Getting Into Craft Beer And Brewing
I got into craft beer through my wife (Cathie Dirks Williamson, President of Flat Earth Brewing). She grew up on the east coast, and after we were married we started heading out there on vacations. It seemed like every small town we stopped in had a brewpub or a microbrewery, and everybody was drinking the local beers. So we ended up at a bunch of brewpubs and we came back with a bunch of beer from the east coast. There was Smuttynose and Magic Hat and some stuff you still can’t get around here. Then we started hitting the brewpubs locally. Before that we really weren’t. We were drinking Grain Belt because it was brewed right down the street from us and it was delicious. That was our go-to beer. Every once in a while we had some Summit in the house or some James Page. But we started hitting the brew pubs and I started introducing myself to the brewers and learning more about the process. On our third or fourth trip out to the east coast we talked about how it can’t really be rocket science to make beer. And so for my birthday I got a homebrew kit and started making beer. And I started reading everything. I think every month I picked up a new book. It was so fascinating to play with all that stuff and make beer, make beer that tasted good.
My wife and I would sit out on our back patio and talk about, “Boy, you know, if you had the porter from this place and the IPA from there and that pool table and those ribs and…” We were kind of trying to put together our favorite stuff from all of these brewpubs into one big fantasy brewpub. So I was homebrewing and I was teaching special-ed and everything was kind of coming to a head where making beer was a lot of fun and teaching school was becoming kind of a drag. And the conversation kept going to beer and a brewpub. And my wife said, "Before we sink everything we’ve got and a lot of stuff we don’t have into a brewery, you’ve got to find a job in the brewing industry making beer. I don’t want to go six months down the road and you say this really sucks." And she was right. She was right.
It took nine months to find a job in the industry here in Minnesota. But I got the assistant brewers position at Town Hall which was part time. Part time went to full time in like two months. And the second year I was there I went from full-time to salary because we were just that busy all the time. We typically brewed twenty-five to thirty different styles of beer every year and a huge variety of pale ales. The whole time I was there, everything that I was learning was geared toward opening this brewery. I left Town Hall after two and a half years and we moved into this building and started writing huge checks for equipment. We had this huge lump sum of money and we had this plan and we had people working putting everything together, but it took much longer than I thought it was going to take. We had enough money for a good five months of cushion and I think from the time we moved in to the time we brewed was about six months. That last month it was like, I want to get brewing because our pile of cash is now a little lump. We brewed our first big batch of beer on Superbowl Sunday 2007. I was home by halftime.
What am I trying to do with my beers…besides make money? We’re trying to provide the market with beers that aren’t readily available. We’re trying to fill in some niches with beers that we personally like the style or the flavor profiles of those beers, but we have a hard time finding them when we go out. In some ways I’m kind of brewing for myself. I want to be able to go out and have a nice big porter some times and I have a hard time finding one. I want to be able to go out and have a nice fresh Belgian pale ale. I can’t find it. So we’ll make it ourselves. Same with the element 115, I like Anchor Steam. It’s great in San Francisco when it’s fresh. But the farther you get from the brewery, the longer it sits around. So we made Element 115. And I think that’s kind of our philosophy, harder to find styles, brew them fresh, and serve the local angle. We’re not allowing a liquor store to buy and sit on fifty cases of our beer. We really want to keep it fresh. Like the people who come in for growler sales, sometimes they can get some stuff that you can’t get out in the liquor stores. Like we do some unfiltered things because that’s as fresh as it can get. I mean sometimes it’s straight off the fermentor that morning and packaged that afternoon and people are buying it and taking it home. The born on date is today.
The growler sales are fun for us and it’s exactly what I thought it would be. It’s a chance for the beer buying public to come in and talk to the brewer, talk to the guy packaging it, and hang out and talk to other people. Sample a couple beers and find the one that you really like, then get a growler, go home and share it with other people. Or not, as the case may be. I wish we had more space down in the brewery because when it gets really busy people are kind of pushed around a little bit. But I like being downstairs because sometimes we can give an impromptu tour or sometimes we’re still working down there during growler sales. People are washing kegs or cleaning up after a brew and it just kind of smells nice downstairs.
Building Our Own Little Universe
Cygnus X-1 Porter is named after a song from our favorite band Rush. We found out that they were coming into town in 2007, so I joked to my wife that we should make a beer and get it on sale around the arena. We laughed about it, but the next day I was like, “we should seriously do that.” So I found a porter recipe, and then Rush is from Canada and they use rye to make Canadian whisky. So that’s where the rye in that beer comes from. It was originally called Canadian Porter but the federal government said you can’t call it Canadian Porter because it’s not made in Canada. You can call it Canadian style porter. We just dropped the Canadian part of it altogether. The infused porters are all named after Rush songs.
Mike and I were talking over lunch one day and we just kind of decided that since they were made off the beer that was named after Rush, then all the infused beers would be named after different Rush songs too. This ended up on some of the Rush fan-based websites so we got a bunch of emails from people asking like, “Oh can you send me a growler of Hold Your Fire?”
The other beer names evoke the X-Files conspiracy theory stuff. I find that to be a lot of fun to read. The stories are interesting. Sometimes there’s just enough truth in them to be, “Really? Maybe. Maybe it happened. I don’t know.” Why can’t there be an element 115? And why can’t that be what fuels rocket ships? And maybe it’s all secretive off in Groom Lake and Area 51 or maybe it’s not and it’s complete bunk. But it’s still kind of fun to talk about. Once you start going down that road with people sitting around at the bar everybody’s got a story. And a lot of the names are kind of to try and create that story. To just say Flat Earth Porter is a little boring. But if there’s a Cygnus X-1, you know, “what is that?” When they were first coming out they were just kind of quirky names, but they all started to fit together as a bigger image of stuff that we like. It started kind of on its own. It wasn’t intentional really at the beginning. But things did start to fall together. And then it reminded me of my favorite author Stephen King. Some of his characters, they’re not in every book, but all of a sudden they’re mentioned five books later. And maybe they’re mentioned again ten books later. And then all of a sudden there’s this much bigger world going on. And I like that idea that if we can somehow manage to do that, five years from now there’ll be a much bigger picture of everything that’s going on a Flat Earth. Our own little universe here.
The Five Year Plan
In five years we’d certainly like to have more tanks. We’d certainly like to have more bottling and packaging stuff. Some of that’s going to hopefully pan out this year. Maybe looking at an expansion of this building somehow. We’ve got a five year lease and a five year option so we could stay here for a total of ten years, but after ten years we hopefully will have outgrown this and be looking at building something new. I can certainly see us hiring another brewer and my job moving a little bit away from brewing to more the running of the business. My wife would like to be more involved as a chemist. We’ve got a microscope and we kind of look at cells and cell counts, but that’s about as far as we can go right now. It would be nice turn the other office into something where we pull up the carpet, lay down some linoleum, and actually have a lab and have a way to propagate yeast.
The Minnesota Brewing Community
We get along with all the other brewers in the state. It’s a small group and it’s a small sandbox and everybody’s got to play together well. And I think we do all get together pretty well. The guys at Summit, from Mark Stutrud on down have always been very helpful to us. Actually mark pulled me aside after a master brewers meeting not long after we had moved into the building and said, “If you ever need anything, raw materials or help doing something or just an idea, just call. And I’ll help you out. We’ll help you get started.” That was really cool because we set up shop in their back yard. They’re not a mile from here. And if it wasn’t for those guys and if it wasn’t for the guys down at Schell’s, maybe a lot of the brewers in Minnesota wouldn’t be around. We’d be just inundated with a lot of BudMillerCoors. So I’m really thankful for those guys. It’s a small community, you know. And we share. We share when we can. We help out. We’ve exchanged yeast. We’ve talked about different ideas. We’ve sold hops to people in the last two years during the hop crisis. We’ve sold bags of malt to people that have been suddenly short of fifty pounds of chocolate malt or something. I don’t know if that gets talked about much. Everybody likes to say, “Oh, that’s a great individual brewery.” but there’s sharing amongst just about everybody.