Welcome to the ‘suds-burbs’

Metro-area brewers plan to quench the thirsts of craft beer drinkers

073113_Lift Bridge BreweryThe alchemy of malt, barley, hops, yeast and water is producing liquid gold in Twin Cities suburbs.

Craft beer is being brewed in Stillwater, Minnetonka, St. Louis Park, Brooklyn Center, Roseville, Lino Lakes, with breweries planned in other suburbs. Lift Bridge Brewery – the first brewery in Stillwater since Prohibition, the company claims – produces craft beer for the St. Croix Valley.

“They’re popping up like crazy,” Michael Agnew, an adjunct professor at the University of Minnesota, who teaches a craft beer course, said of craft breweries in Minnesota.

In a sense, the growth of small breweries is as much a leap back as forward. A century or so ago, small breweries dotted Minnesota. Little Falls had Little Falls Brewing. Pine City boasted Buselmeyer Brewery. Sauk Centre had Ahrentz & Co. Caledonia was home to the Philip Wagner brewery, and the P. Schebach brewery, according to Manfred Friedrich and Donald Bull’s Register of United States Breweries 1876 to 1976.

According to the Department of Public Safety, the state currently has 62 licensed malt beverage manufacturers. Six are large breweries – such as Surly Brewing Co. in Brooklyn Center, rolling out about 20,000 barrels of beer last year – with 37 small breweries and 19 retail brew pubs.

Small breweries
specializing in variety

The number of small breweries has shot up. Between 2010 and 2012, DPS issued 26 small brewery licenses.

Surly Brewing Company President Omar Ansari recalled a different brewing scene seven years ago when Surly began brewing.

“We were only the second production brewery in the Twin Cities,” Ansari said.
Agnew and others view the growth of the craft brewing industry as reflecting the maturation of the American palate.

“You’re talking about an almost infinite number of variations,” Dan Schwarz, CEO, owner, of Lift Bridge Brewery in Stillwater, said of flavors achievable through shadings of ingredients, duration of brewing and other factors.

The Brewers Association, representing the craft brewing industry, defines more than 100 kinds of beer.

“They’re making millions and millions of barrels of beer, and it all tastes the same,” Zac Carpenter, owner and co-founder of Bad Weather Brewing Co. in Minnetonka, said of big brewer brands. “Whereas with small craft brewers, you’re buying flavor.”
Not that all craft brewers are dismissive of big brewers. As technicians, they admire the ability of big brewers to produce beer at different breweries with consistent tastes.

Jason Schoneman, of Steel Toe Brewing in St. Louis Park, with a smile, described big-brand beers as “ethanol delivery systems.” There is a time and place for all beers, he added.

“On a really hot day when you’re out working, that might be the right time to have one of those beers,” Schoneman said, noting the lower alcohol level compared to some craft beers.

But while admiring technical expertise, craft beer brewers, often former home brewers, leave a sense they’d rather be reaching for something unique.
“I don’t know how many Budweisers I’ve drank over the last five years,” Schwarz said when asked. “Not many,” he said.

As might be expected in a growing market, individual craft brewers have different stories and different strategies.

Lift Bridge raises the bar
on barrel production

Lift Bridge operates at a different level. The brewery rolled out about 3,400 barrels of beer last year, but is on pace this year to produce as much as 6,000 barrels.
“It’s a big jump,” Schwarz said. We invested in some new equipment this year. And that’s really moved us forward quite a bit.”

Lift Bridge, located on Tower Drive about a block north of Minnesota 36, has a spacious taproom.

“It’s really an opportunity to sit down with the customer and talk to them about your beers,” Schwarz said. “I think that’s where the largest value lies,” he said.

Over its five years of business, Lift Bridge has seen its distribution increase from seven accounts to being available at more than 1,000 locations.

Farm Girl, a pale golden ale, is the brewery’s flagship beer and its most popular. But its menu of beers is extensive. Indeed, one beer, an English-Style barleywine ale, The Commander, is aged in bourbon barrels.

One driving factor behind the growth of craft brewing, Schwarz believes, is the community nature of local beer.

“It’s a focal point, a place where people can come together,” he said.
Schwarz is upbeat about the future.

“I think we’re going to continue to grow for awhile. It’s hard to see an end to the growth at this point,” he said of Lift Bridge.

Surly to expand
into Minneapolis

Brooklyn Center’s Surly Brewing is currently the fourth largest brewer in Minnesota, according to the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal. And they may stay in fourth for awhile, Ansari said. Cold Spring Brewing Co., ranked third, brews about 75,000 barrels of beer per year.

But Surly is on the move. The company recently released the drawings of its proposed $20 million destination brewery to be built in the Prospect Park neighborhood of Minneapolis.

“Hopefully, come late fall, we’ll be pushing some dirt around,” Ansari said.
Once built, the destination brewery, which will a have restaurant and be a stage for events, will also allow Surly to brew more beer.

Steel Toe grows
gradually in beer market

At Steel Toe, Schoneman, of St. Louis Park, is guiding his brewery along a more gradual track.

“And that’s by design. I’m in no hurry to grow,” he said.

Producing about 1,000 barrels of beer last year – a barrel being 31 gallons – Steel Toe beer is available at about 35 restaurants and a dozen or so liquor stores in the metro area.

“They’re all selling very well,” Schoneman said of beers like Provider Ale, Rainmaker Double Red Ale and Size 7, the brewery’s top seller.

“With Steel Toe, it’s all about the quality – keep the quality of the beer really, really high,” Schoneman said.

The name of the brewery, Steel Toe, refers to the workingman. He’s worn steel-toed boots the majority of his working life, Schoneman said.

Bad Weather focuses
on seasonal beers

While Steel Toe has been in business two years, Bad Weather only began brewing late winter.

Carpenter, of Farmington, head brewer, along with business manager Joe Giambruno, has an arrangement with Lucid Brewing and Badger Hill Brewing that has all three using the same facility in Minnetonka.

“This isn’t a permanent solution for anybody here,” Carpenter said.
Beyond a certain metrological accuracy for Minnesota, the brewery’s name, Bad Weather, evokes a business model.

“Bad Weather Brewing is focusing on the seasonality of beer,” Carpenter said. “That’s a big focus for us.”

Currently, draft Bad Weather beer is available in about 50 bars and restaurants in Minneapolis and St. Paul. The company looks to begin bottling in a few months.

Market looking good
for craft beers

Agnew is bullish about the market for craft beers.

A new generation of beer drinkers picked up their first mug of beer at a time when unique beers were available. They expect it.

“Nationally, we have a great reputation,” Agnew said of craft beer quality in Minnesota.

According to the Brewers Association, craft brewers sold an estimated 13.2 million barrels of beer in 2012, almost 2 million more than the year before. Nationally, the craft-brewing share of beer sales was 6.5 percent by volume, about 10 percent by dollar.

Ansari, citing the market share, sees opportunity. Perhaps not limitless, but big.
“When you walk into a bar, there are so many tap handles. When you walk into a liquor store, there’s only so much cooler space,” Ansari said. (But) if you’re brewing good beer, you’re always growing.

“I just don’t see people who drink craft beer going back to drinking Budweiser,” he added. “Once you start drinking it, it’s hard to go back.”

Tim Budig can be reached at [email protected]