternating proprietorship at Third Street Brewhouse [in Cold Spring]. We do our brewing there for our canning, for our production beers. They have an unbelievable, new 75 barrel system that's designed for craft beer. So we do some of our production there and we'll do a lot of [our Randomly Brewed Beers] here. How did you choose the tallboy/4-pack of cans versus the 12-ounce/6-pack?
This is the perfect package, in my opinion, because it's portable. You can take it out on the boat and, plus, light doesn't ruin the product on the inside. The reason for the 16-ounce is we're Big Wood Brewery so we figured that doing the 12-ounce beer like everyone else was not fitting with our brand.
There's only so many packaging options: you can bottle 12-ouncers, bottle 22-ouncers, can 16-ouncers, or can 12-ouncers. Those are your options unless you're doing the cage and cork thing with some of your beers -- which we will do. It gives you a lot more space on the can for your branding and to tell your story. Plus, we decided we wanted to take the extra step and put it in a box. It just gives us a little real estate to tell our story and talk about who we are and what we do.
The cool part about a 16-ounce is, if you pour it right, you get a little bit of head on the top and you'll always have a little left in the can. So you drink a couple of swallows and then you fill your glass up again. There's a little psychological thing going there. It feels like a brand new beer.
You said you might get into corking beer too?
We're going to have a bottling line [at our White Bear Lake location] for specialty, very limited edition, beers that will be cage and corked and those kinds of things.
Do the three owners all have similar tastes in beer? It's not that one of you is a stout guy and one is a pale ale guy?
Maybe, to a certain extent. I'm an IPA guy and I love double IPAs. One of my favorite beers on the planet was Hopslam from Bell's. It was my thought that Ty picked up on, and that became Bad Axe. Steve and Ty like pale ales, so those guys said we're going to brew one of those. The original one was Morning Wood and I think Steve had the name before he had the beer. We brewed for the name and it turned out fantastic.
I'm a fan of beer. I appreciate everything for what it is. Everybody is doing a different thing: You can get an IPA from us or from Fulton or Indeed or Surly or Third Street or whoever is making IPAs and they're all going to be different. They're all going to have their own characteristics. It's crazy, it's endless, the different things you can do to create something new and unique.
What were your expectations going into the Autumn Brew Review this year?
We didn't expect to win the first year and we certainly didn't expect to win two years in a row. There's a ton of great breweries in Minnesota and I'm just proud to be a part of that. A lot of those guys are our friends and they do a fantastic job. I am all about Minnesota beers. That's my whole goal: I want the world to know about all the great beers that are right here in our backyard. People go to the liquor store and there are a lot of great beers from across the country in the craft brew scene, but I want Minnesota to be on the map as a craft brew destination. I want people to think of us in the same sentence they think of Oregon or California. There's a lot of great new breweries popping up each day, and everybody is doing their own thing. It's good for our business collectively. As you've been in production for about 9 months now, what are some challenges you're finding in getting your product out?
The challenges arise in different parts of the state. For instance, the 11-county metro area is really savvy with craft beer. In some of the other markets it's tougher because people are just picking up on it. "Hey, I can have a beer with flavor that's still easy-drinking instead of one of the Big Three." I think that's definitely one of the challenges. Guys like Summit and Schell's and Surly have really helped pave the way. I think all of us are in it for the same thing, trying get that average Joe drinker in Aitkin or Mille Lacs to enjoy craft brew. It's spreading, it really is, but that's one of the things that's a focus for us. We want to be that everyday craft beer for our following.
And marketing is always a challenge. You go into any store in the 11-county metro area and now every store has craft beer. They realized that they had to because of what the market's dictating. It's tough because we support all of our buddies in Minnesota but, still, we've got to make a living as well. It's all about how we separate and distinguish ourselves as breweries and how are we different from our buddies. In a world where there's so many choices, definitely you have to do something different. You have to stand out on the shelf a little bit.
You're not finding it hard to get onto the shelves?
Minnesota beers are big in Minnesota and a lot of the liquor stores have been really cool about shelf space and/or cold case space.
About five to ten years ago they couldn't have filled that space with Minnesota beers.
And that's awesome. It's so cool that it's starting to transform. In the long run I think that all of us are going to benefit and that's what we want. What have you seen change in the Minnesota craft brewing scene since you first started planning Big Wood in 2009?
There are a lot more [craft brewers.] Just with the Guild and doing that. Holy cow! The new members and new members and new members. It's just awesome.
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