Small glasses, big ambitions: Blacklist Artisan Ales opens on Superior Street
Blacklist Artisan Ales is all about niches, from the Belgian-inspired brews it offers in unique 10-ounce glasses to the long and narrow space it now occupies on East Superior Street.
But just like the beers in those glasses, everything is bigger on the inside.
“In eight days we’ve made about as much beer as we did all last year,” said brewer and co-owner Brian Schanzenbach.
Blacklist opened its taproom the Friday after Thanksgiving — “Blacklist Friday,” the owners dubbed it — and over the weekend served more than 1,000 people as the young brewery at last had a place of its own to pour.
“We made a substantial jump when we came in here,” said Jon Loss, a co-owner and marketing director for the brewery.
He was referring both to expanded brewing capacity and the new taproom at 120 E. Superior St., where major renovations have given a once-notorious storefront a new identity.
The investment matches the brewery’s ambitions not only for its business but also for beer.
“We’re looking at the advancement of what beer can be, not just preconceived notions of what beer is,” Loss said.
Blacklist was started with a Kickstarter campaign in 2012 and for the past few years brewed and bottled out of 211 E. Second St., a space it couldn’t use for a taproom because it was 4 feet too close to a church.
The brewery’s early production focused on 750-milliliter bottles sold in most area liquor stores and several in the Twin Cities as well as kegs for restaurants and bars — up to 15 locations may now be pouring an Or de Belgique or Rhubarb Wit at any given time.
The focus on Belgian styles may seem limiting, but it has given Blacklist a chance to treat drinkers’ palettes like blank canvasses.
“What we appreciate about Belgians is the creativity that goes into it,” Loss said.
Beyond the wits and saisons straight out of Brussels, the brewery takes the spirit of Belgian styles and injects it into a dry-hopped golden strong ale, a wheat beer, an India Pale Ale and even an imperial stout.
No matter the style, Loss said, “the Belgian character comes through.”
“One of the key characteristics is the yeast strains,” he said. “It produces fruity aromas of melon, pear or date.”
Blacklist’s specialization may help it stand out in an increasingly crowded craft beer scene in Duluth, in Minnesota and throughout the country.
Still, Loss and others say the market is far from saturated.
“I don’t think desire for local beer has waned at all,” Loss said.
You couldn’t tell by looking at it now, but that storefront on Superior Street featuring a glass garage door painted with Blacklist’s logo was once home to head shop Last Place on Earth.
Today, the bath salts have been replaced by order-in food menus, the bongs displaced by pint glasses and snifters.
“With the notoriety of the building, we like the ability to be able to help rejuvenate the space along with Titanium Partners,” Loss said.
Titanium Partners bought the building from the federal government in 2013 for $70,000 after the building was seized, and Last Place owner Jim Carlson was sentenced to more than 17 years in prison for selling synthetic drugs at the store.
Both the brewery and Titanium poured an undisclosed amount of money into the space, with Blacklist at it since May.
“A lot of mechanical work goes into a brewery,” Loss said.
A lot of design and motifs go into a taproom, as well.
The exposed brick, black ceiling and artful prints of Blacklist can designs under mellow track lighting define the view past the bar toward the windows overlooking Michigan Street.
One small step for a brewery, one giant leap for 120 E. Superior St.
Schanzenbach may be the only brewer today, but as production grows he’s going to need some help.
“Right now I’m solo in the brewery, which can’t last long,” he said with a laugh last week as kegs were getting cleaned by the sales manager.
Upgrading to a brand-new 20-barrel system has its automated perks, though much work still is done by hand. And soon there will be cans to fill.
Loss estimated the first Blacklist cans to get filled will be available in a few weeks, something the brewery is looking forward to on the distribution side of things.
“Cans will increase visibility,” he said. “The 750 (milliliter) aisle isn’t too well trod.”
Also coming out of the basement production area will be long-term projects like traditional sour ales.
“We want to do it correctly,” Loss said. “Like Vikre and their whiskey, you can’t rush it.”
On a busy night, customers might be eating food from several restaurants at tables right next to each other, drinking beer brewed downstairs, making small talk or big plans. The decision to forego a kitchen at Blacklist leaves the door open for bringing food in or hosting small pop-ups or other vendors on occasion. All part of the goals beyond the success of the business, Loss said.
“We want to get a creative, entrepreneurial spirit in here.”