From the corner of Thomas Avenue and Wheeler Street, St. Paul’s Burning Brothers Brewing doesn’t look like a mecca for gluten-free beer drinkers across the region, but the “Gluten-Free Facility” sign hanging from the door tells me I’ve come to the right place.
Inside, I find co-owner and brewer Dane Breimhorst and his team casually scattered about the taproom—some cleaning, some working on laptops, sipping beer from insulated mugs as they do.
Burning Brothers Brewing is, in fact, the only entirely gluten-free brewery in the Twin Cities, among just a handful nationally. That’s written in fine print on cans and boxes, and the team won’t likely mention it at beer festivals unless asked. But the fact still stands. Groupies travel from Rochester to fill growlers or buy out the brand’s beers at local liquor stores.
First things first: Dane pulls out a tasting glass. Hops or no hops? I answer unequivocally and a caramelly IPA appears in front of me. It’s my turn to ask a question, and we start with the obvious: “Have you always wanted to be a brewer?”
“Well, I’m a pastor’s kid. I had to either go to prison or start a brewery. I guess I picked right!” says Dane, clarifying that his dad’s not that kind of pastor. He’s the progressive kind who’s at home at Pride Dabbler or preaching in sandals and a Hawaiian shirt. But the story’s more complicated than that.
How does one make it into that line of work, I ask.
“I lied to a magician. I told him I knew what I was doing and because I said I was going to do it, then I had to do it!” says Breimhorst with a chuckle. “There’s no trick to it. I mean, you learn how much heat you can take, how to control the heat in your mouth, to minimize it. But you really feel the heat when it’s coming in close to your face, most normal people’s brains will not even let them eat it. ‘This is stupid, why are you doing this? Stop.’ Some of our brains don’t work very well.”
Breimhorst met Burning Brothers co-founder and general manager Thom Foss in Faribault about a year later, at 19. The pair did a stint in the Renaissance fair and event circuit, performing professionally as fire-eaters together for a time. Breimhorst describes being on stage once with his mentor, the deaf fire-eater Mephisto, as American Sign Language (ASL) translators brought the show to life for an audience with hearing impairments. I get a few knowing glances from staff in the room, and pretty soon Breimhorst and Foss’ hands are moving in a flurry of emphatic gestures. “I grew up next to a deaf community. I can swear like a sailor,” says Breimhorst matter-of-factly.
Breimhorst picked up a few other skills in Faribault, too, like how to make country wine from dandelions, carrots, lilacs, or onions. “Anything not using grapes,” he says. “If it rots, I can make booze. I’ve played around with all types of fermentation.” He sways back and forth, clearly jazzed about the idea of taking things from nature to create something delicious.
“I loved the science of it—the fermentation. I’d dig into older stuff, like Louis Pasteur. If I could do science—and I wasn’t supposed to do it—that was fun,” he says. He remembers making consommé in a cooking club he and a friend started in high school, and how intrigued he was by the challenge of extracting a flavorful liquid from a rather involved process.
“It’s funny because that’s totally what I’m doing right now. If you think about it, I’m just making soup. Crystal clear soup without anything floating in it—that’s called a consommé,” he says, adding that he never went to college, but probably should have become an engineer. “Yeah, I’m making beer consommé. I’m just serving it cold.”
He never set out to brew commercially, but he and Foss thought it might be a fun way to keep in touch after their fire-eating days were done, while also doing something worthwhile. They put their original business plan aside when Breimhorst was diagnosed with celiac disease a decade ago and went into full-fledged mourning because it meant he wouldn’t be able to drink beer. At least, not any good beer. Don’t get him started on the gluten-free Girl Scout cookies.
But Breimhorst began to see his diagnosis—and interest in brewing—as not only a reason to brew excellent gluten-free beer for himself, but also to serve a growing population that gets overlooked. The pair went into research and development mode before finally opening the doors of Burning Brothers in 2014. They started brewing with sorghum—the only mainstream gluten-free base available at the time—and were soon malting their own millet and buckwheat, drying it manually in a kiln. The analysis doesn’t exist like it does with other grains, so the team has to wing it a bit in terms of sugar and protein content. It’s also been a bit of an experiment to see how yeast would react to their gluten-less concoctions.
“Sometimes my little funguses aren’t happy. They are moody little things. Sometimes they give me a bunch of nasty stuff that tastes like Band-Aids and cat piss—and it goes down the drain,” Breimhorst says.
But for Breimhorst and his fellow gluten-averse drinkers, the trial and error is well worth the effort. Celiac, he explains, is more prominent than Type 1 diabetes, and there’s a growing number of gluten-sensitive—and extremely frustrated—people. When he wants to go out to eat, there are maybe four local restaurants he’ll trust to keep him from getting sick. And while goal number one for Burning Brothers is to make good beer, period, the second is to create a safe spot where people with gluten sensitivities can let their guard down and feel normal for a time. “Because we have the means to make a great tasting gluten-free beer, we feel like we have the responsibility to do so,” he says. “And we’ve been making beer out of sorghum and millet for over 2,000 years. It’s just as traditional as anything else, even though it’s not barley […] it’s actually super old-school.”
The taproom is an open space with a handful of tables and poems and quotes scrawled in Sharpie on reachable portions of the light gray walls. There are flame bandanas and “Star Wars” accessories interspersed with the owners’ flame-eating photos and selections of Meat Candy and hot sauces. “There is no glam here. And we’re not really planning on putting any glam in anytime soon,” says Breimhorst, almost proudly.
Frills or no frills, the spot has become a go-to for the neighborhood crowd, and staff and visitors span every social and political spectrum there is. He estimates a third of his clientele is hyper-local; they come on foot from the surrounding blocks. A third is local beer enthusiasts, curious about what Burning Brothers has to offer. The other third? They’re the gluten-sensitive crowd, and they’ve added the layer of brewing that Breimhorst couldn’t fully anticipate, even with his own celiac diagnosis.
“When I step in here and see a burly guy who hasn’t had a decent beer in years? When I sit him down and give him one, and tears literally roll down his cheeks because it’s good? So often, you see this mentality of ‘why even bother?’” he says. “I hide in the back sometimes because I don’t want to talk to the person who’s getting emotional, but the ‘thank yous’ have been amazing.”