At one time Stillwater had a rich brewing tradition, but, like so many other brewing towns, fell into a dark age after Prohibition. Now, five friends are pulling a Justin Timberlake and bringing brewing back…to the birthplace of Minnesota. I was lucky enough to sit down with Dan Schwarz, CEO and brewer at Lift Bridge, and get his thoughts on the German and Belgian brewing styles, what it takes to make it in today’s beer landscape, and why beer means so much to society. The warning bells are ringing and the crossing arm is down, so take the jump–Stillwater’s Lift Bridge is on the rise.
What is your role at Lift Bridge Beer Company?
My title is CEO. Primarily, what I do is work with other businesses and also work internally to help organize things. I also do some of the brewing and just try to get involved wherever I can.
Where did you get started brewing?
I started homebrewing about 15 years ago, brewing with some friends and just really got hooked, and then stopped for a little while I just got busy with family and career, then got back into it when I met my neighbors and business partners.
What made you and friends decide to go from homebrewing to starting your own brewery?
Well, we really thought that Stillwater needed a brewery and decided to take it upon ourselves to do that. We looked into the history and saw that there were several breweries in town back in the day and thought it’d be great to have one here. So off we went.
Do you come from a science background? Does it come in handy with the brewing process?
Um…computer science. Computer science and math. So some, but really more on the mathematical side. I think following processes, creating processes, looking for ways to just optimize things, certainly that helps—that way of thinking—so I think a science background does help.
What was the biggest challenge in starting Lift Bridge?
I mean, I think probably one of the bigger challenges is getting through a lot of the legal paperwork and statutory requirements. It’s not like starting another, you know, normal business where it’s just kind of you file all your paperwork with the Secretary of State and open a bank account and you’re off and running. You know, there are a lot of specialized requirements that you need to go through, so we ended up doing a lot of reading on that. So that was a challenge—of course with any business there’s always financial challenges like things cost more than you expect and takes longer than you expect. So, I think between those two, those are probably the biggest challenges that we’ve had.
How did Farm Girl Saison become your flagship beer?
Well, I think all of us kind of lean a little towards Belgian styles, so that kind of got us moving in that direction. How we got the name, too, is one of our brewers, Brad, his wife really wanted us to brew a beer that she would like and drink—not something that was super hoppy or really bitter and dark—and so we decided to go for it and that was one of the styles we worked on. We did some tastings and some samplings with friends, and families, and neighbors, and at all of the events we did that was the first beer to go and was always kind of the favorite. It was also different from what was out there, I think, and we felt like there was maybe little bit of niche there we could move into. And I guess back to Brad’s wife, she grew up on a farm so we named it Farm Girl after her and then it’s also a farmhouse-style saison so it kind of fit there too.
Any new recipes you can tell us about?
We haven’t decided on anything, so at this point I really couldn’t say, but we plan on trying to do probably 4-6 seasonal or one-off beers throughout the course of the year, so you’ll see a lot new stuff, a lot of casks and different experiments. We’re really excited about being able to kind of be mad scientists here and do what we want to do.
What’s the next step for Lift Bridge Beer Co.?
Well, the finishing touches on the new brewery, obviously, and within the next 30 days we’ll be brewing here. I think the next logical step is to look at doing other packaging here as well, whether that’s bottles or cans. We will be doing kegs and growlers out of the brewery here and probably some large format bottles like some 750s or 22oz bottles. But I think probably the next big step for us is going to be setting up some kind of packaging line.
How much beer is the new brewery going to be putting out each year?
With what we have right now, probably around 1,500 barrels per year.
What was the building originally used for?
Well, it was originally for a construction company and they would pull their trailers into the back there and drive out in the morning. Then after that it was a kid’s gymnastics studio, Flips Gymnastics was here, so there were trampoline and mats out there. But most recently it was a doggy day care and so they had fences and mats out there for the dogs. There was a lot of cleaning to sanitize and paint and whatever, but you wouldn’t know it today.
What do you think is it about beer that means so much to us as a society?
Well for me one of the things, I did some traveling when I was in college and, especially in Europe, it seemed like a lot of the culture and stories and the real people were at pubs. You know, people sipping some pints and just talking about their day. I just found it really interesting that you could get a lot of flavor for the culture based on the beer and based on the socialization that would happen around beer. I also really got into…it’s kind of like cooking, you know, you spend a lot of time and effort to put together the recipes and to create a quality beer and so you appreciate that—the effort that goes into it—you can taste it.
So where do you fall on the brewing spectrum between the strict German style and the free-for-all that is the Belgian style?
I think we all pretty much fall on the free-for-all side. That doesn’t mean that we don’t appreciate what some people do in that strict style, you know, when you say here are the guidelines and you stick within that. I mean, I really enjoy a good pilsner so…but you have just a huge spectrum and a huge palate of colors to paint with when you’re working in the Belgian categories.
I’m sure you know another brewery is going to be moving into downtown Stillwater within the next year. How do you feel about all of the new these breweries popping up around the Twin Cities?
I think it’s good for beer in general and it’s a great time to be a craft beer drinker in Minnesota. I think it’s awesome to have choice and it’s awesome to have friendly competition. I think it just pushes everybody to be better brewers and create better products and to give the consumers what they want. I mean, at this point, I think there’s certainly a lot of room. You know, we’re a part of the Minnesota Craft Brewer’s Guild and we have pretty good relationships with everybody—all the other breweries in town—and really enjoy each other’s beer, too. I mean, I love beer so I don’t exclusively drink Lift Bridge.
What’s the most interesting beer you’ve tasted recently?
Well, recently I was up at the St. Cloud Craft Beer Expo and one of the bars up there had a tapping of a beer from Odell’s, their Avant Peche. It was the first time I’d had that and it kind of has a peach flavor in an Imperial Porter. That was a combination I had never had and I thought that was pretty interesting—and it was good too. That’s probably the most interesting beer I’ve had recently, I would say.
What’s your favorite Lift Bridge beer?
I would say if I could only drink one of our beers for the rest of my life I would pick Farm Girl; I think it’s a pretty versatile beer and pretty clean and refreshing. But, you know, I like to drink with the seasons too so in the winter I tend to be a little darker, a little higher in alcohol and then in the summer a little lighter, a little cleaner tasting.
What do you think it takes for a new brewery to be successful in today’s beer landscape?
I think the biggest thing is that, obviously, you have to have a quality beer product because if the beer doesn’t taste good, it’s just not going to last. So I think that’s probably the biggest thing, you just have to make a kick-ass beer and you’ll probably find a market for it.
Any advice for all the aspiring homebrewers out there in the world, who are looking to take the next step?
I go to some homebrew competitions and we’re still pretty active with our homebrew club in town and it’s great to taste beers that people are putting out; I think it’s awesome. I was certainly amazed by the similarities and differences between homebrewing and commercial brewing. I mean, the process is very, very similar—in fact, sometimes it may be easier in a bigger system because you have pumps and all kinds of stuff to help you brew—but there’s the whole business side of it that is very different and I think probably the biggest challenge on the commercial side is really getting consistency. It’s the biggest challenge that you maybe don’t think of because you can make a great one-off batch, homebrew batch, but then it’s replicating that and reproducing that over and over again.
What are your other passions in life and do they influence your brewing?
I would say that I have somewhat of a passion for business, I guess. My dad was an entrepreneur and I saw him build a business and worked with him, so I really get excited about starting something new and seeing it grow and kind of take on a life of its own. So certainly that’s a passion that does influence me here—it adds some drive beyond just the beer. It’s fun seeing the business take on a personality and go.
My family is a big influence as well, I have three kids and my wife; they’re all big supporters. My kids ask me when we’re going to have a commercial on the Super Bowl or they tell me we should create a commercial or that kind of stuff, so it’s kind of fun with their influence as well.
Food and beer pairing?
I love pairing beer with cheese. I mean, cheese has so many great flavors as well and you can mix those together and have such a great experience. I think a big IPA is great with a steak. We’ve done a lot of beer dinners and it’s just awesome to see what the chefs can do with the beers; it just makes the beer and the food just taste so much better. I’m excited to just see what happens—I know they’ve done a lot with wine and food pairings, but I know there’s even more you can do with beer and food.
Finally, what message are you trying to send with your beer?
At our core, we certainly like to slow down and enjoy some quality things. There’s nothing better than a really nice steak and taking some time to grill it. And sitting outside on the front porch and, you know, just not rushing around so much. I think the beer’s an opportunity. It kind of reflects that attitude to just slow down and enjoy life and, you know, it’s kind of an affordable luxury.
Check out the Lift Bridge Beer Co. website for news, events, and more information.