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Brau Brothers Brewing Company

A family run business in Lucan makes craft beers

March 16, 2008
By KURT NESBITT - Journal Staff Writer
LUCAN - At first glimpse, the red pole barn just outside of town looks like the last place you might find a brewery, until you pull up in the gravel parking lot and notice delivery vans with beer labels on them.

This is the place that Brau Brothers Brewing Company has called home for the past year or so, having recently grown too large for the Brau Haus restaurant and brewpub in downtown Lucan that had served as the sole purveyor of its five brews for the past four years.

Contrary to what some might believe, the people who started, own and operate Brau Brothers are actually named Brau and are actually brothers. Each brother plays a different role.

Dustin Brau is the brewmaster and CEO of the company. The brewpub that launched Brau Brothers, and all of its beers, were his brainchild.

His interest in brewing began around the same time he was studying at Southwest State University. He had a mail-order brewing kit he received from a supplier in St. Paul. (He still buys some of his ingredients today from that supplier.)

“It’s kind of a hobby gone wild,” he said of his brewery. “That’s how a lot of small businesses get started.”

Brau brews five main types of beer throughout the year — Scotch Ale, Cream Stout, Pale Ale Pilz and Strawberry Wheat — that are the ‘tried-and-true’ from the early days of the brewpub.

Brau Brothers has also introduced two beers from its Single Batch series — Ringneck Brown Ale and Frame Straightener Belgian Ale.

Dustin said the single-batch beers leave him flexible and allow him to bring a beer to market fast — from recipe to shelf in 30 days, in fact.

The brewery itself is 5,000 square feet and with a cooler, it’s a tight fit for Brau Brothers’ brewing equipment. The family moved the brewing operation out of the Brau Haus two years ago after it ran out of room.

Aside from the tanks and the cooler, just about everything in the brewery is homemade, from some of the bottling and pasteurizing equipment to the styles of beer and the recipes used to make them can bottle 40 to 50 cases of beer an hour, since an automatic door frame motor was repurposed for use on the bottling line.

He estimates that the entire facility can brew about 4-5,000 gallons of beer a year, but is currently producing about half of that estimate.

Dustin said the brewery is filling a huge vacuum in the area. Many breweries in southern Minnesota never returned after Prohibition and many places that now have brewpubs or microbreweries do not have the brewing traditions of St. Paul or New Ulm.

“You have to dig deep to find a successful brewery west of New Ulm,” he said.

Success is something that Brau Brothers is beginning to taste. Brau took some of his beer to beer shows and events, which encouraged more interest in his products.

The family has also signed a contract with another distributor that will take Brau Brothers into South Dakota. It already is available throughout southern Minnesota but doesn’t really cross the Iowa or Wisconsin borders.

Dustin said he finds that his products are a hit in Marshall. He said Brau Brothers beer is distributed to 450 different retailers, many of which are in the Twin Cities area.

“There are certain parts (of Minnesota) that are friendlier to craft beer,” he said. “New Ulm is one of them.”

Brau products first appeared in New Ulm shortly after they went into distribution.

“We have a lot of specialty beers. You can buy (bottles) singularly and try it and that’s gone over well. I would say ... it’s nowhere near what Schell’s sells, but we sell a fair amount,” said Dan Esser, assistant manager of Liquor Mart in New Ulm.

He said some of his customers, who have been to the Brau Haus in Lucan, are surprised to see Brau beers on the shelves. Esser is also surprised that Brau has expanded as far outside of Lucan as New Ulm.

“In general, it’s consistent,” he said. “There are no ups or downs. It’s steady —people try it and go back for a six-pack of the kinds they like.”

Of the five regular Brau beers, the Pale Ale and the Scotch Ale are the most popular at Liquor Mart and the Strawberry Wheat has caught on recently. Both of the Single-Barrel series beers sold well.

“I think if you put it in the specialty line (outside of Miller and Budweiser) — with Summit, Sam Adams —it’s second or third most popular,” Esser said.

Dustin’s work is also catching on in other parts of the state. Doug Hoverson, author of the book ‘Land of Amber Waters; The History of Brewing in Minnesota’, said Brau Brothers contributes several things to the Minnesota beer market because it is brewing beers that aren’t being brewed by others, like the Scotch Ale and the Strawberry Wheat, so Brau Brothers is making its own statement.

It also represents a return to the days when small towns across Minnesota had their own breweries, he said.

“It’s also a throwback idea. Size doesn’t matter if you have talented people and local support,” Overson said.

At one point in its history, Redwood County had three breweries within its borders. The last one closed 125 years ago, Hoverson said.

“That area, once you get past Sleepy Eye, is the dry part of the state. Andrew Volstad (who sponsored the legislation that made the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages illegal in 1919) is from that area. A lot of the larger towns, like Marshall, Granite Falls, Montevideo have never had a brewery so this is, in a way, getting out into new territory.”

He said the Minnesota beer market has two things going for it.

“It’s got innovative producers who are brewing with quality and creativity and Brau fits into that. The other thing is that in greater Minnesota, you’ve got well-educated beer consumers, which is not say they’re beer snobs, who are interested in trying new types of beers,” he said.

Hoverson doesn’t think that Brau is a threat to larger craft brewers. He said they seem to respect each other’s work. He said Brau actually fills in gaps that Schell’s doesn’t, although Schell’s is planning to release a stout this year, a type of beer which Brau has produced for the last four years.

He thinks Brau also fits in with the set of consumers who buy lots of different beers as a regular habit; he’s one of them. He chose Brau’s Scotch Ale for the starting line-up of his Minnesota Beer All-Star Team on his website, landofamberwaters.com, because Scotch ales are one of his favorite styles of beer, Brau Scotch Ale’s maltiness and because he thinks it’s the best bottled example of a Scotch ale and because he thinks it compares favorably with actual imports from Scotland.

According to Overson, part of the rise of small breweries and brewpubs is that beer consumers are educated enough to support breweries. There was a burst of brewpubs in the mid-1990s with the start of Lake Superior Brewing Company in Duluth. The trend slowed down around 1998 and some, like Minnesota Brewing Company which made Pig’s Eye Pilsner, closed down, leaving the field to Summit Brewing Company and to Schell’s.

But within the last few years, smaller breweries have made a comeback and have set their sights on brewing a couple thousand barrels a year.

“They’re not out to compete with Summit or Schell’s,” Overson said. “I’m unsure that we’ll have too many more in the future.”

Most independent breweries have good business plans and will be able to survive the anticipated shortage in hops, which may drive up the cost of beer, he said. Startup costs for a new brewery will be difficult because without a contract for hops, buying that ingredient might be tough if not impossible in the future.

In the meantime, Minnesota’s craft brewers are enjoying steady business throughout the state, each with its own niche. Ryan Anderson, founder and publisher of the Minneapolis-based MNBeer.com blog website said Brau is part of that success.

“To me, it’s exciting with them because it’s such a small town and they’re making craft beer. It’s such a tiny population and it’s pretty exciting for such a small town,” said Anderson.

Anderson said the Minnesota brewing scene continues to grow and the last three years have seen the rise of up-and-coming brewers like Brau Brothers. Most of them are located either in Minneapolis or St. Paul or the surrounding area. Anderson said the smaller labels of beer are slowly growing and have been catching on as consumers’ tastes have developed.

The craft brewing trend began with Summit, which opened in 1986, and parallels similar activity in other parts of the U.S., such as California, where brands like Anchor Steam and Sierra Madre have caught on, Anderson said.

He said the big push in smaller breweries is getting Minnesota back to the era of localized breweries that was common in the 1800s, although it isn’t for the same reason today.

Craft beer is a friendly market, Anderson said, and the Minnesota market has room for Brau Brothers.

So, too, does the Minneapolis bar scene. The Brau name is becoming more and more common in establishments that serve Minnesota craft beers, said Anderson.

Dustin Brau’s own appearances at beer shows, festivals and beer tastings are part of the reason for the awareness of the Brau Brothers name. Brau takes his brews to a lot of beer tastings and events across the state. He said the Internet also makes keeping in touch with beer drinkers easier. Tastings are spread out around between two extremes — Minneapolis and St. Paul and ‘extremely small towns’.

Aside from tastings and beer shows, Dustin Brau’s time is spent brewing beer. Brewing days are 20-hour days. Dustin wakes up at 3:45 a.m. and is done with his work by 7 or 8 p.m. He will usually brew two batches of beer in a day.

He estimates that 60 percent of that time is spent cleaning and sanitizing the equipment, while the remainder is actually spent brewing beer. Beer is brewed by mixing the grains, then stirring the mash, monitoring the temperature and times, scaling out the ingredients and then cooling the beer down.

Many of the ideas that Brau bottles are Dustin’s own, although he does pay attention to trends and styles in the marketplace. Of all the products that leave his facility, Dustin said he personally likes the Single Batch Series because it allows him to ‘throw styles against the wall’ and see what sticks.

So far, the two single-batch brews have definitely stuck. The first of the series, the Ringneck Nut Brown Ale, sold out in nine weeks. There are still a few of the Frame Straightener Belgian Pale Ale left in the cooler. Dustin said he always takes ideas for new beers from anyone, but retains the final word himself.

“... And hopefully people learn to trust my decision-making. Hopefully,” he smiles.

When he’s not brewing beer or thinking up a new recipe, Dustin is working on building more brewing equipment from scratch. He said he can easily find the necessary parts in the area and on the Internet. Necessity and cost are what drive Dustin to take a do-it-yourself approach to building his own brewing equipment. The challenge with a brewery as small as Brau is to find equipment that fits a brewery on a smaller scale and doesn’t cost too much money.

Dustin’s father, Dale, who is the quality control officer, handyman and co-builder around the facility, agrees that making beer is no longer an extra-ciricular activity.

“It’s not a game anymore. It’s not a hobby,” he said.

Dustin says having a business with his family is easier because it’s more comfortable, although issues from work sometimes “come home.”

His other brothers — Trevor and Brady — bring all the skills necessary to make a company by themselves. Dustin said that is how it came together — because all three brothers had skills to contribute. The family has always been close-knit, Dustin said.

Brau got his first taste of the hospitality industry at age 16 and found he liked the fast pace and that it was immediately gratifying for him. When he got to college, he assumed he’d do something as an independent operation. He spent lots of hours in class thinking of a name for his restaurant. The idea for the Brau Haus was a ‘shot-in-the-dark’ and recommended by a friend. At that time, brewpubs were starting to gain popularity across the country.

He bought the property that became the Brau Haus right before he graduated from college. Despite a college degree, Dustin Brau had no formal training in brewing when he went into business. He now teaches business courses at Southwest State University, his alma mater.





Article Photos

Dustin Brau is the brewmaster and CEO of the company.

 
 
 

 

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