Great Waters brewpub: "It's never a straight path"
The current craft brewing growth isn't Minnesota's first brewery boom. The mid 1990s also saw an uptick in production of local brews, one that can teach the new startups some lessons--at least from those who survived. Great Waters Brewing Company in downtown St. Paul has seen a lot in its 17 years, working with other Minnesota breweries and watching the growth of the brewpub scene in the rise of Town Hall and Rock Bottom, and the closing of Sherlock's Home. Starting from scratch at 426 St. Peter St., it predates the Xcel Energy Center, the Minnesota Wild, and Kincaid's. In the ensuing years, it has carved a niche that pulls in sports fans, rock concert attendees, and those on their way to the opera or Children's Museum. This variety of customers has helped them survive SPCO and NHL lockouts, and it has provided a community atmosphere where all walks of life are represented while sipping suds in the historic Hamm Building.
The only brewpub in St. Paul prides itself on its well water and cask beers, offering a variety of beers for all seasons, all brewed onsite except in special situations. The Hot Dish had a couple with owner Sean O'Byrne and discussed the growth of the local industry, the distinct circumstances that brewpubs face, both in clientele and legal issues, and what got him interested in "those warm beers."
The Hot Dish: What are the origins of the well?
Sean O'Byrne: [It was] once we signed the lease and all the construction was going on. There was one day we were sitting around a big conference room table, and all of the trades [were] giving us an update on where their project was. The plumbers said, "We're getting ready to cap the well." We're like, "What well? Don't cap it yet, because we want to see if it's usable to make beer." So we had signed the lease, and we didn't know that well was here.
The well had been there since 1919, and originally it was used for all of the drinking fountains in the building, but also next door, where Park Square Theatre now is located, there was an old movie theater/vaudeville theater there, and it was air conditioned. That air conditioner was actually a running wall of water from the well.
So we had them come and test the well water. It was great water for making beers, especially ales. It's very hard water. So, lo and behold, we said, "Don't cap it. We're going to use it."
We use that well water today to make all our beers, and as far as we know we're the only brewpub in the country that uses well water. It's interesting because all the big brewers talk about how important the water is, the Rocky Mountain spring water and artesian wells and all the other stuff, and we have one.
HD: What was the beer scene like in 1997? Was home brewing still illegal when you opened?
O'Byrne: No, it was not, because Vine Park was in their original location. When we opened up, we had to get the city okay, and you're legal to open. When you have your brewing facility, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms has to come and inspect it and give their blessing too. So you have all these blessings, but you still don't have beer to serve. We knew that there was the law that we would get the okay to open, but we were a brewpub, so we had to have our beer. It's like being a steak house without steak, it just doesn't fly. So we went to Vine Park Brewing Company and brewed beer in big batches and kegs onsite there, which was legal, and then when we got the okay to open, we brought it over and were okay to open and brew on our own system. It worked really well, and it was working with another brewery that got us through it.
HD: I'm always fascinated with these stories, the workarounds.
O'Byrne: It's never a straight path. You're thrown curves all the time, and a lot of it comes down to communication and getting it all laid out ahead of time and getting people to sign off on what's actually needed.
HD: Cask beer is a bit trendy now. Was it obscure when you started?
O'Byrne: It has grown to where it represents about 25% to 30% of our beer sales. We have four permanent beer engines, and we have another clip-on engine that we occasionally bring up, so we'll have up to five cask beers on at any one time. We brew a little over 600 barrels a year here, so if you take 30% of that, it's 180 barrels of cask beer. When another bar has a cask night, we go through probably eight times that [amount] that same night, every night.
It's gaining more popularity. The beer drinkers' palate is maturing. The over-the-top hoppy beers, a lot of people are tired of that right now. Been there, done that kind of thing. With a cask beer there's a lot of flavor. The mouth feels totally different. The aroma, everything is totally different. Once you get people swung onto them they're addictive.
There are a lot of places that will do a cask beer, but it's not intended as a cask beer from beginning to end. When our brewers brew a beer, that particular stout is intended to go in a cask, and it's handled that way from beginning to end. It is our hook, it is our thing that sets us apart from everyone else, along with the well water. It's fun to introduce people to it because it really is new to a lot of people.
HD: What got you interested in cask beers originally?
O'Byrne: Prior to this life I was in medical sales, so I traveled around the country a lot. I would go to Portland or Denver or San Diego and experience the beer scene there. I learned to appreciate beers, and my business partner at the time (Mark van Wie, who owns the Muddy Pig), he and I started this business together, and he had at one time lived in Seattle. So he acquired a love for beer there, and we put this thing together and we were off and running. That, and I'm Irish.
HD: When you opened, did you get a lot of people saying, "What is this? I've never seen a beer like this?"
O'Byrne: With the cask beer [it was], "I don't want that warm stuff," or the one we still get today is the comment: "I don't like a dark beer." Dark's not a flavor. What don't you like about a dark beer?
HD: With taprooms springing up and growth in the industry in general, I don't see nearly as many brewpubs starting up. How do you view the difference between taprooms and brewpubs? Obviously there's food and commercial zoning. Is the line getting blurred?
O'Byrne: From the general public standpoint, yes. Because of the taproom bill that was passed a couple of years ago, everyone thought that would allow us to sell our beer to other bars and restaurants. That limitation of brewpubs in the state of Minnesota--not being allowed to sell our beer in other restaurants--is one of the reasons why the taproom has just blossomed right now.
This taproom phenomenon now is good, it's an opportunity for breweries to open up and spread their wings. They're able to get a quick return on their investment.
The one thing from a brewpub standpoint: Years ago when we opened up, brewpubs across the country were opening up too, but a lot of them failed. That failure has a lot to do with the beast that a brewpub is: A brewpub has to have good beer, good food, and good service. A brewery can just have good beer. A restaurant can have good food and good service, but a brewpub needs that third leg of the stool to survive.
It's been frustrating not to be able to sell our beer to other bars and restaurants that want it. Being in sales, it's a little tough to tell somebody you can't have it. If we were a brewpub in Kansas, I could sell beer to other bars and restaurants. Colorado the same thing, but because I'm a brewpub in Minnesota, I can't. But as a bar in Minnesota, if the beer from a brewpub in Colorado was available here I could buy it and sell it, but I can't sell my own beer to another bar in the state of Minnesota. It's like, "Huh?"
It's a process. We know that because it took us six years to get the growler bill passed, but the general public is sort of confused because there are taprooms opening all over the place. And, again, that's great because it's beer education for the masses, not only for their palate but for an understanding of the variations of places and what they can do. We think eventually Minnesota laws will grow up and be big boys, and the playing field will be even for us, and everybody will be happy, and the consumer will be the one that benefits.
Great Waters is offering a cheese and beer pairing on Saturdays throughout April.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Minneapolis & St. Paul dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.