Kathleen Culhane: The Beer Scientist

Colin Michael Simmons

Colin Michael Simmons

City Pages' People Issue celebrates men and women who make Minnesota a better place to live.

Never doubt Kathleen Culhane’s commitment to craft beer.

“I have literal blood in this place; this place is my dreams personified,” Sidhe Brewing Co.’s owner/brewer says, gesturing toward a scar acquired while building the taproom. “I sold plasma to buy equipment to build a small pilot brewery in my basement, so I bled for my art.”

Opened in 2015, the unpretentious St. Paul bar is a labor of love from Minnesota’s most interesting beer maker.

“I’m a chemist by training, a microbiologist by experience, and a welder by hobby,” says Culhane, who’s also a transgender woman and practicing Wiccan, “so when I say I built everything you see here, I did.”

Culhane, 51, was working as a contractor for 3M when she decided to pour herself into craft beer. Empowered by the Surly Bill, the native South Dakotan cashed out her retirement fund, crowd-funded $5,000, and signed a lease in the Payne-Phalen neighborhood, where she’s lived or worked since 2002.

Culhane’s “absolute insane focus on the quality of the beer” was honed via 20 years of home brewing. The recipes flowing at Sidhe (pronounced “she”) are deliberately approachable, and they’re rooted in a devotion to empiricism. 

“I’m a born experimentalist and an analytical chemist by trade, so I document everything. If you can’t reproduce it, it’s not real, it didn’t happen. I’m not comfortable making a beer on randomness.”

Less scientific are the ritual Wiccan blessings bestowed upon the taproom, a process she says drives out “the ickies” — negativity, bad energy — and encourages camaraderie (“can’t hurt”). Inspired by the Irish pub model, Sidhe exudes warm, neighborhood-y vibes. A towering stack of board games lends a church basement feel, as does the emphasis on families and dogs. The stage regularly hosts music, plus comedy, drag, and burlesque shows.

Payne Reliever, the flagship Bohemian pilsner, is a winking nod to Payne Avenue’s long-shuttered and notorious biker bar/strip joint of the same name.

“If you mention the name to anyone around you, they giggle, then they buy the beer,” Culhane says. “We’re very sex-positive here and we also really acknowledge the history of east St. Paul.”

The rest of the beer list, like the bar itself, is egalitarian. You’ll find, among others, the Barking Cat Belgian, the Dark Moon Rising dry stout, and just one IPA (Culhane bemoans “American hop abuse”).

“I make beer that’s approachable on purpose — I don’t do big hop. I don’t do overwhelming anything. I don’t do weirdness,” Culhane says. “What I do are solid, recognizable craft styles that wouldn’t be intimidating to your Bud Light drinker that walks in for the first time. This product is for everyone.”

With her current two-barrel system, Culhane runs the smallest production brewery in Minnesota, but perhaps not for long. She’s preparing to relocate to a new, larger, and “considerably better” location somewhere in St. Paul, with a new brand name and a crowdfunding campaign coming soon.

Expect Sidhe’s principled spirit of inclusivity to remain unchanged — “You can have a dick here, just don’t be one,” Culhane quips.

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