We’re helping you – and your livers – keep up with the taproom trend by stopping by some of the Minnesota brewhouses. For the next brewery, Tap Talk is taking a trip to central Minnesota and visiting Roundhouse Brewhouse in Brainerd.
More than a century ago, the Northern Pacific Railway literally built the city of Brainerd. Now, a recently opened brewery is doing its part to honor the city’s past – and serve some great brews at the same time.
In late-April of 2016, Mark Lelwica and eight other owners opened Roundhouse Brewery inside one of the remaining buildings left from the NP. The building is located right next to the footprints of a torn down “roundhouse”-style building, which was used for servicing and storing locomotives. Hence the name!
While opening up a brewery inside a 150-year-old building has had its challenges (no infrastructure, getting everything up to code, cost), Lelwica says the advantages clearly outweigh the drawbacks.
“Our location (is an advantage). There’s four breweries in our area, and nearly a fifth, and where we put ours, it was kind of a void. That was the biggest perk. We really wanted to be the brewery of Brainerd,” Lelwica said. “Another thing is that we’re different. Everything associated with Brainerd is the woods or the lakes. We’re not. We’re metal and iron, concrete and brick. It’s a little bit of a different feel.”
Connecting with the people in the area through history has been eye-opening – and rewarding – for the brewery staff. For example, the brewery has many historical pictures on its walls thanks to help from the Crow Wing County Historical Society. And every now and then, a customer will find a connection.
“I had one guy come in … there’s one picture that shows a big crew that was building railroad cars … and he said that both of his granddads were in that,” Lelwica said. “I can’t tell you how many people walk in the door with a connection. There were so many people who worked in this area when it was bustling. There were 3,000 people serving the railroad.”
And, at least for right now, the brewery’s beers are reflecting its location and history with more of a leaning towards traditional. But that doesn’t mean the brewery won’t try something more contemporary in the future.
“We’re starting very traditional. We don’t have any really off-the-wall, extravagant beers. You know, our brewer certainly has done some test batches to show his ability to do so, and we’ll get there, but opening up we wanted to be pretty traditional with our brews. A cream ale, a stout, an amber, a lager, a couple IPA offerings… some very traditional brews,” Lelwica said.
Lelwica says the great thing about their brewery system is the freedom they have from its relatively small size. So, switching to other styles isn’t a problem.
“The size of our brewery allows us to be pretty light and nimble. We can turn over batches relatively easily, without having to worry about a commitment that could be overwhelming. It’s not so big that if we brew a big batch, we’re stuck with it if it isn’t a hit. We’re able to move beer over in a timely fashion.”
A beer to look out for when you visit: The Runaround Rye. Lelwica says the beer, crafted by head brewer Chuck Martin, gained some notoriety when it won the bronze medal at the Great American Beer Festival.
The brewery is also looking forward to some spring seasonals that include a Maiboc, Belgian Triple and a wild rice organic brew.
So, for more on the brewery, its connection to Brainerd’s history and its beers, check out the interview with brewery president and owner Mark Lelwica below!
You opened relatively recently, April 2016, how has it gone since then?
Really well! We’ve been really surprised at how we’ve been received in the community. Not just with the craft brewery in general, but we’re in a pretty unique location. It’s a big part of what we’re about and what I think our success if about, too.
What started everything? What was the spark that set Roundhouse in motion?
Myself and a friend, Dan … both grew up in Staples, which is small town west of Brainerd. We started discussing the interest of building the brewery, and we sat down about 2 years ago, meeting up weekly. We both knew that we wanted to run the company, and not be the brewer. And that’s when the biggest component came in. Another friend, also from Staples, had been brewing out in Michigan. And having been from Staples, we knew he may have an interest coming back here. And Chuck, our (now) brewer, said “yeah.”
We have nine owners in our group and we didn’t have to go to bank to do this. Pretty unique.
From my initial research into your brewery… history plays a major role in everything you guys do.
Roundhouse, in railroad terms, was a huge building where trains would enter into this circular garage, and at the very center of this roundhouse was a turntable. And these were steam engines back in the day and they didn’t have reverse. So you’d use this turntable to turn the engines in a different direction, or get them into a garage for maintenance. Right outside our front door is the footprint of what used to be the original roundhouse in Brainerd. The Northern Pacific Railroad built a huge complex in Brainerd – it’s essentially what built Brainered. It was shut down in the 1950s. Many buildings were torn down, but some remain. And we’re in an old historical complex that wasn’t torn down.
We thought it was very fitting to do a brewery in that area, because there’s so much history there. It really has worked out well to our advantage. People love that they can come out and see what built Brainerd and the history of Brainerd.
I see that you have some great historical pictures inside the brewery, how’d you get ahold of those?
The Crow Wing County Historical Society has been very helpful. They were able to muster up some pretty unique pictures from the railroad past. And there were other online resources to get those pictures in a digital form and blow them up.
Describe your flagship beers (if you have regulars on rotation)! What beers have really resonated with people?
Our staples would be the Golden Spike, which is an Imperial IPA. It uses a mosaic hop to give you a citrusy, hoppy flavor. It has a higher alcohol content, almost 9 percent. It’s a beer that IPA lovers love, but also one that people who aren’t fans of IPA love too.
Our Crow Wing Cream Ale is probably our No. 1 seller. It’s been super successful in introducing people to what craft beers are. It’s a safer beer. It’s very light, but has enough body that it doesn’t just taste like water.
What beers have you avoided/will you avoid?
I don’t know if you could put a limit on a beer to avoid. Something I’ve learned in this process. I like us to brew beer that I like, but it’s not about me, it’s about what the customer likes. We’ve been able to tap into our community and get a feel of what they like.
We’ll keep experimenting and tweaking things. As long as people receive them well, we’ll keep them going. If they don’t, we’ll phase them out.
I don’t know if there’s a beer we’d stay away from, as long as the customers like it.
What’s your most approachable beer?
Our Crow Wing Cream Ale is so popular because it’s more approachable. We have people come in and ask for something close to a McGolden Light and such, and they’ll try that and say “oh that’s really good, I could drink that.” There’s a population here that’s still into the major brands, and that’s what they like.
Are there other drinks/food options available at the brewery?
People are welcome to bring in whatever they want, and order in whatever they want. We’ve got lots of menus from local establishments on the tables that people can pick from.
As far as drinks, we have root beer, lemonade, cold press coffee and one of the biggest hits as of late – kombucha. It’s been received extremely well. My wife likes it. We don’t brew our own, we found a source for it, but it’s been received very well.
We’re there any unexpected things that happened with the brewery?
We always wanted our place to be a place for people to gather and get together. Almost like a coffee shop. I’ve been really impressed at how many people use it like that. We always wanted that, but didn’t realize how much people would actually do that! People want to have meetings, fundraisers, wedding parties… It’s been a blast. People come in and want to have a good time. Can’t ask for much more for that.
Lastly, what’s next for Roundhouse?
We have started distribution to get our product a little farther out then when we were just self-distributing. A part of that project is we’ll probably be canning hopefully in mid- to late- summer. Getting a portable package outside of the growlers that people can take with them.