I'm guessing free sandwiches didn't sound as sexy.

But free beer for life? That gets people's attention.

In the case of a new south Minneapolis brewpub, it was an eye-grabber to the tune of $250,000. Last September, after striking out with traditional investors and banks, Jamie Robinson made an offer that beer fans couldn't refuse:

Invest $1,000 in his would-be brewpub, get free beer for life.

He rang up the majority of that windfall in just three weeks. (With the cash he had in hand, a bank lent him the rest.)

This is the power of craft beer. It can change laws (see: the Surly bill), it can get the president a few more votes (see: Obama's homebrew) and it can inspire a neighborhood to get behind a start-up business.

One year later, the little brewpub that could is open. Located just off the Hiawatha light-rail line along E. 38th Street, the place is called Northbound Smokehouse & Brewpub. It's the first new brewpub to open in Minneapolis since the Herkimer more than 10 years ago. For you non-beer geeks, don't get this confused with brewery taprooms, which are all the rage right now. A brewpub is essentially a restaurant that brews its own beer on-site.

And the beer is flowing at Northbound. On a recent Friday, the wait for a table was two hours.

'Members' only

Robinson and his two operating partners are no strangers to the brewpub business. Both he and chef Bryce Strickler worked at the acclaimed Town Hall Brewery. Robinson managed and brewed there under Mike Hoops, while Strickler cooked. Rounding out the trio is manager Amy Johnson, formerly of Stub & Herbs. Still, I would have had a hard time parting with $1,000 for a brewpub that might or might not be a success.

Not the case with the good folks living in the Standish neighborhood. Robinson estimates that 90 percent of his investors live within walking distance of the pub. He prefers to call them "members," because they don't receive any voting rights. The beer-for-lifers total about 75 people, with a few giving much more than the $1,000. A few investors chose the other option -- equity.

Sam Newberg went straight for the beer. He's a big neighborhood guy (president of the Standish-Ericsson board). More so, he's a big beer guy.

"Putting your money in the stock market isn't the best idea these days," he said.

But beer? That's something you can believe in. Apparently, there is no limit placed on the amount of pints the beer-for-life investors can drink. Newberg estimates he'll probably only stop in once a week for a beer. "The return on investment is pride in place," he said, "which you can't put a dollar value on."

For a while, investors were wondering whether their "place" would ever materialize. The yearlong path toward opening was rife with delays. Robinson said a city bus came to a screeching halt outside the pub three weeks ago -- the driver wanted to know when the bar would finally open.

Smoked everything - beer, too

While it took a village to get this place off the ground, the actual brewing is a different story.

"It's a one-man operation," Robinson said.

When I stopped in, the 37-year-old's eyes were sunken, and stubble dotted his chin. He clearly hadn't slept in days. He'd brewed 42 barrels on the seven-barrel system to prepare for the first week.

This is truly a DIY operation. Robinson makes the beer, Strickler leads the kitchen, curing and smoking meats on two industrial machines. One of the 25-year-old's toys is an Old Hickory Smoker, similar to the bad boy at Butcher & the Boar. For now, the menu is sandwich-heavy (most are $7 to $9), including the Iron Range-style porketta. Just about everything is smoked -- even the egg sandwich.

The beer, too. The base malt used for the Smokehouse Porter is smoked on weekly basis.

The brewpub's first big hit, though, is the Wild Rice Amber Ale. Each batch uses 30 pounds of cooked wild rice. The flavor is a nutty vanilla.

"I've been working on that for 10 years," said Robinson, who started out as a home brewer.

He has six of his own beers on tap (all $5), including the Big Jim IPA, a hard-charging hop monster named after his dad. Another six draft lines are reserved for Minnesota beers, such as Indeed, Lift Bridge and Harriet.

As a beer-for-life member, Newberg wanted to be one of the first to taste his investment on opening day, which was scheduled for 11 a.m. Sept. 20.

"I showed up at 11 a.m.," he said.

As he watched a few familiar faces trickle into the bar, he ordered the Smokehouse Porter.

"It was delicious," he said.

I thought he was referring to the beer, but his sense of pride made me think he was probably talking about the whole experience.

  • Tom Horgen • 612-673-7909
  • Follow him on Twitter: @tomhorgen