For the Johnson family of St. Paul, it’s always been about the beer. In the 1990s, Scott Johnson owned All Saints Brands, Inc., a distribution company that helped bring European classics like La Trappe, Tripel Karmeliet, and Pauwel Kwak to Minnesota. Johnson eventually got out of that business, but he’s always loved beer. It’s a passion he shares with his wife, Shawne Murphy-Johnson, and his three children (at least the two who are over 21).
“I remember a family road trip in Washington, D.C.,” remembers 16 year-old daughter Quinn. “We were walking through Georgetown, and Dad was talking about opening our own brewery.” She was eight years old at the time, and Minnesota’s taproom bill had yet to reshape the local industry. When the bill passed a few years later, it changed the financial picture of starting a brewery.
At that same time, Scott’s son Murphy was coming of age. They inspired one another’s thirst for craft beer, so much so that Scott created a business plan, ad moved back to St. Paul, and began BlackStack Brewing in earnest. Shawne, his brother Cooper, and Quinn were also all on board.
The family planned to work together, using their different skills to build a full team, but they still needed a brewer. Scott wanted the beer to be clean and distinct, emphasizing quality ingredients without muddling flavors. His nationwide search for a brewer brought him to Bob DuVernois (formerly of Excelsior, Great Waters, and Town Hall) to seek out industry connections. Instead of turning in a list of names, the veteran brewer turned in his application.
This was nearly three years ago. BlackStack’s historic building (that once produced cans for Schmidt’s, Hormel, and more) came with many regulatory upgrades and general repairs.
BlackStack used the extra time to update their space, while DuVernois was perfecting recipes on a garage-based pilot system designed to upscale to a 20-barrel brewhouse. Murphy was always with Bob during those pilot batches, and he earned the role of assistant brewer through hours in the garage.
The four beers BlackStack will release when they open are Punch Press, inspired by De Koninck Brewery in Antwerp, Belgium; Ratify White Beer; Spare Parts, a dark lager; and Local 755, a Northeast IPA that came at Murphy’s insistence.While BlackStack, as a whole, prefers clear and picturesque beers, Murphy fell in love with Northeast IPAs, inspiring Local 755, their most-tested recipe. He expects it to be brewed with a rotating list of hop varieties for a different experience each visit.
BlackStack will open by pouring beer in-house, expanding into select accounts this spring and, later, selling 16-ounce cans. In the taproom, BlackStack will always have something new. “We want to brew a lot of styles and varieties and we never want to be predictable,” Scott summarizes. Each of their launch beers, he points out, use different yeast strains and he expects that diversity to continue.
The brewery itself is 20,000 square feet, located in the same building as mini-golf destination Can Can Wonderland just a few blocks north of University Avenue and the Green Line. There is a distinct smoke stack that sets the complex apart amid the heavily industrial area.
While its name showcases the building’s gritty history, the brewery and taproom are expansive and dazzling, with an emphasis on cleanliness and attention to detail that matches their attitude toward brewing. They’ve installed noise-absorbing insulation along the high ceilings to minimize the echo chamber familiar to many taproom visitors.
The 40-foot bar is the centerpiece, but the true character shines through the original window framework, the gigantic support beams and natural sunlight that comes in from east and west to reinvigorate a once-dilapidated building.
“We set out to do something we think of as an industrial cathedral,” says Scott. Historic, “but a certain coolness or modern museum feel to it.”
With the open and carefully detailed layout, BlackStack merges St. Paul industrial history with modern cool. A classically framed brick building, a looming smoke stack, and the beer that brings their family together.
Brewers: Bob DuVernois (head brewer), Murphy Johnson (assistant brewer)
Beer: Ratify (white beer), Spare Parts (dark lager), Local 755 (Northeast IPA), Punch Press (Belgian ale)
Address: 755 Prior Ave N, St. Paul, MN 55104
Hours: Monday–Thursday: 4–11; Friday: 2–12; Saturday: 11–12; Sunday: 12–10
[Updated on March 15, 2017 with photos]