Brewery Bound: Pantown Brewing Company
Pantown Brewing Company opened up in 2018 in St. Cloud, MN. They are located just a bit north of St. Cloud’s main drag. I ventured up there to chat with Co-owner Marty Czech and Head Brewer Nick Flies on a sunny September Saturday. After tasting a variety of the Pantown beers so deftly brewed by Nick, I believe craft beer lovers need to have Pantown Brewing Company on their radar.
Get Out of the Twin Cities & Discover Great Beer
The narrative perpetuated by some that good craft beer can only be found inside the 494/694 loop is hogwash. In Minnesota, there are some incredible breweries thriving in the Twin Cities. However, like any vibrant beer scene attempting to claim the label of “craft beer destination,” quality beer needs to be readily available all over the state. Pantown Brewing Company is making some incredibly good beer. I believe that more people should experience this for themselves.
I had been communicating with Nick Flies, Head Brewer at Pantown for months about visiting his brewery. Covid put a wrench in my ability to visit new breweries with the frequency that I had previously been accustomed to doing. I love visiting breweries, but when I go, I sit at the bar and chat with the folks slinging the beers. The locals usually sit at the bar, and I like to have them explain why they like a place. Putting myself smack dab in the thick of it always gives me a wonderful perspective on the soul of a brewery.
On this particular Saturday, the weather is perfect. I pull into the parking lot and see people sitting on the patio. Pantown has some outdoor seating and folks are spread out safely.
To be honest, my excitement about visiting a brewery in outstate Minnesota during Covid-19 is lukewarm. Rising numbers of Covid cases are worrisome to me. Even more worrisome is the blatant fact that so much of the reaction to this virus has become politicized. The result of that is an undercurrent of animosity and distrust on both sides about whether or not this virus is even real. Despite my misgivings, my hope for trying new beers and chatting with passionate craft beer lovers spurred me on.
The Pantown Brewing Company Taproom Experience
After snapping a few pictures of the building exterior, I enter the taproom and let my eyes adjust to the indoors. The taproom space is extremely warm and welcoming. The brewing equipment is visible just past the bar. Lots of seating is available on the main level. There is an upstairs area with more seating that is reservable for parties. I see Nick right away and he has a high-top table for us reserved.
My Covid anxiety dissipates as I see how seriously Pantown Brewing Company is taking safety. People who are walking around are wearing masks. The staff is hustling around sanitizing surfaces to turn over tables. This is something that I believe is a credit to the St. Cloud community. Understanding that no matter your personal beliefs or politics, Covid-19 is a stressor for businesses that provide more threads to the fabric of the community.
I grab a seat and Nick introduces me to Marty Czech, a Co-Owner of Pantown, and Adam Graf, his friend and Head Brewer of Copper Trail Brewing Company. Already, I can tell that this group has the makings of an epic beer chat! Nick asks me what I would like to drink and ask him, “What should I try?” Nick proceeds to point me in the direction of a nice smattering of styles that show what Pantown is all about.
Beer Friends Are The Best Friends
The flight arrives and I start sipping on the Classic Cream Ale. I don’t even have the taster six inches from my nose before I am welcomed by the familiar aroma of Corn Chex cereal. I mean, I am all about having beer for breakfast, but this is some next-level shit. The Classic Cream Ale has everything I want in a beer these days. It drinks clean, crisp, and lets the malt shine abed a balanced modicum of hops.
I think it is at this point when I interrupt Nick mid-sentence to tell him now absolutely noteworthy it is to have a style like a cream ale with so much character. I try not to wear my emotions on my sleeve when I am tasting beer. Yet, it is pretty obvious to everyone seated at the high-top that I’m smitten with this cream ale.
Just like the craft beer from a Pantown beer faucet, the conversation flows easily with Nick, Marty, and Adam. We ping-pong from how they are handling the Covid pandemic, classic styles of beer that they want to brew vs. the trendy styles that they need to brew.
Life Is A Journey
After the cream ale, I know that I need to ask Nick about his brewing career. Installing a beer tap system might be harder than you think. That 4 ounce taster spoke loud and clear the Nick has brewing chops. I was curious to get the tale of how he became the Head Brewer of Pantown Brewing Company.
Nick got his start working at Enki Brewing and has the distinction of selling the first growler and pint at the Victoria, MN, brewery. From there, he became the assistant brewery at Waconia Brewing Company and gained invaluable brewing experience working with the man, the myth, the legend, Tom Shufman. Waconia is an outstanding brewery and Nick clearly soaked in as much knowledge as he did their chocolate peanut butter porter.
They Sent A Limo?
After Waconia, Nick worked a stint at LynLake Brewing, but realized that there was no clear path to advancement. Nick wanted a Head Brewer gig. He looked on Pro Brewer and saw that Pantown had posted a brewing job. This is where it gets wacky. Nick hemmed and hawed about uprooting from Waconia and decided that the time was not right.
Meanwhile, Marty Czech knew that Nick was the man for the job even if Nick himself didn’t realize it. Marty went about Facebook, well, I am going to say monitoring, but the word “stalking” did get thrown out in the conversation at one point. Not willing to call off the full-court press, Marty decided he needed a grand gesture to really get Nick’s attention.
Marty decided to call a Hail Mary and sent a limousine to pick Nick up and bring him up for another chat. After, what I can only assume was a night of drinking, passionate conversations about beer, and the potential that Pantown had, Nick had a lot to think about. Well, Marty’s gambit paid off because the next day, Nick agreed to come aboard as the Head Brewer. Now, Nick lives in Sauk Rapids so that the limos that Marty sends to pick him up for work don’t have to burn through nearly as much gas.
Pantown Brewing’s Brewhouse
Nick maximizes his resources at Pantown Brewing with efficiency and creativity. The ten barrel brewhouse at Pantown certainly kicks out a lot of beer to keep their taplines full. With the variety of offerings that Pantown brews, Nick certainly puts the system to the test.
Nick has utilized every square inch of the brewhouse for as much equipment that will fit. Nick is able to rotate through seasonal beers as well as the mainstays that Pantown fans demand to see on tap.
Pantown Brewing Beer Selection
I like it when a brewery has something for everyone. I am more on the purist end of the craft beer continuum. When a brewery has 12 beers on tap and five of them are IPAs, I know that my visit is going to be short. Pantown Brewing boasts a taplist with beers for every taste. The beers at Pantown are brewed on a 10 barrel system. The brewing equipment is out there for all to see. I already mentioned the Classic Cream Ale as being a shining example of that style. So, let’s talk about what else I tried and enjoyed.
The Pantown Oktoberfest is a great malty offering. I really like how satisfying the malt comes across. It really makes it easy to keep sipping thanks to the slightly dry finish.
The Altbier is sensational and a style one doesn’t find too often. The malty notes in the aroma are spicy and toasty. Nick isn’t bashful with the rye in the malt bill for this one. Not many places do an Altbier and that is a travesty.
The 1917 IPA is a throwback of sorts. It has an earthy and floral hop aroma. It is a deftly balanced IPA thanks to the bread crust malt notes. This is something that is hard to find in the hazy world of trendy haze-bombs. This beer, probably more than anything, impresses me most at Pantown.
Drop Forge Milk Stout
Rounding out the initial blitz of beers is a dark and viscous treat. The Drop Forge Milk Stout has such a wonderful body to it. The hallmark of the style is a velvet mouthfeel that is accentuated by some sweetness from the lactose that doesn’t ferment out all the way. The unfortunate thing is that some are cloyingly sweet and become tiresome. The Drop Forge has sweetness, but also the right combination of malt to balance it out.
After the standards, I am ready to take a walk on the wild side. Pantown is not afraid to push the envelope with food flavors in their beers. Nick, Adam, and I chatted extensively about beer trends. I told them that I am getting sick of half-assed kettle sours that leave me only with disappointment and a hole in my stomach lining. However, after tasting through a flight of beers that impressed me greatly, I am willing to give anything Pantown has to offer a try.
Real Men Wear Pink Neapolitan Ale
A beer brewed for a cause is always something I like to see. The Real Men Wear Pink Neapolitan Ale is as advertised. With a blond ale base, Nick uses sorcery to create the real flavors of vanilla, strawberry, and chocolate in this beer. There is nothing artificial in the flavors, and I enjoyed this beer a lot.
The Sticky Fingers is a unique take on a peanut butter beer. This is not a stout or a porter and features the jelly part of the classic lunchbox mainstay prominently. Nick feels strongly about most beers with peanut butter being stouts and porters. “Every time I see a peanut butter beer it’s a stout or a porter, and I’m like, ‘Fuck that!'”
What I like about Nick’s raged-fueled passion for a brighter tomorrow is that it manifests itself in a creative take on something that is overdone. This beer is incredibly delicious and balanced. The bright notes of the jelly are equal parts sweet and tart. The nuttiness of the peanut butter smooths the flavor out and leaves you ready for another sip. Also, this is named for one of Nick’s favorite Rolling Stone songs.
Mega Jam is a kettle sour that features five different berries-strawberry, blueberry, cranberry, boysenberry, and blackberry. This is a melange of fruit and no hint of gut-rot inducing mediocrity. This beer is delightful and reminds me of all the best things about summer fruits in Minnesota. I can pick out every berry except for the boysenberry. However, that is because I have never actually eaten a boysenberry.
Do You Even Barrel-Age, Bro?
One hallmark of a brewery’s maturation process is their barrel-aging program. I see a few racks of barrels in the corner of the brewhouse and am curious about which barrels they use at Pantown. What I discover makes me ecstatic for several reasons. First, they had local Minnesota distilleries J. Carver and Panther barrels in the house. Have you ever heard the adage that local does not always equal better? Well, Nick’s decision to use these distilleries as a vessel to enhance an already good beer is a testament to the quality of J. Carver and Panther distilleries.
So, What Are You Waiting For?
To get people to notice a brewery that is off the beaten path should not be hard. As a humanity, Americans are enjoying a golden age of craft beer. Sure, there are crazy style trends that cause beer purists like me to shake our nonic pints at the clouds. There is also a plethora of places to partake in pints all around the state now. Before, in most of these places, if you wanted a beer, it was coming out of a bottle made in a galaxy far, far away.
Just because a beer is made locally does not make it better. However, the stereotype that good beer can only be found in the Twin Cities is simply not true. In fact, St. Could, Big Lake, Annandale, and St. Joseph can be put toe-to-toe with Duluth’s craft beer scene as far as I am concerned.
I believe that getting off the beaten path and taking time to discover breweries in Minnesota is what makes craft beer special. What is tremendous is the grass-roots campaign that is being started amongst the ownership of the breweries in outstate Minnesota to support each other and really commit to brewing good beer. I have always thought that the best way to bring people into the fold of your brewery is to brew good beer and create a unique experience.
Pantown Brewing Company is another reason why folks in the metro should travel up to St. Cloud for beer. Not only will you be satiated by a selection of craft beer made with heart and know-how, but you will get to enjoy the aesthetics and service from people who care about their product and community. Prost!
Dan Beaubien has been involved with Beerploma since 2014 although his passion for craft beer dates back to 2006 when he started traveling for beer. Dan mostly covers craft beer events, festivals, brewery openings/releases, and beer reviews. Dan has a soft spot in his heart for authentic British Style ales, IPAs, and all things barrel-aged. If you have any questions or comments about this article feel free to email Dan at firstname.lastname@example.org .