In his distinguished career as a conductor, William Eddins has brought scores of orchestras together to create beautiful music. Now he's preparing a different kind of production. Eddins is behind a startup brewery that will sell craft beer, with profits dedicated to paying for music lessons and instruments for Minnesota kids whose families couldn't otherwise afford it.
"Music has taken me around the world. I want to give back to music for what it has given me," Eddins said.
Sometime in early 2022, Eddins and business partner Matt Engstrom will open MetroNOME Brewery in St. Paul's Lowertown. The acronym stands for "nurture outstanding music education."
The socially missioned public benefit brewery is on the site of the former Birch's Brewpub, which never recovered from the COVID-19 shutdown and was forced to close its doors last October.
The pair just finalized a lease on the 6,600-square-foot space in the historic Market House Collaborative building that overlooks the St. Paul Farmers Market on one side and CHS Field on the other.
Once licensing is secured, which they hope happens by the beginning of next year, patrons will be able to sip a mug in the light-filled taproom. It sits above the brewhouse where MetroNOME will produce perhaps a dozen varieties of beer, from grinding the grain to fermenting it in giant stainless steel tanks. They plan to make their brew available in growlers, crowlers, kegs and cans, sold on-site in the taproom and also in local liquor stores and venues that feature music, from classical to country.
"We'll make three or four house beers and then have a seasonal rotation," said Engstrom, a software salesman. "We are beer snobs so I guarantee the beer is going to be good."
Friendship and 'Floyd'
The events of the past year led the men to unexpectedly become beer entrepreneurs with a social conscience.
Eddins and Engstrom met six years ago while coaching their sons' baseball team, a friendship that solidified over their mutual pleasure in home brewing, centered in the basement of Eddins' Prospect Park home.
"We had been experimenting and incrementally expanding for years," Engstrom said. "We combined our equipment and got more adventurous with the hobby.
"And the beer kept getting better."
As the pandemic began and Eddins' travel came to an abrupt halt, the beer buddies had time to begin brainstorming about scaling up. Talk about "going commercial" stopped being a joke.
In the aftermath of George Floyd's death, the plan turned into a passion.
"George Floyd could have been me," Eddins said. "That was the moment when I said, 'I have to do something positive.' I can't stew and yell and wait for the government or other people to make our society better. I have to take responsibility.
"And musicians always believe the answer to any question is music."
But moving from the basement to a commercial operation requires more than a dream.
Eddins and Engstrom went looking for funding and found enthusiastic support from investors taken with their idea of brewing and selling beer to supplement youth music programs in the Twin Cities. They took the project to several crowdfunding platforms and quickly raised almost $150,000.
"The money came in a lot faster than we thought it would. A lot of people want to help us make this a reality," said Engstrom. "So many people are interested in funding the mission, not just funding a brewery."
"But we've got nothing against people who just want to drink a beer," Eddins added.
Filling the funding gap
Eddins has seen the transformative power of music in his own life.
He was 5 years old when he began picking out tunes on the secondhand piano in his family home in Buffalo, N.Y. His talent led him to the prestigious Eastman School of Music, where he completed his piano performance degree at age 18 and went on to study conducting. Based in Minneapolis for several decades and married to fellow classical musician Jennifer Gerth, he travels internationally to lead orchestras as a guest conductor.
"In my career, I've been involved in finding funds for music and, believe me, it gets very wearying," he said.
"Minnesota has great arts organizations with outreach programs for youth. They solicit money from private donors, foundations or state arts funding. We hope to give them a different income stream than what they're used to," he said. "We can disrupt the paradigm of how we funnel support to the arts."
There's an urgent need for that support.
In an era of tight budgets, the arts curriculum has been scaled back in many districts; after-school classes and enrichment programs have been on the chopping block, as well.
Although the specific nonprofits that will benefit from MetroNOME have not yet been identified, arts administrators would welcome a new source of money to underwrite their programs.
"The need is real. There's a funding gap even though there's so much data about the value of music, how important it is for brain development and concentration," said Cléa Galhano, the outgoing director of the St. Paul Conservatory of Music. The program supplements music programs in several public and charter schools in low-income neighborhoods in St. Paul.
"We raise money to pay for lessons for children who would not have the opportunity to study privately. Their families know the importance of music but they can't afford it," she said. "Studying music doesn't mean they have to do this for their profession. Music education will make them a better student and a better employee, whatever they do."
Eddins and Engstrom are hands-on, busy with every aspect of the startup, from nailing down the logo to hiring a brewmaster to oversee production. They're designing a room adjacent to the brewhouse as a performance space with state-of-the-art acoustics, to be used for recitals, concerts and special events.
Producing alcohol is a highly regulated process, with local, state and federal rules to follow. While the regulators are looking over MetroNOME's application, Edstrom will continue to work part time at his "real job" while Eddins will travel to appearances with orchestras on both coasts and make regular trips to the University of Illinois, where he teaches graduate conducting courses.
Engstrom tended bar during his college years, and Eddins, like many musicians, has done time between gigs working in bars and restaurants; in the past year he delivered for Door Dash when the coronavirus shutdown canceled his conducting jobs.
Now they're eager to make midlife career shifts to the brewing business.
"If there's one thing we learned in the past year and a half, it's how we crave being with people and doing the things that define us," Eddin said. "People with nothing in common can come together and relate through the love of music.
"And the love of beer can do the same thing."
Freelancer writer Kevyn Burger last wrote for Inspired about a Minneapolis family dealing with the aftermath of their husband and father's untimely stroke.