Opening a new brewery is difficult under ideal circumstances. Costs are high. Finding appropriate real estate can be a challenge. And in this heavily regulated industry, the labyrinth of federal, state and municipal licenses, permits and approvals can take years to navigate.
For Arbeiter Brewing Co., which launched in December with taproom sales and limited retail availability, the circumstances were far from ideal. The startup process for the brewery in Minneapolis' Longfellow neighborhood mirrors the chaos of the past few years. From a government shutdown and tariffs to the pandemic and the unrest following the killing of George Floyd, the path was strewn with hurdles, making it all the sweeter to finally move beer out the door.
In 2018, having leased the former Harriet Brewing space near the corner of Minnehaha Avenue and E. Lake Street, the founding crew of Garth Blomberg, Josh Voeltz and Juno Choi were awaiting approval for federal permits. Then, in December of that year, came what would become the longest government shutdown in U.S. history.
With hundreds of new breweries opening across the country, the approval process was already slow. The closing of the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau — the agency that oversees brewery licensing — brought it to a standstill. For 35 days no applications could be processed, delaying the opening of breweries nationwide. The resulting backlog caused still more delays.
That year also saw the imposition of federal trade tariffs. Tariffs on steel affected the cost of stainless-steel tanks and brewing equipment, making an already great expense even greater. The crew's fermentation tanks were shipped early to beat the tariffs, but then sat in the alley for a year while construction continued. They were not as lucky with the brewhouse.
By June 2019, the group was eyeing a November opening. But plans for an outdoor patio caused zoning and permitting issues with the city of Minneapolis that added another six-month delay. "We went into this thinking, 'Oh, it was a brewery before. This will be smooth sailing,' " Voeltz said. "Not with the city of Minneapolis."
That delay brought them face to face with the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Even more delays
With construction underway, Arbeiter was looking at a 14- to 16-week timeline for completion. The emergency shutdown measures imposed by Gov. Tim Walz that March threw a wrench in the process. Contractors were only allowed six people in the space at once, leading to delays and backups as subcontractors waited for work to progress to a point that they could complete their own tasks. "All in all, that probably caused us another five months in delays right there," Choi said.
"The kind of humorous aspect of it all," Blomberg said, "is that every time something bad happens we're like, 'Oh, man, we have to deal with a government shutdown. It can't get any worse. It's a tariff. It can't get any worse.' That's the joke. It continued to get worse. 'Nothing can be worse than the pandemic.' And then …"
On May 25, the police killing of George Floyd threw the Twin Cities and the nation into turmoil. Arbeiter's location, just 100 yards south of the Third Precinct police station, put them in the thick of things.
"We definitely were there for that full week," Choi said. "We got to see a lot of things. A lot of unsettling things, as well. We were up on the roof a lot and had a bird's-eye view of a lot of things. That gave us a unique perspective of just a lot of the anger that was going on and a lot of the hurt that people were feeling. I know us being so close to it, it affected us."
The crew pitched in as they could, helping neighboring businesses board up. At one point their patio served as a temporary first-aid station, with car headlights providing light.
Their building survived, but even that was emotionally fraught. "We also felt a little bit of survivor's guilt," Blomberg said. "As the dust settled and we looked around the neighborhood, we kind of felt terrible. Why is our building still here and not other places?"
It took more than three weeks after the unrest for the first contractors to return to the building. Meanwhile, the pandemic was still affecting how city government functioned, leading to further delays in the approval of their liquor license. A planned October opening was pushed into November.
By mid-November, things were looking up. With construction complete and beer in production, they began preparations to open the taproom. "We brought in a small segment of our employees for the first time on the day that Gov. Walz announced the four-week pause," Choi said. "Toward the end of their shift we actually said, 'Let's tune in and see what he has to say.' "
What's on tap
Arbeiter's plan was always to be taproom-focused; starting with retail sales in stores was a forced pivot. The taproom is spacious and modern. It's separated into distinct sections, each with a different feel — bustling beer hall, lounge, pinball and games, and an upstairs mezzanine with a quieter feel and a bird's-eye view.
The initial beers released in crowler cans are focused mostly on low-alcohol, drinkable, traditional German styles appropriate to the brewery's name. (Arbeiter means "worker" in German.) A wider range of beers is planned, from stronger beers to sours and hazy IPAs. One focus for head brewer Aaron Herman will be bringing together New World styles with Old World ingredients, including new hop varieties from Germany.
An example of this is Sucker Punch IPL. This hop-forward lager beer features assertive bitterness and bold tangerine and melon hop flavors resting on a soft bed of bready malt. It goes out with a crisp, clean, lager finish.
One of my favorites is WinterZeit, a festbier-style lager. This balanced beer leans slightly toward bready malt with a light background note of honey. The hop flavor is intense. It pops with herbal and lemon curd/lemon peel character from one of those newer German hop varieties.
There aren't many examples of schwarzbier, a black lager style originating in the Franconia region of Bavaria, available in the Twin Cities. But Arbeiter's Nacht Rider offers an excellent option. It's nearly black, but the roasted malt character is very light, expressing as cocoa and bitter chocolate.
I love pilsners and I'm always happy when a local brewery makes a good one. Arbeiter's Haha Pils is just that. Herbal, floral and lemony hop flavors lead the way with assertive bitterness in support. A bit of malt sweetness lends some balance without getting in the way. It goes out crisp and dry as a good pilsner should.
Arbeiter Brewing Co.
Location: 3038 Minnehaha Av. S., Mpls., 612-438-2437, arbeiterbrewing.com.
Hours: Open for to-go sales and curbside pickup Tue.-Sat. 2-8 p.m.; Sun. 2-6 p.m. Closed Mondays.
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 email@example.com.