It is midday on a Friday, one of the first 70-degree days in May, and Badger Hill Brewing Company’s taproom is hushed, save for a few lone wolves flipping through newspapers at the bar. I’m here to meet with Michael Koppelman, part owner and head brewer of Badger Hill. Though we’ve never met before, he seems to recognize me when he emerges from the back. He flicks his wrist in a loose upside-down point and asks, “Josh?” And before I can say yes, he asks, “You want a beer?”
It’s apparent as soon as we get talking that Koppelman loves nothing more than to wax philosophical. Our conversation will flow through a wide array of topics, from brewing data to music, from astrophysics to Buddhism and beyond. At one point, as Koppelman digs into a sack of malt and pulls out a handful for us to try, a co-worker peeks out from behind a forklift and makes a jabbering puppet gesture with his hand. Koppelman points and says, “Robert’s motioning—‘yeah, yeah, yeah, he can talk forever. Don’t get him started!’”
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But he doesn’t just talk for the sake of talking. Koppelman is overflowing with ideas and it shows in his mannerisms. He’s the best kind of fidgeter, scratching at his salt-and-pepper beard, shifty but dreamy, prone to rhapsodizing but also reflective and genuinely interested in your opinion, too. He undercuts his occasional profundity by looking down and to the right and shrugging, or pulling his long hair back into a ponytail and then letting it fall loose again.
Koppelman has been homebrewing since his college days in the mid ‘80s. “These were the very early days of homebrewing. It was very much a dork thing to do,” he says. “We were brewing extract-based, shitty, the bottom-of-the-bottom beer. We did a taste test where we compared our beer to Bass Ale, and ours was better! Because it was fresh. We’d never had fresh beer, and we never talked about that in the ‘80s. It wasn’t an issue. If you found a six-pack in the field—which you did in North Dakota, where I grew up—you’d drink it, because it was beer.”
Beer has always been Koppelman’s through line, though he’s taken a few dramatic diversions along the way. After he graduated from Berklee College of Music in 1988, Koppelman immediately got a job working at a recording studio in Wisconsin for “a drug addict rich guy.” He describes the experience as “dysfunctional” and “upside-down.” He continues, “One day, I finally quit, threw my keys at the guy and when I got home there was a message on my machine from Paisley Park offering me a job.”
Koppelman fell in love with Prince’s music after seeing Purple Rain when he was 17. “I have a journal entry from when I was a kid,” Koppelman says. “I was like, ‘Someday, it’s going to just me and Prince in the studio.’” And it happened—he spent a few years as Paisley Park’s assistant engineer, putting in 14-hour days, setting up microphones and plugging in cords. One day, the lead engineer didn’t show. Prince tried out two other assistant engineers, Tom Garneau and Dave Friedlander, and wound up choosing Koppelman as his main engineer.
Koppelman became much more intimate with Prince. He recorded and mixed Prince’s album Diamonds and Pearls, parts of Graffiti Bridge—“the highlight of my musical career,” he says—and played bass and keyboards on a track called “Blue Light.” He even co-wrote a Louie Louie song with Prince called “Dance Unto the Rhythm.” Though things ended on a bitter note when Koppelman was fired—“I called in sick and then said the word ‘no’” to a work request,” he says—he still has fond memories of working with Prince. The end of his run at Paisley Park presented Koppelman with the time to explore other interests—and he has plenty. His manifest curiosity has him collecting hobbies with long arms. From writing to podcasting to cryptography, he has an insatiable appetite—and aptitude— for both art and science.
In the late ‘90s, Koppelman’s wife bought him a telescope for his birthday, and that lead to a serious astrophysics hobby. “Then I was like, ‘What the fuck is calculus?’” he says. “I emailed every professor in the U of M astronomy department and was like, ‘Can I come and do stuff?’ Only one wrote me back and was like, ‘Sure, come in.’ Next thing I know, I’m working on Hubble Space Telescope.’” Koppelman says he never fully understood the astrophysics of the system he was working on, or even what exactly the project was, but he could write programming code, so that’s what he did. He loved the challenge, loved being around people whose minds worked in ways his didn’t. “For the first time in my life, I felt dumb.”
In 2008, Koppelman earned his B.A. in Astrophysics. In 2009, he spotted a gamma ray afterglow from his home-built observatory, which earned him attention on a PBS television documentary called “Seeing in the Dark” and a primetime news feature on WCCO.
“For me,” Koppelman says, “it changed the way I brew—even the way I think. How you look at data as a scientist is different. Vectors of change, for instance—if I look at a graph, I can predict what the gravity should be by what shape of the line looks like. That’s the shit I never would’ve dreamed. […] PH and gravity and trying to emulate the pros, for me, that was the fun. Messing around with pumps and valves and this and that, that was the real birth of my brewing love.”
He brings this scientific perspective to every topic he considers, constantly checking and re-checking himself. He’s able to hold contrasting views in his head, playing devil’s advocate to himself before you can offer a differing opinion. One can easily imagine that training sessions in the brewhouse with Koppelman comprise two-fifths instruction and three-fifths philosophizing about the instruction.
Musician, scientist, and brewer aren’t the only roles he has filled in his life. Between music and astrophysics, Koppelman also became an entrepreneur when he started two companies: Bitstream Underground in 1994, and Clockwork Active Media Systems in 2002. The former was a BBS (“bulletin board system”) turned internet service provider—essentially they taught early-early internet adopters how to use technology. Their first client was the Fortune 500 giant BASF. To this day, Koppelman acts surprised. “What? We were just a bunch of tech dorks.” Clockwork, an acclaimed digital agency, was founded on the same idea, helping companies adopt new technologies—mostly via building apps and websites—and they’re consistently ranked in the upper echelon of top workplaces lists in Minnesota. Koppelman still has an ownership stake in the company and sits on the board.
As he’s navigated through his career and built up his experience, Koppelman has turned his focused to empowering employees. In June, Chase Dutton will take over as Badger Hill’s lead brewer. And as for Koppelman? “Data Brewer?” he muses of his new position. “I don’t know. My actual title will probably be something like VP of Brewing Technology and Innovation.” Whatever the title, he will be in charge of big picture thinking and experimentation in the brewhouse. When I ask what’s next for the brewery, he (characteristically, I’m learning) answers the question sideways, more apt to wax ethical about how Badger Hill treats its employees rather than what he does.
“It’s a fake enemy I fight—corporate thinking. We don’t have to do it dumb. Couldn’t we consider the not-dumb option? When did that get on the table? Can that come off the table? Or the notion that risk is career negative? Risk is the only way to get better.”
With Koppelman’s intense focus, his aptitude for science, and his ability to probe and interrogate every piece of data and off flavor, it seems that Badger Hill will only continue to get better, striking major chords and charting exploding stars along the way.