The four partners of Lift Bridge Brewery are bringing some exiting new craft beers to the Twin Cities in general and Stillwater in particular. City Pages caught up with three of four at the Flat Earth Brewing Company, where Lift Bridge makes its beer for now. Next on the company's agenda is setting up its own bona fide brewery. [PHOTO CREDIT: Becca Dilley]
CITY PAGES: What was the first beer you guys committed to producing?
DAN SCHWARZ: We started with the Farm Girl Saison because it was a style that not a lot of people were producing. So we did that first."
CP: Is there anything else like it on the market?
SCHWARZ: There's one done by Surly CynicAle. That's their take on a saison, but they're very different beers.
BRAD GLYNN: Ours is a little lighter. They probably went heavy on the wheat.
SCHWARZ: The Blue Door Pub has just been selling tons of the Farm Girl. In fact they're selling the most. For a 14 or 15-table establishment, that's pretty amazing.
CP: How many restaurants and bars are selling your beer right now?
SCHWARZ: I believe we're in nine or ten. There are four in the Stillwater area, and a couple in St. Paul and a couple in Minneapolis. Right now, we're doing draft accounts only. We hope to be able to do [bottled beers] in the next year or so. For now, we're taking it one step at a time. You've got to create your label art. We've been working with a design firm in Stillwater on our art, a place called Webaloo. They did all of our logos, our artwork, our website, and they're actually hosting our website, also.
CP: How'd you guys come up with the name of your company?
SCHWARZ: It seemed like a pretty obvious fit. Brad and Steve actually came up with it they wanted it to reflect Stillwater and the St. Croix River valley and the icon of the bridge seemed like something good to latch onto. We want people to much like when you're drinking Corona on the beach, you kind of associate that time with the beer, and that beer tastes better back here because you associate it with those memories. We'd like people to come to Stillwater and try the beer, and bring that good memory back with them, and remember it the next time they have the beer.
CP: What does the St. Croix River Valley mean to you guys, in terms of culture?
SCHWARZ: I've lived in St. Cloud, St. Louis Park, Minneapolis, St. Paul I've kind of bisected the Twin Cities, right through the middle. I found that Stillwater had a friendlier atmosphere, and even kind of a throwback pace, almost like 1950ish. It's a little slower, people are friendlier, they wave 'hi'... People aren't just racing around."
CP: How'd you get started in brewing, and how'd you guys meet?
BRAD GLYNN: I grew up in the brewing industry; my dad worked for City Brewery in La Crosse. I was home brewing when I was 19 years old. Steve had home brewed and our other partner Jim [Pierson] had, too. But we all kind of got out of it, independently.
And then Steve and I had worked at the same company. I worked there 8 years, he's worked there 16. And we had offices right next to each other, and we'd have lunch together and talk beer together. And we said: 'We need to start brewing again. But this time, not just as a hobby. Let's do something with it.' So every day we just talked about beer, and we'd brew at my place some nights and host some tasting parties with family and friends, that kind of thing. And then it just kind of evolved. We kicked around ideas for names, that kind of stuff. As it evolved and these guys [Jim and Dan] got on board, two plus years ago. A lot of planning, a lot of meetings, ideas, discussion, drinking...
STEVE RINKER: Brad and I have always been passionate about food and drinks and beer... I remember at lunch one day Brad and I were talking about brewing, and I said, 'You know, that's funny, I was thinking about getting my home brewing going again.’ He said: 'F that! Let's start a brewery!' After we finished lunch I called my wife and said: 'Sue, Brad and I are going to start a brewery.' And she said: 'That's nice, honey. OK, I'll talk to you later.'
But since then, we haven't missed a day yet. We started trying out 5-gallon pilots, setting up a one-barrel system... now we're looking to build our own [brewery], with our wealth of construction experience and knowledge of brewing melded together. Brad and I put in the bottling line over at Summit, and we've done all their maintenance, and they do 2- and 3-hundred barrel vessels.
CP: Has this been a big financial gamble for you guys?
SCHWARZ: I think our biggest investment has been time. I don't even care to guess how many hours we've put into this. There certainly is a financial cost, too, moving from batches costing $100 or so to batches costing thousands of dollars. There is an outlay. There is some risk. I guess I always looked at it that the risk is minimal, worst case scenario we end up with a lot of beer we have to drink.
One of the things I think Brad and Steve put together and did right is to get friends and family and people from the neighborhood to try the beer and give feedback. And they said: 'Look, you've got to make this if you make it, we'll buy it.'
We've just kept moving forward incrementally, and pretty soon we found ourselves knee deep in it.
GLYNN: I think probably the issue is that to buy a place like this totally equipped is a lot of risk, it's a bigger gamble. For us it seemed to work out really well to do the contract brewing where we work with Jeff [Williamson, at Flat Earth] and ramp up slowly. We get to learn everything in the process. We're fine tuning our plan.
CP: What kind of hours do you guys put in?
SCHWARZ: There's keg cleaning, there's deliveries we're self-distributing, so we take the kegs out to the bars and lug them up and down the stairs. So brewing is probably the smallest piece. It takes 6-8 hours to do a batch, but there's probably double that in terms of other things that need to be done. I think there's probably 100 hours a week between the four of us. All of us are working other jobs. We hope that this will go well enough that some or all of us will be able to brew full time. It's great. It's really fun to do.
RINKER: Since we self-distribute, we have to have strong backs lugging these half-barrels around is not kids' work. The kegs weigh about 160 pounds filled, and you have to go up and down wooden stairs and you're wondering if they'll even hold you and the beer at the same time. Distributors earn their money, I'll tell you, that's one thing we did find out. One thing about self-distribution is that it allows you to maintain personal contact with the bar owner, find out what he's happy with, what he needs...
CP: You guys make about 30 barrels a month, but you sell 34, right?
RINKER: Yeah, we're chasing our own tail a bit.
GLYNN: Brewing is supposedly recession-proof. We'll test that. We view craft beer as an affordable luxury. It's not like people are buying they might not buy a Mercedes, they'll buy a Ford Focus but the difference between a great beer and a marginal beer at the liquor store is a couple of dollars. Same thing with going out to the bar. Sales have been great so far.
RINKER: It is actually one of the easiest things in the world to do, is to sell beer. 'Would you like to buy some of my beer?' If they say: 'No,' I'm not worried. They'll eventually come around. At this point, even when people are interested, we have to say 'no, but we'll put you on our list.'
We don't like to say that, but we really are that tapped right now. We always want to have that small-town feel, but as we grow out of the St. Croix Valley, we want to make sure to hire people from the beer community who have a passion for beer, who will go to those accounts on a regular basis, drink with the owners, buy rounds for the house and make sure everything is good, that we're not sending out under-carbonated beer or what-have-you.
CP: What kind of feedback do you guys get?
GLYNN: Customers really want local. Along with Jeff, we're memebers of the Minnesota Craft Brewers' Guild. Really, we're all part of the team towards the common goal, drink local.
There's a big market for beer, and it's only just begun in terms of the craft beer market. In Stillwater, where we're at, tourists will come to the bar, have a burger and the first thing they'll ask is: 'What's local? What do you have on tap that's local?' And typically the answer is: 'Summit, Surly,' that kind of thing.
But now the feedback is great, because they can say: 'We've got something from right here.' So people will come to Stillwater, and walk along the river and look at the liftbridge, and it's so relaxing... and that's what we're trying to get out in our beer this handcrafted quality, this affordable luxury.
SCHWARZ: We definitely want to be the hometown brew of Stillwater. We just talked about the affordable luxury... we want to have a couple of really good beers, instead of a case that's not so good. We just want to make quality beer that's good and easy to drink.
CP: What's your overall goal, in terms of the kind of beers you want to produce?
GLYNN: We're trying to do more balanced beers, rather than something way out there. Something more drinkable, something you're going to order more than one of. The Farmgirl's something you're going to drink a few of. But some of the saisons from Belgium that are 7 or 8 percent alcohol and really thick you might only have one. With our pale ale, that's something we tried to do, too not a totally overwhelming hoppy pale ale. But more of a classic style, more balanced with some German malts to smooth it out. And we also added grapefruit peel. The Cascade hops bring a citrus flavor, and the grapefruit kind of plays off of that.
The only people who really pick it up are wine people. They'll drink it and say: 'I'm tasting grapefruit in here.' Great palate. It's a balanced beer. A lot of complexity, but you can have two or three of these if you want. Our seasonal beer now is the Harvestor that's a fresh hop ale we brew with hops from my garden and a neighbor's garden. We brewed it right here several weeks ago, and threw in a big sack of hops we picked the previous day, right in the boil kettle. We got that at a bit higher gravity, 7.2 percent alcohol."
RINKER: It turned out so well. Any time you use fresh hops, you run the risk of bacterial infection. It was not infected, and the two bars that get it are lucky to get it on.
The standby for anyone is the Farm Girl. We developed that recipe so that when guys dragged their girlfriends along or their wives, there'd be a beer that appealed to the fairer sex. But what happened was, the guys would come up and go: 'I'll have another Farm Girl.' The saisons are the universal style. The next thing you know, it was our flagship people kept demanding it and demanding it.
We thought the name was kind of weird, but I said: 'The name has got to stay. People don't ask for a saison, they ask for a Farm Girl.' What's so bad about going up and saying: 'I'd like to have a Farm Girl?'
We have to change the name of our pale, the Pioneer. There are some legal ramifications, so we're going to have a meeting this Saturday to decide on a new name, we've spent a week and a half grinding out new names, so it's going to be tough. We do want to maintain that rustic, pioneer theme to our beers the whole agricultural aspect of our brew.
CP: Are you guys always pretty open to critical feedback on your beer?
RINKER: We're very open to criticism. We're our own worst... we don't come out with a brown ale just so we can have a brown ale. It has to be perfect. Our recipe's unique in that it has four kinds of nuts in the mash, to make it hazelnut brown... at our last tasting, it went over huge, so we're probably ready to have brown ale, but the beers we have out now are in such high demand that we can't fit another one in.
CP: How are you guys coping with the brewing lifestyle?
RINKER: 'Lifestyle' is a good term.
SCHWARZ: It's become a lifestyle. Our wives are beer widows, but they're super supportive. Obviously it wouldn't work if they weren't.