Brewer Profile: Dave Berg, August Schell Brewing Company

Dave Berg, brewmaster at August Schell Brewing Company and his ride // Photo by Dan Murphy

Dave Berg, brewmaster at August Schell Brewing Company and his ride // Photo by Dan Murphy

A peacock has marked me with a deadeye stare, its regal tail splayed on the stone walkway outside the gift shop of the August Schell Brewing Company. I’ve just parked on Schell’s Road, and a cyclist zips past on a Surly Cross-Check, nods, and hops off. I snap some pictures of the bird, taking in the red brick and cream-accented buildings, and the lush overhang of trees from Flandrau State Park. The cyclist walks around in front the gift shop, and we realize we are each others’ meeting.

Dave Berg, brewmaster for Schell’s, peels off his fingerless racing gloves and helmet, declaring it a beautiful day. Berg is soft-spoken and calm and wears an easy smile. Above us, dots of stratus clouds and occasional smears of cirrus mark the otherwise azure sky alight with sunshine, and we chat for a few minutes outside the gift shop and museum about his path to brewing.

After growing up in Fergus Falls, Berg moved to Ames, Iowa, where he got his B.S. in aerospace engineering at Iowa State. He landed a job straight out of college at Honeywell in Phoenix, working in performance and vertical guidance, programming calculations for airplane cockpits. At one point during his six-year tenure, his girlfriend told him to get a hobby. He loved beer, so homebrewing was an obvious choice.

One of the peacocks that roams the grounds at August Schell Brewing Company // Photo by Dan Murphy

One of the peacocks that roams the grounds at August Schell Brewing Company // Photo by Dan Murphy

First he brewed an extract-based brown ale. “Which wasn’t very good,” he says. “Next batch I made was all-grain, a pale ale with Cascade hops,” he continues, “basically Sierra Nevada. I entered it in the first annual Great Arizona Beer Festival and ended up winning. The award was that you got to brew at one of the brewpubs in town.”

Brewpubs would become a bigger part of his life, but not for a few years. Tired of Phoenix, he moved to Portland—postponing the move to finish the batch in the brewpub—to work for another aerospace company. After a few years, Berg wearied of the work and put in his notice.

“I asked myself, gosh, what the heck do I want to do? What do I actually enjoy doing?” Berg remembers. He was 31 at the time and homebrewing had become more than just a hobby. “Then I found brewing school.”

Berg enrolled in the Intensive Brewing Science & Engineering program at the American Brewer’s Guild, then housed in the University of California–Davis (it has since moved to Middlebury, Vermont). “My classmates wanted me to come early to class when we were learning thermodynamics. They’d go, ‘What the heck is this?’ That was the easy stuff for me. We’re doing heat transfer, and I’m like, ‘I’m bored.’ People say, it [brewing] is an art and a science. I don’t know,” Berg shrugs, “I think it’s mostly science.”

Straight out of brewing school, Berg got hired to help open the now defunct Eden Prairie brewpub Water Tower Brewing Co., where he spent six years as head brewer. Then he moved to Mankato to open Bandana Brewery, which lasted only a few years. “It was a little too early for a brewpub in Mankato,” Berg says. This was in the early 2000s.

One night, Berg and John Haggerty, the original brewer at Town Hall Brewery, were drinking Grain Belt at the CC Club. “We asked each other, ‘Why can’t we get any more Minnesota beer?’ We had Summit EPA, we had Premium, but there was no Cold Spring, no Lake Superior. This was the era of Sherlock’s [in Minnetonka] and a few other brewpubs—but that was it. So we thought, ‘We should do something to promote Minnesota beers.’”

Dave Berg talks about his route to professional brewing // Photo by Dan Murphy

Dave Berg talks about his route to professional brewing // Photo by Dan Murphy

Thus began the Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild. Berg was president of the Guild for five years but has since drawn back his involvement, letting the younger generation of brewers take the reins, enjoying his 15-mile-a-day commutes (he bikes home for lunch) and quiet life in New Ulm.

As for how he became the brewmaster for the second oldest family-owned brewery in the country, that’s easy. He got a call from Ted Marti, the fifth-generation family president, in 2006, thinking he was in for a quick chat. “I knew him from the industry, so I show up in flip-flops and shorts and halfway through the conversation realize it’s a job interview.” A few weeks of courting and another (proper) interview later: he has the job.

As Berg finishes summing up his brewing odysseys, twenty-odd people spill from the gift shop and form a wall in front of us, staring across the courtyard at the main building. The tour guide relays how the brewery used to transport 400-pound oak-barrel kegs via wagon to Fairfax—about 30 miles northwest—twice a week. They’d load 20 kegs on the wagon, but when they made it to Fort Road hill, (namesake of the newest Schell’s year-round beer: Fort Road Helles) they could only take 10 kegs at a time, necessitating two trips up and down before continuing on to Fairfax. “They didn’t look like Popeye or anything,” the guide jokes. “They had a ramp and hoist system.”

Why mention this? Berg is as fascinated by the history of Schell’s—and New Ulm—as any starry-eyed tourist. After an idyllic two-mile bike ride down Hauenstein Drive, we arrive at Turner Hall’s Rathskeller, Minnesota’s oldest bar, where he points to the German murals that span all four walls of the bar’s main room. “They were doing construction one year and discovered these old murals. When you’re at war with Germany, you don’t exactly want to be displaying their countryside. They had a preservationist come in and restore them.”

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Photos by Dan Murphy

Out on the patio, Berg tells us stories about the Dakota War, about the Hermann Heights Monument on the other side of town, about the black walnut tree that the brewery sold in the late ‘70s to a furniture designer in Japan in order to make payroll.

Berg shirks questions about brewing craft, so I press him further, lobbing out a big question. “What do you think will be your lasting legacy at Schell’s?” He shrugs and laughs nervously, finally admitting it’s the people.

“My lasting improvements are the people I’ve trained. Dan Stavig is the lead brewer at Indeed now and he was at Schell’s for a while. Derek Allmendinger is at Unmapped. I hope that I helped these guys get a foot in the industry and helped them along in their career—and wasn’t too mean to them along the way. That’s for Schell’s, too. I hope I helped keep that legacy going.”

One thing is clear: Berg is not looking to announce himself as the next great innovator or mad scientist—though you sense he could be those things if he wanted. Walking through the brewery on his “nickel tour,” he tangentially mentions recent improvements on process, dialing in the new lauter tun or setting up a new mill, but he’s at his most animated when he shows us the 150-year-old copper kettle or the old bobber chart rig that used to measure water. At Schell’s, history speaks, and Dave Berg is listening.