Gluten-free brewery goes against the grain
Owners Thom Foss and Dane Breimhorst
Benjamin Carter Grimes for City Pages
In a craft-beer market that has little to offer the Celiac-suffering and gluten-intolerant among us, Burning Brothers Brewing in St. Paul takes its slogan, "Don't fear the beer," very seriously. Longtime friends and brewers Dane Breimhorst and Thom Foss use only naturally gluten-free ingredients and, notably, do not allow gluten ingredients inside the brewery in any form. It's an entirely gluten-free environment, with a sign on the door declaring the goopy grains off-limits.
Breimhorst and Foss, who are also former Minnesota Renaissance Fair fire eaters — hence the Burning Brothers brand — didn't set out to found a gluten-free brewery. The duo were well into planning a brew-on-premise business when Breimhorst was diagnosed with Celiac disease — quite an issue for a homebrewer aspiring to take the next step. The challenge didn't deter them. Instead their determination shifted focus to making quality beers that Celiacs can drink. It took over three years of honing recipes and reconfiguring their brewing process, but Burning Brothers was officially born in 2011.
Another three years passed as the two raised funds, filed paperwork, and acquired licenses and materials, before the first cases of Pyro American pale ale shipped this January. Mastering the recipes took time and ample patience. The pair spent hours wringing their hands trying to recreate craft-beer nuance with different ingredients. Eventually, says co-owner Foss, "We took a step back, went out on the Frisbee golf course and talked through it. [We] basically had to unlearn a lot of stuff from brewing."
Breimhorst pulled from his training as a chef, focusing on the reactions between the different grains used: Instead of wheat, rye, or barley, he brews with sorghum, quinoa, and millet. The grains react to yeast and fermentation differently and, as such, a new approach was needed to brew the familiar beer flavors. Their website boldly asks how Burning Brothers differs from other gluten-free brews. Their answer? "The fact that our beer tastes like beer."
"At this point we can pretty much run anything," Foss says of their gluten-free brew process.
Many gluten-free beers that use sorghum have a distinct aftertaste. Breimhorst has selected his ingredients to not wholly mask those components, but to counter their negatives with traditional, positive beer characteristics. The Pyro ale, well suited to summer, has notes of sorghum but finishes with a restrained bitterness. It's light and citrusy, with a touch of sweetness buried underneath.
"When I do tastings I don't mention it to people," he says, pointing to the very subtle "gluten-free" tag on the beer can. "They don't even know." Breimhorst estimates the taproom is often a 50-50 blend of those with gluten intolerance and those simply trying out the new brewery in town.
Located in an up-and-coming craft-beer neighborhood, the brewery is close to Bang Brewing, the soon-to-open Green Line, and the forthcoming Urban Growler and Surly. The taproom holds 40 people inside the bar and another 40 in a sectioned-off portion in the brewhouse. The space is simple and unadorned, with a corner bar and tables made from repurposed construction supplies.
"We're more focused on making beer than trying to be the neighborhood pub," Foss says. While they love their customers and the connection to the community, the brewery maintains a comfortable but industrial feel that fits with their location, close to residential homes but also accessible to I-94 and Highway 280.
The taproom opened in early April. The owners envision regular live music and food trucks (gluten-free of course), but they also want to keep modest hours of operation, closing at 9 p.m. so they can spend time with their families and maintain the focus on production. There's room to expand with a patio, but Foss has no short-term interest. "I've fought with the regulators enough for this year," he smiles. "I would rather focus on getting some other styles of beer going."
They presently serve the Pyro and an IPA, with plans for a Grain Belt-style lager and a coffee ale to come soon. Growlers can be purchased at the brewery, but only cans are available elsewhere, including at restaurants and bars. Keeping the Burning Brothers beer in cans is part of the strict quality-control measures to which the brewery adheres. A restaurant can be busy and not properly switch their kegs over, they fear, and that could cause contamination from their 100 percent gluten-free designation.
"We take our reputation really seriously," says Foss. "If we were to break our reputation it would destroy us as a company," he says. "We want that trust factor with the gluten-free community." Foss adds that partnerships with dedicated tap lines at the right businesses could happen in the future.
There are few dedicated gluten-free breweries in the country and none in the Midwest, and though more people are aware of gluten intolerance than ever, the road ahead is still a bumpy one for the upstart. "We never had the vision that we were going to get rich off this," says Foss. "This is much more about serving a need and having a job that we can like and respect ourselves for. The fact that it's actually ballooned [in awareness] is a happy circumstance."
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