Over the last five years, the craft brewery movement has grown exponentially in Minnesota. The Associated Press says licensing records show two-thirds of Minnesota breweries have opened just since 2010. So, we decided to help you – and your livers – keep up with the taproom trend by stopping by some of these Twin Cities brewhouses. NorthGate Brewing is in the midst of its third expansion – the first at its second location. So, we visited to see how things were going and learn about what lead to the new expansion.
In the almost five years since the Surly bill was passed, allowing breweries to sell pints on site, over 100 breweries have come to exist in Minnesota.
A handful of breweries were open prior to the bill passing that focused solely on distribution, and another handful was in the process of opening. Among the latter was NorthGate Brewing.
Even before securing a lease in Northeast in 2011, Adam Sjogren and Todd Slininger were brewing.
The pair met while playing on a soccer league. When Sjogren was temporarily forced to the sidelines due to a broken ankle, Slininger took it upon himself to share another one of his hobbies with him – homebrewing.
“[Slininger] brought over his homebrewing equipment and he was like, ‘Hey, your life is going to suck now [that] you won’t get to play soccer five days a week, but here’s something you can do with crutches,'” Sjogren said.
The pair continued to homebrew after Sjogren’ s ankle healed and Slininger returned to school for an MBA. They even created a business plan for a brewery as part of an entrepreneurship class Slininger was taking.
Upon graduation, Slininger decided he wanted to go ahead with the plan. So, they did.
They secured a lease at the corner of Marshall Street and St. Anthony Parkway with a focus on distribution and plan to start small.
Then, the Surly bill passed.
“After the Surly bill we had our lease and we [were] like ‘Ah, how many people are going to want to go to a place and drink one brand of beer?,'” Sjogren said. “And the answer was everybody.”
Sjogren and Slininger moved forward with a distribution-focused plan and opened in February 2012.
As for staying small, they found themselves rapidly outgrowing their first space.
So, a year-and-a-half after they sold their first pint at Grumpy’s Northeast they moved into a new location on Harding Street and opened a taproom,making Sjogren the only man to open two breweries in Minneapolis. And roughly a year-and-a-half after that, they are expanding once again.
Follow them: on Twitter at @NorthGateBrew, on Facebook at NorthGate Brewing or visit their website online.
Owners: Adam Sjogren and Todd Slininger
Brewer: Tuck Carruthers
Location: 783 Harding St. NE, Minneapolis
Hours: Wednesday and Thursday: 4 – 10 p.m., Friday: 3 p.m. – 12 a.m., Saturday 12 p.m. – 12 a.m. and Sunday 12 – 8 p.m.
So, let’s start at the beginning. Tell me about the name – where did NorthGate come from?
Sjogren: It’s actually an old British brewery. It’s been closed for about 100 years.
Since the brewery was closed, was there any issue getting the name?
Sjogren: No. We’re not going to [distribute] in England. It hasn’t been operating since 1887 or something ridiculously long, [and] it doesn’t brew anything [anymore.] The building itself still stands and it’s just a tourist attraction for the town.
How fun to have a historical brewery with the same name! Is that where the inspiration to make English brews came from?
Sjogren: Todd, the other founder, and I had gone and traveled to England separately. I’ve been to England, Ireland, Scotland and the beer there is really good. It’s really good. But it gets a horrible rap here and it’s kind of deserved. Newcastle in a clear bottle isn’t good; Bass in a clear bottle is not good. It sits in a warehouse for months and it loses all of its flavor, or it sits in a warm, glass bottle and it gets skunked. [Over in England] they have all these great cask ales. They get served basically near room temperatures and it’s fantastic. They’ve got all this amazing flavor. Nobody does that in the Midwest and especially not in Minnesota. So, we decided that we kind of wanted to focus on that. I really like those style of beers and I think that they are underrepresented. But, everybody else is doing IPAs. So, we’re either really smart or we’re really stupid, and we’re going to find out really quick.
The IPA certainly is a prolific style. Why do you think that is?
Sjogren: Personally, I think it’s because it’s so different from the macro stuff, the stuff you drink college or when your older brother sneaks you a six pack in high school. Everything about it is the opposite of that. It’s got a lot of flavor. It’s got complexity. It’s so far beyond what you had when you were younger that I think it’s natural to gravitate toward it.
That makes a lot of sense. I think people turn to craft beer for new flavors not what they are used to, and that certainly is a new flavor for many! So, speaking of brews, let’s talk what you have a on tap!
*Listen to Sjogren discuss beers offered in the taproom.
Previously, you’ve described NorthGate’s brews as sessionable beers. What does sessionable mean to you personally?
Sjogren: It means that you can be with your friends and actually sit down at a patio at a bar, have drinks, finish your whole conversation and not walk away drunk. I really like beer. I do not like being drunk. It’s not something I find appealing at all. So, I’ve always liked a beer that I can sit and have two or three over the course of a couple of hours with friends and my day isn’t over.
I think a lot of people would agree with you on liking beer but not liking being drunk. Do all of the beers you brew fit into the English-style category?
Sjogren: No. Our little kitschy thing we do is our Empire Series. The things we say is, “the sun never sets on the British Empire.” So, our Pale Ale has a lot of New Zealand hops, which New Zealand is part of the British empire. A Russian Imperial Stout, while it was made for Russia, was made in England. The IPA is actually English. The IPA and the Russian Imperial Stout are both English beers they were just named after where they were exported to. So, we don’t exclusively do it. [However], our mainstays, everything except Get Together, is a British style beer. The Porter and the Brown Ale are extremely British. The ESB. The Sweet Stout, in fact that’s why we call that beer a sweet stout. In American it’s called a milk stout.
Really? Is there a difference between a sweet stout and a milk stout?
Sjogren: No. It’s just in Britain you’re not allowed to call a beer a milk stout. They had a problem a hundred and some years ago with women who were breastfeeding thinking that if they chug a milk stout it would be good for them while they were breastfeeding. The British government had to go in and say, “No, and in fact you’re not even allowed to use that word when making beer.” People always ask, “What’s a sweet stout?” “Well it’s a milk stout.” “Why don’t you call it a milk stout?” Well, because we’re trying to stay with tradition.
What a bizarre reason for the difference in name! So which beer is the most popular brew?
Sjogren: In the tapprom it’s probably Red Headed Piper. In overall sales, it’s the Wall’s End or Strong Hold.
Tell me, what is your favorite beer you have on tap?
Sjogren: The Get Together.
So, changing gears a bit, tell me what lead to the expansion into the second brewery.
Sjogren: Our first space was 700 square-feet; it’s where 56 Brewing is now. [The first space] was half the size of this room and that included all of the equipment – the boiler, the fermenter, the kettle, the cold room – in all 700 square-feet. We didn’t have a taproom when we opened because when we looked at it it was before the Surly bill went through. After the Surly bill we had our lease and we’re like “Ah, how many people are going to want to go to a place and drink one brand of beer?” And the answer was everybody. We were totally wrong on that point. But it worked out for us, and within six months of that space being opened we maxed out capacity just doing growlers and tap accounts. So, we moved in to [Harding Avenue] in August of last year. So, about a year and a half after we sold our first pint we were in our new space, which was much faster than we had anticipated. In fact, we’re tripling capacity once [the new expansion is done] and that was also much faster than we anticipated.
Wow! That’s great to hear you’re experiencing such growth. So, what lead you to this corner of Northeast, as it’s not near your previous one.
Sjogren: We’ve always wanted to be distribution first. We looked at a lot of spaces that were in the residential corridor of Northeast, but it’s so impossible to expand in those spaces. Here I’ve got 20-foot ceilings. I can just pop in 60 barrel tanks and not even think about it. It took Dangerous Man how long to get just that little next door space? And Indeed had to literally tear the roof off of their building to go vertical with their tanks. We definitely will never, ever do in our taproom what the guys in residential Northeast do, but that’s not really been our game plan. We opened without a taproom at first, so we can survive without one. But we like it because it’s fun to experiment.
I can see how needing the ability to be able to expand at any moment is important when you’re focusing on increasing distribution accounts. How have you experimented with the brews you currently have?
Sjogren: We experimented with putting the sweet stout on nitro when we moved to this location and now we only do it on nitro. Once we started getting it on nitro we realized that is a beer that should never be served otherwise. So now, we can’t can it really and we can’t put it in growlers because its nitro, but it’s the best way to present the beer. It’s just what we do and people love it.
Sounds delicious! So, what would you serve to a novice craft beer drinker?
Sjogren: I’d serve them the brown ale, the Wall’s End. We like to joke that it’s Newcastle but good. People always ask for our lightest beer and it’s the brown ale. It’s brown in color but it’s very light bodied, easy drinking and I think we get a lot of converts with that beer. That is probably why it stays our number one. It’s not an IPA. It’s not a big imperial stout. If you’re not used to those flavors you can still recognize that it is a very good beer, that it has a ton, ton more flavor than Miller Lite, and not be overwhelmed.
What would you serve to someone who maybe considers themselves a “beer snob?”
Sjogren: I’d serve them the Walls End! Just because it’s a brown ale doesn’t mean you’re above it.
I like that answer! So, did you find that people were more familiar with you since you were able to distribute and get into more restaurants and bars? Or were they less familiar?
Sjogren: I think people were more familiar with the taprooms. We get people who [say] “Oh, you’re new. I didn’t know you had opened.” And we [respond] “No, we’ve been open the same amount of time as Dangerous Man and 612.” We literally opened within 10 days of each other. But because we’re so small a lot of people in Northeast knew who we were but a lot of people even in St. Paul didn’t know who we were after two years. It’s a lot different now because we have a lot wider distribution network and we can which helps a lot because people see it in the stores.
So, aside from getting your brand out to the consumers, what is one of the more challenging thing about opening a brewery?
Sjogren: Paperwork. There’s just a mountain of forms, laws and licenses, and it’s crazy. This is the second time I’ve opened a brewery in Minneapolis, because I opened the first one and this one had to be completely relicensed from scratch. You can’t just transfer your license. I thought I was really good at it the second time and even I got hung up on it a couple times. That’s the most difficult part about opening. Running one is totally different.
How about running one then? What is the most difficult part about that?
Sjogren: Resource acquisition and making sure your contracts are lined up. When you want to try a new beer it’s very challenging now to get any hop you need that you don’t have a contract for. Luckily, I have a lot of friends in town so I can send an email to all the other breweries saying, “Hey do you have any X of this kind of hop that you’re not going to use that I can buy off of you.”
Is that something that is normal among brewers?
Sjogren: Oh, yeah. In Minnesota it’s statewide. I’ve talked to brewers from other states and they’re not like that. They are in some. But I’ve talked to some in the southwest and they [ask], “You do what? You just, I don’t understand. Why do you guys trade hops and grains?” And I [say], “What? Why wouldn’t we? I don’t understand why youF don’t.” We’re actually together and communicate more and tighter than people realize.
I’ve always known the brewery community was tight, so it’s good to hear the relationship is really that close. Tell me, what is something that people would be surprised to learn about the brewing industry in Minnesota?
Sjogren: I think they’d be surprised to learn that we’re actually tighter than people think we are. I mean, we hang out, we barbecue together, we go out on the weekends together and we had an industry New Year’s thing here. I feel like a lot of people think it’s like an act, but the ironic thing is we actually are tighter and we community more and are friendlier than people realize.
Wow! I was always wondering how genuine that is. It’s good to hear that there really is a bond between brewers across the state. So, where do you want to see NorthGate Brewing in, say, five years?
Sjogren: Maybe statewide. We kind of talked [about it]. If it happens it happens, but I don’t want to be Stone or Bells or Founders. If I could be one brewery it would be something like New Glarus. We serve one state and we serve everywhere, every bar and every liquor store in that one state, and we’re just happy.
I think that would be a huge accomplishment. And I’m sure that people across the state that don’t have access to NorthGate brews would be happy with that development, too! So, if were to describe the brewery in one word, what would that word be?
**NorthGate is celebrating their 3rd anniversary with a special bottling party! NorthGate is bottling their Fiddle Smasher and Imperial Red Ale, made specially for the anniversary. From 10 a.m. to 11:59 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 30, bottles will be available for $30. The event will also include three different casks, $33 Flash tattoos, three hours of music from Gentleman’s Anti-Temperance League and more.