The beer scene's newest brewery has two secret weapons: Belgian yeast and a guy from China. And cue the French horns.
The husband-wife team of Kevin and Qiuxia Welch are not your typical brewers. When I think of a Minnesota beer maker, I think of Todd Haug, the bearded, tattooed, heavy-metal-loving brewmaster at Surly. That's a beer guy.
Kevin and Qiuxia are professional French horn players who fell in love a decade ago after meeting in Beijing. Kevin grew up in Memphis and still speaks with a slight Southern drawl. Qiuxia was born in Chengdu, in southwest China. He's the brewer, she's the brains.
Kevin has enjoyed a stable career in classical music -- he's a replacement player with the Minnesota Orchestra and, until recently, he had 50-some private students.
And he's going to give it all up for beer (she's sticking with her day job). The couple's brewery, Boom Island Brewing, is only two months old. But the brew house is already making a name for itself. Beer geeks are buzzing about the fact that Kevin is brewing with yeast strains brought back in test tubes from Belgium (the Valhalla of extreme beer making).
Boom Island is riding a wave of new Twin Cities breweries, many having followed in the wake of last year's Surly bill.
The list of breweries continues to grow: Lucid, Steel Toe, Castle Danger. A new one called Indeed Brewing is building a 12,000-square-foot facility in northeast Minneapolis.
By comparison, Boom Island is tiny. The brewing floor is the size of an efficiency apartment -- about 700 square feet. Kevin jokingly calls it a glorified home-brew operation.
Still, his Belgian-style beers are a hit at a handful of bars, and you can find his 750-ml bottles in a half-dozen specialty liquor stores.
"We're making the beer as fast as we can," Kevin said.
What's Chinese for "beer"?
The brewer's Belgian yeast might be his special ingredient, but when it comes to making beer he has another ace in the hole -- his Chinese father-in-law.
On a recent afternoon at the brewery, Hu Yong Shou stood over a large mash tank, stirring about 75 gallons of boiling malt. Hu, 65, is a small man with a dome of black hair and wrinkles around his eyes. He doesn't speak English, but the retired engineer understands the language of beer. (Kevin also speaks fluent Chinese and a little Sichuan dialect.)
Hu and his wife, Luo Zhao Xiu, moved to Minneapolis in June to help Kevin and Qiuxia jump-start their brewery. A few years earlier, Kevin had taught Hu how to home-brew back in China. Soon, Hu was making beer with Tibetan spices and highland barley, and he became a popular guy in the neighborhood.
Started with less than $50,000, the new brewery is a family affair. Welch and his father-in-law make the beer. Qiuxia helps with bottling and oversees the books. Her mother folds the shipping boxes.
"We have that Chinese mentality: Work with what you have," Qiuxia said.
To Belgium and back
Now about those yeasts. Many of the best Belgian beers are unfiltered, meaning the yeasts continue to work their magic inside the bottle (thus the term, bottle-conditioned).
"It's a Belgian thing," Kevin said. "You're drinking something with live culture. It has to be a living beer."
In 2009, the Welches spent 11 days in Belgium, criss-crossing the country to visit breweries big and small. Some of those brewmasters allowed Kevin to cook side by side with them, allowing him to learn techniques perfected from centuries of brewing.
After returning to the Twin Cities with 13 strains of yeast (which is easier than you'd think -- some samples were simply collected from unfiltered beer), he isolated the single-cell colonies in petri dishes. A friend at the University of Minnesota has agreed to keep the yeasts in a temperature-controlled lab.
"I'm not trying to promote a gimmick," Kevin said of his secret yeast. If he's going to brew like the Belgians, he said, the yeast is of utmost importance.
Making a career out of performing Bach and Beethoven takes precision and years of practice. Kevin said nothing could have prepared him better for beermaking.
"Every batch of beer is a performance," he likes to say.
Boom Island's first beer is Silvius, named after the mythical Roman soldier who slew a giant. For such a bold name, the pale ale is surprisingly drinkable (with a malty biscuit taste). Also on shelves is Thoprock, a deceptively smooth IPA that clocks in at 8 percent alcohol. Kevin is also brewing a Belgian dubbel called Hoodoo and a tripel called Brimstone.
Bar owner Mark van Wie is a believer. In December, he gave Boom Island its first shot with a launch party at his Pig & Fiddle in southwest Minneapolis. He likes the beer, but said the market is now thick with Minnesota craft breweries.
"It's going to be interesting to see if all of them are going to make it," Van Wie said.
Boom Island will make about 500 barrels in 2012, a tiny amount compared with a brewery like Summit, which produces more than 100,000 a year. The Welches just bought a walk-in cooler on Craigslist, which will help expand capacity. As is, Boom Island is so small they aren't sure they'll offer tours. The couple are also undecided about growlers (64-ounce reusable glass containers).
For Kevin, making the beer (and bottling it in-house) keeps him and his father-in-law busy enough. He calls Hu his best buddy.
"They connected through beer," Qiuxia said of her husband and father. "It's really sweet."
With Kevin translating, Hu said he was initially dubious of the enterprise.
Kevin translated: "He said in the beginning he was very worried. But he said he learned that I was a very capable person and now a lot of people like this beer."
As Hu talked, he put his hand on his son-in-law's shoulder. Kevin fought back tears.
"That was the first time he's ever patted me on the back," the brewer said with a smile.