Dave Hoops: Master Brewer, Realist, and Risk-Taker

Dave Hoops, the owner and head brewer of Hoops Brewing in Duluth, Minnesota // Photo by JaneCane Photography

Dave Hoops, the owner and head brewer of Hoops Brewing in Duluth, Minnesota // Photo by JaneCane Photography

With his wavy, tousled hair, generous salt-and-pepper beard, and preferred outfit of jeans and a flannel shirt, Dave Hoops fits the archetypical portrait of a brewer better than that of a businessman. Yet his 25-plus years of experience in the industry have afforded him a wealth of expertise in the business of making beer. He’ll be the first to tell you it isn’t glamorous. But that fits well with his old-school work ethic. He’s not afraid to get his hands dirty; he’ll bus taproom tables and clean bathrooms as needed.  

A Duluth native who moved to San Francisco in the early 1990s, Hoops was exposed to the burgeoning West Coast craft beer scene and got hooked on homebrewing. He studied brewing at University of California, Davis and Siebel Institute in Chicago, then apprenticed at Goose Island Beer Company before landing a job at Pyramid Brewery in Berkeley, California, where he worked for several years as lead brewer before returning to Duluth in 1999 to take over brewing operations at Fitger’s Brewhouse from his brother, Mike Hoops (who went on to Town Hall Brewery). 

Dave and Mike were key players in the Minnesota craft brewing industry vanguard, serving as a founding members of the Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild in 2000. Dave’s most enduring legacy may be the many talented brewers he’s trained and mentored over the years who have gone on to start breweries of their own, such as Brian Schanzenbach of Blacklist Artisan Ales, or work at top breweries around the country, such as Melissa Rainville (who helped him launch the Hoops Brewing and is now at Summit), Frank Kaszuba (Earth Rider), Chris Holbrook (New Belgium in Fort Collins, Colorado), Bart Malloy (Trumer Brauerei in Berkeley, California), and others.

There was a lot of speculation about what Hoops would do after he left his position as Fitger’s Brewhouse’s head brewer, which he held for nearly 17 years, in September 2015. Opening a 15-barrel destination brewery and expansive beer hall—Hoops Brewing—in June 2017 was what he playfully calls his “big poker move.”

Hoops with patrons at one of the tables in the taproom // Photo by JaneCane Photography

After years of working for other people, building his own brewery was the next logical step in his career. Even so, opening a giant beer hall in Duluth’s Canal Park district, where businesses rely on tourism that can slow to a crawl in winter, was a bold move and not necessarily an easy one. Hoops admits to spending more time worrying about numbers than is probably healthy. He’s a hands-on guy who keeps long hours at his brewery—brewing beer, overseeing brewing operations, sourcing ingredients, managing inventory, developing recipes, scheduling employees, giving tours, pouring beer, and more.

Hoops can regularly be found chatting up patrons in the beer hall and describes his ultimate goal as crafting a special experience for all of his customers. Achieving that requires high standards. Hoops is adamant that all the beer being poured is fresh and that all the tap lines are clean. On the service side of things, table service is provided by Cicerone Beer Server-trained staff. Hoops conducts weekly tastings with his servers to keep them up to date on the latest offerings. “They can speak beer—they can speak the language,” he says. “They can ask and answer questions based on the customer’s interest and help them have a beer that will make them happy.” 

On chasing beer trends

Having borne witness to craft beer’s explosive growth, especially in Minnesota, over the course of his career, Hoops says he’s impressed and proud. He credits the media, celebrity brewers, public beer education, and the Guild, as well as the relaxing of some laws—such as Minnesota’s taproom law—for recent progress. He also sees Minnesota as having what it takes to gain more influence in the national and international beer scene. “I want us to be a beer destination,” he says. “I want a lot of us to be on the national scale giving seminars, talking, judging—promoting the Minnesota brand.”

But this increased competition also means it’s critical for breweries to find a niche in order to survive, Hoops says. “People need to be really careful about their business model and realistic about their abilities and what they can do in the particular niche they build. Building 50-barrel breweries right now and deciding you’re going to be a regional power is for very, very few people.”

When Hoops began working at Fitger’s Brewhouse in 1999, there were only a handful of breweries in the state. He relished the creative freedom of small-batch brewing and introducing customers to new styles. “It was really easy to just invent random new styles that weren’t being brewed,” he says, adding: “Now everything’s been done.”

Hoops with an assistant brewer // Photo by JaneCane Photography

He would know, given his history of not only winning Great American Beer Festival (GABF) competitions but also helping judge them. Lately he’s been favoring traditional styles in his beer, which, at a time when many breweries are hurrying to crank out hazy IPAs, kettle sours, and other trending styles, he jokes makes him a “dinosaur.”  

But now that he has his own establishment, Hoops isn’t about to bend to market whims. He’s brewing what he wants to drink—currently, he’s excited about making German lagers; both Munich and Bamburg varieties are in the works—and what he thinks will appeal to most people. Despite getting some flack from some customers for this approach, he remains unflappable on the issue. “I don’t like the fact that, as a brewery, you may be looked at as a little weak because you don’t have a full-time sour beer on,” Hoops says. “I don’t necessarily agree that it’s a bad thing.”

That’s not to say he’ll never brew a sour. Hoops had the luxury of working with a library of barrels at the Brewhouse, but now he’s starting from scratch. Hoops looks forward to building barrel-aged and sour programs but clarifies he isn’t about to rush them to cater to current demands. Hoops Brewing’s first barrel-aged beer, an imperial stout, was recently released; in about six months, the brewery’s first sour beer will come online. 

“I’m not sitting around spending a lot of time trying to chase fads. On the other hand, I make plenty of unique and interesting beers,” he says, pointing to a recently brewed India pale cream ale that sold out quickly in the taproom and a stock ale (a British style akin to strong ale and barleywine; Hoops’ version is dry and slightly smoky, with a hoppy finish), which tends to require some explanation for taproom customers. Hoops doesn’t mind, though: he is passionate about educating the public about craft beer and believes it’s part of the industry’s duty.

Independence in brewing

Kegs at Hoops Brewing in Duluth, Minnesota // Photo by JaneCane Photography

Kegs at Hoops Brewing in Duluth, Minnesota // Photo by JaneCane Photography

As a brewery owner today, Hoops’ perspective on the importance of independence in brewing is less idealistic than it would have been when he was starting out. While it still matters to him that his brewery remains independent, and he credits the Brewers Association for establishing the independent craft brewer seal to help market smaller breweries, Hoops disagrees with boycotting or bad-mouthing breweries that no longer fit the independent designation.

“I think an independent brewery means making beer that is brewed from the heart with the best possible ingredients in the best possible way they can do it that day,” he says. “There are plenty of breweries that would fall into that category that aren’t independent breweries.” Some of which, due to the many acquisitions of smaller breweries by large conglomerates of late, include his friends’ employers. “Does that make them bad people or shitty brewers?” he asks. “No.”

Hoops suggests acquisitions can provide opportunities in a tightening market for breweries to expand and get their beer into larger markets. They can improve access to equipment and ingredients, and translate into unionized jobs and better pay, which smaller breweries can’t typically provide in the current market.

Though Hoops admits that such buyouts can affect the quality of a beer, he asserts it doesn’t have to. He cites Goose Island Beer Company (now owned by AB InBev), where he began his career as an apprentice, as an example, noting good quality in the brewery’s new products and better consistency in its everyday beers since the takeover. He does admit some of the high-end, specialty beers, like Bourbon County Stout, have declined a bit in quality with mass production. “Do I think it’s great that you can get Bourbon County Stout all over the country right now? Not really,” he acknowledges. “On the other hand, it’s nice that the public and consumers have access. And that’s all through this non-independent brewery movement.”

Accessibility and education are aspects of craft beer that remain integral to Hoops’ philosophy. He’s generous with his time and knowledge and has a passion for educating people. His ability to appeal to the average consumer without pretension sets him apart. He employs this skill when writing his regular “Hoops on Hops” column in the Duluth News Tribune.

And despite being a craft beer pioneer, he doesn’t judge people by their beer choices. He strives to empower consumers rather than tell them what to do. “I think that any beer that you like and that you decide is good, is good,” he says. “Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise.”

Editor’s Recommendation – No. 15 Pale Ale

The perfect example of Hoops’ ethos of brewing to tradition rather than trend. Clean pouring, clean drinking, with bright hop aromas and mild bitterness, No. 15 is bold, full-flavored, and makes a compelling case for the neglected style.