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Small breweries making big boom across Minnesota

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New brewery
Dangerous Man Brewing Co. owner Rob Miller fills a growler while chatting with a colleague in Minneapolis, Minn. Thursday, Jan. 10, 2013. Dangerous Man Brewing Co., one of several new breweries opening around the state, is able to sell beer from its taproom because of Miller's work with Minneapolis City Hall to strike down a regulation banning breweries near churches.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Minnesota is undergoing a "beer boom" and catching up with the rest of the country. In just the last two years, the number of breweries in the state has nearly doubled to 53, driving a proliferation of local beers.

The "Surly Bill" that passed the Legislature in 2011 is a major factor. Surly Brewing Co., which lobbied for the change, is one of the larger breweries in the state, but the law also opened the door for many smaller beer makers. It offered them a better shot a profitability, allowing brewing establishments to sell their beer by the pint right on site.

It's called a taproom license. To distinguish: a brew pub is a bar that serves food as well as beer that they make on site; a brewery does not make or serve food, but can serve its beer by the pint, bottle or jug, thanks to the Surly bill.

• Chart: Minnesota's brewery boom

Joking with colleagues
Sarah Bonvallet, the wife of Dangerous Man Brewing Co. owner Rob Miller, jokes with colleagues at the brewery in Minneapolis, Thursday, Jan. 10, 2013. Bonvallet said she had put her career on hold the last several months to help Miller launch the brewery.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Dangerous Man Brewing, which opens to the public Jan. 25, is case in point. Owners, husband-and-wife team Rob Miller and Sarah Bonvallet actually wrote up a business plan in the mid-2000s for their northeast Minneapolis brewery.

  "We spent maybe two years talking about it and really putting our heart and soul into it," Bonvallet  said. "That's when we discovered it was absolutely illegal to have a microbrewery in Minnesota that actually served their product."  

In less than two years since the Surly bill passed, the state has issued more than a dozen taproom licenses. Pour Decisions, a Roseville brewing company, obtained one last week. It's owned and run by Kristen England  and B.J. Haun,  a pair of Ph.D.s who plan to brew beer on the weekends while they pursue careers in pharmacology and plant genomics, respectively, during the week.

"Because it's a hobby, anyway, right?" England said. "So instead of spending the time hobby-making beer, we're actually spending just the same amount of hours here making beer commercially."

Kristen England
Kristen England, one of the owners of Pour Decisions Brewing Company in Roseville, Minn., stands in front of his beer fermenting tanks.
MPR photo/Curtis Gilbert

  That's not to say this is just about fun. England takes brewing more seriously than that.

  "People say when you love something, it's really not work. No, no, no. I love my kid. They're work. I love brewing, but it's absolute work," he said.  

Undoubtedly it's a lot of work, but these new breweries are not making great quantities of beer compared to more established companies.  

"People say you can't make money with a small brewery. Yeah, you can... You just can't have employees."

Consider that MillerCoors, the largest brewing company in the country, ships about 100-million barrels of beer annually. The largest brewer in Minnesota, August Schell Brewing Company in New Ulm, does a fraction of that — about 130,000 barrels. These new brewers operate on an even smaller scale.  

Surly, namesake of the taproom bill, produces a little less than 20,000 barrels annually. Pour Decisions plans to make just 2,000 barrels a year to start. Dangerous Man is shooting for 500. Other startup breweries are even smaller than that.  

Ken Thiemann describes himself as the owner, brewer, secretary, deliveryman, bathroom washer, dishwasher and a jack-of-all-trades at Borealis Fermentery.

  Since he started in April, Thiemann has brewed only 30 barrels of beer. But he beat out much bigger companies and snagged two of the three top awards at last year's All Pints North festival in Duluth.

  Thiemann's brewery is attached to his house near the north shore of Lake Superior. Trained as an engineer, he built both structures himself out of timber, straw bales, and 65,000 pounds of stucco. Thiemann figured if the brewery flopped he could always use the space to build canoes.

  "If you don't set yourself up for disappointment and don't overshoot your boundaries, then you don't have to worry," he explained.  

Filling a growler
Dangerous Man Brewing Co. owner Rob Miller fills a growler at the Minneapolis brewery Thursday, Jan. 10, 2013. Dangerous Man Brewing Co., one of several new micro breweries opening around the state, will only sell its beer in the brewery's taproom.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Thiemann has no intention of going into the canoe business now. He plans to upgrade his current system, where he brews one barrel at a time, to a rig that can handle four or five barrels. But Borealis will always be tiny, even by micro-brewing standards.

"People say you can't make money with a small brewery. Yeah, you can," Thiemann said. "You just can't have employees. You can't have snowmobiles. You can't have four-wheelers. You have to deliver your beer in a Yaris. You have to know how to be small."

  It's the common thread running through many of the new breweries. The owners aren't looking to strike it rich. They just want to turn their hobby into their job.


MPR reporter Dan Kraker contributed to this article.