Northbound Smokehouse: Free beer for life has staying power

The three co-owners of Northbound Smokehouse: chef Bryce Strickler; manager Amy Johnson, and brewer Jamie Robinson.

The three co-owners of Northbound Smokehouse: chef Bryce Strickler; manager Amy Johnson, and brewer Jamie Robinson.

It was an ambitious goal. To raise the final amount needed to open a small brewpub in Minneapolis, the owners of Northbound Smokehouse offered investors of $1,000 or more free beer for life. Did it work? Oh, did it ever.

We talked recently with Northbound brewer and part owner of the new south Minneapolis hot spot, Jamie Robinson, who brought us up to speed on how the unique business model is paying off for the six-month-old brewery, and what's coming next.


It may initially seem counterintuitive that in order to make money a brewery would turn to giving away beer for free. But of course, that isn't precisely what they're doing.

The seed of the idea had initially been planted in the minds of two-thirds of the ownership team -- Robinson, and chef Bryce Strickler -- when the two worked at the Town Hall Brewery. The Town Hall has a Pint Club that offers its members, in part, a lifetime membership and free beer on Saturdays. Robinson and Strickler liked the core of the idea but weren't sure how to apply it to their startup.

"We had already bartered -- given 'free beer for life' in exchange for some of our printing and graphics work," says Robinson. "Then we thought, why not expand the offer to investors?"

When, suddenly, the bank retracted a sizable financial offer, the seed of a good idea met with necessity, and the "free beer for life" investment came to life.

Northbound Smokehouse's brewer, Jamie Robinson.

Northbound Smokehouse's brewer, Jamie Robinson.

The Hot Dish was curious if any club members were yet breaking the bank -- exceeding the Northbound's arithmetic for profitability.

"The opposite," Robinson tells us. "We're only giving away about 17 free beers per day."

This is a "drop in the bucket" when compared to their regular beer sales, which have been so good that Northbound is already doubling its brewing capacity.

And in the meantime, Northbound continues to collaborate with other local breweries. In addition to its own brew, Northbound offers Surly, Fulton, and Indeed. And true to its name, Northbound smoked some of the ingredients for Indeed's Imperial Porter. The beer was available for a limited time at Northbound and paired so nicely with its chili that Robinson confesses, "It's what I had for lunch almost everyday."

As spring creeps in, Robinson gave us a little insight into what the expanded brewing capacity is going to lead to. In part, they are offering several new hefeweizens, including a strawberry hefeweizen in June, and a peach in August. Later in the summer, watch for some summer pale ales with fun, baseball-themed names.

Also coming soon -- a favorite for Minneapolitans and St. Paulites -- an outdoor patio. Robinson says construction was completed in December and "we're ready to open it as soon as people want to sit outside."

As for the "free beer for life" club, the Hot Dish is sorry to report that admission is closed. However, we have concluded that the heartbreak of missing the chance to invest is made easier by drinking a full-bodied, full-priced beer and pouting over a delicious chicken sandwich.