It sounds like a joke, but it’s true. A few years ago, Ecolab walked into a bar and never left.

While the St. Paul-based sanitizing chemicals giant has kept towering kettles, pipes and fermentation tanks spotless and scale-free for 40 years at big players such as Anheuser-Busch, MillerCoors and Heineken, a new idea started bubbling in 2013: Tap the burgeoning ranks of tiny brew pubs and microbreweries.

Ecolab’s craft brew program now generates millions in sales and commands 26 percent of Ecolab’s total brewing sales. That’s up from 17 percent in 2011 — when craft breweries weren’t an integral part of Ecolab’s strategy.

“Today, more than 70 percent of our brewery customer base are craft brewers,” said Ecolab spokesman Roman Blahoski, who declined to discuss revenue.

Customers include Great Waters Brewing Co., Indeed Brewing, Summit Brewing, and more than 100 others. While a small part of Ecolab’s total annual revenue of $14 billion, the division is making headway.

“As we looked into the market, we noticed the double-digit growth rate in pub brews and craft breweries,” said Pablo Segovia, marketing manager for Ecolab’s food and beverage division. “We saw an opportunity to leverage the solutions that we already had in our portfolio to meet the needs of these [tiny shops].”

It would require some finesse on Ecolab’s part. Turns out smaller players could be eccentric. “Some of these guys have a very do-it-yourself mentality. … And their ability to invest in equipment is sometimes [stunted],” Segovia admitted. “And we saw that square footage was at a minimum.”

Ecolab was accustomed to rolling its tanker trucks of cleaning and sanitizing chemicals into sprawling production plants. Suddenly, it was catering to upstart breweries and corner pubs operating in cramped quarters on tight budgets.

With such limited resources, the idea of installing major cleaning equipment and chemicals in such tiny shops seemed daunting — but necessary, Segovia said. Sanitizing chemicals keep mash tanks, brewing kettles, pipes and bottling equipment pristine so the beer stays true to taste — and free of beer stones, mold, botulism, souring lactic acids, and those hyper-sticky foams that can make cleaning a nightmare.

Segovia and Ecolab’s institutional marketing manager, Charles Hipp, welcomed the challenge of helping tiny brewers who knew a lot about beer, but less about sterilizing and chemicals. Hipp had catered to Ecolab’s global hotel and chain restaurant customers, while Segovia worked the mega brew meisters from all over the world. Surely they could figure out how to “scale things down” to help cash-strapped craft houses while still helping Ecolab grow.

Ecolab spent 2013 researching. To succeed, it knew it had to leave its tanker trucks at home. Instead, it delivered sanitizing and acid or alkaline-altering chemicals in 55-gallon drums — or 1-gallon jugs.

“We had to bring it down a bit,” Segovia said. “We managed to break the complexity, so we could provide [products] for all sizes [of brewers].” The company also focused on service and partnerships as a way to edge out a multitude of competitors.

By 2014, it had unleashed 200 microbiologists, service and sales personnel into small breweries to act as consultants. They helped the beer pros install bottling systems and chose the right chemicals, lubricants and processes for steel vs. copper equipment. They also tested acid or alkaline levels, created a new equipment sanitizer that prevented “beer stones” and launched a “dry lubricant” to keep bottles and cans scooting on conveyors without the need for workers to squirt messy water onto the belts (or the floors).

Chuck Skypeck, technical brewing products manager for the Brewers Association in Colorado, said Ecolab isn’t alone in aggressively pursuing this industry. “Just as we saw an explosion in our brewer membership we have also seen an explosion in our supplier members. We have seen a lot of these larger companies see opportunity in this market. … So I don’t think that Ecolab is unique in sensing a market opportunity and going after it.”

After seeing its efforts pay off in the U.S., Ecolab started fielding calls for help from small shops overseas. “We have been approached by fields in Europe and Asia and also in Latin America,” Segovia said. “We really walked them through how our teams are working in the United States and what we have learned from what [we] are experiencing here.”

In northeast Minneapolis, Indeed Brewing started with six brewing tanks and six employees in 2012 when the three founders approached Ecolab for help. “We were one of their first small brewers,” said Indeed co-owner Tom Whisenand. Ecolab made it clear the small shops were “not really a priority for us. … But our sales rep Zach Babcock [was that] certain salesperson who was interested in working with the smaller breweries and growing that business.”

Babcock and Ecolab’s senior R & D program leader, Chad Thompson, taught Indeed to pre-treat its new steel tanks — some 30 feet tall — with chemicals that strip iron from the metal so the tanks don’t rust and contaminate their golden suds. “That was something totally foreign to us. And the chemicals used are pretty intense,” Whisenand said, noting that a tiny spill burned a hole in the cement floor. Ecolab trained his workers how to feed chemicals into the tanks without human touch.

Babcock also suggested a $2,000 central chemical-dosing system. It would prevent costly overuse of chemicals that frequently hurt equipment, spoil flavors and prompt workers to pour freshly brewed batches right down the drain. “It is a couple thousand bucks but it offered them long-term benefits and brand protection,” Babcock said. “Tom understood that.”

Over time, as Indeed grew, so did its relationship with Ecolab. “We were the 18th brewery to start in the state of Minnesota. Today there are 105 breweries and we are the fifth-largest craft brewery,” Whisenand said. “We grew from six to 55 employees.” Indeed has 20 brewing and fermentation tanks in a $1 million plant that brews and cans Dandy Lager, Midnight Ryder Black IPA and a variety of other beers for customers across Minnesota and North Dakota.

Last year, Indeed bought a customized $100,000 stainless steel “clean-in-place” system from Ecolab that injects chemicals, heat and water into selected pipes, vessels, tanks and machinery all over the brewery.

“It’s like a remote dishwasher that is like an octopus,” Whisenand said. Ecolab sold the system, and Babcock made weekly adjustments and adapted it to Indeed’s process.

Eric Nelson, manager of Great Waters Brewing restaurant in St. Paul, said his experience was similar despite having just two brewers.

“Ecolab takes care of their people and equipment. If there is a problem, they find a way to address it,” Nelson said. “You are never calling somebody’s boss to solve a problem.”