A group of home-brewing buddies goes commercial with a company started in a Fulton basement
It’s a possibility that has crossed the mind of many a home brewer.
Ryan Petz is no exception. He’s been there. He knows the thought process well.
“The first time they drink it and it tastes OK, they think ‘we could sell this,’” he said, doing his best dude impression.
But what sets Petz and his friends Jim Diley, Brian Hoffman and Peter Grande apart from those other brewers is that they made it happen.
After years of experimenting with different beer recipes, first in a Fulton basement, then in a garage and eventually a bigger garage in the same neighborhood, the group decided to make the leap to commercial brewing.
Their neighborhood-named company, Fulton Beer, launched its first brew in late October at seven Twin Cities bars. More beers are on the way.
The guys aren’t profitable yet and the company is still a side project for each of them, but they have big plans, including a program to help other entrepreneurs make their ideas reality.
From a basement to the big time
Petz, Hoffman and Diley all met at Saint John’s University, where they graduated in 2005. Grande is Diley’s brother-in-law.
Diley was the first one to catch the beer-brewing bug.
“My beautiful wife, who then was my girlfriend sophomore year, she bought a Mr. Beer kit and boy the beer was really bad, but it got something going,” Diley said. “And as time progressed and we all moved out of school, we all thought, ‘hey, this is a great hobby.’”
Hoffman, Diley and Petz all lived together in Fulton after college and continued to brew, initially in the basement. As they started to get more serious and their operation grew, they moved to the garage. After running out of room there, they moved everything into Grande’s larger garage, where the equipment still is today.
Brewing was their hobby, they said, but when friends started wanting more than a single beer, they started thinking bigger.
“We would have a couple friends over to try the new batch and we’d end up with no beer left after the night because they’d all go home with four, five, six beers from us and that’s when we kind of got to the point of deciding to set up a brewery,” Diley said.
Petz, who is working toward a master’s degree from the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of management, started to think earlier this year about launching the brewery as an alternative to a summer internship.
“I thought maybe we could just do this brewery thing, we’d be selling beer by May and I’d be making a salary sometime in June or July,” Petz said.
It didn’t work out that way at all, but after developing a business plan, taking out a loan and making personal investments, the friends incorporated Fulton Beer by the end of June and started getting serious about perfecting and marketing their product. A big challenge was choosing which beer to launch first.
They said they had experimented with a wide range of recipes and their backgrounds — Grande is a carpenter, Diley is an attorney, Hoffman is a biologist — brought different thought processes and opinions to the operation.
“We like a lot of different types of beer, so we brewed everything and anything,” Diley said.
But all that experimentation led to perfection and in the end, the crew decided five beers were ready for market: a blonde ale named Lonely Blonde, a pale ale called Wagging Tail, a malty red named Libertine, an imperial stout dubbed Worthy Adversary and an IPA called Sweet Child of Vine.
After plenty of what they called “casual market testing,” the guys went with the IPA, which several bars were eager to serve. The Fulton brewers described the hop-forward beer — in the same category as offerings from popular Minnesota brewers Surly and Summit — as an IPA for everyone, a beer that doesn’t get tired and isn’t hops dominated.
“It makes sense that we launched to what Minnesotans apparently like to drink, which is great,” Diley said.
To get the volume of their beer production up, the group contracted with Sand Creek Brewery in Black River Falls, Wis. There, the brewing is still hands-on and they can brew 1,240 gallons of beer at a time as opposed to 10 gallons in the garage, which is still used to brew test batches.
Sweet Child of Vine flowed from bar taps for the first time last month at the Happy Gnome in St. Paul.
The brewers were there for the launch party, listening to reactions from the crowd and even landing an interview with a local TV station. But it wasn’t until the party was over that they realized their success.
Sitting upstairs at the bar, watching the TV broadcast of their launch party, they heard commotion below them.
“When heard the cheers from downstairs, when they didn’t know the brewers were still there, the distributors were there, that fired me up and got me excited,” Diley said.
The experience for local bar owners has been good so far, too.
Jeff Radnich, co-owner of Acadia on the west bank, said a kickoff party for the beer at his business was better attended than for any previous beer and it’s selling well. He also likes the owners and their plans.
“We definitely like supporting the local breweries and especially the startup ones because being a small business ourselves, I understand how much work goes into trying to make a good product and make a living at it,” Radnich said.
Giving a hand up
Though Fulton Beer has yet to turn a profit, its owners are already hoping to do more than make a living.
They’re dedicating 10 percent of all profits at the end of each year to a micro-loan program they hope will eventually help other entrepreneurs see their dreams through to reality. Repayment of the loans will be negotiated on a case-by-case basis.
“We really wanted to do something that said we’re not just in this business to make money, to make beer,” Petz said. “We want to make a difference, too.”
Having been through the financial, legal and other hurdles involved with starting a business, the group said helping others to do the same thing made sense. They figure it will be a few years before they can give out their first loan, but they hope to get applicants looking to start a variety of businesses, not just breweries.
As for their own fledgling business, they hope Fulton Beer eventually has its own brewery in Minneapolis, one that they all work at full time. But if that doesn’t happen, they’re happy with what they’ve been able to do.
“Really, it comes down to how passionate you are about what you’re doing and what you’re willing to do to make it work,” Petz said.
Reach Jake Weyer at 436-4367 or email@example.com.
Where to find Fulton Beer
810 West Lake Street
Stub & Herb’s
227 Oak St SE
The Happy Gnome
498 Selby Ave
329 Cedar Ave. S.
5028 France Ave S.
The Muddy Pig
162 Dale Street
12690 Arbor Lakes Parkway
For more information on Fulton Beer, go to fultonbeer.com.