Progress: Big Axe cuts into the market

NISSWA--The newest Nisswa brewery, Big Axe Brewing Company, sits on Main Street near other Brainerd lakes area icons like The Chocolate Ox and Rafferty's Pizza.

Big Axe Brewing Company in Nisswa sits on Main Street next to the Happy Camper Cafe. (Brainerd Dispatch, Kelly Humphrey - Gallery and Video)
Big Axe Brewing Company in Nisswa sits on Main Street next to the Happy Camper Cafe. (Brainerd Dispatch, Kelly Humphrey - Gallery and Video)

NISSWA-The newest Nisswa brewery, Big Axe Brewing Company, sits on Main Street near other Brainerd lakes area icons like The Chocolate Ox and Rafferty's Pizza.

Owner Chris French grew up just south of Nisswa and went to high school in Brainerd. His parents own Stone House Coffee in Nisswa as well as the building Big Axe sits in. After college, he moved around and eventually bought a cabin in the area, which brought him back into the area more frequently.

French started noticing how well-received Stone House Coffee is and how his parents spend time getting to know their customers and people enjoy the environment. He strived to incorporate those values into Big Axe, to focus on the customers and to produce and sell a local product.

"We're brewing beer and people are in the taproom and they can come back and ask me a question," French said.

French has been brewing beer for about 5-6 years. He started getting more passionate about it as he went along and started romanticizing the idea of opening a brewery.


"For some reason, it never occurred to me to do it anywhere else but here," French said.

French's first batches of beer made for great learning experiences, he said. There's a lot to learn when it comes to brewing beer and can get very complex. Brewing makes for long, hard days, he said, and when the work is over, you still have to wait two weeks while the beer ferments to see if it turned out.

"The waiting is always the hardest part," French said.

The beer

There was a lot of anxiety over opening the brewery, French said, which gave way to relief when the opening finally came. The beers "went over pretty well," he said, and patrons were supportive and understanding.

The brewery is always trying to get better and try new things, French said, which means making tweaks to the beer. There's so many ways to change how beer tastes, he said, so there's always more to learn. He admitted there is concern when changing a beer and not knowing if it will turn out, but people have been supportive of the changes the brewery has made.

"It's always a little scary when you're changing something," French said. "There's a little bit of trepidation in changing anything when it's working. If it ain't broke don't fix it, but fortune favors the bold."

The brewery opened with five beers on tap and now has nine beers on tap, French said. There are base beers like the Wheat, Amber, IPA and Stout that they add flavors like coffee and cherry to to provide a variety of tastes. There are also seasonal brews like an Oktoberfest, a saison and a brown ale.


"Part of the fun is doing new things, trying new tweaks, trying new recipes," French said. "There's just so many different things you can do with beer, you'll never be able to do it all."

Big Axe beer is on tap in a few different establishments locally but the brewery isn't focused on distribution, French said. Instead, the focus is on the taproom and making that experience better for patrons.

It took some work to convince the Nisswa City Council that a brewery and taproom is good for the area, French said. There's a lot of different ways to look at the issue, but a brewery can serve as a recruitment tool that brings people to the area, he said.

"Tourism is what 90 percent of the economy here is based on, now beer tourism is huge," French said.

Biking on the Paul Bunyan State Trail and stopping in for a beer is an "awesome way to spend a day," French said. He's seen lots of people coming to the brewery with their bikes and had a few bicycling clubs stop by the brewery last summer.

"If we had a trail to each brewery, that would be perfect," French said. "But we'll take the one that's right out our backyard."

Big Axe has a 7-barrel system and its annual production capacity is 350-400 barrels. Currently, the brewery is at about two-thirds of that maximum capacity, French said. There's a full-time brewer on staff now, which means French only brews as a fill-in when needed. The brewery has 13-14 employees.

"It melts my heart to see other people coming in and drinking and enjoying the beer," French said. "To be able to share beer is a lot of fun."


Business beginnings

French really started thinking about opening a brewery when his dad bought the building Big Axe sits in. It's an ideal location and the idea started bouncing around in his head.

"My passion for beer and making beer and this location that came in front of us made it seem like that was the way to go," French said. "Put the two together, it really seemed like that could be a winning idea."

French had been talking about starting a brewery for a while before his dad finally told him to stop talking and start doing something about it. Shortly after, Jack Pine Brewery announced its Kickstarter fundraising campaign and got started two years before French did.

"It kind of hit me like, 'Well, better get going here,'" French said.

The brewery opened in May 2015. Andy Hess, a friend proficient in carpentry, helped build out the space, which features a dark wood ceiling and strong red and black themes, which are the brewery's primary colors. It took about a year to get things ready to open, which included construction, licensing, permitting and changing the ordinance in the city of Nisswa to allow taprooms.

The brewery's design was a team effort that included French, his wife Rebecca, Hess and Sara Raimann, an interior designer with The Hearth Room in Baxter. French wanted bold colors, hence the red and black, as well as a fusion of industrial and rustic themes. One of the space's features is the word AXE spelled out in the support beams in the ceiling, which French said was Hess's idea.

This summer has featured a new addition to Big Axe in the form of Wednesday trivia nights at the brewery, put on by Trivia Mafia, which hosts trivia nights throughout the state. Teams of one to six people can gather to play for free and try to earn prizes which include movie passes, among other goodies.

The brewery has only been doing the trivia nights for about two months, French said, but they've been well-received. A lot of people enjoy coming to the brewery for trivia and making a night of it, he said, and the Trivia Mafia setup is unique and offers a different trivia experience. He noted the brewery may change trivia nights to Thursday in the future, but it hasn't been decided yet.


Both Nisswa-based Big Axe Brewing and Gull Dam Brewing have had run-ins with the Nisswa City Council when it comes to selling growlers on Sundays.

In June, French asked the council to reconsider its refusal to allow taprooms to sell growlers on Sundays. At the time, he noted Sunday beer sales already are allowed, with Nisswa convenience stores allowed to sell 3.2 beer on Sundays. The state Legislature gave cities the authority to allow or not allow taprooms/breweries to sell growlers of beer on Sundays.

In July, the council approved Sunday growler sales for Big Axe, while withholding that ability from Gull Dam.

French was "really excited" when the council approved Sunday growler sales, he said, as he wasn't sure it was going to happen. The council decision reflected the work the brewery put in meeting with people and informing them about the brewery's stance on the issue.

"Putting some convincing arguments behind our position I think helped," French said. "We're just really excited that we're able to offer this to people now that they're kind of expecting it everywhere else in the state, even in Brainerd and Baxter."

The brewery's first Sunday growler sales day was July 31 and the brewery celebrated by offering a free pint of beer with every growler purchase, French said. The day was well-received overall, he said.


Business: Big Axe Brewing Company

City: Nisswa

Number of employees: 13-14

Interesting fact: Owner Chris French went to Carleton College in Northfield for biology, which has helped with all the biology and chemistry involved in brewing beer.

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