Amid homebrewing boom, Northern Brewer comes to Southwest

WINDOM — Northern Brewer just opened the doors of its first Minneapolis location, but the company’s influence has already been profoundly felt west of the Mississippi.

A homebrew kit purchased at Northern Brewer’s flagship St. Paul location 17 years ago introduced Surly owner Omar Ansari to homebrewing, and the rest is history.

“People who love beer begin homebrewing,” Surly’s website notes, adding that Ansari’s first homebrew kit turned out to be “the gift that keeps on giving.”

Of course, very few people who get into homebrewing end up running their own commercial brewery. But given how easy it is to brew quality ales from the comfort of one’s kitchen or basement, most do end up making and drinking quality beers.

Jake Keeler, Northern Brewer marketing director and an avid homebrewer himself, testified to the ease of homebrewing during a tour of the new 6021 Lyndale Ave. S. location.

A trained artist and art instructor, Keeler said he initially had doubts about whether he could handle homebrewing.

“When I first started, I thought, ‘oh, this is like science, and I’m not a science guy, I’m an artist,’” he said. “But it’s super easy. In general, if you follow the instructions and are diligent, [the beer] will turn out very good.”

Homebrew starter kits (beginning at $80) include the necessary equipment, including a six-gallon fermenting bucket, hydrometer, siphon tubing and a how-to Homebrewing 101 DVD.

Northern Brewer also sells recipe kits spanning the gamut from wheat beer to pale ale to German-style Kolsh.

Beginners typically opt for extract kits including malt extract, hops, and a choice of liquid or dry yeast, plus instructions. More advanced brewers often go with all-grain kits where grains are mashed and sparged manually.

The range of equipment, recipe kits and grains sold at the Minneapolis Northern Brewer is similar to what patrons of the 18-year-old St. Paul store have come to expect. But what sets the Windom Northern Brewer apart is a large and modern classroom space adjacent to the retail area.

Keeler said Northern Brewer plans to offer classes on everything from the basics of homebrewing and winemaking to more advanced classes on brewing techniques and the science of brewing. The classroom space will also host events and demos led by homebrewers and craft-beer makers from throughout the region.

Keeler said he envisions the classroom as a “meeting place for homebrewers and craft beer lovers.”

“We hope to have people here as often as possible just brewing and chatting and hanging out,” he said.

Becoming a beer chef

Like Ansari, Surly head brewer Todd Haug began his beer career homebrewing. Haug said the path trod by Surly’s two head honchos is typical for craft beer professionals.

“There are a lot of homebrewers that turn into pro brewers — that’s where the creativity starts,” Haug said.

“It’s like being a chef — there aren’t too many chefs that haven’t done some stuff at home,” he added.

Kingfield resident and avid homebrewer Aaron Herman is at the stay-at-home-chef part of his beermaking career, having churned out an impressive total of 25 five-gallon batches since he first started homebrewing just over a year ago.

It’s hard to imagine that Ansari or Haug accomplished more in their first year of brewing than Herman, 30. After using a malt extract recipe kit to make his first India pale ale batch, Herman soon found himself putting recipes together on his own and making more exotic beers.

“When my first beer turned out great, my knees buckled,” Herman said. “I was like, ‘this is real beer and I made it.’”

Herman has already brewed quality batches of coffee stout, Russian imperial stout and American-style lager. He’s now working on his second batch of sour beer and is in the process of developing a recipe for a lemon pepper brew.

Folks beyond his friends and family are starting to take notice of his brewing skill. Herman brought samples of his beers to his job interview at the Minneapolis Northern Brewer and was quickly hired for a part-time gig. The plan is for him to eventually teach homebrew classes in the store’s classroom.

As Herman lautered five gallons of sweet wort from mash in a steel bucket setup in his comfortable living room, he explained that although many of his beers have turned out deliciously, he still struggles to make beers with world-class “intangibles.”

“I guess what I’m learning is how tough it is to make a world-class beer. [It’s about] that extra little bit that makes you go, ‘wow, this is a great beer,’” he said. “I’m really gaining an appreciation for the art of brewing — to make a beer that is phenomenal is pretty tough.”

Haug worked closely with Northern Brewer staff to develop a series of advanced recipe kits meant to help homebrewers mimic some of Surly’s famous beers, such as Furious, Bender and Smoke.

Even so, Haug concurred with Herman’s observation — indeed, it is very difficult to make world-class beers from home.

“There are so many variables with homebrewing,” Haug said. “You can get pretty close, but with water chemistry and everything else, it’s hard to recreate a Surly Furious.”

Homebrewing’s exploding popularity

Keeler has been homebrewing off and on for about a decade, while Haug has been at it for more than 20 years.

Both said they’ve seen the number of homebrewers dramatically increase in recent years — an observation supported by a survey of homebrewing shops conducted last spring by the American Homebrewers Association (AHA).

An AHA summary of the survey notes that 2011 saw a 67 percent increase in respondents compared to last year, with homebrew supply shops growing 16 percent in gross revenue from 2010.

The exploding popularity of homebrewing has created some difficulties for shops like Northern Brewer. Keeler said that homebrew shops and craft breweries sometimes “share and fight over” limited supplies of barley, hops and grains. Supply often lags behind demand.

“It’s in that in-between stage where growers and farmers are still a little concerned the bottom might fall out” of the homebrewing industry, Keeler said, alluding back to the sudden dip in the craft beer market in the late ’90s. “They are probably still a bit hesitant to put out 40 acres for a particular crop.”

But the AHA survey suggests that demand for homebrew supplies is more than a passing fad. The summary notes that 43 percent of retailers report the most common age group for beginner equipment is under 30, which points to homebrewing’s widening and increasingly youthful demographic.

“It’s at a point where it seems like everybody is homebrewing now and it just keeps growing,” Haug said. “Not only has the internet helped get knowledge out there but also the kits are better.”

Keeler said that most who get hooked on homebrewing report that they fall in love because of the knee-buckling feeling Herman experienced after he sampled his first homebrewed pale ale.

“It’s not about the economy — you aren’t going to save money,” Keeler said. “It’s about, with a minimal amount of understanding and work upfront, you can make craft-quality beer you can share. That’s what makes it so special.”

Reach Aaron Rupar at [email protected] on Twitter @atruparJournals.