Talking shop: Start-up breweries seek help from those who paved the trail

Lupulin Brewing

The Lupulin Brewing crew, left to right, are Jeff Zierdt, Matt Schiller, and Aaron Zierdt. Lupulin, like many start-up breweries, sought out the advice of more established operations as they worked to open their Big Lake, Minnesota, brewery and taproom. // Photo by Brian Kaufenberg

Brewing, sharing, and drinking beer seem like pretty great perks of starting a brewery. But breweries need to have more than just great beer to survive. They need a business plan, financing, contractors, the right licenses and approvals—the list goes on and on.

While doing one’s homework and research before starting a business is always a good idea, it’s also valuable for would-be business owners to talk with somebody who has already been down the path they seek to take. This is especially true in the brewery business, known for its openness and collaboration, and is the route OMNI Brewing, which hopes to open in Maple Grove this fall, and Lupulin Brewing, which opened this past April in Big Lake, chose to take.

When Lupulin owners Matt Schiller and Jeff Zierdt decided to go pro, they first wanted to pick the brain of a veteran. Schiller is a fan of webcast The Brewing Network and, recalling a show that featured Fitger’s Brewhouse Brew Master Dave Hoops, he emailed the entrenched brewer to talk shop. During their meeting, Schiller, Zierdt, and Hoops sampled beers and took notes, all of which set the tone for the rest of the look-and-learn process employed by the Lupulin team.

Following their conversation with Hoops, the trio sought advice from breweries around Minnesota that were in the build-out process. At the time, that list included Tin Whiskers, Urban Growler, and Castle Danger. The main factor driving Lupulin was finding breweries with similar systems, set-ups, and ideals as their own, then seeing how they could apply the things they learned from them to their own business and location.

OMNI is currently in a similar learning process. Before seeking a location, they sat down with Day Block Brewing and 612Brew to talk about equipment arrangement, requirements, and everything else they might need to know. Knowing the challenges ahead—and potential delays—OMNI immediately jumped on their building of choice when it became available and got a jump on ordering equipment ahead of time. They closed on their warehouse space June 18; construction began on June 22.

Beer industry folks are busy, but they’re also generous. “There’s definitely a willingness to help out,” says OMNI co-founder Justin Walsh. “It’s more the time and ability to take a night and meet with us.”

Because of limited free time, Walsh advises other start-ups seeking advice to be selective and limited in their requests. “It’s nice to have a few relationships where you talk to a few different people and not be constantly hounding one person,” he explains. “There’s unique things for every brewery where it’s great to sit down with them and talk but, at the end of the day, something might be unique to our building.”

The Lupulin team had a similar experience. They say that at first they frequently spoke with Jeff Moriarty at Tin Whiskers. Later, they thoroughly reviewed the set-up at Urban Growler. In these instances and others, they say they sought to minimize their impact on another brewer’s time.

Regardless of how much advice a brewery receives, the path to opening a new operation is always nuanced and difficult. “The financing process was miserable,” Schiller remembers. “The ups and downs, dealing with different banks and investors. You think you’ve got a deal and then you don’t.”

Then there’s what equipment to use—and how to use it. Companies such as American Beer Equipment (OMNI’s choice) and Minnetonka Brewing and Equipment (Lupulin’s vendor) have onsite assistance options, but the brewers say getting a professional to review the different pieces is most helpful.

Now that they’ve jumped through the hoops and are open (or close to it), both OMNI and Lupulin find themselves on the flip side of the question-and-answer process. New start-ups are seeking out their advice, and they are happy to share. “I think it’s great to have so many great breweries in the area to pave the way,” Walsh says. “It makes it easier for someone like us to come into a new area where people are already aware of the great breweries of Minneapolis and be excited for us to come in too.”

For older Minnesota craft breweries, like Summit, the path to opening was similar, although it was marked with significantly more roadblocks. “Even though there were fewer brewers around at the time, I was able to make some meaningful connections,” recalls Summit founder Mark Stutrud. It was the early 1980s, and he had to travel the coasts for advice. He says he worked closely with Minnesota-native Charlie McElevey at Red Hook, in New Hampshire, and Fred Thomasser, a retired brewmaster at Schmidt’s, to work out the kinks.

Some of the biggest challenges facing Summit, though, were unique to Stutrud’s first location. From a lack of city codes to few suppliers for small-scale equipment, “It was like stepping into a black hole,” he says. “I learned early it’s pretty important to establish a relationship with the regulatory agencies and to make sure you understand what you need to do.”

From craft-beer veteran Summit to not-yet-open OMNI, breweries around Minnesota continue to talk with one another and share knowledge with newcomers, just as was done for them. The more they share, the better the beer; and the better the beer, the healthier the local craft-beer industry. Everybody wins.

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