If there are two things craft breweries in greater Minnesota have proven, it’s that there is no such thing as a “typical” craft-beer drinker, and demand for new and interesting beers doesn’t stop at the 694–494 loop.
“Customers just blow stereotypes out of the water,” said Bemidji Brewing Company Head Brewer Tom Hill. “We’ll have a 65-year-old lady come in and order an IPA. Typically, you’re looking towards the 20-somethings and the crowd that fits the general demographic for drinking craft beer. But it’s been awesome to see the variety of folks that have come in.”
About 100 miles south in Baxter, Minnesota, Patrick Sundberg wasn’t exactly sure what demand would be like when he opened Jack Pine Brewery in 2013.
“I didn’t expect people in the area to be as receptive as they have been,” he admitted. “I blew my five-year projections out of the water in the first couple months. I thought it was going to be a struggle, but people are willing to support local, and they’re also willing to try new, interesting stuff.”
American Craft Beer Week (May 11–17) was filled with many beer events throughout Minnesota and the Central Lakes area was no exception. On May 12, a panel discussion was held at Bemidji Brewing Company at which area brewers shared their stories and traded tips to a taproom packed with curious citizens, homebrewers, and ale aficionados.
Both Hill and Sundberg were there to speak, with Dennis Weimann of Lakeland Television moderating. The brewers answered questions ranging from ingredients preferences to cultural reception of craft beer.
Jack Pine Brewery
Jack Pine Brewery recently celebrated its two-year anniversary. Sundberg began the three-barrel operation after more than a decade of homebrewing and several years as a certified beer judge. “I finally realized that if I wanted to work in a brewery, I’d have to start my own!” he joked.
The brewery has become known for its popular barrel-aged beers. While the community has taken to the taste of barrel-aged ale, from Sundberg’s perspective as a brewer, the best part is the mystery. “Barrel aging is a little more time intensive, but it’s fun to do,” he said. “I enjoy it because you don’t really know what’s going to happen in a barrel and how it’s going to turn out.”
Jack Pine recently began bottling several of its beers in 22 oz. bottles, which are available at several locations in the Brainerd-Baxter-Nisswa area.
Bemidji Brewing Company
After only four years in business, Bemidji Brewing Company is in a season of expansion. They recently hired new taproom bartenders, and now have added a second brewer, as well. The brewery is owned by two couples: Tom and Megan Hill, and Bud and Tina Kaney. They run a three-barrel operation in the heart of downtown Bemidji.
Bemidji Brewing is known for its sour beers, which have been widely sought after at festivals and tastings around the state and in Bemidji’s own taproom. This year, they released a Flander’s-style sour red and a raspberry sour red, both of which sold out at the taproom within hours of being tapped. The demand prompted the brewery to purchase two new 93-gallon barrels, which are already filled with new releases coming throughout the next year. “The sours take eight months to a year to turn around,” said Hill. “So the biggest issue is just time. But we’re very pleased with the reception the sours have gotten.”
Bemidji Brewing recently began making its own cold-press coffee through a system Hill devised that involves cold-steeping the grounds and filtering the coffee into a keg.
Central Lakes Beer Scene
The small, rural areas in North Central Minnesota present challenges that more populated areas are protected from. Their customer base has a ceiling, which can prevent growth and limit the size of a practical operation. Both Sundberg and Hill credit the passing of the “Surly Bill,” which in 2011 legalized on-site sales in taprooms, to their ability to run a successful business while being a small operation. “Four or five years ago, the idea of a three barrel startup—which we both are—was laughable,” said Hill. “There’s no way you can make ends meet selling just wholesale at that size.”
Not only are both Jack Pine and Bemidji Brewing making ends meet; they’re growing, and they aren’t alone. There are four breweries currently in the Central Lakes region, including the newly-opened Big Axe Brewery, and more are surely on the way.
“I think we’ll see a lot more smaller brewers, and maybe just taproom-only, continue to pop up across small towns,” said Sundberg. “Even if they brew just a once or twice a week, there’s more coming to the area.”