“We’re not quirky. We just do something quirky”
Andy: I started homebrewing right after college and I just went crazy for it. I knew Chris Farley, the guy who opened the homebrew supply store Northern Brewer, and I managed his store for about three years. The guy who started Vine Park would come into the store and ask my advice on different things. He was a guy who had a lot of money and liked good beer but didn’t really know much about brewing. So after he got up and running he asked me if I would come run the brew-on-premise for him.
Daniel: Talk about weird coincidences in life. I used to come here all the time with friends to brew beer. That’s one of the differences between Andy and I. Andy came in with the homebrewing background thinking, “Why in the heck would anybody come here? Why don’t they brew at home?” And I came in as a customer thinking, “Why would I want to brew at home and clean all that stuff, when I can come here and have a good time with my friends?” This is helpful, because we look at it in different ways. I can see it more from our customers’ viewpoint and he’s good at looking at it from the operational viewpoint to keep things organized and running better. I went from customer to owner because I needed a new career. I’d always wanted to own a small business, but I didn’t want to be the fourth gas station on the corner. I wanted something unique, where I’d get to know my customers. I remembered Vine Park, so I approached the owner about doing a second location. He said, “No, I’m going to retire and I want to sell the business.” He had already offered it to Andy, so Andy and I met a few times and decided we wanted to go forward with it. We bought the place five years ago
The Brew-on-Premise - "We Sell Fun."
The people that come here to brew are people who like to have fun. I think our clientele is much the same as the St. Paul Saints baseball clientele; they're not necessarily die hard baseball fans, but they’re people that enjoy the game and want to have some fun. Our customers aren’t necessarily die hard beer fans. They’re curious about it and they like the beer, but what we do is provide them a place where they can have fun with the people they came with. We sell fun.
In the main customer area we’ve got six kettles, each one with its own set of stuff for the brew process. Our recipes are extract beers with about half of them using specialty grains. Customers do all their measurements according to the recipe instructions. We assign them a start time to the boil and they pre-calculate all their hop additions. Our job is to make sure they don’t forget. They end up with a twelve-gallon fermenter full of beer. After two weeks they come back in, bottle their beer in twenty-two ounce bottles, and go home with beer that they made themselves. There are thirty five recipes in the brochure. There are probably fifty listed on the website and on the recipe comparison chart. And we have probably a dozen or more that are just in the drawer, ones we’ve retired thinking that we’ve come up with a better one.
We get a lot of folks that will come in, it will be multi-generational family groups, or it’ll be a bunch of guys that went to college together and this is their chance to get back together again. We have a lot of repeaters. We have regulars who we see every two years. We have other regulars, who are in here every two months, three months, four months, and they’re bringing in different groups of friends or they’re bringing in people from work. They just feel with give them a good, fun, value experience and they share that with different groups.
The biggest change for the business is the wine. They did wine at the old location. When we bought the business we made the decision that we weren’t going to do wine. We said, “We have to focus on the beer, that’s the business.” The wine was maybe two percent of sales. Within two months of opening up here we just got sick of the phone calls. We said, “Fine, we’ll put in a sink in the back and we’ll let people make wine.” Now wine is thirty percent of our business. And that brings in more women.
The weird thing about our business is we don’t advertise to men. We advertise to women because women make all the decisions. They buy the gift certificates. Of all the gift certificates that are sold, at least half of them the woman calls up and says, “I’ve got to book this brewing appointment for my husband or boyfriend or my dad because this thing’s gonna expire.” Until you get a guy in here he won’t book an appointment. Once they come in they’re great. Then they’ll call and make their own reservations. But for the first one somebody has to take them by the hand and make the appointment for them.
The Smallest Licensed Microbrewery in the US
Why go to the trouble to open the microbrewery? We had the equipment. We had the skills. We had the time. Andy wants to brew beer. I want to be involved in that. And it gives us one more way to be out there in front of people and be established in the beer community. We saw an opportunity since they had changed the law allowing microbreweries to sell growlers at retail. With the growler option we can actually sell beer and potentially make a profit at it. And to be honest, it’s more fun for us. But it doesn’t replace our main business, the brew-on-premise.
We thought we would have a captive audience. People come and brew and leave here with nothing. Let’s sell them something. And then when they come back in two weeks to bottle they’ll probably get something else that’s different from what they’re making. But it definitely did not start out that way. That business was actually kind of slow. What took off right away were just walk-ins. A lot of those people just keep coming in and buying growlers and they’ve never brewed here.
The all grain system is probably the smallest licensed microbrewery in the US that’s not involved in a brewpub. It’s a three-barrel system that we do a two-barrel batch on right now. With the amount of grain that we stuff in there and our fermenter size, that’s what will fit. Maybe four years ago, we made an offer to the Upper Mississippi Mashout. Every year they brew the winning best-of-show beer to use as their giveaway beer. We said they could come brew it here. That particular year it was a Russian imperial stout. We probably normally have a grain bill in there of 160 lb. That one topped out at about 210 lb. We literally had to stand up there with a paddle and stir the whole time, it was such a thick porridge.
Existing in the Overlap
We have a semi-unique licensing. You remember your old geometry classes where they would take the circles and there’d be these little overlap regions? We exist in those little overlap regions. When they write the laws they write them about each circle and they don’t think about the overlaps. It was a really big challenge for us is to try to figure out how to work with the system. We have a federal microbrewery license, but we have to keep separation between the microbrewery and the brew-on-premise. Because they exist in the same space, we separate them by time. We’re a microbrewery part of the day and a brew-on-premise the other part of the day. And each of those has separate rules about what you can and can’t do. There is a definitive time written in there, that’s one of the reasons we don’t technically open until noon, because it’s midnight to noon. But it’s also if customers are in the premises we’re no longer a microbrewery. So some of the things that microbreweries can do with customers, like give samples, we can’t do because the instant a customer comes in we’re no longer a microbrewery. When that door opens and a customer walks in we flip. Read more about this here.
Organizing beer trips kind of goes back to fun, we sell fun. When customers come in you need to have a way to bond or break the ice. Andy talks sports. I’m not really into sports, but you can talk travel with anybody. Everybody likes to tell you about their cool trip. I talk travel with everybody. So when I discovered the beer trips thing I thought it would be a cool thing for the brewery to sponsor. Past destinations have included the Czech Republic, Bavaria, and South Africa. The one to Bavaria was totally customized for us. This year was Belgium. Mike the trip arranger that I work with at Beertrips.com had one that was on the cusp. So Deb (Daniel’s wife) and I signed up to do the Belgian one. I knew it was going to happen, so I didn’t have to worry about getting enough people lined up to make the whole trip happen. So we’ve been promoting the Belgian trip as an option for people. Most of our customers are not going to be able to do that. But they love to hear about it. We’re planning an Ireland trip next year. That was actually totally driven by customers asking us. They want to go. And if I’ve got enough people that want to go, then it sounds like fun. If people want to go, it’s cool.
Five year goals, that’s something that we have been talking a lot about lately. We have several different answers. We’re really trying to explore which is the best, most sensible direction for us to go. We don’t see replicating the brew on premise anywhere. That’s the one thing that we’re pretty sure we wouldn’t do. There’s a reason there are only a few of them in the US. It’s a business with a lot of overhead and you’ve got to keep the kettles busy. It’s like a hotel or any kind of high overhead business. You’ve got to keep it constantly busy. We’d like to explore the possibility of expanding the brewing side of things. Our biggest challenge there is production facilities. We’re exploring expanding the production side of it. We just bought “the time machine” as we call it from Jeff over at Flat Earth. It’s actually a yeast propagator. It’s a glycol chilled tank that just happens to exactly fit a three barrel batch. With that we’ll be able to do true lagers for the growlers. And we’ve ordered two more new fermenters that are not jacketed that we’ll use for ales.