Brewer Profile: Steve Finnie, formerly of Grand Rounds Brewpub

Flight of beers at Grand Rounds Brewpub // Photo by Brian Kaufenberg

Flight of beers at Grand Rounds Brewpub // Photo by Brian Kaufenberg

Following his own personal experience with injury, Steve pursued a bachelor’s degree in sports science with an emphasis in sport psychology and had the chance to present his undergraduate dissertation at a sport psychology conference in Monterey, California. The experience in the U.S. led Steve to apply to and attend a master’s program in counseling psychology with an emphasis in athletics at Springfield College, just outside of Boston.

That’s when his journey into craft beer truly started. He would meet friends at the bar to watch rugby matches and have a few pints of Guinness. With a strong craft beer scene in the Boston area in 1996, Steve made an easy transition into craft stouts and porters.

After graduating from the master’s program, he moved to Rochester, Minnesota to do research at Mayo Clinic in 1998. When he arrived he found the craft beer options in his new home were lacking, to say the least. To slake his thirst for different flavors, Steve picked up homebrewing.

Steve met a fellow UK transplant, Mike Gough, at Mayo Clinic also looking for beer options, and the two of them brewed their first batch of homebrew in the winter of 1999. “I was intrigued by it. I knew that you had to be really sanitary and clean, so as a joke we had the lab coats, we had the goggles on, and I followed [Mike’s] lead,” Steve remembers. After that first batch, another friend and Mayo Clinic lab technician, Tim Peterson, joined their homebrewing crew. Steve learned a lot from both Mike and Tim, who worked every day in “sanitary conditions beyond belief,” he says.

After doing research at Mayo Clinic for a few years, Steve and Dawn got married in 2003. Shortly thereafter, Steve went back to school to get his doctorate in physical therapy. “Part of me is like, ‘Shit, what the hell am I doing?’ I’m getting all these degrees, and I love it, only to find out at the end of the day I really want to brew beer,” Steve laughs. Step by step homebrewing was taking over his life. The three friends continued brewing together for the next several years, before Steve’s wife told him his hobby was getting too expensive.

Photos by Brian Kaufenberg

To fuel his homebrewing habit, Steve started an informal club of 20 friends who would help offset the cost of Steve’s brewing ingredients, taste the final product, and provide feedback. This allowed him to not only continue brewing, but also experiment with different ingredients to test more recipes than ever before.

“I could buy a HopRocket and infuse different beers, and play around with it,” he explains. “I could try different specialty malts, try different yeasts.” He spent four or five years of serious homebrewing, honing recipes that are on tap at Grand Rounds today. “Some of the beers you’re tasting today are almost directly from that experience,” he says, “others are evolved.”

It was back in 2013 when he was approached with the opportunity to convert a local restaurant into a brewpub. Steve was ready to take his passion for homebrewing to the next level, but there was just a six- to eight-month deadline to get the brewpub construction underway. He knew he needed to do more research than making phone calls and reading a few brewing books—he needed first-hand brewing experience. He traveled to Colorado and trained with Tom Hennessy of Colorado Boy Pub & Brewery, and Nathaniel Miller of Big Choice Brewing, who had set up immersion programs for serious brewers looking for professional experience.

After training in Colorado, Steve returned to Rochester and started designing the seven-barrel brewhouse in the former Söntés Restaurant. As the only brewer upon opening, Steve knew the brewhouse layout was crucially important. “You have to be more efficient with your labor and your time, and I designed things in [the brewhouse] too with a physical therapist head on my shoulders about making it easier on my body.”

In the most labor intensive areas of the brewhouse, he came up with simple solutions to ensure he was working smarter, not harder. At the grain mill, all the bags of malt for a single batch are staged on a waist-high table installed right next to the mill, making it easier to load and reducing the chance of an injury.

“Now I have this passion of being a physical therapist and being in the brewing industry, and wanting to help others. Hey, I’ve got neck pain, back pain, shoulder pain, and guess what? I’m not the only one. I’m speaking with many other brewers around the state, and a few have reached out to me, and I’m happy to help them because that’s what I like to do,” Steve says.

Steve Finnie // Photo by Brian Kaufenberg

Steve Finnie // Photo by Brian Kaufenberg

True to the philosophy of the medical grand rounds, Steve believes sharing knowledge can advance the industry, and hopes his advice will help improve the physical well-being of his fellow brewers. Likewise he hopes the beer he brews will foster an atmosphere of learning between customers swapping stories over a pint at the bar.

“That’s the premise of what we wanted to do here, build a community pub,” Steve says of Grand Rounds Brewpub’s mission. “It’s always cool to go into a place, have a beer, the staff are friendly, and guess what—you meet someone new, and you learn some story. So for me that was really important.”

While there were many highlights this year for Steve, 2016 ended with an unexpected disappointment. Differences in philosophy about the direction of the brewpub created a rift between him and his business partner, and Steve stepped down as head brewer of Grand Rounds in December. But his optimism in the face of hardship is still unwavering, and he fully intends to reenter the brewing industry after taking some time to regroup with his family. Like the rest of Minnesota’s brewers, above all else, Steve is driven by a passion for brewing the best beer possible.

“Yes, if we can all make some money and support our families, great. If anyone of us struck rich, hey that’d be great. But really that’s not why we’re doing it,” he explains. “The reason you make beer is because you have a passion for this beverage, the history, the creativity.” And, even with the present circumstances, Steve believes wholeheartedly taking the risk was worth it.

“I had someone come in the other day and say ‘You know, that’s the best coffee stout I’ve ever had,’” he says. “When someone really likes your beer, and they tell you that, it means a lot because that’s why you do it.”

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About Brian Kaufenberg

Brian Kaufenberg is the managing editor, writer, and photographer at The Growler Magazine. His column "Now Open (Or Damn Close) keeps you up to date on the newest breweries in Minnesota.