Ask any old-school brewer how their fire was lit and the answer will almost always be, “I started homebrewing…” This holds true for Bob DuVernois, head brewer at BlackStack Brewing. His spark came in 1979 when he tasted a dark beer made by a friend’s father. Not a fan of the macro lagers that monopolized the market at the time, this taste opened his mind. For the first time, he recognized beer as a beverage he might want to drink. Later that year, that same friend’s father bought him a homebrewing kit. A career was born.
Tracing DuVernois’ path in brewing gives one a bird’s eye view of the development of craft beer in Minnesota. His every move—from becoming the first assistant brewer at Minneapolis’ Town Hall Brewery to his current position at BlackStack—aligns with a stage of the industry’s growth. From its aspirational beginnings to the exponential expansion of the last five years, DuVernois has played a part.
By DuVernois’ recollection, there were only 15 breweries in Minnesota in 1997 when his career began. “Now there’s like five that I can see from [BlackStack’s] back roof,” he laughs. “In this neighborhood. That is crazy.”
DuVernois moved from Colorado to the Twin Cities in 1997, the height of the first craft beer boom. Having homebrewed for almost two decades, he was feeling confident when he walked into Town Hall—then still under construction—to ask for a job. “I fancied myself really knowledgeable, being a homebrewer and having read the two books, or whatever, that were out there at the time. So I knew my shit,” he jokes. “I knew it all, man.”
The first day on the job was humbling. “We had one of these pressure seals on one of the tanks blow,” recalls DuVernois. “It blew and it broke the cover of a fluorescent light that was above. All the stuff comes raining down. I hadn’t been in the brewery for five minutes, you know. And this happened. I looked around and I realized, like, ‘Shit. I don’t know anything about this stuff.’”
DuVernois found a mentor in head brewer John Haggerty, learning core skills like attention to the brewing process. He learned how to taste beer—objectively evaluating flavors, recognizing flaws, and differentiating between beers that are poorly made and beers that he just didn’t like. DuVernois still appreciates Haggerty’s influence on his development as a brewer. “Every time I see him I thank him for putting up with me in those days,” he says.
After three years at Town Hall, DuVernois moved to the now-defunct Hops Brewpub in Eden Prairie. Hops was part of a national chain of brewpubs and at the time was making beer with malt extract, a practice that was not uncommon in those days. While the idea of making beer by pouring syrup into water was not appealing, DuVernois’ interest was piqued when he learned that the brewpub was transitioning to all-grain brewing. Overseeing that transition was the first of his many experiences in building breweries from the ground up.
In 2004, during the aftermath of the first big craft beer crash, DuVernois found refuge at the now-shuttered Great Waters Brewing Company in St. Paul. There he had to contend with a brewery that was spread over many floors of the Hamm’s Building. “Oh man. So our grain room was two floors down and a half block away on the other side of the Hamm’s building,” he recounts. “So I had this big corridor. I’d just load up everything on a cart. Roll it to the elevator. Go up a floor. Roll it to another area and then drag it into the little brewery and mill it in there. Then I have to run down two floors to check on the boiler. And then run back up two flights all the way to the brewery to make sure the water was the temperature I was aiming for. There was all this lag time. Man, I was really fit in those days from running stairs all day long.”
Working on an old system taught him to be resourceful as a brewer. When problems arose, he couldn’t simply send off for a part. “We just had to kind of cobble things together,” he says. “It just made me think in terms of there’s always a way to get beer from point A to point B. If you just dive into it, you can probably figure it out.”
In this regard, DuVernois also notes changes that he has seen as the industry has grown. “In those days you could call another brewery and they could come and help or they’d have something for you,” he says. “We all knew each other because it was such a small community at that time.” The camaraderie is still there, he says. But with so many breweries and growing competition, the community is more diffuse and the connections are less tight.
DuVernois doesn’t view this as entirely negative. The influx of people from different states, countries, and schools has infused the market with new energy and ideas. He is enthusiastic about the future.
“From the first [Minnesota Craft Brewers] Guild meeting I attended—which was the very first Guild meeting—we talked about trying to get Minnesota beer to be looked at the same way that they looked at it in Oregon and Washington State at the time. […] And man, it really has gone there. And all these people, they’re bringing what they’ve learned in other states and schools and they’re bringing it here. And we’re lucky to have them.”
As the current beer boom started heating up, DuVernois moved along with it, first in 2012 as the founding brewer at Excelsior Brewing Company—another ground-up brewery build—and finally at BlackStack in 2014.
DuVernois fosters a team-effort culture at BlackStack—another change from days past. “It was just me making beer in those days. Now I’m part of a bigger whole,” he says. It’s a family affair, with his own children working alongside him in the brewery. DuVernois encourages a collaborative approach to the work. Everyone is free to make suggestions. “I don’t think I’ve ever said no to anything,” he says. “It’s always been like, ‘yeah, let’s see what that does.’ Or, ‘let’s try that out.’”
Consumer taste is chief among the other changes DuVernois has witnessed over his career. IPAs are still the thing, but where it once was all about higher alcohol and skyrocketing IBUs, now beer drinkers are focused on flavor. “On the IPA beers that we do, I don’t even do an IBU reading,” says DuVernois. “Now people want to know what the hops are that are in there. That’s kind of a newer thing.”
So what does this old-school brewer drink when he’s not drinking his own beer? “Schell’s,” DuVernois immediately answers. “I usually buy some Schell’s. The price is good. […] The Pilsner. The hefeweizen that they do is outstanding.” But even there he sees the influence of changing consumer taste. “I tried some of that [Schell’s] sangria beer. It’s a little too sweet for me, but they’re going in that direction. Blueberry-flavored Grain Belt. That right there. I mean the second-oldest brewery in the country is now doing things like this, too. It’s what the people want. They want crazy ass flavor. They want to be like, ‘this doesn’t taste like beer.’ It’s fine. The more wine drinkers you can bring around to the beer side, the longer we’re going to be around, I guess.”
Editor’s Recommendation: BlackStack White Wheat Ale
BlackStack may be known for its IPAs and DIPAs, but beers like White show off how the brewhouse led by DuVernois can create full-flavored, yeast- and malt-driven styles with aplomb. Orange peel, coriander, and Belgian yeast esters marry together in a clean-drinking wheat ale.