After a change in the law, Harriet Brewing is the first new brewery in the city of Minneapolis in almost a decade.
If there's one thing Minneapolis could use more of -- besides snowplows (damn you, Old Man Winter!) -- it's breweries.
For almost a decade, we've been the proud home to none -- that's right, zero breweries. Summit dominates the scene from St. Paul. Surly's ever-hot operation is headquartered in Brooklyn Center. And while Fulton proudly claims Minneapolis as its home, the fast-selling upstart actually contract-brews in Wisconsin.
Why no breweries? The city of Minneapolis hasn't exactly made it easy for beer-makers to get off the ground. While we have our fair share of brewpubs, James Page was the city's last package brewery, closing in 2002. Typically, small brewing companies depend on the sale of growlers -- 64-ounce jugs sold straight from the brewery -- to build capital. While the state legalized growler sales in 2005, Minneapolis never followed suit. A tiny bit of legislative tinkering changed that last summer, setting the stage for a potential boom in Minneapolis-based breweries.
The first one out of the gate is Harriet Brewing, brainchild of a beer guy who helped remove the city's shackles on would-be brewers. (The Fulton boys will finally open their brewery downtown later this year.)
Jason Sowards opened the doors of his south Minneapolis microbrewery -- and a new era of local beerdom -- last weekend. On Wednesday, Harriet will make its debut in the Twin Cities bar scene with a release party at the Blue Nile for its flagship beer, a Belgian-style IPA called West Side.
For Sowards, it wasn't about being first in Minneapolis. "It was about being in Minneapolis," he said.
That distinction didn't come easily. Sowards, a chemical engineer, became a voracious homebrewer in 2008.
After getting laid off from AEC Engineering the following year, he focused all his energies on turning his newfound passion into a real business. To fix the growler problem, he asked City Council Member Gary Schiff to take up his fight. Schiff's "Brew Beer Here" ordinance was passed in August.
Sowards, who lives in the Linden Hills neighborhood, decided to name his brewery after his favorite local amenity: Lake Harriet.
"I knew I wanted to open a brewery the moment I made my first beer," Sowards said.
Instead of following the traditional path of getting a brewer's diploma or an apprenticeship, Sowards has used the science of his engineering background to design and build his brewery. The sparse 6,000-square-foot warehouse space, near the corner of Lake Street and Minnehaha Avenue S., used to be an armored-car garage. Now it houses used brewing equipment from Japan. Using bank loans, Sowards estimates his start-up costs to be about $200,000.
"It's kind of rare for someone to go into brewing with no professional experience," said the Blue Nile's bar manager, Al McCarty. "I have a good feeling that he's going to pull this off. Once people taste the beer, that will seal the deal."
Sowards has made an ambitious first beer. While many of our best beer bars feature Belgian ales on tap, Minnesota breweries have rarely experimented with that country's complex, yeast-heavy varieties. Sowards' West Side ale is a Belgian-style IPA, which mixes big yeast character with a hoppy bitterness looming in the background (6.5 percent alcohol). Sowards is working on a couple of other beers, both Belgian-based.
"I definitely think it is a very forward-thinking move," McCarty said. "There's more bad Belgian-style beers made in America than there are good ones. But I think he's on the right track."
While Fulton exploded out of the gate (more than 70 bars carry it), Harriet will start small with six bars. They are: Blue Nile, Busters on 28th and Bryant-Lake Bowl, all in Minneapolis; Groveland Tap and Muddy Pig in St. Paul; and the Hanger Room in Willernie. Sowards said he has 25 more on his waiting list. He plans to brew 600 barrels in the first year (Surly brews more than 9,000 right now).
There's a zenlike quality in the way Sowards talks about the art of beer-making. (His wife is a yoga instructor, and his general manager is a yogi, too). I've rarely heard a brewer describe the process as being a "manifestation of the divine." But hey, to each his own.
He's also attempting to make the brewery both green and a bit arty. After the snow melts his team will install a 40-kilowatt array of solar panels on the roof. He's hired painter Jesse Brodd to design the brewery's various logos. Brodd's paintings (the originals are on display at the brewery), specialize in dreamy, textured landscapes, suitable for Sowards' vision.
Even with parts of the brewery still under construction, Harriet opened its doors last Saturday to the public and sold a few hundred growlers. It was a solid number to start with and maybe a prelude to bigger things to come -- for the entire brewing scene. Before the growler law was changed, Sowards wondered if he'd have to move somewhere else, maybe even out of state, to start his dream brewery. He stayed, and hopes other brewers will help make Minneapolis a brewery hotbed.
"Why in the world wouldn't we want to do that here?" he asked.
Tom Horgen • 612-673-7909 • Follow him on Twitter:@tomhorgen