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Earth Rider Brewery begins production in Superior

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Steam rises from a large tank called a mash tun as Tim Nelson, founder of Earth Rider Brewery (left), along with co-lead brewers Allyson Rolph and Tim Wilson, check the progress of the steeping of the malts while making one of their first batches of wheat beer at the Earth Rider Brewery in Superior Thursday morning. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com2 / 6
Nicole Fick (left), brewing systems sales manager, and Tim Wilson, co-lead brewer, watch the progress of beer-making Thursday at Earth Rider Brewery. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com3 / 6
Earth Rider Brewery in Superior worked on their first batches of beer Thursday morning. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com4 / 6
Starches in ground-up grain mixed with hot water inside the mash tun are converted into sugars at Earth Rider Brewery. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com5 / 6
Philip Wood with Jamar stands on a scissors lift as he balances valves out on the fermenters at Earth Rider Brewery in Superior Thursday morning. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com6 / 6

Apparently 8 a.m. isn't too early to start thinking about beer, especially if you're making it.

Earth Rider Brewery was bustling Thursday morning as one of its first batches of beer was assembled — a wheat ale, set to hit taps in a few weeks.

"We're going to be brewing a nice wide variety of ales and lagers to start," said founder Tim Nelson. "We're going to be having a pale ale, an IPA, the normal beers to get our feet wet, recipes we know well."

Though the $2.5 million brewery has been in Nelson's mind since he left Fitger's Brewhouse in 2015, this week marked an important step toward getting the Superior-made suds in the hands of drinkers.

The warehouse at 1617 N. Third St. took on a breadlike scent early Thursday as a thousand pounds of grain was mixed with warm water to start unlocking the sugars that yeast would later feast on.

While brewing, and building a brewery from scratch, entails a lot of hurry-up-and-wait, when things happen they happen fast.

"Part of the reason I was so interested in joining up with Earth Rider is the learning curve," said Allyson Rolph, who is co-lead brewer along with Tim Wilson. "It's been mind-blowing over the last six to eight weeks. We get to figure out how we're going to do things and why we do them that way."

The nearby Cedar Lounge, also owned by Nelson, will serve as the taproom for Earth Rider beer. The first few kegs should be tapped in mid-October, with a grand opening of sorts planned for the week of Thanksgiving once more beers are online and recipes are finalized.

It marks the first time since 1967 that Superior has been home to a distribution brewery, after Northern Brewing Co. closed.

"As the story goes, the brewer at that time bought some substandard hops to save some money," he said. "The beer ended up not being that good, and it ended up being the final nail in Northern's coffin."

As Nelson spoke, head brewer and fellow Fitger's alum Frank Kaszuba was on a plane bound for the Yakima Valley in Washington state to talk with hops farmers there to source the beer's aromatic bittering agents in person.

There's little room for cutting corners in an increasingly crowded brewing scene in the Twin Ports, though there's data to support the rising-tide-lifts-all-boats sentiment.

The Brewers Association this week released its 2016 economic impact report that showed brewing in Minnesota and Wisconsin poured $2 billion into each state's economy, up from $1.3 billion and $1.7 billion, respectively, in 2014

Jobs in beer are also on the rise, with Earth Rider adding about a dozen to the 128,000 people employed across the country at brewing and taproom operations.

Nelson called the early days of Earth Rider the "beta" phase as brewers fine-tune the process for consistency — just a few taverns in Superior will get kegs from the first few batches, and a canning line likely won't be installed until late this year or early next.

"We have a lot of ability to experiment and a lot of technologies on our brew system," said Rolph, who previously brewed at Thirsty Pagan in Superior, which does not distribute.

On Thursday morning Rolph and Wilson fired up the mash tun on a digital panel as the embryo of a wheat ale came together, the industrial waterfront of Superior surrounding them.

"As somebody that's been at the only brewery in Superior, and our friends in Duluth growing quickly and having a lot of beer tourism," Rolph said, "having a little more of a craft beer scene emerging in Superior, hopefully we'll get more of a Twin Ports feel."

Brooks Johnson

Brooks is an investigative/enterprise reporter and business columnist at the Duluth News Tribune.

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