In an age of commercialism, where everything is conveyor-line manufactured and mass produced, there’s burgeoning markets for craftsmanship.
And, where craftsmanship is concerned, look no further than the rise of breweries and microdistilleries across the state. Sometimes, it’s good for the soul to sip something featuring distinction and verve, brewed with passion, skill and care.
For the people of central Minnesota, two such establishments -- Block North Brew Pub in Aitkin and Starry Eyed Brewing Co. in Little Falls -- tap into that niche.
Block North Brew Pub
AITKIN -- When Peter Lowe co-founded Block North Brew Pub, it was something of a homecoming for the proud son of Aitkin, returning after years catering to movie sets and exotic locations across the United States, from Los Angeles to Boston, and in 13 countries abroad.
“It’s home. I always had this idea in my mind, that I wanted a restaurant here,” Lowe said. “I had this grand scheme in my mind that I wanted a brew pub like this, but I had no idea how to do it.”
Lowe is an accomplished chef -- 15 years of expertly whipping together meals for A-listers while they shot the “Pirates of the Caribbean” or Marvel films of the world, drawing upon local cuisine from whatever region they were filming in at the time.
That’s what Lowe means by “city food” when the Dispatch asked him to describe what the menu at Block North Brew Pub looks like -- eclectic, ever-changing, metropolitan, with a taste for flare and not a single microwave in sight.
The saga started over three years ago, when Lowe first started shopping the idea around. Connections in the Aitkin Area Chamber of Commerce looked like they could set the project on the right path. A group of potential investors looked into establishing a brew pub, but that fell through. Even if the capital could be acquired, the law books would have to be rewritten -- for example, to allow a liquor establishment within 500 yards of a church in a town with 13 churches.
Then came along Rich Courtemanche, a land commissioner with Aitkin County, who doggedly pursued the idea and approached Lowe about getting the project off the ground.
“Man, I’ve been here for 20 years and this town it always closed at about 5:30 every night. It just disappeared,” Courtemanche said of Aitkin. “(Lowe) said, ‘Let’s look at furniture stores.’ If we could do something downtown, I think that’s a success. Wonderful community, it needs something.”
Upon meeting Lowe, Courtemanche said he still had reservations about starting a brew pub.
“I said, ‘I’d love to start a restaurant, but I don’t know how,’” Courtemanche said. “He said, ‘Oh, don’t worry about it. My food is good.’ He gave me two tickets to a soiree across the street and I still remember every item on the menu three years later. It’s some of the best food I’ve ever had. Nothing like I’ve seen in Aitkin.”
The place on 302 Minnesota Ave. used to be a 4,500-square-foot furniture store, which means a wide-open concept originally designed for throw rugs, sofas and king-sized mattresses.
Lowe said he saw something like it when he visited a brew pub in San Diego with his sister. When he observed that brew pub’s open, expansive setup, he knew the furniture store in Aitkin was the way to go.
All it took, Courtemanche said, was to tear out the cardboard ceilings, carpet and stapled insulation to reveal hardwood beneath, then to install the proper piping and amenities for the brew pub before it finally opened March 3.
The result is rustic, but modern. Cast iron. Lightbulbs burning with a smoldering tungsten quality. Wood finished to a fine shine. It’s something of a tribute to old industries buried in Aitkin's past, distinctly rural and blue-collar in origin.
“My mind has this place more as a restaurant than a bar,” Courtemanche said. “This community was so hungry for a restaurant. We’ve lost so many great restaurants in the area. There was just room for us.”
“All of it is craft,” Lowe added. “Craft food. Craft beer. Craft wine.”
Dake Olson, the brew master and third member of the co-owner trifecta, features a background in brewing that’s one part self-taught, one part on-the-job training and one part college educated.
Ultimately, after cutting his teeth in Duluth, he said Lowe offered him a “dream.” Lowe jokingly said he got Olson to drink the right Kool-Aid.
“It’s impressive,” Olson said of Block North with a smile. “There’s a lot of love involved.”
So what’ll be? Chocolate Milk Stout? Or a better food beer, like a Lazy Boy? Maybe a Gateway beer will work if you’re hankering for something closer to Coors than craft? What about a For My Horses, a pre-Prohibition style beer based on recipes and methods lost to the banning of alcoholic drinks in early 20th century America?
Shoot, they’re even aging beer in an old whiskey cask just to see what pours out come September.
For your info
Business: Block North Brew Pub.
Number of employees: 53.
Did you know? The building containing the brew pub was once home to a furniture store, and the openness of the space appealed to the brew pub founders.
Starry Eyed Brewing Co.
LITTLE FALLS -- Tucked away in north Little Falls, just off the juncture of highways 371 and 10, exists a brewery that owes much of its existence to a woman named Dayna -- from its inception as a small birthday gift, to the name and logo emblazoned on its building today.
It started as a home brewing kit for her husband Thomas Goebel, the current president, co-owner and head brewer at Starry Eyed. A lifelong beer lover, Goebel discovered he had quite the knack for brewing his own beer and it grew from there.
“She thought I’d only use it once or twice and throw away,” Goebel reflected now, about a decade since that fateful gift. “I went all in. I never turned back from there.”
Then Dayna was diagnosed with cancer. While juggling a home life involving her chemo treatments, Goebel said he looked into taking online classes for brewing so he could master the art form and maintain a flexible schedule for her.
Upon her death, he decided to go all in, embarking on a two-year personal journey that culminated with the establishment of the brewery.
It was Dayna’s wide-eyed love of the world and stars, reflective of her own bright spirit and optimism, that inspired her husband to honor her with the moniker Starry Eyed when he himself took a leap of faith and founded the brewery from scratch. Her eyes actually served as the model and template for the company’s distinctive logo.
Kyle Kieffer, a longtime friend of Goebel and co-founder, joined in the venture. Kieffer had been an excavating contractor for more than 10 years when his buddy dropped by with a proposition.
“He just came up and said he wanted to start a brewery,” Kieffer said. “I was looking to either stick a bunch of money in that or do something totally different. I thought it was a great opportunity.”
“This was a hole in Morrison County, where everything was popping up in Brainerd and St. Cloud, so it became a nice place for a craft brewery,” Goebel explained. “We’ve done everything with help from friends and family.”
“Both of us reached into our own savings,” Goebel added with a wry chuckle. “And we still are. We pay ourselves very little, because most of the money goes back into this. We didn’t want investors or people we owed money to. We wanted to do it and we wanted to do it self-sufficiently.”
And so, Starry Eyed’s taproom opened Oct. 17, 2017, a couple months after operations in the brewery took off on their own.
Every aspect of the brewery -- from the building itself, to the brewery and its related business -- has come out of pocket, they noted, years upon years of networking, brewing and the sweat of their brows. Aside from Goebel and Kieffer, who put in long, long weeks of labor, they have 13 part-timers to help them in distribution and tap room work.
“This is about beer,” Goebel said, matter of factly. He pointed to the lineage of many Little Falls families -- families of German and Polish origin, he said, who marked every social occasion, good or bad, with a hearty supplement of beer.
In reflection of that, Starry Eyed is all about a casual atmosphere and picnic feel. Bring your own food or order it in. Gather inside or outside at the tables, Goebel said, just grab some quality tap beer and enjoy the day for what it is.
“It’s just a good spot for families and groups of friends to come and hang out,” Goebel said. “It’s not like we’re trying to go for a specific style, like a German beer or a Belgian beer, we offer a little bit of everything. Everybody has their own palate.”
Light beers. Dark beers. IPAs. Exotic infusions or beers with atypical flavors, like a Moscow Mule or jalapeno beer to spice things up.
The taproom is open from Thursday through Sunday, while the rest of the week is dedicated to brewing and distribution.
“It burns you out,” Goebel said. “It’s a lot of hours.”
Space, particularly for brewing equipment and storage, is at a premium when the objective is producing the product and distributing it en masse, Goebel said. They rebuilt an old machine shop for their own pieces, refitted it with brewing equipment and established parking lots and hops yards outside. They’re already running out of space in their 6,000-square-foot building, which means expansions on the horizon.
That’s 100 accounts for now, with more than 20 in the Twin Cities, and the rest all over Minnesota, from Old Chicago in St. Cloud, Ernie’s on Gull by Brainerd, to The Landing at Lake Alexander and a litany of other partners that will only grow with time.
That doesn't leave much time for celebrations and pats on the back -- not yet.
“We don’t go to festivals,” Goebel said. “We don’t even see the light of day sometimes.”
For your info
Business: Starry Eyed Brewing Co.
City: Little Falls.
Number of employees: 2 full-time, 13 part-timers.
Did you know? The logo for Starry Eyed Brewing Co. is modeled after the eyes of Dayna Goebel, who also inspired the name of and idea for the brewery. Goebel died of cancer, and her husband went on to open the brewery.