Brau Brothers, Flat Earth, and Lift Bridge present new school of microbrews

Jeff Williamson, owner of Flat Earth, brews in the Belgian style

Jeff Williamson, owner of Flat Earth, brews in the Belgian style

As it turns out, the three brothers behind Brau Brothers Brewery, southwest Minnesota's newest microbrewery, really are named Brau. And when your surname is the German word for beer, the profession is practically fated, jokes Dustin Brau, the middle brother and head brewer who runs the business with his siblings Trevor and Brady and several other family members. On a Saturday morning a few weeks ago, Dustin offered me a tour of the brewery and a sample of his seasonal Oatmeal Stout. Taking the lead from Dustin's father, Dale, who wheeled past us pushing a keg with one hand and carrying a beer in the other, I said yes to both.

Dustin looks a bit like a graduate student, with his buzz haircut; small, round glasses; and, on the day we met, a mechanic-style shirt with a Brau Brothers logo. He says he's in his 30s, but if he asked me to sell him alcohol I would definitely card him. In 1998, after graduating from college with a degree in hotel and restaurant administration, Dustin, an avid home brewer, opened a brewpub called the Brauhaus in his hometown of Lucan, a blip on the map between Redwood Falls and Marshall. By 2006, he had sold the brewpub and launched the Brau Brothers Brewing Company just a few blocks away. The Braus intended to focus on customers in southwestern Minnesota, but they've become successful enough that they're now distributed across the Midwest, including to many Twin Cities bars and liquor stores. "If it weren't for the internet, this place wouldn't exist," Dustin says.

Brau Brothers' offerings—they make five year-round beers, plus several seasonals—are rather eclectic, likely because of Dustin's brewpub background, which encourages a small-batch, experimental approach. While beer has only four basic ingredients—water, grain, hops, and yeast—its various formulations can create seemingly infinite flavor profiles. Dustin credits Surly Brewing for helping spur the local thirst to taste as many of them as possible. "Surly pushed the limits and made other beers more mainstream," he says, noting that even the most conservative drinkers were encouraged to at least trade their mass-market lager for a more interesting Summit or Schell.

Brau's most notable beer is arguably its Scotch Ale, which beer historian Doug Hoverson, author of Land of Amber Waters, believes stacks up so favorably against Scottish imports that he put it in the starting lineup of his "Minnesota Beer All-Star Team." After sampling the unusual brew, I too was quite taken by its unique sweet and slightly smoky flavor (the malt is smoked with peat). Though they're totally different beers, I also liked Brau's smooth, malty Cream Stout and the light, delicately carbonated Strawberry Wheat. I realize I just lost about half of you on that one, but it'd be a shame to dismiss it as a typical "chick beer." It has a heavenly scent, and its flavor isn't nearly as sticky-sweet as that of many of the artificial-tasting fruit beers on the market. On a chilly spring day, this is a beer that could inspire one to turn up the thermostat, throw on a pair of shorts, and push the lawnmower across the living room carpet.

As Dustin explained how his brewing operation had been assembled, I was struck by how closely the Braus' approach resembled that of a self-reliant farmer. Finding equipment can be a major challenge for mid-size brewers like Brau, as most commercial systems are built for large-scale operations. (Microbreweries, by most definitions, are those that produce 15,000 barrels or less each year; Brau's capacity is about 4,000 to 5,000 barrels.) Instead, the Braus constructed their tunnel pasteurizer and bottling machine from a deli-sandwich production line purchased on eBay, and built their keg-washer from a modified Hobart commercial dishwasher. "Being in Lucan, you can't pick up the phone and call over the robotics engineer," Dustin acknowledges.

Brau Brothers' biggest advantage may be its rural location, which Dustin hopes will enable them to become the first American brewery to make a single-origin "estate" beer from locally grown hops and barley. Like wine, beer can have its own terroir, based on the way soil and climate affect the character of its ingredients. If this year's hop yard and barley patch prove as successful as last year's initial planting, we can expect a batch of Brau Brothers' fresh hop ale on tap by the end of the year.

On a recent Thursday afternoon, fans of Flat Earth Brewing gathered around the open garage door of an unmarked warehouse near the Pearson's candy factory off West Seventh Street in St. Paul to sample new beers and buy growlers. Flat Earth, which is also a family-run operation, was launched in winter 2007 by Jeff Williamson, a former assistant brewer at the acclaimed Town Hall brewpub in Minneapolis, and his wife, Cathie, who set out to brew beer styles not often produced in Minnesota. (Minnesota's respected brewpub scene, which also includes Great Waters in St. Paul and Fitger's Brewhouse in Duluth, among others, deserves credit for training and inspiring many of our new brewers.)

According to Cathie, there's an unwritten rule among Minnesota brewers to stake their own territory and to avoid competing with similar styles of beer. (One exception may be Summit's recent introduction of Horizon Red Ale, which approaches Surly's characteristic hoppiness.)

Flat Earth, for the most part, has specialized in Belgian-style beers, which is a bit like saying they've specialized in making a whole lot of really good beer, as the Belgians are known for being meticulous brewers who make hundreds of styles. I like Flat Earth's Belgian Pale Ale, a light but serious beer that isn't nearly as bitter as other pale ales, and which also comes in a seasonal apricot version, which adds a hint of juicy sweetness.

Flat Earth's beers tend to be flavorful but not as outrageous as their conspiracy-theory-referencing names, such as Black Helicopter Coffee Stout; Bermuda Triangle, a high-alcohol Belgian, or tripel, beer; and Element 115, a California-style beer that originated during the Gold Rush but is rarely brewed anymore. The Williamsons named their Cygnus X-1 Porter after a song by their favorite band, Rush, and made it with malt rye—a grain that's as closely associated with Canada as its most famous band—which adds a slight whiskey-like dryness. Although Flat Earth's brewers have infused their porters with raspberry, peppercorn, peppermint, and hazelnut, and even oak-aged them by adding wood chips to the beer, their most unusually flavored brew is probably their Rode Haring Flanders Ale, which is the only sour ale being commercially bottled in Minnesota, as far as I know. It's tart and funky, with plenty of pucker, and it may be the local beer most likely to win over diehard wine drinkers.

Flat Earth's business has grown to the point that the Williamsons are getting investors to help expand the brewery. In the past couple of years they've experienced their share of growing pains, including a substantial setback involving a faulty bottling system and a full recall of bottles from retail shelves. At present, Flat Earth's beers are available on tap or in 22-ounce "bomber" bottles they have to fill manually, but which can encourage buyers to try a new beer without getting stuck with five bottles of a brew they don't like.

Fortunately, Cathie says, the other Minnesota brewers have been extremely supportive, and they stay in regular contact to share advice or lobby for legislative concerns. Instead of viewing one another as competition, most brewers I spoke with seemed to think more microbreweries will only turn more customers on to craft beer. "Everybody keeps setting the bar higher, but it makes our beer better and better," Cathie says.

In September 2008, Smalley's Caribbean Barbeque debuted the first public pint of Lift Bridge beer, brewed by a group of five friends in the Stillwater area. Two co-workers who started home brewing together initiated the venture a few years ago, and today the group is contract brewing a few times a month at Flat Earth's facility.

So far, Lift Bridge has produced two year-round beers. One is the Farm Girl saison, a French/Belgian beer that Lifter Dan Schwarz describes as a refreshing spring beer for farm workers. The beer had to have a high enough alcohol content to keep through the summer, he says, but not be so strong that it kept the workers from coming back after lunch. Farm Girl has a golden glow, a slight sweetness, and a hint of orange-peel bitterness on the finish. ("We see a lot of women like to drink our beer," Schwarz notes.) Farm Girl's sibling, Kimono Girl, is the same saison infused with lemongrass and loganberry to add fruitier, floral notes. While the Lifters have experimented with infusions of hibiscus, rose petals, and even roasted garlic, they want their main beers to be easy drinkers. "A lot of craft brewers tend to go toward the edge or extreme," Schwarz says. "We're trying to make something a little more balanced." (For events such as the Craft Brewer's Guild's Winterfest, though, they reserve the right to serve beers like the Facemeltör, a high-alcohol aged barley wine. "It would warm your whole face," says Schwarz. "It was a fun beer to do—but it's not good to have so much access to it.")

Right now, one thing that isn't balanced at Lift Bridge is supply and demand. They're presently serving about 20 accounts but have received many more requests than they can fulfill. Schwarz insists they're not limiting quantity to lend the beer an air of exclusivity—they're not velvet-rope types. "It's hard for me to say, 'I'm sorry, I can't get you beer,'" he admits.

With Lift Bridge's head brewer, Brad Glynn, recently becoming the company's first full-time staffer, the group hopes to have its own brewery within a year. They've just contracted with Wisconsin's Point Brewery to have them produce Farm Girl in bottles this June, around the same time they plan to release their summer seasonal, a lingonberry-infused tripel whose pinkish cast inspired its name, Minnesota Tan.

And to think this beer could have easily been Wisconsin Tan, had the Lifters decided to cross the border and brew in a state with more business-friendly regulations and liquor laws. (In addition to grocery store and Sunday sales restrictions, Minnesota brewers are frustrated by several more laws, including one that separates breweries and brewpubs, so that brewpubs can't sell to a liquor store or another bar and breweries can't sell pints.) Many see these restrictions as a major reason why Minnesota has been slow to nurture its local craft beer market. Lanny Hoff, an importer of high-end European beers who has spent many years monitoring the specialty beer market, says that in the recent past, Minnesota beer consumers have been further ahead of the curve than their suppliers. "They're ready for anything, but they haven't had a lot of choices for specialty breweries," he says. "In this market, we've had consumers that have been willing to support these beers, and now we finally have beers to offer them."

Hoff believes that the easiest way to get consumers excited about beer is to have something new in front of them all the time, and Minnesota's breweries seem happy to oblige. In the future, I expect we'll see even more types of beer and more ways to drink them. Cask ales, or beers that undergo a secondary fermentation in a cask and dispense the beer by gravity instead of carbon dioxide, are an emerging trend beloved by beer geeks for their depth of flavor. Cellared beers, which can be aged for several years, are becoming more popular, as are restaurant beer dinners and beer-food pairings. In fact, since beer offers a wider range of flavors than wine, it can be even more interesting to match with food. As craft beer makes a stronger play for the lucrative drink-with-dinner market, wine had better watch out.