North Shore hops on brewery bandwagon
The Voyageur Brewing Co. in Grand Marais is still a shell of wooden beams and metal but its owners have already been approached by Cook County purveyors of honey, maple syrup, hops, wild rice, apples and coffee.
Owners Mike Prom, Cara Sporn and Bruce Walters are eager to see how their brewery will weave local products into the seasonal offerings they plan to put on tap when their 20-barrel production brewery opens in 2015.
“All walks of life have come up to us and are excited,” Prom said of the building activity on Highway 61 in town, “from the third-generation, blue-collar local to those that live here three months out of the year.”
The 5,400-square-foot space will be the first of its kind in the area, and will house a taproom that also includes a fireplace and lake views, a kitchen for small plates, and a rooftop bar. Tours and tastings are planned for the beer marketed toward the adventure-seeker, and a conservative estimate of 1,000 barrels in the first year is expected.
Prom and his wife, Sue, own Voyageur Canoe Outfitters at the end of the Gunflint Trail. They have been longtime friends with Sporn and her husband, Paul, who owns the popular Grand Marais restaurant My Sister’s Place. Bruce Walters, an investor, and his family have been longtime friends with the Proms. The Walters family recently moved to Grand Marais from the Twin Cities area. The friends have been talking about a brewery for six years, and two years ago began market research and crafting a business plan. None of the owners are home-brewers, but have business backgrounds and profess a love for craft beer.
Collectively, they felt a production brewery and taproom was a missing piece on the Grand Marais landscape, and demographic research has shown the county’s residents are craft beer drinkers, Prom said.
The company will fill eight year-round jobs. A head brewer has yet to be announced, but Sporn revealed that on permanent offer would likely be an IPA, a Belgian wheat and either a stout or a porter style. Six beers will always be on tap. The owners are excited about the influence of Lake Superior water on their beer because of how little pretreatment it needs.
“That’s one of the reasons you’re seeing so many breweries around Lake Superior,” Prom said.
Voyageur’s plan is to handle local customers first, and eventually roll out to Duluth and the Iron Range. Within five years it hopes to make it to the Twin Cities. The brewery won’t compete with local restaurants. Its charcuterie platter and spent-grain pretzels, for example, will whet the appetite of beer drinkers before they set out for dinner. They’ll also allow food to be brought in. The brewery will sell bottles at first, and growlers made of stainless steel and environmentally friendly Nalgene water bottles that can be brought into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
The owners will be joining a serious roster of more than 10 brewers in Northeastern Minnesota and Northwestern Wisconsin, some of whom they’ve gone to for advice. Sporn said the craft brewing community is one of the friendliest industries she’s encountered.
Other regional production companies include Bent Paddle Brewing Co., Lake Superior Brewing Co. and South Shore Brewing in Ashland. A smaller production company — Castle Danger Brewery — just opened a bigger facility in Two Harbors. Neighbor and Gunflint Tavern owner Jeff Gecas will roll out five varieties of beer in the next month from his new five-barrel system.
But the region isn’t saturated, said longtime Fitger’s Brewery head brewer Dave Hoops.
“People really like to buy stuff from these areas. The North Shore and Duluth, Grand Marais; they are all brand names these days,” he said. “I always go back to the fact that right now 92 percent of the beer drank in this country is Millers, Coors, etc. As long as the product is at the highest level of quality, I don’t think there is any kind of limit.”
Even in Duluth, he said, where there is a greater concentration of breweries, he sees space.
“You can see with the unbelievable success of Bent Paddle how much people want this,” Hoops said, noting that many of the breweries are small: “Borealis, Blacklist, Carmody. They are all great, but tiny. Bent Paddle is the only game in town going statewide. I think there is plenty of room yet.”
Walters said the surge in craft brewing in smaller towns hearkens back to the pre-Prohibition era when communities had their own breweries. It’s an inspirational locavore movement and it makes sense, he said.
Prom compared consumers’ obsession with craft beer to that of coffee and wine in recent decades.
“They’re not just accepting one flavor,” he said. “They want to see the local stuff. When we vacation together we find the brewpub. It’s part of the culture right now.”