My family used to have a cabin up near Brainerd, Minnesota and I spent years out in those woods hunting, fishing, and even trapping small furry animals. I never would have guessed that craft breweries would one day sprout up around the area, but have been excited to see “Up North” getting into the craft beer game. No longer just the land of Bud Lite by the case, the folks living and vacationing north of the Twin Cities now have some new options in what they drink.
On a recent trip up to our friend’s cabin we made quite a few stops in search of these hidden gems of Minnesota breweries. This first in the series will focus on Roundhouse Brewery, and Jack Pine Brewery in the Brainerd area, with a few more articles on breweries in Nisswa, Walker, and Bemidji to come.
Jack Pine Brewery
Lets start with the venerable older brother of the two breweries: Jack Pine Brewery. Located in Baxter, this was the first brewery in the area since prohibition crushed nearly all Minnesota breweries under its well-intentioned heels. The brewery was started by Patrick Sundberg in 2013 with a shoestring budget and a tiny 3 barrel nano brewhouse. I had met Patrick prior to this while judging and competing in homebrew competitions throughout Minnesota and had a lot of respect for his skills as both a judge and brewer. When I talked with him at a competition in St. Cloud in 2012 and tried his most incredible barleywine, I knew he would be sucessful in his future enterprise. When he posted a Kickstarter to help fund his small brewery I even kicked in a few bucks to support a good guy with a good dream. Patrick has slowly expanded his beer list and has won accolades such as bronze medal in the 2016 GABF for his Vengeance jalapeno cream ale. I always stop by their booth at beer festivals and have my friends Steven and Wendy pick me up growlers whenever they pass through the area, but I had never actually been to the brewery until this past week! Jack Pine now has several brewers and staff involved in recipe development and operate on more of a team approach. Per Patrick, “I know water chemistry, so I lend my knowledge to that. If any of us have an idea, we bounce it off each other. That’s the cool thing about one-off beers, it doesn’t matter much as long as it’s not too far off the spectrum. It’s still going to be tasty.” He’s got that right!
An unforseen bonus/problem was that on this particular Friday, Jack Pine was having their grand opening of a new larger taproom not far from the previous space. The place was packed to the gills with locals sporting their Jack Pine hats and shirts (I forgot mine in my luggage) and sipping on one of the 23 beers on tap. 23 beers! Patrick hopes to have about 15 beers on tap at any one time in the future. We ran into a flushed and ecstatic Patrick outside when we arrived, seemingly shocked that there were so many people excited to see the new location. We ordered some pizzas from the local food truck and waited in line a bit for our beers and growler fills, enjoying the bustle and energy of the raucous crowd. I would normally do a sampler and rate each beer, but with the crowd, I opted to get a new Experimental IPA #9 that was refreshing, bright and hoppy. I figure I’ve tried a lot of Patrick’s beers over the years. I love the Big Buck Barleywine (since this is a version of that first great beer he served me years ago) and really like the green chili notes of the zippy Vengeance. I haven’t had a bad beer from Jack Pine yet and find all of the beers to be well balanced and without flaws, so you’re probably fine with whatever you decide to try there. I’m very excited for this new step forward for Patrick and Sara Sundberg and hope to get out there again. With the new 15 barrel brewhouse they should be able to keep up with demand. Cans start to release in July, and I saw some in the brewery area waiting to be filled. Better would be if they could get some cans of beer to the Twin Cities, but they want to focus on local markets in the Brainerd Lakes area first. Oh well, I can wait! Oh, and Jack Pine’s next big event is Jacktoberfest on October 7, so check it out if you are up north that late in the season.
All aboard! A newer upstart brewery in Brainerd is Roundhouse Brewery. The brewery had their grand opening on April 28 of 2016, so is just under a year old at this time. I had heard good reviews from beer geek friends (is there any other kind?) and was excited to check this place out. Roundhouse takes its name for the huge Union Pacific railroad round house that was used to rotate cars for placement in various of the extensive garage buildings surrounding it. The roundhouse is gone, but the footprint can be seen from above in aerial photos, surrounded by all the other big brick buildings. We hit the place in the late afternoon with excellent light and cool cloud formations in the sky. My friend Jim and I stalked about the place taking pictures of these ancient industrial ruins while our wives shook their heads and trailed along. This was a cool location and one can hope that someday all of these historic old piles will house local businesses and commerce.
Outside, the brewery hosts a line of tables for outside drinking, and many people were there taking advantage of the beautiful spring evening. A food truck was parked outside doing a brisk business. Inside, once my eyes adjusted to the darker interior, I was struck by the age and vibe of the place. Concrete floors lay under our feet, cream colored thick brick walls surrounded us, and a wooden bar shaped with a back shaped vaguely like a train caboose nestled into the far end of the spacious room. Railroad signs and a few historic pictures and trinkets add interest and more context upon the extensive walls.
One of the owners, Dan Meyer, was serving beer along with another couple of other friendly and attentive staff. We ended up splitting a few rails (flights of beer) so we could try all the beers. Here’s where I’ll give a quick review of the beers I tried there. Keep in mind that tastes vary and even batches vary a bit from time to time, but I try to be as honest as I can in these reviews. I rate beers on a 0 to 5 scale with 0 being what you might get on a post-asparagus binge bathroom visit, 3 being an OK beer that I would drink a pint of, and 5 being something I’d trade in someone else’s kidney for.
- Crossover Maibock: Aroma is sweet with a hint of noble hop. Flavor is mellow, malty. Great balance between bitterness and malt for the style. Quite a nice Maibock. 4.252
- 46 North Wild Rice Ale: Made with wild rice, organic grain, and hops. This beer is smooth with a light crisp finish. Hops present but mild and not bitter. Easy drinking, but I don’t really get any character that I’d put down to wild rice. 3.75
- Golden Spike IPA: Excellent hop aroma of Mosaic fruitiness with some tropical fruit and citrus. Bitter, but not overly so with a clean bitter lingering finish. Lots of fruit (mango, blueberry, orange peel). I get more orange flavors as it warms up. 4
- Coal Train Porter: Aroma is slightly bitter, with roasted grain and burnt coffee. Very light bodied, crossed the line to thin. Not a lot going on in this one. I’d like more maltiness and thicker mouthfeel to accentuate the creaminess one gets with Nitro. 2.75
- Manley’s Wee Heavy: A Scottish strong ale. My buddy Dave Manley would like this one! Aroma has plenty of maltiness, some alcohol, and a hint of tartness? Flavor is bursting with malt sweetness that rides the line of cloying but not quite over. More dark malts than expected. Alcohol bite is pretty strong. Almost a bit of tartness. 3
- Lunchbucket: A pale peanut butter ale made with raspberry. Aroma is sweet with a raspberry zing and strong peanut butter. Flavor is crazy with alternating notes of raspberry jam, peanut butter, and bread crust. I’d have a hard time drinking a pint of this, but one hell of a unique beer. Bonus points for sheer moxie. 3.75-4
Dan was kind enough to answer a few questions for the blog! Here goes…
Beerploma: Tell us more about the folks behind the brewery…
Dan: The ownership group of Roundhouse consists of nine investors (6 local and 3 out of state). Mark Lelwica and myself are the operating partners in charge of the day to day operations of the Brewery. Mark and I began the conversation of a brewery a bit over two years ago with a weekly cup of coffee and continued to move the plan forward until we opened in April of 2016.
Beerploma: Who is the head brewer at Roundhouse?
Dan: Our head brewer is Chuck Martin. Chuck has been home brewing for 12 years as well as he was also the head brewer at Father John’s Brewery in Bryan, Ohio.
Chuck, Mark and I are all from Staples, MN and grew up within about a mile radius. Our families connections go way back. Dan and Chuck had reunited their childhood friendship several years ago through social media and Chuck expressed an interest in moving back to Minnesota and pursuing his brewing passion. Once we knew we had a great brewer lined up, Mark and I worked to put the rest of the pieces together in opening a great brewery.
Beerploma: How well has the brewery been recieved in the community? Are the locals getting on board, or is it more vacationer traffic?
Dan: The community has really embraced our brewery and it’s unique location in what are historical buildings to the Brainerd area. Our brewery has been used for reunions, meetings, social gatherings, etc. Many of our local regulars had relatives that worked in the railroad shops and are thrilled we have breathed some new life into the old buildings.
While we do have an increase in vacationer traffic in the summer months, we are sustained through the winter months by the local community.
Beerploma: Tell me more about the Lunchbucket! This was a crazy beer and really worked. Are you willing to give us pointers on how you managed to get the Raspberry jam, peanut butter, and breadcrust flavors into this thing?
Dan: In Chuck’s words: “I started with a malt base that was going to give me those bready, toasty flavors, with a little sweetness – Maris Otter, melanoidin, and honey malts, with some lactose for added mouthfeel and sweetness. I put powdered peanut butter into the kettle during the whirlpool to try to get in the peanut flavor without getting all of the solids into the fermenter. Then I added raspberry puree into the fermenter after about a week.”
Beerploma: Are there any upcoming events or special things you’d like our readers to know about Roundhouse?
Dan: We will be releasing cans into the local market around the 4th of July. We will be canning our Golden Spike IPA and Cowcatcher Common Ale.