25 Years of Craft Beer at Rock Bottom Brewery in Minneapolis: Q&A with head brewer Larry Skellenger

The exterior of Rock Bottom Brewery in Downtown, Minneapolis // Photo by Daniel Murphy

The exterior of Rock Bottom Brewery in Downtown Minneapolis // Photo by Daniel Murphy

Minnesota continued to see a steady rise in its number of craft breweries in 2018, but the state’s oldest brewpub still in operation is celebrating a major milestone. Rock Bottom Restaurant & Brewery in Minneapolis opened 25 years ago as the second location of the brewpub chain, which began in Denver in 1991 and now comprises nearly 40 locations.

Rock Bottom Minneapolis has had several notable brewers in its history, beginning with Andy Cross. Following Cross was Rick Hammond, with Van Havig (now master brewer at Gigantic Brewing Company in Portland, Oregon) as his assistant. Todd Haug was hired as the head brewer when Hammond and Havig left to work at other Rock Bottom locations, and was succeeded by Bryon Tonnis, Bob McKenzie, Tim “Pio” Piotrowski, and Larry Skellenger.

Haug worked for Surly before joining 3 Floyds Brewing Co., where he helped with the initial roll-out of WarPigs USA, as well as initial brewing and packaging processes at Wisconsin Brewing Co. and Great Central Brewing Co. He’s now working on other projects related to 3 Floyds. Tonnis is CEO and director of brewery operations for Bent Paddle Brewing Co. McKenzie brewed for Cold Spring Brewing Company and Barley John’s Brewing Co., before joining 45th Parallel Distillery. Piotrowski is currently opening Delta Beer Lab in Madison, Wisconsin, after starting at The Freehouse—where former Rock Bottom server Alex Doering is now lead brewer. Also, former assistant brewer Mike “Miz” Miziorko now serves as head brewer for the Rahr Malting Company pilot brewery and product development manager for BSG CraftBrewing.

The Growler spoke with current head brewer Skellenger about his path to Rock Bottom Minneapolis, the amount of creative control he has in the brewhouse, and the impact Rock Bottom has had on the Twin Cities over the past 25 years.

Larry Skellenger, head brewer of Rock Bottom Brewery, reflects on the brewpub’s past and his path to brewing // Photo by Daniel Murphy

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Growler: How did you get started at Rock Bottom and with brewing in general?

Larry Skellenger: My husband, Barry Laws, and I own a Christmas tree farm in Des Moines, and I retired from the corporate world to help him run the business. We were mug club members at breweries there, including Rock Bottom. I’ve been searching out craft beers since the mid ’80s, long before it was cool, back when Moosehead was craft beer.

The head brewer then at Rock Bottom Des Moines, Eric Sorensen, knew about my knowledge of beer, ability to discern flavor, and background in chemistry and biology. He asked if he could teach me about brewing. When I joined the company 13 years ago, I thought, ‘This is a cool thing to do 10 hours a week.’ Three years later, I realized brewing was a passion of mine, so Eric trained me to be a head brewer. In 2013, the position opened in Minneapolis, and I’ve been here ever since.

As part of a larger entity, who decides what’s on tap at Rock Bottom Minneapolis?

Rock Bottom has always wanted to have something available for every guest, since before it became part of CraftWorks Restaurants & Breweries in 2010. But about three years ago, we stopped making the same recipes at each location, because that’s so “corporate.” Each Rock Bottom created a unique Kölsch, red, and IPA that the brewers knew their guests would like, because who knows our clientele better than us? Each location sticks with their own recipes for those styles and rotates a dark and a wheat, along with small-batch specialty beers.

A pint of Rock Bottom Brewery's beer // Photo by Daniel Murphy

A pint of beer at Rock Bottom Brewery Minneapolis // Photo by Daniel Murphy

What are some beers that people in Minneapolis really like to drink?

Two specialty beers that do well are the Wicked Pumpkin Ale and what I call Line Drive, an American light Pilsner. I first brewed Line Drive for the Super Bowl, and we went through 14 barrels in 10 days.

We also brew beers for nonprofit groups and donate the proceeds to them. We have an IPA coming up for the Minnesota Assistance Council for Veterans. Fire Chief Red goes to Firefighters for Healing. Funds raised by Wicked Elf Belgian Strong allow us to bring over 1,000 individuals into Rock Bottom on Christmas to provide them with gifts and a meal. The beers that do really well are the ones that give back to the community, and we’ve been doing this all along. Rock Bottom Denver started brewing Fire Chief Red during its very first year.

When it comes to other specialty beers, what are some experiments that have done well?

Right now, it’s all the different kinds of IPAs. I’ve done a rye IPA, and I’ve used hemp seed. I’ve been infusing fruit for several years before it became big. However, one experiment involves my husband’s Christmas tree farm in Iowa. We shear the blue spruce trees in May, and I brew a beer with it. I took historic recipes that used spruce and developed the Evergreen Red IPA. It combines American spruce reds and English spruce IPA recipes.

What does it say that Rock Bottom is still experimenting after 25 years?

It says we hire brewers who see changes in the industry and make adjustments. We evaluate trends and jump on them. Also, we work to keep both the restaurant and brewery relevant. The food has to be the same caliber as the beer, and vice-versa.

The other thing is, my previous boss had no qualms developing a brewer who might open their own brewery. So many brewers started at Rock Bottom and went on to open breweries or become important within the national brewing community, and I’m glad Rock Bottom Minneapolis was around in the beginning of the craft beer movement in Minnesota.

Correction: An earlier version of this article omitted Andy Cross, Rick Hammond, and Van Havig from the list of brewers who have worked at Rock Bottom Minneapolis.