ROCHESTER, Minn. — In August, if all goes according to plan, Little Thistle Brewing will open its doors, adding a fifth brewery to the city's burgeoning industry.
And more could be on the way.
The owners, Steve and Dawn Finnie, had originally hoped for a mid-June opening, around the time of the World Cup, but that proved too optimistic.
Once it opens, the brewery, refashioned from a 5,200-square-foot trucking warehouse next to a bike path, will feature a 10-barrel system, the largest in Rochester. But the goal will be to remain small, local and community oriented.
"We want to be small, and we aspire to do great things," Steve Finnie told the Post-Bulletin .
Little Thistle will have a beer garden and meeting rooms for weddings and corporate gatherings.
Finnie has a poetic streak when it comes to beer, a subject he can discuss for hours. But he knows that the beer business involves hard-headed realities.
While taking a tour of Surly Brewing Co., owner and founder Omar Ansari was asked about the most important thing to know about owning a brewery: Make sure your wife has health insurance (she does).
Finnie said he never really was certain what he wanted to do in life, but there is a theme interwoven in his life: His love of craft beer. Finnie may be one of the most educated brewers in the state. He has two master's degrees and a doctorate.
After emigrating from his native Scotland with a "backpack and suitcase," Finnie worked for 15 years at Mayo Clinic as a physical therapist. All the while he was making beer at home.
Later, he became a partner in the Grand Rounds brewpub. That partnership ended on a sour note, but it proved something to Finnie: He could make beers that people liked and would pay for.
It's not an accident that the Finnies are calling their brewery "Little Thistle." Like the rose of England and the shamrock of Ireland, the thistle is a national icon in Scotland. It's a weed, but a tenacious one. The title packs considerable symbolism for the couple.
"It's about resilience. It's about not giving up," Finnie said. "It's about not giving up on your dream and staying positive."
Can Rochester handle a fifth, a sixth, maybe a seventh brewery? The couple are convinced the city can. Some cities have half the population Rochester does but more than twice the breweries.
Finnie estimates that more than 100 breweries have opened in the past few years in Minnesota, a flourishing he attributes to the Surly bill. The Minnesota legislation, passed in 2013, allows brewers to sell their product out of their taprooms. It unleashed an outpouring of entrepreneurial energies among beer lovers.
Before that, brewers had to distribute and sell their kegs of beer at bars and restaurants and at liquor stores. The corporate big boys dominated the scene. The hurdles for aspiring smaller players were prohibitively expensive.
"We couldn't survive if that was the only way we could get beer out there, by distributing," Finnie said. "And that's why you see a huge growth in tap rooms. The tap rooms are ultra-local."
Rochester was slow to embrace craft brewing, but it has been catching up for lost time. Four breweries and brewpubs have opened in the last five years: Kinney Creek, LTS Brewery Co., Grand Rounds and Forager Brewing Co.
But as the field has gotten more crowded, there have been adjustments along the way.
When LTS Brewing opened its doors, owners Brandon Schulz and Jeff Werning imagined much of their business coming from distributing their beer at bars and restaurants. But that's not how it turned out.
Instead, LTS' tap room, which they originally envisioned as a tasting room and supporting their distribution, became the star of the operation.
"There are 6,000 breweries in the U.S. now, and a fair percentage of them are making really good beer," Schulz said. "It's hard to get tap lines, and it's even harder to keep them."
Werning said it's possible that increased competition among the growing number of Rochester breweries could lead to a "loss of business" for LTS, but it's not a given. The ones that exist today do well because each offers something a little different. "And if that continues, then it just gives people more options."
Rochester brewers also say that as the city's beer profile rises, it could benefit from beer tourism. In fact, some say it already is.
At Forager, lines have formed hours in advance of limited releases of barrel-aged stouts like Magnus and NillaZZZZZ. In a recent survey, more than 50 percent of craft beer drinkers said they had visited a brewery more than two hours away from their house, according to the Brewers Association.
"You're talking about 45 million people who visited a brewery while traveling," said Bart Watson, chief economist for the Brewers Association.
Still, if Rochester's brewing industry is to grow and thrive, it will be incumbent on breweries to find a niche in which to differentiate themselves from others. One brewery may focus on barrel-aging, another on wild fermentation.
"I don't think you can keep opening breweries where everyone just has their seven flagships, and they're pretty similar to what everyone else is doing," said Louis Garcia, an area beer writer.
An AP Member Exchange shared by the Post-Bulletin.