When Eric Luoma and his wife Sandra Seha-Luoma heard about a building for sale in Fountain, Minnesota, halfway between Rochester and Decorah, Iowa, the couple thought the sleepy town would be a good place to finally retire. However, with Eric’s love of science and people and Sandra’s knack for hosting, the Luomas couldn’t resist the temptation to use their newly purchased former schoolhouse and cafe for something other than leisure.
What resulted is Karst Brewing Co., a 612-square-foot brewery taproom in Fountain, and one of the most intimate breweries in the state.
The old one-room schoolhouse was moved from the countryside in 1958, and had been turned into a cafe but fell into disrepair as it sat vacant. Set upon a filled sinkhole (local lore says a steam engine was used to partially fill it), the Luomas had a hefty task to bring the building up to code, let alone fulfill state and federal requirements for a brewery.
“It was completely run-down; it had been sitting empty for several years,” Eric says, recalling the first time he laid eyes on the building in 2014.
In addition to leveling the floor (one side had to be raised six inches, while the other lowered about the same), seven sinks had to be installed and the floor had to be carefully cut as not to ruin the in-floor heating while installing a drain for brewing operations.
One regulation requirement was particularly challenging for the tiny space—separating the brewing area from the taproom.
The Luomas’ solution, a movable half-wall, gives Karst a truly unique vibe.
While in taproom mode, the half-wall displays decades-old cans from breweries like Schell’s, Leinenkugel, and Asahi, and also serves as a four-seat bar. When it is time to brew on the three-barrel system, Eric unlocks the casters to move it out of the way.
Having such a small space means finding creative solutions like the half-wall, but also means Karst only has the ability to serve three beers on tap for now—Maggie’s Farm, a cream ale, Wry, a rye IPA, and Ember Waves, a beer that defies traditional styles but resembles an amber ale. There is no cooler to keep kegs—beer is served straight from the brite tanks.
In spite of space constrictions, the Luomas have been happy with their brewery since it opened on Memorial Day weekend. It’s been full, but they allow people to move around seating, like the couple’s old kitchen table, as needed. Patrons are allowed to mingle how they please, and so far it has worked.
But looking back at the decision to begin the small brewery brings out laughs from the couple.
“We weren’t thinking,” Sandra admits.
“The wisdom is: get investors, have a plan, and don’t do it all yourself,” Eric adds, “which is very good advice, because it really is too much for one person. But for us […] we would have taken that advice and said it was impossible. Being a little bit crazy, and maybe a little bit arrogant in some respects, is kind of helpful.”
Eric just wanted to do something creative. His science background, having worked in medical laboratory instrumentation, helped him grasp brewing on a scientific level, but he wanted to be “where the action” was in terms of interacting with people, not just brewing at home.
“Brewing is really the culmination of being technical, curious, and adventurous,” he says. “The process of brewing makes me feel alive.”
In the future the space may grow in other ways (such as adding a cooler for kegging, and maybe some fermentors on the outside of the building), but for now it’s just nice for the business owners to reacquaint themselves with the area.
Both Eric and Sandra grew up a short trip away in Chatfield, even attending high school together, and though they haven’t been around in years and have entirely separate lives apart from their hometown, it hasn’t kept them from running into old friends and family members who are excited with what they’re doing.
“I have a little sense of pride of giving this town something,” Sandra says. “If you don’t keep experiencing new things, it’s like, what’s the point?”
Photos by Louis Garcia
Brewer: Eric Luoma
Beer: Maggie’s Farm Cream Ale; Wry, a rye IPA; Ember Waves Amber-style Ale
Address: 315 First Street, Fountain, Minnesota, 55935
Hours: Fri 5–10pm, Sat 12–10pm