Kevin and Qiuxia Welch are not your typical brewers. When I think of a Minnesota beermaker, 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 and married 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 performed Shostakovich's Symphony No. 7 with the Minnesota Orchestra last month. He had 50-some private students. And he's giving it all up for beer (she's sticking with her day job).
Boom Island Brewing is only two months old, but beer geeks are already buzzing about the fact that Kevin is brewing with yeast strains brought back in test tubes from Belgium, the Valhalla of beer making.
The Welches are riding a wave of new Twin Cities breweries: Lucid, Steel Toe, Castle Danger. 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. He expects to make about 500 barrels in 2012, a minuscule amount compared with Summit, which brews more than 100,000 barrels a year.
Still, his Belgian-style beers are a hit at a handful of bars and you can find his 750-milliliter bottles in a half-dozen stores.
"Right now, we're making the beer as fast as we can," he said.
Their 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.
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.
The Welches spent 11 days in Belgium in 2009, criss-crossing the small country as they visited breweries big and small, learning techniques perfected from centuries of brewing.
After returning to the Twin Cities with 13 strains of yeasts, 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. If he's going to brew like the Belgians, yeast is of the utmost importance.
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 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 he understands the language of beer.
A retired engineer, Hu and his wife, Luo Zhao Xiu, moved to Minneapolis in June to help Kevin and Qiuxia jump-start their business. A few years ago, Kevin 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.
Hu said he was initially dubious of the enterprise. Kevin translated: "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.