Going all in with Nick Huisinga of Cuyuna Brewing Company

Nick Huisinga // Photo by Brian Kaufenberg

Nick Huisinga of Cuyuna Brewing Company // Photo by Brian Kaufenberg

Nick Huisinga takes off on a trail barely wider than the tire of his fat bike, kicking up tufts of rust-colored dust into the air as he banks through root-ridden turns. The serpentine single-track trail winds through dense woods in the Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area outside of Crosby, Minnesota. Exposed boulders and trees jutting into the trail command full attention as we barrel up and down hills. 

At a glance Nick, co-owner and head brewer of Cuyuna Brewing Company, doesn’t look like a serious biker—he’s wearing basketball shorts, and a small beer belly shows under his gray T-shirt that reads, “Today’s forecast: Biking with a chance of Drinking”—but it’s clear that he’s well-conditioned and athletic. After about 15 minutes on the trail, we pull off at a lake overlook for a rest. He hasn’t broken a sweat and his breathing is regular as he explains the history of the Cuyuna Range and this 400-foot-deep, crystalline mine pit lake. 

The landscape is serene and wild, and it draws outdoor enthusiasts of all stripes: mountain bikers, anglers, even freshwater divers. People like Nick. We take another moment to soak in the view before hopping back on our bikes and cruising down a hill back into the woods. 

The Cuyuna Range was named for Cuyler Adams and his dog, Una, who surveyed the region’s iron ore deposits in the late 1800s and set off the era of iron mining in the Cuyuna Range, which began in the 1910s and ended in 1982. Following the exit of the last mining company, the pumps were shut off and the mine pits filled with water, forming a chain of lakes. 

When the mining industry left, it took with it the main source of jobs in Crosby as well as the town’s sense of identity. While some residents hoped mining would return, a different and unexpected industry came to town and is setting the future course of the Cuyuna Range: mountain biking. 

In 2011, the Minnesota DNR, in partnership with the Cuyuna Lakes Mountain Bike Crew (Bike Crew) and the International Mountain Biking Association, opened a 25-mile system of single-track mountain biking trails. That has since expanded to 30 miles (with a future goal of 75 miles) and launched the Cuyuna Range into a nationally recognized mountain biking destination. 

It was a ride like this one, filled with adrenaline-pumping excitement and respites of natural beauty, that started Nick on the path of uprooting his family from Willmar, Minnesota, cashing in their savings, and traveling north to Crosby to start Cuyuna Brewing Company. 

“I came up September 11, 2015, and biked and I said, ‘Wow!’ Then I came up two weeks after that and I met with the Bike Crew president and the chamber of commerce director to find out more about this town,” remembers Nick, an avid homebrewer who worked in a vaccine production lab in Willmar at the time. 

The front entrance of Cuyuna Brewing Company on Main Street in Crosby, Minnesota // Photo by Brian Kaufenberg

The front entrance of Cuyuna Brewing Company on Main Street in Crosby, Minnesota // Photo by Brian Kaufenberg

He learned that an economic study funded by the Bike Crew estimated the bike trails were bringing in $2 million extra into the local economy a year. “But there was a big asterisk to that because the amenities weren’t in town at that point, so everyone would stay and eat in Brainerd or somewhere else and just come up for the day,” Nick explains. With the addition of restaurants, lodging, and a brewery, the trails could bring in even more. 

That caught Nick’s attention. As a homebrewer who dreamed of going pro, he was searching for a location worthy of leaving behind a comfortable life and a good paying job to start back at square one. “I just wanted it to be the right place,” he says. “It’s so much work [to open a brewery] that you have to be excited about the place and it has to be ‘wow’ to you. […] Because if you’re not excited about it, you don’t have that to carry you through the shitty stuff. And you need that—it’s so much work and so difficult.”

Convinced that Crosby and the Cuyuna Range was just such a place, Huisinga and his wife, Laura, set out to purchase a vacant building on Main Street. From January to May 2016, the couple battled to scrape together funds and secure a bank loan. They were thrown into full scramble mode when a final code inspection yielded a list of updates totaling $40,000, in addition to bulk construction costs. Finally, after months of financial gymnastics, the Huisingas took possession of the space and began renovating. 

From May 2016 through January 2017, Nick would wrap up his full-time work at the vaccine lab in Willmar, travel north on Thursday night, and work on the brewery through Sunday morning. He and whichever family members had joined him slept in a camper, took showers above the bar across the street, and heated meals in the microwave. “From May until the end of January, I came up every weekend except for three, stayed in that camper. We didn’t even have heat until the middle of November,” Nick recalls.

When they opened the doors to taproom in January 2017, Nick and his family were still making their weekly commute  from Willmar and searching for an apartment in Crosby. “About three months after being open, I quit my job and moved up here full time. It happened quicker than I thought it would, […] but we were running out of beer and three days a week wasn’t enough time, so it needed to happen much, much quicker.”

Mosaic Blueberry Wheat at Cuyuna Brewing Company // Photo by Brian Kaufenberg

Mosaic Blueberry Wheat at Cuyuna Brewing Company // Photo by Brian Kaufenberg

The Huisingas are still the only two full-time employees of Cuyuna Brewing Company and are hands-on in every aspect of the business. Laura runs the taproom and manages six part-timers, while Nick labors on the uber-manual five-barrel brewing system, sometimes putting in 18-hour brew days. “It’s the best job I’ve ever done and could ever imagine, but it’s still work and you don’t always feel like going and doing what you have to get done. It’s great, but it’s not all sunshine and roses.” 

Nick is someone who needs constant challenges to stay engaged. In the brewhouse he spends his time sweating the finer details when developing recipes for his lineup of traditional European beer styles. While some breweries use the same house yeast in all of their beers, Nick switches yeast cultures to match the style he’s brewing. 

“Not saying anything bad about the people that do that [use the same yeast], but I wouldn’t do that as a homebrewer so I’m not going to do it when people are paying me for it, even if it is more expensive. And the same goes for the water profiles,” he explains. “If I’m going to do an English beer, then maybe I should do Burton [upon Trent], England, water. If I’m going to do a Belgian beer, then maybe I should do Belgian water. So that’s how I do it and I think it makes a difference in the flavors.”

Still, if his job was limited to brewing, Nick says he’d probably get bored. Luckily his responsibilities as the company’s CEO add plenty of variety to his day-to-day. “There’s nearly endless ideas and directions you can go as a company, and an endless amount of repair projects on a 100-year-old building.” 

Nick was nervous about coming into such a close-knit mining town as Crosby as an outsider, but says he has felt accepted and welcomed by the community. “If you’re going to move two hours away and start a business in someplace you’ve hardly been, you’ve gotta have buy-in,” he says. “I think that made people [in town] happy, that I’m investing everything I have and everything I am into this idea.

“But at the same time, we weren’t first,” he continues, pointing to businesses like Red Raven and True North Basecamp, who have also helped propel the revitalization of Crosby. “This whole thing didn’t start with us and it’s not going to end with us. We’re just a piece of the puzzle that’s heading in the direction of where we’ll end up someday.”

About Brian Kaufenberg

Brian Kaufenberg is the editor-in-chief of The Growler Magazine.