Flat Earth Brewing Co.
It’s good to have goals. One of my long-term goals is to tour every brewery in Minnesota, and as many in other states as I’m able to. My first brewery tour was of Lakefront in Milwaukee back in 2005. I’ve since been back three times, but the tour is often sold-out and I’ve only been able to get in once more. Other tours I’ve done include Surly (MN), Summit (MN), Miller (WI), Anheuser Busch (MO) and Tommyknocker (CO).
I was able to add another to the list past weekend when some friends and I hit up Flat Earth Brewing over in St. Paul. This microbrewery (800 bbl. output in 2010) opened for business back in the spring of 2007 and runs a brew house purchased from a now-defunct San Francisco brew pub (that existed in a space near Fisherman’s Wharf now proudly occupied by a Hooter’s, ha!). They do four year-round beers (a Belgian pale ale, an American pale ale, an IPA and a porter) and seven seasonals. They do exclusively ales – no lagers – due to the extended aging time (AKA “decreased profitability”) required to properly brew lager beer.
Co-owner and head brewer Jeff Williamson led our tour, which was cool of him (I’ve been to Surly three times without meeting Omar Ansari). Jeff explained the basics of brewing to a crowd of roughly 30 and I got to ask a few technical questions to satisfy my curiosity. For instance, I thought it was pretty cool to find out that he uses Wyeast 1272 / American Ale II for three of his four annual beers, while using what I assume is Wyeast 3522 / Belgian Arnenness for his Belgian-style pale ale. Though I am a bit shocked that a business like this uses in essence the same stuff available at homebrew shops, I’m not that shocked it’s Wyeast. I read a few homebrewing magazines and Wyeast isn’t shy about advertising. They seem to be pretty aggressive so I can understand how they’d be in the business of supplying small breweries like Flat Earth (personally, I prefer White Labs).
I also inquired about the pitching procedure, as that’s a question I’ve neglected to ask on past tours of other breweries. I couldn’t imagine a place this small would have much of a lab for storing and propagating yeast. As I guessed, they will do some minimal testing of used yeast for viability and, if the cell count is still high enough, will re-pitch shortly after fermentation is complete on a prior batch. If the yeast available dies off too much and the cell count is too low, they just order another 8L more from Wyeast and pitch a new sample.
With the big hubbub of Surly’s (currently illegal) hypothetical plans for an expansion all over the local news this week, there were plenty of questions being asked of Jeff on his thoughts regarding Minnesota liquor laws. While in full support of any effort to make it easier for local brewers to sell beer, he seemed to understand all too well the firm opposition his interest group was up against. Jeff gave an example of how far behind the beer industry is in Minnesota through a comparison to the wine industry. It turns out – I had no idea – that you can go into a Minnesota winery on a Sunday and buy their wines. What?!?! You can’t buy liquor over 3.2% ABW anywhere else in Minnesota on a Sunday. Why can you buy wine in a winery? Lobbying power, that’s how. Apparently the wine industry has much more cash to throw around than the local beer industry does, and it shows. It’s sad there are so many outdated laws out there that exist not to enforce right and wrong, but simply because a vocal minority supports them and a non-vocal or financially unmotivated majority has yet to take a firm stand to change the antiquated law.
Someone else asked Jeff about competition with local breweries. I’ve noticed in the past that many other micro-brewers uphold a firm party line when asked this same question. They all respond with how non-competitive the entire micro-brewing industry is and how they all view Bud/Miller/Coors and “enlightening the palates of bland beer drinkers everywhere” as their only true competition. Jeff took it one step further though, which I believe highlights a bit of an evolution in the state of the craft beer industry. Jeff maintains he will never go after a draft line at a bar occupied by a beer brewed in Minnesota, but all others are fair game.
Jeff recalled when New Belgium stormed into Minnesota a few years back, dropping off a neon Fat Tire sign at just about every bar in the metro with taps to match. Fast forward to today and you’ll notice people have become a bit bored of Fat Tire, and while New Belgium has many other exemplary offerings (based on my personal experience), none other has quite the palatability of the brewer’s flagship brand. Things appear to be evening out for NB at the bars, making more room for small local brewers to work their way back in to the local scene. Though Jeff expects to see this arch again and again as new micro/craft brews come to town (apparently Stone is coming?? Sorry, kinda really excited about that, I’ll be honest…), he seems confident his brews will withstand the onslaught of competition from afar.
Of the four year-round beers we were offered on the tour, my favorite was definitely their Belgian-style pale ale. This is probably a symptom of the fact that I’ve been jonesing for any and all brews fermented with Belgian yeasts lately. I picked up a growler of that and one of their current seasonals, a barlywine called Winter Warlock. I’ve only purchased one growler before (Harriet Brewing’s “Batch One”) so I was glad to learn these can keep for up to a month if you don’t open them. Once opened, it sounds like you have about two or three days to finish off the half-gallon of fresh, unfiltered beer straight from the brewery’s brite tanks before it goes flat and starts to oxidize. I also made sure to grab a Flat Earth pint glass, as I’m trying to pick one of those up from each brewery I visit these days.
Jeff went into significant detail about how he started his brewery, how expensive it was (it cost “more than his house” and I don’t believe he even owns the building) and what the first few years were like. I won’t go into much detail about that here, but check out this podcast recorded around the time the brewery started for more info.
My buddies and l had a great time last Saturday. A big thanks to Jeff Williamson and his crew for allowing us in to hear about his brewery and sample his beers. Consider us Flat Earth converts.