The large sun-splashed brick hall — once reputedly home to St. Paul’s municipal horses — is empty now save for scattered tables and artists’ renderings of what will come next: a bar, stainless steel tanks lining the wall, customers holding pints of Urban Growler beer.
Deb Loch and Jill Pavlak don’t need the pictures. They can see it in their heads as they scan their future brewery, the latest of three to locate in a burgeoning microbrew zone in St. Paul’s Midway and St. Anthony Park districts that is vying to join northeast Minneapolis as a local craft beer destination.
“We’re within walking distance to light rail and we’re right between the two cities,” Loch said. “It has that urban, industrial charm we were looking for,” Pavlak chimed in.
Just outside Urban Growler’s doors, a stylized grain bin marks the newly opened brewery of Jay and Sandy Boss Febbo, owners of Bang Brewing Co. A couple of miles away at Wheeler and Thomas, a former stonecutting shop is being converted into Burning Brothers Brewing, the creation of former fire-eaters Dane Breimhorst and Thom Foss.
Each business had looked at quarters in northeast Minneapolis only to wind up in St. Paul, which this year loosened its dated brewery restrictions. In each case the right place was available at the right price, near the light-rail Green Line slated to begin operating on University Avenue next summer.
The Green Line draw extends into Minneapolis, where Surly is planning a $20 million brewery just over the city line in Prospect Park.
It was the so-called Surly bill passed in 2011 that allowed brewers to sell pints of beer on the premises, launching a flight of taprooms in the metro area. Minneapolis and then St. Paul expanded the areas where microbreweries could locate.
“It’s always been about the beer in St. Paul,” said Cecile Bedor, the city’s planning and economic development director. “This is kind of that new generation after Hamm’s and Stroh’s, with a new crop of young entrepreneurs, and it’s pretty exciting.”
And it’s what planners expected would happen with light rail — “new businesses locating there as a way to capture a new and significant market.”
For the Boss Febbos the location was a no-brainer. “We love St. Paul and having our brewery based there was always the goal,” said Sandy Boss Febbo, an advertising producer.
Differences among the new breweries are apparent even without tasting the beer. Urban Growler is run by two women, still uncommon in the male-dominated business. Burning Brothers will be the first 100 percent gluten-free brewery in the Midwest and one of only a few nationwide. Bang is the brewery operated by the married couple out of the funky metal silo.
A range of personalities
“Each brewery has such a distinct personality and to find and experience those differences will be a lot of fun,” Sandy Boss Febbo said.
At the same time, Pavlak said, none of those distinctions matter “if our beer sucks.”
Similarly, Breimhorst wants Burning Brothers judged on its drinkability and not on the basis that it fills a gluten-free niche. “Judges tell us it tastes like beer, which is the biggest compliment they can give us,” he said.
Breimhorst and Foss, project manager for a large insurer, are longtime friends who worked as fire-eaters at the Renaissance Festival in Shakopee and lifted their brand from that experience. Earlier plans to start a “brew on premises” shop, where customers can brew their own beer, fizzled when Breimhorst was diagnosed with celiac disease.
Disappointed with the gluten-free beers on the market, they decided they could do better despite warnings from brewers that it was “impossible.” Breimhorst, a former cook at the Loring Cafe, experimented with roasts, water and yeast and found gluten-free grains such as teff, millet and quinoa to substitute for the standard ingredients.
The results are an American pale ale and a coffee ale made with Cascadian hops that have won early raves. The brewery will distribute its beer in cans rather than kegs to avoid gluten contamination and has been lining up gluten-free food distributors to supply the taproom, which the owners plan to open next month at the 5,000-square-foot brewery.
“Demand is high and we haven’t even flushed water through our building yet,” Breimhorst said.
A breadth of flavors
Bang (the name comes from software code for an exclamation point) has been open for six weeks, treating customers to a single-malt pale ale dubbed Neat and since adding a British-style mile called Minn. Boss Febbo said that all ingredients are 100 percent organic and come from local producers as much as possible.
Her husband, Jay, a software engineer, has been brewing beer at home for 20 years. Three years ago they drew up a business plan and began looking for a “small and sustainable” place to locate. In the end they enlisted St. Paul-based Alchemy Architects, which designed their 1,300-square-foot brewery in the round for a small parcel on Capp Road.
They opened for business Sept. 6, encircling patrons with the equipment and grain that produce their beer.
“Our process is very studied, very intentional, and we wanted to go in with one beer we were really proud to stand behind,” she said. “The response has been super.”
Next door at Urban Growler, Loch and Pavlak are preparing to order the tanks and fermenters they need to open for business early next year.
Loch, a biomedical engineer by training, began brewing at home and became “obsessed,” she said. It didn’t take long after she met Pavlak, who has a background in small business and food, for the life partners to decide to start their own brewery. “Women brewing beer is not anything new. It used to be part of the household chores,” Loch said.
The project became a $1 million proposition, funded in part by a Small Business Administration loan and memberships ranging from $500 to $10,000 that the women are selling in the business. They plan to serve food from an on-site kitchen to patrons both inside and out in a beer garden.
Their flagship brew will be Graffiti Rye IPA, but Loch also has produced a cream ale, a blueberry wheat and an award-winning smoked chipotle-flavored porter. “We’ll offer a breadth of flavors in a drinkable alcohol range,” she said.
While they hope the beers enjoy wide appeal, women “are part of our target market,” Loch said. “They’re sort of an untapped market. They like beer with flavor. … If people don’t like beer, I believe they haven’t had the right beer.”