Brewing everything but the beer

  • Article by: TOM HORGEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 13, 2012 - 2:48 PM

A new cottage industry is bubbling up from Minnesota's craft-brew explosion: beer gear and much more.

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Colin McSteen, left, and Max Arndt in the Swag Brewery world headquarters — a spare room in Arndt’s White Bear Lake house. Swag isn’t a brewery, though; it sells beer-related paraphernalia.

Photo: Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

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Not everyone can own their own brewery, although I imagine that to be the dream of most rational, beer-drinking citizens of this planet.

Brewing dreams deferred, some of us have found alternate paths toward beer nirvana. In the Twin Cities area, a small army of craft-beer fans are joining the brewery boom, but from a different angle.

Take Swag Brewery. "We don't make beer," said co-owner Max Arndt.

The White Bear Lake company sells beer merchandise, mostly online and at beer festivals. Swag makes T-shirts, posters, bottle-cap earrings and -- wait for it -- beer soap. "The hops are great for exfoliation, and the yeasts can be good for neutralizing oils in your skin," Arndt tells me.

Swag is one of several entrepreneurial businesses expanding the craft beer scene beyond brewing. There are other T-shirt makers (and even other soap makers), plus festivals such as the Beer Dabbler and advocacy groups with fanciful names such as the Minnesota Beer Activists and the Better Beer Society. The Four Firkins and the Ale Jail have led the way for all-beer stores. There's even a "Beer Geeks" TV show on KSTC, Channel 45.

'Wear your beer'

How many beer T-shirts can you fit into a Toyota Prius? That was Arndt's dilemma Aug. 10 as he prepared to pack his wares and head for the Great Taste of the Midwest beer fest in Madison, Wis. With most of his sales coming online, beer festivals are one of the few places he can meet customers face to face.

Stacked to the car roof were 300 shirts, 100 bars of soap and tubs full of bottle-cap earrings. "Guys will go to a beer fest never thinking that they could find something for their girlfriend," Arndt said.

Of course, retail isn't for everyone. Other beer fans have fed their passion through education and advocacy. The Better Beer Society was created by a group of certified cicerones, which are basically the wine sommeliers of the beer industry (they can tell you with exacting precision which brew would go best with your cheddar sausage). Lately, they've been hosting tasting events and training sessions. (My new goal in life: beer professor.)

Then there are the Minnesota Beer Activists. Headed by Andrew Schmitt, this contingent of beer nerds were vocal supporters of last year's Surly Bill that allowed Minnesota breweries to add tap rooms and beer gardens. Now the group is campaigning for beer sales on Sunday. You'll often find Schmitt at beer events wearing his crafty "Beer on Sunday" T-shirt. (My other goal in life: beer politician.)

"We might not be brewing beer, but it's a way for us to be involved and have a voice," Schmitt said.

Beer swag for babies, dogs

Matt Kenevan does everything but brew.

"I'll leave that part to someone else," he said. "If you look at the premier beer cities, it goes beyond the breweries and brewpubs. It's the culture that surrounds it."

Kenevan is the founder of the Beer Dabbler, one of the Twin Cities area's most successful beer festivals. In June, he launched the Growler, a sophisticated bimonthly magazine covering the local beer scene. On Sept. 6, he'll open St. Paul's first craft-beer merchandise shop.

The Beer Dabbler store will stock swag from more than 40 breweries, plus products from Twin Cities area merchants such as Swag Brewery and Brewed in Minnesota (another beer gear maker). Kenevan plans to focus on small-batch items, so that baby onesie from Stone Brewing that reads "My daddy is an Arrogant Bastard" will be available only in short supply. The rarer the better, he thinks. Besides glassware and clothing, the shop will offer artist prints, beer greeting cards and dog collars.

You know what would make my life easier? A hands-free bottle opener. "We'll have a belt-buckle bottle opener at the store," Kenevan said.

Let me get my wallet.

thorgen@startribune.com • 612-673-7909 • Twitter: @tomhorgen

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