Harriet Brewing's founder Jason Sowards: "Craft beer is art"

Harriet Brewing's founder Jason Sowards: "Craft beer is art"
Davin Haukebo-Bol

As more and more Minnesota breweries spring up each day, it's going to take a while for each to find its niche. But Harriet Brewing, located near the busy intersection of Lake Street and Minnehaha Avenue, already knows its role as a community-centered beer. Started as a home-brewing project by then-chemical engineer Jason Sowards, the beer company has also developed into a community arts center. The taproom holds regular musical and fine arts events because, as Sowards puts it, "Craft beer is art."

The growing brewery specializes in Belgian and German styles, with the flagship Belgian-style IPA West Side. The Hot Dish spoke recently with Sowards about getting the brewery started, the role of craft beer and community, and the legal challenges facing the industry.

Harriet Brewing's founder Jason Sowards: "Craft beer is art"
Davin Haukebo-Bol

Hot Dish: What is the hardest part about turning a hobby into your employment?

Jason Sowards: Not resenting your hobby for creating personal debt and an overwhelming workload.

HD: You used to home brew as a form of stress release. Now that it's your primary income, has that changed?

Sowards: Yes. Since I've started Harriet, I can no longer focus exclusively on the brews. I have to keep the entire business moving. This has been hard to get used to, because all I want to do is engineer, build, and brew in a creative way, but I only get moments of that bliss. Typically, my day is muddled with troubleshooting, repairs, maintenance, business, administrative, communications, and everything else besides brewing. I don't expect this to last forever, though. Right now, I've surrendered to my crazy work schedule. I know that as long as I hold a firm intention, I will create my ideal position at Harriet, which is managing and developing the process facility, creatively developing Harriet, and brewing whatever I want, whenever I want.

HD: With your background not coming in brewing-specific education, is your brewery set up differently than the industry standard? Do you have anything in your set-up that a traditionalist would call novel?

Sowards: My chemical engineering degree taught me how to do everything, including ferment beer, distill, and design a process facility. In fact, I had to ferment beer to graduate. I spent my short career as a process/design engineer working primarily in energy (oil, natural gas, ethanol, biodiesel, solar, geothermal, and many radical concepts). My love of food, wine, and beer fueled me to develop my palate and make my own offerings.

All of this experience has been transferable and is what enabled me to design and build my brewery in less than a year. I designed the brewery with a very special goal in mind: to have the ability to produce the most authentic German and Belgian styles I could, yet spend the least amount of money on the startup.

I spent good money on the brewhouse. It is a 10 HL Wachsmann system. It is an amazing German-made system that allows me to brew German styles in a traditional way. I'm sure the quality of my brews is largely a result of the ingenuity of my brewhouse. I bargain shopped for everything else. I have two open fermenters that I use for my Belgian ale's primary fermentation. This allows me to skim protein and other unwanted grime from the top of my beer and harvest yeast from the top, as well. Further, I believe that the larger surface area-to-volume ratio, the atmospheric head space, and the slight oxygen exposure to the surface of the fermenting beer plays a positive role in developing character in my beer. However, I would not call any of these attributes novel.

HD: Without the Taproom Bill of 2011, could you have gotten Harriet Brewing under way?

Sowards: I did get Harriet under way without the Taproom Bill. We opened the doors January 29, 2011. The Taproom Bill went into effect a few months later.

Honestly, we weren't prepared for it. As much as we longed to sell pints, our business plan didn't include that aspect. I thought it would be years away, if it ever happened. When the law changed we scrambled to bring the facility up to code in order to get our taproom license. The focus on wholesale and off-sale shifted to on-sale, and our original model was obsolesced. Almost every cent of profit has been reinvested into the taproom development, and the little remaining [is] allocated toward maintenance and upkeep. So, rather than increasing our process infrastructure, we've built a taproom.

I try not to think about what it would have been like if I would have fully executed my original business plan. I do know that I wouldn't have had to spend as much money as I have (and still am) on the cosmetic and entertainment aspect of the brewery. However, the on-sale is most congruent with our core values and desired mode of business, which is why we went with the flow.

HD: What are some legal challenges you face as you expand?

Sowards: They are abundant. My business decisions are contingent upon not only the current regulations but also on their likelihood of changing. So far, I've found very little logic with respect to the rigorous regulations the state and, especially, the city enforce and which ones they relax. As a result, I find it hard to anticipate the future of brewing in Minneapolis. This uncertainty definitely inhibits the development of my long-term vision, and that's all I'll say.

HD: The name is an ode to your neighborhood. Do you consider brewing to be a local/community-first enterprise?

Sowards: People brew for many different reasons. I began brewing to deepen my understanding of beer. When I realized I was talented, of course I wanted to share my beer with as many people as possible. Fortunately, I live on a thoroughfare to Lake Harriet, so I would attract tons of people into my garage to share my wares. To keep up with demand, I brewed more. I also began getting requests for various styles. That was the beginning of brewing for my community.

For Harriet, community is first because my community encouraged me to start up, and my community continues to support Harriet. Our business model is modest and community-centric. We do not intend to sell out of state, nor out of the greater metro. We rely upon customers coming to our establishment to get the full Harriet experience. In this way, we are able to maintain margins on our products and develop a direct connection to our customers. Our brewhouse is just too small to be a production-type brewhouse. It's meant to brew great beer on a relatively small scale. That means we will always be craft, micro, and community focused.

HD: How would you define the current Minnesota brewing scene?

Sowards: In its incubation period. The market is here. The scene is here. Except for the few established breweries, everyone is pretty new, as are some of the privileges. It will take time for a lot of us newer breweries to get settled into what we do best. This is because so much effort goes into developing and maintaining the business and the facility.

For Harriet, it will be years before we have a process that is even close to our description of complete. In the meantime, we'll grow and develop according to our profits, and the beer will develop as well. It will also take time for municipalities to learn how to deal with breweries and, further, for a symbiosis to develop.

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