Forager Brewery is tucked into an unremarkable industrial corner of Rochester’s Kutzky Park neighborhood, flanked by featureless commercial buildings, a gas station, and train tracks. Nevertheless, the brewpub’s parking lot is at capacity and an overflow of cars is parked on the street, defying the dozens of clearly visible “No Parking” signs.
In the back corner of the dining room, a century-old, stuffed moose head is mounted above the bar, where head brewer and co-owner of Forager, Austin Jevne, greets us with a languorous smile and pours us a beer.
He sports a gray stocking hat over his black, curly hair, a scruffy beard, and a pair of black introspective browline glasses. No matter the topic we discuss, Austin tugs at the thread of each thought, unravels it slowly, and follows it until he reaches the other end.
“It’s really important being in the city to try and give it that feel of, like, you’re hanging out on our patio in our backyard, and we’re just throwing this little party,” Austin says, as we follow him on a tour of the building. “But we really wanted to make it feel like you’re not in the city either.”
Stepping into Forager transports you from the drab commercial sector outside to one of the craft-driven farm communities that dot the Driftless Area. The building is separated into a series of connected rooms that house a hip coffee shop, an art gallery, a farm-to-table restaurant, a cozy lounge with a fireplace, an outdoor beer garden with live music stage, and a small-batch craft brewery. Barn wood, floral-patterned tile backsplashes, antique buffets holding glass serving bowls and cake stands, porcelain tea cups and gravy boats hanging overhead in a diorama—all work to create a country atmosphere that escapes kitsch and delivers real authenticity.
Even the brewhouse is a reflection of the Driftless region. The weathered fermentation tanks, visible through a latticed window behind the bar, are converted dairy tanks from Viroqua, Wisconsin. Like everything else inside the four-barrel brewery, the fermenters are packed in as tightly as possible. “I’m just trying to figure out a way to get a little more fermentation space in here,” says Austin. “Every day, it’s like I’m packing stuff into the corner.”
The Kutzky Market near the entrance, which once hosted a collection of local vendors, has been converted into Austin’s barrel room. Dozens of oak barrels line the walls of the room and allow Austin to experiment with unique blends of maple-barrel-aged and honey-barrel-aged beers.
Experimentation is central to Austin’s brewing philosophy. All around the brewhouse, he is propagating different microbe cultures collected from foraged fruits. Austin muses about one beaker sitting on a stir-plate: “What kind of strain of Brett is living on blackberries in southeast Minnesota?” Spontaneous and mixed-culture fermentation are Austin’s biggest brewing passions. Outside in the beer garden, a makeshift coolship sits recently emptied of a batch of beer that spent the night gathering microbes in the air. Highlighting the region’s terroir through these mixed-culture beers is fundamental to Forager Brewery’s mission to promote appreciation for the Driftless Area.
“That’s what is important to me—the preservation of the environment around here and having a great connection with it,” says Austin. “[…] That’s what made me want to be an entrepreneur in the first place, being outside in nature. So it all goes back to that. And hopefully we can get a couple other people in the process to think about it too.”
Austin speaks with clarity and purpose about his company’s values, which is the result of a nearly decade-long odyssey to opening his own brewery and the failures he experienced along the way.
Originally from Madison, Wisconsin, Austin moved to the Twin Cities in 2004 and was working at the Wedge Community Co-op when he got hooked on homebrewing with a few friends. “People were telling us that they would buy this beer if it was in stores, so then that wheel started turning of like, ‘Hey, maybe we could actually turn this into a business. Maybe we could do this,’” Austin remembers.
To gain experience in a commercial brewery, Austin got a part-time job at Rush River Brewing in River Falls, Wisconsin, where he worked on the packaging line and oversaw quality control. He spoke with the brewers about recipe design, scaling up to commercial equipment, and the pitfalls of starting a brewery, all of which helped shaped his brewery concept.
“Working on the bottling line was a factory job—you’re there, on your feet, packing six-packs for 10 hours a day. There’s nothing sexy about that; there’s nothing that made me want to make and package tons of beer for off-sale consumption. I missed that personal connection I had at the Wedge of going out and being able to talk to people about a specialty product, and I thought Minnesota’s market was getting pretty close to being ready for that.”
From 2008 to 2013, Austin poured his efforts into his vision for a small-batch brewery. However, his two attempts to pursue the dream—once in the Twin Cities with two other partners, and once at Nosh Restaurant & Bar in Lake City—ultimately ran aground. Dispirited, Austin moved to Rochester in 2013 to be with his then-girlfriend, now-wife, and to figure out a new direction. “I had pretty much, at this point, given up on owning a brewery,” he says. In fact, had it not been for a part-time job at the DNR he took while working at Nosh, Austin may have given up on brewing altogether.
As a creel clerk, Austin traveled along designated trout streams in the Whitewater River region, interviewing anglers about stream conditions and what they were catching. But it was exploring the vast species of edible plants along the banks of the streams that fascinated Austin and sparked his passion for foraging. “That brought back this kind of love of nature and science, and then it fit perfectly into the artistic creativity of brewing. It was that full-circle thing where it revitalized those passions I had a while ago in the Cities trying to open that brewery, [which] I had lost through the frustrations and failures.”
Austin was working at a Rochester pub called The Thirsty Belgian and experimenting with making beer from wild, foraged ingredients, when in the late summer of 2014, his boss introduced him to Annie Henderson, a local entrepreneur, and her husband Sean Allen, who were looking to start a brewery. After Austin shared some of his homebrew samples with them, things took off.
“In the end, they loved the beer and apparently, they liked my personality enough to trust going into business with me,” he laughs. “We had this one meeting at their house and after that we started the process pretty much within a week, and it was just like pedal to the metal from that point on to find a space.”
Now, nearly a decade since his first failed attempt to start his brewery, Austin is a co-owner of one of the state’s hottest brewpubs, which employs nearly 90 staff members. “That’s a huge aspect for me,” he says. “Homebrewing was fun, working in another brewery is great. Owning something like this where you’re responsible for putting food on people’s tables to feed their families, that’s such a responsibility.”
Thinking back on his journey, Austin says he wouldn’t have done it any other way. “Shit gets real hard sometimes but if you just believe in yourself and that your values are correct, and you just keep trying, you’ll meet the right people at some point to believe in you and have similar views,” he says. All around us, families and business professionals, artists and passersby, are conversing with each other, sipping on pints of Austin’s beer. A grin grows across his face. “Things can work out.”