Spreadsheets and printouts line the walls of a small office above the bar at Junkyard Brewing Company in Moorhead, Minnesota. Each page is a piece of the larger business plan that’s crucial to keeping seven large stainless tanks of beer silently fermenting just feet away. Over nitro tap coffee, Junkyard’s cofounder Aaron Juhnke prefaces my questions with a little background on the laws and regulations of running a brewpub that straddles state lines.
The legal red tape alone would be enough to discourage any would-be brewer, much less a couple average college students with the clichéd dream of running their own brewery. But even the most minute details are intriguing to Aaron. Now 29, but with the same flowing locks as his 21-year-old self, Aaron recalls how the first concept of Junkyard was born back in college, while making his first batch of beer in pint canning jars that mushroomed up from the pressure created by fermentation.
“We never really set out to have a bar, or anything like that,” says Aaron. “But we enjoyed brewing enough that we thought, ‘If we could just sell pints of beer, we could probably pay ourselves to do it full time.’”
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Looking like a surgeon in a blue surgical mask and close-cropped hair, Dan Juhnke walks into the office from the brewery. The 26-year-old first learned how to brew from older brother Aaron, and now manages Junkyard’s brewing operations. While they’re both wearing T-shirts and shorts, there’s a clear distinction between Dan’s contemplative demeanor and Aaron’s engaging gaze.
When the Juhnkes started their nanobrewery fresh out of college in 2012, the brothers’ enterprise began as a hole-in-the-wall shop, selling growlers every week to an expanding fan base. While Aaron began planning the financial and logistical side of the business before his brother got involved, the brewery’s physical presence didn’t take shape until self-starter Dan came on board.
“A sort of junkyard mentality guided the creation and building of our company,” says Aaron. “Dan and I didn’t have much money to spend getting the brewery started, so we made up the difference through hard work and creativity.”
The two designed and built a 50 gallon, all-grain brewing system heated by propane burners. While the homemade system inevitably led to difficulties, it also made it easier for them to make mistakes and learn the importance of each component of the process. As their small-batch recipes gradually progressed, customers recognized the improvement from one recipe to the next.
“If I’m being honest, I don’t think either of us were ready to start a professional brewery,” says Dan Juhnke, who is endearingly referred to as a perfectionist by Aaron. “But we were lucky that we started so small, because as we were learning how to make really good beer, we weren’t making such great beer right away. The beer that we wouldn’t be as proud of today didn’t reach as many customers.”
“We learned quickly though,” Aaron interjects. “Within about four months, we started to make some pretty good beer, and by the time we moved over to our current location we had 10 beers on tap, and I remember being really proud of them all.”
Junkyard moved into their current space in September of 2014, featuring a taproom with natural wood accents and quirky graphics of their beer labels visible from every corner. With a modest stage and live music every night, the space opens up to an otherwise industrial area of North Moorhead through a set of glass garage doors. Originally built by a beekeeper, the building’s cement floors still have square outlines of where the beehives were once spray painted.
Now an established niche that draws crowds from all walks of life, it’s hard to find a night when the picnic tables aren’t abuzz with generations of families, coworkers playing board games, or strangers conversing. The taproom is a great equalizer: Here you’ll spot beards and tattoos, shirts and ties, uniforms and badges. Even children and dogs make the invite list.
“It all starts with having a public space where everybody’s welcome.” says Aaron. “It’s not necessarily the beer—that plays an important part, but that’s not the primary reason for coming to a bar. It’s to be social. We did notice right off the bat that it was a place that all kinds of people seemed to feel welcome. We’ve really focused on creating a place that feels comfortable and safe to everybody.”
Even so, at the center of all the action is a colorful chalkboard featuring the beer on tap that changes so often it’s almost taken on a life of its own. Rather than a restrained list of approachable brews to please the masses, Junkyard offers a continuously fresh lineup made with offbeat ingredients that keeps any customer interested no matter the palate.
“Experimentation and constantly changing our tap menu, that’s our reputation,” says Aaron. “I think it happened because we had such a small brewing system, we didn’t want to keep making the same thing over and over.”
“Being small helped it, but it’s not necessarily just that,” says Dan. “I think part of it came from us just being creative and not wanting to brew the same thing dozens and dozens of times. Once you’ve designed so many recipes you can start to visualize what each grain starts to do, and there’s no better way to do that than to make a bunch of different beers.”
As they’ve honed their processes to produce better beer, Junkyard has given its customers the confidence to take a risk on each new formula or strange combination. From the time each renegade recipe is first formulated to when the tap runs dry, the excitement can be felt equally from the Juhnke brothers, Junkyard staff, and each devoted patron.