St. Paul joins craft beer craze

KEVIN DUCHSCHERE | Updated 10/21/2013

Three taprooms are opening in a new microbrew zone.

Jill Pavlak poured a CowBell Cream Pie Ale at Urban Growler, which is set to open early next year. The flagship brew will be Graffiti Rye IPA.

The large sun-splashed brick hall — once reputedly home to St. Paul’s municipal horses — is empty now save for scattered tables and artists’ renderings of what will come next: a bar, stainless steel tanks lining the wall, customers holding pints of Urban Growler beer.

Deb Loch and Jill Pavlak don’t need the pictures. They can see it in their heads as they scan their future brewery, the latest of three to locate in a burgeoning microbrew zone in St. Paul’s Midway and St. Anthony Park districts that is vying to join northeast Minneapolis as a local craft beer destination.

“We’re within walking distance to light rail and we’re right between the two cities,” Loch said. “It has that urban, industrial charm we were looking for,” Pavlak chimed in.

Just outside Urban Growler’s doors, a stylized grain bin marks the newly opened brewery of Jay and Sandy Boss Febbo, owners of Bang Brewing Co. A couple of miles away at Wheeler and Thomas, a former stonecutting shop is being converted into Burning Brothers Brewing, the creation of former fire-eaters Dane Breimhorst and Thom Foss.

Each business had looked at quarters in northeast Minneapolis only to wind up in St. Paul, which this year loosened its dated brewery restrictions. In each case the right place was available at the right price, near the light-rail Green Line slated to begin operating on University Avenue next summer.

The Green Line draw extends into Minneapolis, where Surly is planning a $20 million brewery just over the city line in Prospect Park.

It was the so-called Surly bill passed in 2011 that allowed brewers to sell pints of beer on the premises, launching a flight of taprooms in the metro area. Minneapolis and then St. Paul expanded the areas where microbreweries could locate.

“It’s always been about the beer in St. Paul,” said Cecile Bedor, the city’s planning and economic development director. “This is kind of that new generation after Hamm’s and Stroh’s, with a new crop of young entrepreneurs, and it’s pretty exciting.”

And it’s what planners expected would happen with light rail — “new businesses locating there as a way to capture a new and significant market.”

For the Boss Febbos the location was a no-brainer. “We love St. Paul and having our brewery based there was always the goal,” said Sandy Boss Febbo, an advertising producer.

Differences among the new breweries are apparent even without tasting the beer. Urban Growler is run by two women, still uncommon in the male-dominated business. Burning Brothers will be the first 100 percent gluten-free brewery in the Midwest and one of only a few nationwide. Bang is the brewery operated by the married couple out of the funky metal silo.

A range of personalities

“Each brewery has such a distinct personality and to find and experience those differences will be a lot of fun,” Sandy Boss Febbo said.

At the same time, Pavlak said, none of those distinctions matter “if our beer sucks.”

Similarly, Breimhorst wants Burning Brothers judged on its drinkability and not on the basis that it fills a gluten-free niche. “Judges tell us it tastes like beer, which is the biggest compliment they can give us,” he said.

Breimhorst and Foss, project manager for a large insurer, are longtime friends who worked as fire-eaters at the Renaissance Festival in Shakopee and lifted their brand from that experience. Earlier plans to start a “brew on premises” shop, where customers can brew their own beer, fizzled when Breimhorst was diagnosed with celiac disease.