With more than 100 breweries currently in the state, it’s hard to believe that there was only a handful in 2000. Such was the brewing landscape when Laura Subak and John Moore first opened the doors to Barley John’s Brewpub in New Brighton.
The journey toward Barley John’s had begun some years earlier when Subak gave Moore a home-brewing kit on their first Christmas together as a married couple. Like so many who start that hobby, brewing quickly became Moore’s obsession. When layoffs threatened his job at Pillsbury, he applied for a biologist position at the now-defunct James Page Brewing Co. Thus began his professional brewing career.
During his time at James Page, Moore began a course of study at the Siebel Institute/World Brewing Academy in Chicago. While there, he was laid off from James Page. With brewing now in his blood, Moore and Subak wrote the business plan for Barley John’s.
They chose to open a brewpub instead of a production brewery because the little retail shelf space dedicated to craft beer at the time was already bulging with out-of-state brands that were then flooding the market — a contrast to today, given the thousands of beer brands available. The ability to offer food and liquor seemed to Moore and Subak to hold an advantage in attracting customers.
Barley John’s made its mark with good food and beers that were wildly out of style for the time — an 8 percent alcohol porter, a brown ale with wild rice, and the extraordinarily strong, barrel-aged Rosie’s Old Ale. Business boomed.
Fast forward to 2011 and the landscape had completely changed. The “Surly bill” had passed, allowing production breweries to sell pints on premises. New breweries were opening at a staggering pace. And Barley John’s had run out of room.
The tiny four-barrel brewing system could barely keep up with demand. The cozy dining room only accommodated about 30 guests. Five thousand square feet of patio helped with the overflow, but further expansion was impossible as the property was hemmed in by three roads. A new facility was needed.
In this new world of beer, a production brewery and taproom made sense. But Minnesota law states that a brewpub owner cannot also own a brewery. Moore and Subak discussed closing the New Brighton location, but business was good. The concept was working. Why jeopardize one business over the other?
The decision was taken to move the brewery idea across the border into Wisconsin. With ground broken, the couple made a startling discovery. They had interpreted the ownership restriction to apply only in Minnesota.
“But that is not the case,” Moore explained. “They mean anywhere. Could be Florida, Pluto, Africa, anywhere.” Construction was moving ahead, but the project was threatened with a full stop.
“Enter a clever lawyer who figured out that the entities could be separated,” said Moore. In a legal workaround, the brewpub is now licensed to Subak, while Moore controls the brewery.
“Could we have pulled it off and put the brewery in Minnesota?” mused Moore. “In hindsight, yes. But hindsight is always 20/20.”
The New Brighton brewpub is still as cozy as ever, with ample seating on the patio, which is garlanded with hop vines in the summer. Blazing logs in the fire pit make it a nice place to enjoy a pint on a cool fall evening. The menu consists of upscale pub food. There are always specialty, seasonal and guest beers on tap in addition to the Barley John’s mainline selections.
The brewery in New Richmond, Wis., is a custom-built facility where canned and kegged beer is produced for sale in the retail market. The taproom is warm and inviting with wood paneling and a stone fireplace in the corner. A small menu of nibbles and dips, hot sandwiches and meat and cheese trays is available to accompany the Barley John’s brews.
The beers that made the brewpub famous are available canned in stores. Called Little Barley Bitter at the brewpub, the canned Little Barley Session Ale is Barley John’s take on an English pale ale. At just over 4 percent alcohol and very low bitterness, it’s designed for long-haul quaffing. Toffee and brown sugar malt dominate the palate with earthy hops and fruity fermentation notes taking a supporting role. It comes off a bit sweet to my taste. I could do with a little more of the bitter.
Fans of brutally bitter American IPA might be surprised by 6 Knot India Pale Ale. This English-style ale has a firm, toast and caramel malt base to balance the hops. Earthy English hops dominate the flavor, but the floral/grapefruit aromas of fresh Cascade come through in the nose.
Wild Brunette Wild Rice Brown Ale was an inspirational beer for me as a home-brewer. Many times I tried and failed to replicate it. It’s a strong, American brown ale with all the toast, caramel and bittersweet chocolate one would expect from the style. A nutty touch of wild rice adds an extra flavor dimension. Moderately high sweetness is cut in the finish by lingering bitterness and roasted malt.
Old 8 Porter is rich, creamy and complex. Layers of bitter chocolate, brown sugar and dark fruits build the full, medium-sweet body. Moderate bitterness, earthy hops and a touch of alcohol bring some balance. Very satisfying.
Michael Agnew is a certified cicerone (beer-world version of sommelier) and owner of A Perfect Pint. He conducts private and corporate beer tasting events in the Twin Cities, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org can be reached at email@example.com.