A brewery renaissance

Faded Grain Belt beer signs still stand on taverns and along highways crossing Montana, relics of a 160-year Minneapolis brewing tradition.

But like those signs, breweries in Minneapolis have faded since their heyday in the 1960s, when Grain Belt and Gluek’s were major players on the regional and national beer scene. Thirty breweries have either folded or had their operations moved outside the city to places like New Ulm, Cold Spring and Stevens Point, Wis.

Today, only small brewpubs exist in Minneapolis. Meanwhile, St. Paul and Brooklyn Center have become home to surging breweries.  

That could all change in the next 18 months, as three Minneapolis craft brewers intend to open their own microbreweries in the city.

If Minneapolis is on the verge of a brewery renaissance, then Southwest is the center of the movement. All three craft brewers — Fulton Beer, Harriet Brewing and the newest to the scene, 612Brew — have similar backgrounds: They brew beer in garages of Southwest homes and they have used the taste palates of Southwest residents to help perfect their recipes.

The Minneapolis City Council has taken notice. In early August, after hearing testimony from the budding brewers, the Council passed a “Brew Beer Here” ordinance change sponsored by member Gary Schiff that will allow small microbreweries that don’t serve food to sell 64-ounce jugs, or “growlers” of beer to their customers. This, the brewers say, will allow attract neighbors to their breweries and give them a much-needed cash infusion as they grow their businesses.

 “It’s a very exciting time,” says Doug Hoverson, a Minneapolis resident, history teacher and author of “Land of Amber Waters,” a book about Minnesota’s brewing history.  

A strong community connection

To watch Jason Sowards brew a batch of Porter in his Linden Hills garage is like watching a chef perfect his cuisine.   

He scribbles in a composition notebook brew times and ingredient measurements. He talks passionately about how adding hops at different intervals can dramatically change the taste of the beer. He’s like a kid in a candy store when he talks about the high quality city of Minneapolis tap water. So soft, compared to other cities, that he barely has to tweak it before brewing.

Sowards, a laid-off chemical engineer, plans to open a 6,000-square foot brewery in the Longfellow neighborhood this fall. It will be named Harriet Brewing, after the community that supported him while he perfected his recipe.

On a Wednesday afternoon in early August, while he brewed the Porter, Sowards’ strong connection to his community became evident.

A young woman drove past his home near the corner of 44th and Upton. She asked him how it was going — said she had seen him all over the news when the growler law passed. Sowards will be donating to her a few kegs of his brew for her upcoming wedding.

A few empty kegs sat in the middle of his garage. They were emptied the night before when he gave out beer to neighbors during the National Night Out event.

Sowards also has guests stop in daily to taste his beer and learn more about the process. Though he gets help from a network of home brewers in Minneapolis that offer their advice, his neighborhood has been instrumental in his craft.  

“If it wasn’t for my neighborhood and my community giving all the pats on the back that I need and all the encouragement, I probably wouldn’t be where I’m at right now, because it’s given me the self-confidence I need to move forward,” Sowards says.

Southwest is a logical place for craft brewers to spring up because residents love their small neighborhood restaurants where they can eat excellent food and talk ingredients with the owners, Hoverson, the brewery historian says. That’s a trait that will carry over with breweries.

“You also have residents in those parts of the city, who, whether it’s out of a desire for nostalgia or an interest in supporting local business, will go and visit the brewery. They will pick up beer as if it was almost the factory outlet,” Hoverson says. “They can go directly to the source and see where it was made and feel like they’re a bigger part of the brewing experience.”

Strength in numbers

Sowards’s Harriet Brewing, if things go according to plan, will be the first brewery to open in Minneapolis since James Page closed in 2003. He plans to be brewing beer in October.

Fulton Beer — founded by four 20-somethings who live and brew in their Fulton garage — was the first of the three new brewers to introduce its beer to the market. The owners make trips out to Black River Falls to brew their beer and they sell kegs to about 60 Twin Cities bars. Fulton owners have said they want to open a brewery in Minneapolis.  

The newest group of brewers to announce their intent to open a microbrewery is 612Brew, which has its origins in Robert Kasak’s 50th & France home.

Kasak and his partners — Ryan Libby, Adit Kalra, Joe Yost and Emily Yost — now brew from a garage on the 3100 block of Emerson Avenue, near Uptown.

They, like the others, have had Uptown neighbors make frequent stops to taste their brew.  

Kalra said the fact that three breweries could open within a year of each other is not a concern. He and the other craft brewers have stood firm that their beer is unique and people will want it for that reason.

If anything, having more breweries will help 612Brew’s cause, said Kalra, whose family owns Tandoor Indian Restaurant in Bloomington.

“It gives you more notoriety,” Kalra says. “Because more people will try your product. So the more that come in, the more it opens peoples’ awareness. And that’s key. People need to become aware of a product like this, because people are so used to drinking Miller.”

Challenges ahead

Minneapolis brewing entrepreneurs say the growler law was a great first step to creating a beer-friendly atmosphere. But if Minneapolis — and Southwest Minneapolis in particular — is to become a brew city again, more needs to be done.

Minnesota state law, unlike Wisconsin, does not allow a brewery to get a license to sell pints of beer from its facility unless it has a 60/40 percent food-to-liquor sales ratio. Sowards and Kasak say changing this law, to allow a brewery to sell pints, would make it easier for an infant beer company to grow.

“That would be the biggest legislation,” Kasak says. “For a production brewery like 612Brewery to sell pints out of a brewery — that’s a game changer.”

On a more local level, craft brewers who think Southwest is the perfect area to open a microbrewery have to jump hurdles to find a location.

“I would love to be in Southwest Minneapolis. I would love to be in Uptown. If we could get a place in Uptown, that would be the best,” Kasak says. “But for the product that we make, it’s easiest for us to get into an industrial location. We can get into the commercial, but we’d have to get a variance and go through public hearings … so if you know of any (industrial zoned I-1) buildings in Southwest Minneapolis, let us know.”

Hoverson says the benefits of having a city dotted with microbreweries could be an economic boon. He cited cities like Portland, Denver and San Francisco that are craft brewing hotspots.

In those cities, he says, people will tailor vacations to attend brewery tours and bring home beer. He says in Denver, breweries have moved into blighted areas and given neighborhoods a strong anchor for revitalization.

Sowards, who petitioned Schiff to make the ordinance change for growlers, says some “archaic liquor laws” are holding Minneapolis and Minnesota back.

“Before we can become a Portland or a Denver, or a Kalamazoo, Mich., — a real craft beer destination — there really has to be change not only on the city level of legislation, but also on the state level to let breweries sell pints on site.”