You’d Start Drinking Beer Too If You Lived With 18 dudes in a 3-Bedroom House

One Wednesday every month, Paul Colling of Forest Lake, Minnesota, meets his college buddies for beers at a local taproom. Since this tradition began in late 2015, Colling and about a dozen others have visited over 40 Twin Cities breweries. On this particular Wednesday, Colling is in Lowertown St. Paul, where pouring rain and blowing wind have toppled the “We’re Open” sandwich board outside 12welve Eyes Brewing’s taproom (12welve Eyes Brewing has since closed its doors for good). Navigating puddles in a bright red rain jacket, Colling swings open a heavy wood door and descends a few stone stairs.

Below grade, happy hour is underway and an easy Cheersy vibe hangs over the warm wood bar. In the corner, a brightly lit Crowler cooler hums next to a freezer packed with Heggie’s pizzas. Framed art and custom murals decorate the walls, punctuated here and there by gold-and-black branded hats and tees, while silent TVs broadcast a sunny ballgame being played in some other city. Colling wipes his glasses, pulls up a stool, and orders a Pilsner.

L to R: Mike McDonald, Ken Westenburg, Steve Hollmann, Ray Moonen, Charlie Bjerken, Maury Klein, Jim Love, Jim Kojola (Kojo), Paul Colling, & Dave King gathered at 12welve Eyes Brewing // Photo by Brendan Kennealy

Next to Colling, Ray Moonen from Edina knocks back a sample pour of Maibock. Mike “Mac” McDonald from St. Paul’s Highland Park neighborhood arrives via light rail and orders a Hazy IPA. Ken Westenberg and “Skinny” Jim Love appear together; one orders a hefeweizen named after Heidi Klum and the other goes for a Kölsch. In a matter of minutes, the drinking party swells to 10, as Steve Hollmann, Charlie Bjerken, Maury Klein, Dave King, and Jim “Kojo” Kojola belly up for beers.

They’ve come to the brewery from all over the Twin Cities—one’s even fresh off a plane from Florida. Back-slapping and laughing noisily, these guys might seem just like your college buddies, except they’ve probably drank far more beer than you, and they’ve likely got a bit more gray hair. That’s because most of them were born in 1949, and at 70 years old they don’t necessarily look like the typical taproom crowd.

“We’re just about always the biggest group,” Colling says. “We meet at 4pm since we’re retired, so we’re usually the first group wherever we are,” adds Ken Westenberg. “But then the kids and dogs show up and things start to pick up, and we don’t stand out so much.”

When it’s mentioned that most people might peg the stereotypical craft beer drinker as a bearded, flanneled millennial, they respond in unison with a cry of “BULLSHIT!”

“Craft beer’s for everyone,” says Maurie Klein, and besides, he and his friends visit new taprooms every month for the same reasons most anyone does—for novelty, for variety, and because they simply enjoy being around other people who take beer seriously.

Motivations and appearances aside, Kojo knows he and his buddies are, in fact, a little different. “These are a bunch of great guys that love beer, but we’re not just drinkers. It’s a really unique group of people. We all care about each other and everybody’s got a different story,” he says.

Trace those stories far enough back and they’ll lead you to a three-bedroom house near Mankato State University, where 18 college-aged dudes once bunked together in the late 1960s and laid the foundation for friendships that would last half a century.

“We had beds everywhere,” recalls Mac, wearing a black jacket with a Veterans For Peace logo on the chest. “Bunk beds, beds in the basement, beds behind the boiler.”

“Every Thursday night there was a kegger,” adds Ray Moonen. “Thursday was party night in Mankato because 50 or 70 percent of the kids went home for the weekend on Friday morning.”

When they weren’t in class or hosting keggers, Colling and his pals would study at the library and then blow off steam at a town bar called The Square Deal, purveyors of 25-cent taps. “We’d go there some nights,” says Colling, “and there was this guy that would be in there every night—an old regular, a typical Norm but probably drunker than Norm—and his wife would come lookin’ for him. This was all college kids in there, and so his wife would come stormin’ in lookin’ for him, and the bartender would hide him behind the bar. And the college kids would boo whenever she came in and clap when she left.”

Ray Moonen(center) laughs seated with Steve Hollman(left) and Charlie Bjerken(right)// Photo by Brendan Kennealy

Though this may sound like typical frat behavior, Colling & Co. insist they were not members of a typical fraternity. “We actually kind of made fun of fraternities back then,” says Colling. “Nobody wanted to join one.” But when a new local organization called Sigma Kappa Phi started up, it promised to be different from the others.

“The frat was founded on a no-hazing policy,” recalls Kojo. “It was inclusive, it was mature, it was service-oriented.” The housemates were spending all their time together anyway, so they decided to join as a group. Before long, they merged the fraternity with Delta Tau Delta, a national organization that aligned with their values. “We filled potholes, we did sandbagging, and we drank beer,” says Kojo. “But we did it together.”

The bonds of friendship and fraternity helped the men negotiate some of the most transformational years of their lives. Students protesting the Vietnam War shut down Highway 169 near MSU in 1972, and almost daily bomb threats on campus forced University President Nickerson to consider cancelling classes before spring term ended.

“Our heavy drinking in college,” says Kojo, “had something to do with the pressures of the Vietnam War. […] It drove almost every decision you would make back then. […] The draft was on our tail. The draft board monitored our credit loads. There was a lot of pressure […] to stay in college and keep our student deferment.”

“You had to maintain, I think, 16 credits a quarter,” says Ken Westenberg. “Well, if you failed or dropped a class […] you were eligible for the draft. I can think of a couple guys who got drafted because they got behind in credits.”

When the draft lottery began in 1969, Mac knew his low draft number was likely to be called first. Rather than participate in protests or wait for what he believed to be inevitable, he joined the Reserves. “I didn’t have to go to ’Nam. Now I’m doing my peace work in retirement [with Veterans for Peace]. It’s come full circle for me.”

Retired and drinking beers with your college buddies isn’t a bad way to end up, but pulling it off is hard—not to mention incredibly rare—and for decades these guys didn’t have Facebook to make it easier. What they had instead was a series of post-college residences where some of the guys kept on co-habbing, sharing bunk beds and beer fridges long after the frat lifestyle might typically peter out. They had a realtor friend, Jim Love, whose help with buying and selling homes kept many of them connected. They had bowling leagues and softball games, golf outings and hiking trips. And every year, they had a holiday party at Broadway Pizza in Northeast Minneapolis. These connections kept most of the Mankato gang within orbit, but one guy disappeared into family life and fatherhood for about 30 years: Paul Colling.

“Steve Hollmann,” recalls Colling, “was out with Joe [Bartsch] one night apparently—Joe’s retired in Florida now—and they called me.” Out of the blue, they found Colling’s name in the phone book and arranged a lunch date. “We didn’t even have beer with lunch and Steve said, ‘Why aren’t we having beer for lunch?’”

“That’s how this whole thing started,” Hollman confirms. “We started seeing new breweries opening everywhere. One thing led to another and pretty soon we all got together.”

They’re careful to point out these monthly meetups aren’t all about beer, though. Just like in their college days, these former fraternity brothers are still interested in doing public service together. They’ve all volunteered to pack food at Feed My Starving Children a few times with their wives, for instance, and every June they volunteer together at Nisswa-Stämman, a Scandinavian folk music festival organized by a friend. (A cursory internet search confirms there is beer at the music festival.)

When asked about the group’s future, Colling predicts they’ll have to keep their monthly happy hour going for a few more years if they’re going to visit all the taprooms around the Twin Cities.

“Oh,” Hollman muses, “in 10 years, we’ll all move into some assisted living space together, as long as there’s a brewpub next door.”

About Brendan Kennealy

Brendan Kennealy is a writing and PR professional who lives and works in St. Paul. Find him on Twitter here: @extrapalemale.