For Bobby Blasey, Able Seedhouse + Brewery’s head brewer, it all comes back to the bagpipes. Just a few moments into our conversation, he brings up the bagpipe band he plays in. It’s as though his relationship to the instrument is the lens through which he views the world.
“There really wasn’t a definitive moment that sparked my interest in learning the bagpipes, but I had been wanting to learn them since I was a teenager […] When I heard them in a movie, in music, or in person, there was always that strong emotional response to the sound. Just something about how unique and different the pipes were from any other musical instrument, and their ties to the past.”
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This sentiment of knowing he had to play is a window into what makes Bobby tick. It’s clear that Bobby trusts his instincts—and when he decides to do something, he is virtually unstoppable.
“One morning I woke up and said, ‘If I don’t go find out how to play bagpipes today, I’m never gonna do it.’ So, I googled it. I found a local bagpipe band that gave free lessons. Two weeks later I walked [into my first lesson] and within five minutes I knew I’d do it forever.”
In fact, many of Bobby’s stories start like this: “One day I woke up and decided…” This is not to say that he is impetuous—quite the contrary. He is a guy who knows what he wants, he thinks out a plan and then with spirited determination, he wakes up one morning and begins to execute Step One.
A decade later, Bobby is still playing the bagpipes. He’s part of the Brian Boru Irish Pipe Band based in St. Paul and he still looks forward to practice every Tuesday evening. The pipe band is more than just a bunch of people getting together to play—they’re a community. A family, even.
“There are very few bagpipers in the state, right, so we all know who each other are. It’s a little clique. But it is welcoming […] we have a kinsmanship and a connection.” He thinks about this for a moment and says, “It’s kind of like the brewing industry.”
It All Comes Back to Bagpipes
You could say that the bagpipe band led Bobby to brewing. He was growing disillusioned with his career in the restaurant industry and considering a shift. In 2010, the Minnesota beer scene was beginning to take off, and he’d always daydream about opening a small garage brewery when he retired. But it hadn’t occurred to him that brewing was a plausible career.
“One day I was talking to my wife and she said, ‘Why don’t you just do it?’ I thought, ‘Huh, yeah, I don’t have to wait until I’m retired.’”
Bobby frequently played at Summit with the pipe band and reached out to a couple of the brewing staff for advice about breaking into the industry. Armed with insider input and a large cheering section of pipers and friends in the brewing industry, Bobby started the Intensive Brewing Science & Engineering program with the American Brewers Guild in the fall of 2011. What followed was a long year of working full time as a restaurant manager and completing his coursework. He apprenticed at Lift Bridge Brewing and any doubts he had about making the transition from the restaurant industry to brewing were erased.
“They were such awesome people,” Bobby says. “That was so cool to me coming from the restaurant industry, which was pretty cutthroat. These people were so welcoming. It was kind of like the bagpiping scene.”
He then interviewed for the assistant brewer position with Mankato Brewery. “They told me at the end of the interview that I was actually interviewing for the head brewer position,” Bobby recalls. Mankato’s head brewer was moving on, and they needed a head brewer right away. “They asked if I thought I could do it. I said, ‘hell yeah.’”
“They told me at the end of the interview that I was actually interviewing for the head brewer position, they asked if I thought I could do it. I said, ‘hell yeah.’”
– Bobby Blasey
For his first two years, Bobby was the sole brewer for Mankato Brewery, which meant not just brewing beer, but figuring out what sort of styles of American craft beer would fly in rural Minnesota, all as a fledgling brewer.
“I was taking what I learned from the books, what I [knew about] running restaurants, and what I learned at Lift Bridge, and amalgamating it into my style of how to run a brewery,” Bobby says. But with only five weeks of apprenticeship under his belt, he was basically winging it. “Was it the most efficient at first? Nah. It took me a while to get it cut and dried.”
In 2014, roughly 18 months into his work at Mankato, a fellow bagpiper approached him, looking to connect Bobby with a friend who wanted to open a brewery.
“Everybody has a friend who wants to open a brewery,” he jokes. But because it was a friend of his bagpiper pal, he agreed to meet Casey Holley, the co-founder of Able Seedhouse + Brewery, and share his experience.
Casey had recently returned to Minnesota from Napa Valley, California, with a seed of an idea: how can Minnesota mimic what the folks in wine country were doing? Could he build a business around the concept of terroir in the Midwest? What better business to launch in the heart of the America’s grain belt but a brewery that would locally source its grains and malt on site?
The idea of the seedhouse got Bobby’s attention. When he daydreamed about opening his own small garage brewery, it included malting his own grain. Having an ingredient that no other brewer had was enticing. But Casey’s intent to locally source the grain really fascinated Bobby.
“The more we talked, I thought I absolutely have to be part of Able,” he said. When Casey asked him who they should interview for the head brewer job, Bobby asked “How about me?”
The goal of Able, which opened in November 2015, is to bring agriculture and the community together. This farm-to-brewery concept was one that Bobby, whose wife Ashleigh is an organic farmer, could get behind.
“Everyone [says] ‘drink local,’ but how can you drink local if [the beer you are drinking uses] grains that the guys in Portland are using or the guys in Mexico are using?” Bobby says.
To that end, Able has developed a small farm network that has committed to growing a portion of their yield for brewing. Able is malting this grain in small batches: 200 to 300 pounds at a time. The goal is for every single Able beer to contain a portion of their own malted grain, but it’s a learning process.
“We are taking that terroir and trying to unlock its full potential in the malthouse. It’s a very sensory system. It becomes part of the art side of brewing: how can I take this flavor and either balance or complement or contrast it? How can you be creative with this while trying to use the science part of it to replicate [the recipe],” Bobby explains.
Seasonal and geographic variances in the grain lead to batches that are different in flavor from each other. Whereas many brewers would flinch at inconsistency, Bobby hopes to capitalize on it. He compares the beers he’s producing to wine: each vintage is slightly different, and that is part of the draw.
“The goal is to get to a point where we’re brewing hyper-limited, hyper-local beers. For example: the Johnson Family Farm 2020 brew, made with grain sourced entirely from the Johnson’s farm.”
Bobby pours a couple of pints of Seeded, the rye brown ale. This batch contains four percent Able-malted rye. In a few weeks, they’ll release a rye blonde ale that will contain 13 percent of Able’s rye. Bobby’s eyes light up when he talks about this beer—it’s clearly his baby. The “plainness” of the blonde ale is perfect to highlight the unique characteristics of this batch of rye.
Three years into his work at Able, Bobby is being driven by a sense of interconnectedness. From supporting small farmers to connecting with other businesses in the region to the layout of their space, Able is committed to this idea. Bobby knows he’s in the right place.
“When we thought through the taproom, we wanted it to be a community gathering place.” Bobby says. As he shows off his brewery, he gestures to the towering windows on either side of the building. “I can look out and see the community from any corner of the brewery. I see the neighbors, I see people walking their dogs.”
Bobby often reflects on how lucky he is. He thinks some of the twists and turns of his career have been because he was in the right place at the right time. I tend to think it’s because when he sets his mind to something, he’s tenacious about making it happen. Or maybe it’s the magic of the bagpipes.