Author: Nicole

Tales from the “E” Cellar: August Schell Brewing Co.

Up Close TankThere’s no use crying over spilled beer. Not that it’s ever stopped me before. And I’m only likely to spill one bottle’s worth of something delicious but fairly ordinary. Jace Marti, Assistant Brewmaster at August Schell Brewing Company in New Ulm, had reason to throw a full-blown temper tantrum when nearly five barrels of a single batch special edition beer leaked out of the 78-year-old cypress wood tank where it had been aging for seven months.

BottleOne Sunday morning last winter, during a week-long stretch of subzero temperatures (which one, right?), Marti went to check the fermentation in one tank only to find his specialty Berliner Weisse drizzling out another. The cypress wood dried out in the extreme cold and cracked. The tank could hold 143 barrels and had around 140 barrels inside when the leak sprung. The small spot was visible the moment you set foot in the cellar door and Marti pointed it out to me saying, “That was a bad day.” Maybe I imagined the glean of unshed tears in his eyes…maybe.

Marti is a sixth generation member of the Schell family, so craft beer is in his blood (by genetics and consumption). His father Ted took over running the brewery in 1985 and since that time, Schell’s has brewed over 100 different varieties of German craft beer. His brother, Kyle, is the mastermind of Schell’s sales, while their brother, Franz, maintains the picturesque grounds surrounding the brewery. In a family with 154 years of brewing history, do you suppose beer loss would constitute disinheritance?

Brewing beer is so much a part of the Marti family’s daily lives that even Easter dinner doesn’t pass without talk of the business. And business has been good enough to allow Schell’s to undertake a multimillion-dollar expansion project focused on quality instead of quantity. From water treatment to warehousing, almost no process will be untouched by the quest to produce the best beer possible. By no means, though, will the Schell’s brewery be full of brand new, state of the art brewing equipment. In fact, older equipment is sometimes best suited for the job.

The leaky tank was one of ten built for lagering in 1936 inside what is called the “E cellar” of the brewery. Back then, the whole room was kept cold to store lagers for several weeks until they were ready to be filtered and packaged. The tanks served their purpose well until they were replaced in 1993. Eight of the tanks were moved off site to a “top secret” location. The remaining two tanks sat empty until 2008 when Marti decided to use them for brewing Schell’s Noble Star series.

It took five years to get the tank into usable condition. The process included using water to get the wood to swell up, hiring a dry ice blasting company to remove the thick pitch lining, and brewing a sacrificial beer to sit inside the tank for a few months. After the final cleaning, Star of the North was put in the tank and then released in 2013 as the inaugural beer in the series.

Leaky-TankThe other cypress tank on site has since been restored, and both are now exclusively used for brewing sour beers. Marti, a true beer geek’s brewmaster, explains why these particular tanks are so well suited for sours:

They are made of cypress, which has a neutral flavor profile, and they are very old, so they don’t impart any wood flavor into the beer. Wood is naturally porous, so it allows small amounts of oxygen to seep into the beer, which is good for Brettanomyces. The porous surface of the wood also allows the Brettanomyces and lactobacillus to embed in the wood grain, which will develop into a more complex microflora over time and hopefully produce some unique flavors in the beers.

A tank being perfectly suited to hold sours is important, but not more important than actually being able to hold beer. As the Berliner Weisse continued to leak out of the tank, Marti tried to stop the leak outside with some of the pitch that was removed from the inside. When that didn’t work, he moved most of the beer into a stainless steel tank to slow the leak. The tank was sprayed with water continually for nearly two weeks before the leak finally stopped (and there was much rejoicing).

The resulting beer is the third beer in Schell’s Noble Star series called North Country Brunette. It is very tart and dry with a fine, rounded acidic profile and a malty, spiced fruity character. North Country Brunette left the brewery last week, so start looking for it in stores today. The Schell’s beer locator will help you find it.

The cypress tanks will continue to be used solely for brewing sour beers, and a Berliner Weisse aged on cherries will be available this summer. Marti likes to come up with ideas for new beers after he’s had a few Schell’s brews, so you can rest assured that he’ll keep them coming.

First Look: Dangerous Man Brewing Co.

If you fear variety, beware of the danger lurking at 1300 2nd Street NE on January 25th when Dangerous Man Brewing Co. opens its doors to the thirsty residents of NE Minneapolis. The plethora of recent brewery openings promises variety in the beer scene, but Dangerous Man will be a place where patrons can always experience the new and exciting without ever leaving their barstool.

Building the Brewery: Surly Brewing Co.

And Now for Something Completely Different
In terms of craft beer in Minnesota, Surly & MNBeer sort of “grew up” together, launching around the same time and watching the beer scene grow steadily. I’m sure some of you remember tasting their beers for the first time at Winterfest in 2006 (bonus: remember Omar with long hair?). Instead of detailing their very interesting past (which is much better heard at the brewery while enjoying a Furious anyways), I will be sharing the insights of Surly’s president, Omar Ansari, about the plans for Surly’s new destination brewery. I should say here that I first talked to Omar about his ideas for the new brewery while at an event to celebrate Surly selecting HGA Architects (my employer) to design it. While I may be biased about their choice of architect, this feature isn’t going to be about the design, but about the concept, and of course, the beer.

A New Brewery the Surly Way
In May of 2011 the “Surly bill” was signed into law, allowing breweries producing under 250,000 barrels a year to sell their own beers on site. This law change cleared the way for Surly to begin planning their $20 million destination brewery, which will include a brewhaus, beer hall, restaurant, event center and an outdoor beer garden. The planning is still in the very early stages. Omar compared it to actually starting the brewery, “It’s a slow process. This in many ways is much harder than building the brewery the first time around. The only people I had to convince then were my family and Todd, and then get the building ready. Now there are so many moving pieces. We have to work with the city, the county, architects, lawyers, bankers, land sellers and neighborhood groups. It’s a much bigger undertaking. From idea to brewery the first time around it took 2 years. We started thinking about this in 2010 and we’re shooting for opening the new location in 2014.”

The big missing piece is the site location. So much of what the new brewery will be like is dependent on what site they have to work with. Though a Prospect Park location has received some serious attention as of late,  nothing has been finalized on this front yet. Omar simply joked, “People always have lots of thoughts on where the brewery should be. Usually it’s within stumbling distance of their house.” While it can’t be in everyone’s neighborhood, it’s important to be located in a place that is densely populated and has easy access via public transit and on bike. Offers from many suburbs are attractive, but just don’t fit with what they’re trying to achieve.

He and Todd have always felt that this project would be urban. He talked about breweries around the country that have gone into depressed industrial areas and helped to revitalize their neighborhoods. They’re having trouble finding a spot like that here. He explained the difficulty they’re facing, “We need a certain size site and there just aren’t that many spots available in Minneapolis, which is a good thing. The Twin Cities doesn’t have these old vacant areas. Things are so developed.”

Although the exact location isn’t yet determined (which means we can all keep dreaming about it being in our neighborhoods for the time being), Omar shared some of the details about the new brewery that I’m sure MNBeer readers will find equally important. By this, I mean he told me about the plans for the beer.

Doing What’s Best for the Beer

The new location will open with Surly’s current line up, but he hopes to have 15 to 20 of their beers on tap in time. As production moves to the new facility, the Brooklyn Center location will be devoted to what he calls “wild” beers (he mentioned a barrel aged Darkness and it set my heart aflutter). It’s no secret that Surly can’t make enough beer right now. He explained, “The constant struggle is that everyone wants more Furious, but they also want more of the anniversary and specialty beers.”

It’s been inferred before that Omar has prevented Todd from being as creative as he could be. The reality is that in their Brooklyn Center location, there just isn’t enough space to do all of the barrel aging and other creative brewing that they’d like to do. This will change when the new facility gets up and running. Having a 25,000 square foot facility for barrel aging and sour beers is a luxury that not many other breweries have. This is another indication that the Surly way of doing things isn’t going to fall by the wayside with their new increased production capabilities.

In the past, Surly has tried to go into other markets and had to pull out because they were having a hard time meeting demand. With an increase in brewing capacity of 100,000 barrels a year they could try to reestablish themselves in those abandoned markets, but that isn’t necessarily what is best for the beer. He emphasized the importance of meeting local demand, “We’re brewing all the beer we can brew. We’re going to have to make enough to meet Minnesota demand first and it’s hard to know what exactly that is at this point. So if this doesn’t get us back into those markets, I guess we never will. There’s only so much you can do to grow.”

First public tour. Not the short goatee!

One of Omar’s chief concerns about the increase in production was whether they’d be able to get enough raw materials. He assured me that they were able to secure contracts for their ingredients, “Getting those particular hops contracted was important. And if we didn’t, we’re building this big facility and what would we brew? We were able to lock that down, so we’ll be able to grow with the brands that folks know and love and maybe even make some of the smaller ones bigger.”

Speaking of ingredients, Surly’s fresh-hop beer, Wet, recently hit the market. This is Omar’s favorite Surly beer and he explained why, “it’s a delicious beer and a lot of work goes into it. We had two tanks fabricated just to make it. It’s an unbelievably laborious process. We don’t sprinkle a little bit of hops on it; all the hops are wet hops. It doesn’t necessarily make a lot of sense in many fashions, but it embodies the way we do things.” Whenever Omar and Todd are confronted with a decision, they always bring it back to what is going to make the best beer.

Going from the new kids in the Minnesota beer scene to veteran brewers making some of the best loved local beers in just six short years shows that doing what’s best for the beer is much appreciated by consumers. Omar is a little bit in awe of the success they’ve experienced, “What’s happened to us is nothing that me or Todd or anyone else would have ever thought would happen. We always thought we would brew beers that literally didn’t belong in every bar and liquor store.” Fortunately for and thanks to Minnesota beer drinkers, that is not the case.