It’s not Grand Marais’ cold snaps that trip up Stuart Long. Or the solitude. It’s the seagulls. “What the hell is a seagull doing in Minnesota?” the head brewer of Voyageur Brewing Company quips. “I don’t know; it’s weird, man.”
Stuart moved to Grand Marais two years ago after spending the majority of his 31 years living on the West Coast. He looks like a Californian, or at least not Minnesotan—something about his fast-paced, direct chatter raises a definite “not from here!” flag. Before moving here, Stuart had only been to Minnesota once, for his interview with Voyageur. He knew nothing about the state—“I thought it was all plains and ice all the time”—and had an entirely different life plan lined up before taking the job. But then he met the owners of Voyageur Brewing, Mike and Sue Prom and Bruce and Rittalee Walters, and everything changed.
“I kind of just fell in love with the company,” Stuart recalls. “Their whole ethos was really similar [to my own] and their values as owners and what they’re trying to create was really similar to my values as a person and as a brewer.” And then there was Lake Superior and the Boundary Waters, the hard-working locals, and the abundance of space. It all clicked for him. “The lifestyle of northern Minnesota in general is really close to what I’ve always wanted,” the Southern Californian says. “You have the solitude and the trees, there’s a ton of stuff to do out here, there’s surfing. […] All the Minnesotans were trying to scare me away, but it didn’t work.”
Moving to a new place with no set vision for his future was nothing new for Stuart. After suffering a family tragedy when he was 11 years old, he took it upon himself to shape his own life. At age 16, he left San Diego to live with his older brother in Arizona. He finished high school, taught himself to brew beer from grain, went to college to pursue a career in federal law enforcement, changed his mind, and set his sights on working at The Lost Abbey in San Marcos, California. After lots of wooing (“It took a lot to get that first job—I had to buy donuts for people and stuff”) he was hired on his 21st birthday.
Three years later Stuart moved again, this time to Bend, Oregon, where he had the opportunity to take the reins as head brewer at Silver Moon Brewing. He stayed there for a little over three years before returning to San Diego to work as a consultant for start-up breweries.
All these decisions stemmed from Stuart’s ethos of embracing trial and error and being “a student of the school of hard knocks.” “As soon as you realize you know nothing, you can start learning. I love that mentality,” he says emphatically.
That approach is both beneficial and necessary in his role at Voyageur Brewing, where even the seemingly simple act of sourcing raw materials can be a challenge. “If you’re in the city, you can get things. It’s all just right there—you can go to BSG or Country Malt or borrow from someone. Out here, if my hops take a turn for the worse, or anything happens, I have zero support,” he explains. “It’s like survival sometimes.” In the two years he’s worked at Voyageur, Stuart has had to learn to do everything from service the brewery’s boiler to diagnose issues with his brewing system and find a way to fix them. There’s no other option, he says: “You have to fix it. You gotta figure it out.”
Of course, it’s not just Stuart versus The Unpredictable. “Having the support of my team is huge,” he says. “The brewers that work here with me, my colleagues, the owners are all super important. They have their own unique gifts and skill sets. Within our team there’s a lot of different people I can rely on for different things that can support my weaknesses. You just have to be very self-sufficient out here.”
Ironically, all three brewers at Voyageur, as well as one front-of-house staffer, are from California. Two—cellarman Cole Macy and beertender Garret Lima—are friends of Stuart’s (“I told them to come check it out; they did and liked it and stayed”); the other, lead brewer Kayla Brogna, well, Stuart’s not sure what brought her to Grand Marais. “We’re magnetic people,” he laughs, then adds: “The joke is that I don’t make friends quick enough, so I just brought my own.”
Along with his two buddies, Stuart also brought his girlfriend and 100-pound Walker Coonhound along for the adventure. So far, all have adjusted surprisingly well—an outcome that is apparently only a surprise to me, a born-and-raised Minnesotan. The Californian, on the other hand, is completely unfazed by his quick adjustment to life in the tundra. “I think if you have the type of personality to be out here and you can just embrace it, then you’re going to be all right,” he says. “I have everything I want; I live on 10 acres with my chick and my dog and we do what whatever we want. […] I work for a company that also owns Voyageur Outfitters; everything’s so accessible. It’s perfect for me in that sense.”
Stuart’s transition from Cali surfer boy to Minnesota outdoorsman wasn’t instant, though. For one thing, his vocabulary and vernacular were so different from that of his Grand Marais neighbors that he found he needed to repeat himself and speak more slowly. Another major adjustment was finding replacements for his daily surfing sessions and weekly dives. “The beach was a huge part of my life,” Stuart says. “It was all-consuming, the water. I knew there were waves out here but it’s not the ocean, right? So I’ve had to kind of reevaluate stuff like that.”
Diving has been replaced with climbing, hiking, fishing, and camping. As for surfing, he still does it, it’s just—different: “The first time I tried to surf out here was the coldest I’ve ever been in my life.”
Even with all the changes, Stuart insists his life hasn’t changed that much. “I’m still introverted. I still read all the time. […] I found that the lifestyle here is actually really similar [to my life before], with the exception that I have a big-ass driveway to shovel—the snow is crazy. There’s always something to do at my house, whether it’s cutting wood or shit like that. But I love it. It gives me stuff to do. For me, that simplicity is good.”
Simplicity and slow may define the tempo in Grand Marais during the colder months, but come summer, it’s all-systems-go. That’s when Twin Citians and other southern Minnesota residents flock north, itching to swap their everyday downtown and suburban life for a week or two in the woods. “We see a lot of you in the summer,” Stuart tells me, a slight teasing to his voice. “That’s one of the weirdest things up there—the tourist thing. It’s crazy. Our production—it’s day and night; we can’t keep up in the summer. And in the winter it’s a whole other story. In the summer we’ll sell exponentially more beer through the bar. In the winter, we’re relying on our distributors to sell the product.”
But the Boundary Waters is still just a short drive away, and tourist season passes as quickly as a storm whipped up by Lake Superior, and then it’s back to Wednesday nights out in the woods, eating dinner by a campfire and listening to a downloaded Audiobook because cellphone service is non-existent. It’s back to solitude and simplicity and slow. Just as Stuart likes it.
Editor’s Recommendation: Brule River Blonde Ale
After a long day of hiking around the Superior National Forest or paddling the Boundary Waters, a crisp, low-ABV blonde ale hits the spot like few other beers. Brule River Blonde has a slight hint of melon and finishes clean—a refreshing treat that leaves you wanting another.