Brewer Profile: Brian Schanzenbach of Blacklist Artisan Ales

Photo by JaneCane Photography /

Brian Schanzenbach of Blacklist Artisan Ales // Photo by JaneCane Photography

The summer after freshman year of college, Brian Schanzenbach and Jon Loss built a raft and floated down the Mississippi River for five days. Their parents begged them not to do it, actually offering the two boys money in an attempt to talk them out of it. But the lifelong friends wouldn’t be swayed. They roped together two canoes, strapped on a few sheets of plywood as a platform, strung up some sheets (or “sails”), and took off from Brainerd toward St. Cloud. (They made it as far as Sauk Rapids.)

That’s just one of the many adventures the founders of Blacklist Artisan Ales have taken together. Brian and Jon grew up together in Brainerd, and have been close since the sixth grade. But the two friends aren’t of the two-peas-in-a-pod camp. “Jon and I are very different,” says Brian, Blacklist’s head brewer. “I’m more of a risk-taker, and he’s more cautious. He’s a classic artist—kind of all over the place, with projects left and right. I’m the guy who wants to put my head down and just produce.”

But it’s because of their differences, not in spite of them, that Jon and Brian are such great business partners, says Brian. “We complement each other,” he explains. “We’re a good blend. Together, we have crazy ideas and good ideas, and we filter through them to find the best idea.”

Photo by JaneCane Photography /

Blacklist Artisan Ales’ Makrut Wit // Photo by JaneCane Photography

As of yet, the best idea Brian and Jon have had together is Blacklist Artisan Ales. Although the company itself didn’t come into existence until 2012, Brian says the idea for Blacklist was around long before that, ever since he and Jon were college students.

While Brian studied biology at the University of Minnesota–Duluth, Jon was studying graphic design at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. Whenever the friends visited one another, they’d make a point of seeking out the latest six-pack of craft beer, “probably a little earlier than we were supposed to,” Brian laughs.

Photo by JaneCane Photography /

Inside Blacklist Artisan Ales // Photo by JaneCane Photography

The friends’ discoveries inspired Brian to start homebrewing, and he immediately knew he’d found his calling. “There’s something about bringing elements together and continually trying to work on something that’s living and hard to tame that excites me,” he says. “The challenge, the mystery of it. I don’t use the term brewmaster, because if there are masters in this world, there are very few. It’s something you can’t master. It’s never-ending, always interesting.” With beer, he says, all his interests and strengths clicked. “It’s about making something; it’s science based. But could I be happy being a winemaker or bread maker? I think so. Beer is just the direction I took. And I also need more beer in my basement than bread.” He grins.

Brian switched his major from biology to microbiology, to prepare for post-graduation brewing school, and started pursuing positions within the Duluth brewing scene. The summer after junior year, he landed an internship with Lake Superior Brewing Company. After graduation, he got his first actual brewery job, at Fitger’s Brewhouse. “I pushed my way into Fitger’s,” he laughs. “Ask Dave Hoops: he’ll tell you I got the job because I pestered him so much.”

At Fitger’s, Brian was tasked with the duties all newbies in the brewing business are given: namely, the grunt work. But the mopping and scrubbing and squeegeeing didn’t faze him, and in the fall of 2005 he headed to Chicago attend the International Diploma in Brewing Technology program at Siebel Institute.

The program began with two months of classroom work in Chicago, then finished at Doemens Academy, just outside Munich. It was there that Brian was exposed to beers that would come to define his goals as a brewer: witbier, hefeweizen, and pilsners.

After Siebel, Brian headed back to Duluth and resumed working at Fitger’s. By the time he left in 2011, he’d worked his way up to being a brewer, and was ready to take the next step toward his and Jon’s goal of opening a brewery.

Next page: Taking the next step

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About Ellen Burkhardt

Ellen Burkhardt is a freelance writer. When she's not writing, editing, or interviewing, chances are she's on the road seeking out good food, drink, and fodder for her next story.

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