Long known for its wineries, the Waconia area recently became home to a microbrewery and a distillery — both owned and operated by entrepreneurs with local roots.
“This is good, organic business growth for the city, not someone moving from someplace else, but new business starting up,” said City Administrator Susan Arntz. The city updated its liquor ordinances to accommodate the newcomers, clearing the way for Waconia Brewing to have a taproom that opened in October and a tasting room at J. Carver Distillery set to open next spring.
The distillery already is up and running, shipping its first bottles of gin and vodka to Twin Cities liquor stores in late October. Gina Holman, a partner in the business, said the tasting room will open after the distillery also can offer patrons samples of a bourbon and a rye whiskey that are now in development. “We want to be able to have at least four or five products for people to try,” she said.
The distillery gets its name from Carver County’s namesake, Jonathan Carver, an explorer and mapmaker who spent time in Minnesota in the late 1700s. Portraits of him and other historical photos of Waconia adorn walls in the distillery, which is located in a retrofitted auto dealership that had sat vacant for more than two years.
The production area is housed in the glass-fronted former showroom while the tasting room will be in the former dealership’s service department. “We loved the fact that it had these big garage doors,” she said.
Holman said J. Carver may be the first commercial distillery to operate in the county. “But I think it’s safe to say there have been a lot of moonshiners,” she said.
Meanwhile, the owners of the new microbrewery know they are re-creating a piece of Waconia’s history. German immigrant Michael Zahler opened the town’s first brewery in 1865, rebuilding it 10 years later after a fire. By the turn of the 20th century, it was out of business, unable to compete with larger breweries in Minneapolis.
The new Waconia Brewing is the first to operate within the city limits since the demise of Zahler’s business. Schram Vineyards Winery in Laketown Township added a microbrewery to its operations last year.
The craft-brewing business has exploded in Minnesota since a 2011 change in state law allowing taprooms that can serve beer on the site where it’s brewed. The Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild has 56 member breweries, about 20 more than two years ago.
Dee DeLange, a Waconia Brewing partner, said it took several months to find a suitable site for the new business. “We wanted to be in Waconia, and our search was centered on downtown because we wanted to have the foot traffic,” she said.
Other partners include Dee’s husband, Pete, brother-in-law Bob DeLange and his wife, Kaye. Dee and Pete are 20-year residents of Waconia. Bob and Kaye moved there a year ago from Iowa. The brewing operations are overseen by Tom Schufman, who previously worked at Fulton Brewery in Minneapolis and at Northern Brewer, a brewing supply business in Roseville.
The 5,000-square-foot brewery and taproom are located in part of a building that formerly housed a day-care business. Dee DeLange estimates start-up costs about $900,000. The city provided a $149,999 low-interest revolving loan to help the partners purchase brewing equipment. The city also provided a $54,600 tax abatement to the building’s owner to help finance renovations.
The brewery currently is producing six different beers and eventually will expand the product line to 12. In addition to the taproom, some local restaurants also have begun offering the beers, DeLange said. Plans call for eventually selling to liquor stores once production is fully ramped-up, she said.
“It’s been very busy,” said DeLange of the taproom’s first few weeks in business. “The residents have been behind us 100 percent, but the fun thing is that we’re also getting people from all over the Twin Cities area, southern Minnesota, even Wisconsin.”
Arnzt said both the distillery and microbrewery fit city goals of economic growth by enhancing tourism, some already generated by Schram and two other area wineries — Parley Lake Winery and Sovereign Estate Vineyard and Winery.
Kellie Sites, president of the Waconia Chamber of Commerce, agreed. “There is such an interest in agritourism now. These businesses can draw visitors, and the benefits carry over to others, everything from shops and restaurants to gas stations in town.”
The SouthWest Metro Chamber has begun promoting the critical mass of craft beer, wine and spirits makers in the area with a brochure and map for what it calls the “SW Minne Tour.” In addition to the Waconia-area businesses, ENKI Brewing in Victoria, Excelsior Brewing in Excelsior and Lucid Brewing in Minnetonka are included in the marketing campaign.