Like ships that pass in the night, Gavin Kaysen of the soon-to-be Merchant Restaurant in Minneapolis and Bob Roepke of Flat Earth Brewing Company in St. Paul were unlikely to meet from the very beginning. Gavin is not a beer drinker. Bob is a vegetarian who rarely dines out. Yet somehow, they've forged a delicious collaboration over the river, due in November.
We sat down with the both of them in Flat Earth's taproom on a Saturday afternoon to chat about Mercantile, the Flat Earth commissioned brew, as well as the role of a beer program, the perfect day off, and other fun tidbits. Spoiler alert: One of them was once on Maury Povich.
Hot Dish: Gavin, why and how did you get involved with Flat Earth Brewing Company? Gavin Kaysen: Sam, who sells beer for Flat Earth, approached us in a really smart way. He showed up at the restaurant one afternoon when I wasn't there, and he dropped off beer for all the construction guys. I came in the next day, and my whole construction team and subcontractors were like, "Hey, Chef, this guy from Flat Earth dropped some beers off," and I was like, "You guys can have 'em." I thought, "Oh, that's really smart, that's really nice."
So then I started to study Flat Earth Brewery a little bit, and I really kind of liked the authenticity of what I was reading. So I met Bob, Sam was there, and it was just a great connection. My whole thing was that I wanted to have somebody involved and a group of people involved that were as excited about creating something as I was, versus just throwing together some hops and this and that, and "We'll make your beer and off with you!" Like, it was a real collaboration, and that was pretty cool.
Tell us about the beer. We've heard that it's a Belgian dubbel, with some caramel notes and richness, and malts and hops from all over. Is there anything out there that's similar to what Mercantile will be?
Bob Roepke: Not really. This is a traditional recipe. The dubbels that are coming out now are complex, and almost overly complex to me, too much going on. I went traditional. Actually, after talking to Gavin, his description of "mercantile," which is awesome, like, that's a dude, right? That just grabs stuff from all over the place and then would sell it?
Roepke: So I was thinking about that, and thinking about coming up with a dubbel, and when we talked, it was just perfect timing. I switched up some of the malts, grabbin' em from different countries: Belgium, France, Germany, U.S. The hops are from Slovenia. So, basically, as if somebody went out and gathered all these ingredients.
So you're actually the merchant.
Kaysen: Exactly. That's the thing that's crazy, like, I don't think people have any idea, I mean, they will now, because you're gonna write about it, which is great, thank you, but I think people don't have any idea why it was made in that respect. Bob literally went out there, and grabbed all of these ingredients from all over the world. Then when he and I were talking about it, he was like, "Well, what do you want?" And I said, "I want something delicious and traditional, something that's reflective."
The whole concept of Mercantile being a dubbel was just because you (Bob) happened to be thinking of crafting a dubbel and then Gavin approached you, and it just magically fell into place?
Roepke: Part of it, yeah. The way he described his place, it just fit perfectly. It's a classier beer. Not everybody goes for dubbels, there's characteristics that yeast gives it, which is incredible. I feel like a lot of wine drinkers are gonna go for it. A perfect mesh. It's 7% alcohol, so it'll start to sneak up on people slowly.
Question for both of you, do you remember your first beer?
Kaysen: It was probably Budweiser. I had an uncle who drove Budweiser trucks, and actually, as a kid, he would give us 12-packs at Christmas. I'm sure it was Bud.
What about your first craft beer?
Kaysen: I think the very first one was Stone Brewery, in San Diego. Greg Koch was a really good friend of mine, and that was when Stone was still being produced out of a very small warehouse. It was like a moving warehouse; it was really weird. Now he has a huge thing.
What about you, Bob?
Roepke: Summit. It had a ton of flavor. Actually, I remember, growing up, my whole life, my dad would give me (I didn't have to ask) whatever. He'd give me a sip. Like, "Here, try this."
Will Mercantile be sold year-round at the restaurant?
Kaysen: We're gonna see. We'll kind of play with it a little bit. Thirty kegs were made, so I think we're gonna kind of see how the collaboration takes us. Maybe we do thirty kegs and when we run out, we run out. Then Bob and I will sit down and say, "Ok, what's next?" You know? Then we do a different one.
So people won't be able to come to Flat Earth and get Mercantile? Roepke: Yeah, we haven't discussed that yet. If Gavin doesn't want to...
Kaysen: For now, I'm totally open to do whatever, and vice versa, that's kind of the fun part. You know, like actually finding people and companies that just do that. It's just hard, you know, it's a trust thing. Like, at the end of the day, what do they have to gain, what do we have to gain, and then what's the loss out of it? What's important? Flat Earth has a brand that they need to protect. We have a brand that we're trying to create, so, you know, we're lucky enough to kind of piggyback on their brand a little bit, and promote them while promoting the beer in our restaurant.
So do you think that restaurant and brewery collaborations are gonna be the next big thing?
Kaysen: I hope so.
Roepke: That's why this is so exciting, because there are a lot of brewery collaborations.
And restaurant collaborations: pop ups, etc.
Roepke:Yeah, and when he pitched this idea, I was like, "Yeah! This is brilliant."
Kaysen: It's funny, I never really thought about it until you just said it right now. To me, it makes sense, because we can't survive at our bar at Merchant without a good beer program. I was talking to a friend of mine the other day, and I was telling her about the beer and how it tastes, and she goes, "I can't wait to taste it, I just love a really good beer." See? Like, I just love really good food. Just like she just loves a really good beer. Well, then, let's just have the food complement the beer.
What kind of dishes will complement that beer?
Kaysen: We're testing out a rye version of a tarte flambeé; it's got a lot of rye and caraway. It's got our own purple mustard, this grape mustard out of concord grapes, and we're making our own ham, so it's basically got a cheese spread on it, and egg, so it does a gratiné, and then onions, Merchant City Ham, mustard, watercress. I think that would be really great with the beer. It's just the sort of sweetness, the pepperiness from the watercress and the mustard. [page]
What are your thoughts on cooking with beer?
Kaysen: I love it. We have a dish that we've done in the past, and we won't do it on the first menu, but I'm sure we'll bring it back. What we usually do it is we take a rye bread or a pumpernickel, and you cook it down in beer and caramelized vegetables. Then you use a dark and thick beer and reduce it down into the bread, and you basically make a mush, or a puree out of it.
Roepke: That sounds really good.
Kaysen: I usually serve that with salmon, dill, onions, potatoes, and mustard. It all makes sense. Just think the dexterity and complexities of what beer gives us. It has different notes. Like if you wanted that barley flavor in a dish, how do we incorporate that?
What about you, Bob?
Kaysen: He's like, "I just drink it."
Roepke: I wish I had the time, but I come here, and I'm here all day, and then I come home, and by that time I'm too tired and unfortunately eat some really crappy food. So that's why going out to Tilia was awesome. It's rare that I actually get to go out and experience good dishes.
What is your favorite smell, and what does it remind you of?
Roepke: I actually like fresh tobacco, but I've never smoked in my entire life. There's something about it. It might be from my grandparents. One of them used to smoke a pipe, maybe that's where it came from. I can't recall where that initial memory was from.
Kaysen: I don't know about a favorite, but one that I can't get enough of is the smell of like, mold? But not bad mold? If that makes any sense. Musty. Mustiness. Like going into a cave. Or fall, when you walk out of your house and the leaves have been sitting on your grass... I think when I smell it, It reminds me as a kid of playing in the leaves. We were probably raking them and they were musty. We didn't give a shit; we would just jump in the leaves.
Roepke: I feel like I want to change my answer.
Roepke: Hmm. Leaves.
Kaysen: I love leaves.
Roepke: Dry leaves.
Kaysen: Ugh, it's amazing.
Roepke: I'd always say, it smells like my birthday, because I was born on Halloween. That first fall day, you just get that smell.
Kaysen: It's the best.
Roepke: Probably my favorite smell.
Kaysen: And you know that. Right when you smell it, you know it. You walk outside and you smell it, and you know it's fall.
If you were to create a slogan for your life, what would it be?
Roepke: Enjoy life. Don't stress out about the little things. Just roll with it. It's life, don't make it overly complicated.
Kaysen: There's this quote, it's anonymous, but it's one of my favorites. "The two things that define you are your patience when you have nothing and your attitude when you have everything."
What is your favorite guilty pleasure?
Kaysen: Rice Krispy bars.
Roepke: What makes it guilty?
Kaysen: A whole pan of Rice Krispy bars is pretty guilty, bro.
Roepke: It's hard to shame me.
What is one personal fact that nobody would ever guess about you?
Roepke: Probably that I'm a vegetarian. That, or.... Umm, I don't want to talk about it.
Hot Dish: Talk about it.
Roepke: [laughs] I was on Maury Povich.
Wait, were you in the audience? Or...
Roepke: I was literally on the stage.
Roepke: I shouldn't have brought that up....
Roepke: It was "Look At Me Now." This girl that had a crush on me had invited me back like, "Hey, look at me now!" It was pretty uneventful, so they cut a lot of it out. I was like, "Hmm, yeah, cool." I was real chill.
Kaysen: [continues laughing]
Roepke: I guess that doesn't do well for TV. But I did it for the experience. It went on for a long time when it was live, but when I watched it later, they cut most of it. I wasn't entertaining, I guess.
Kaysen: They wanted you to drop on one knee, like "Will you marry me? You're amazing."
Roepke: She was like, "Hey, you wanna go on a date?" And I said "No." But they cut that all out. I mean, to me, it was all for the experience. It was something new, that I had never done. I was playing around in the back, in the green room, like when they're filming you, that's usually when people are looking all tough and stuff. They're filming me, I'm winking and stuff, but then as soon as I got out there, I kinda got stage fright. Then I relaxed, and was like "Oh, cool."
Kaysen: All the producers were probably like, "He's gonna be great." Then you got out on stage and they were like... fuck.
Were you surprised when the girl walked out? Do they tell you beforehand?
Roepke: I told them I wouldn't do it if I didn't know why I was there. They told me there was a girl from my past that wants to, whatever. I was like, "Eh."
Kaysen: When was that?
Roepke: I don't even remember. I was in college. Long time ago. 10 years.
What about you, Gavin?
Kaysen: Ha. I mean. I don't even know... like...
Roepke: Where did you go to high school?
Kaysen: Holy Angels.
Roepke: I read your profile and saw that you were from Bloomington. That's where I'm from.
Kaysen: Whoa! Oh. Here's one. I failed out of college.
Where did you go?
Kaysen: University of Wisconsin Osh Kosh. I mean, I guess I didn't fail out, I just left after a year. I got the academic pink card after my first year.
Kaysen: I just wanted to cook. It was really my choice.
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