Lift Bridge talks expansion and the birth of Farm Girl saison
Forebears of Minnesota's young craft brewing class, Lift Bridge Beer Company are already celebrating their fifth year. The growing brewery in Stillwater has room to grow, and they continue to do so, having just purchased three fermentors that will allow up to a 30 percent increase in production on the year. The brewery is collectively run by five original partners as well as brewmaster and co-owner Matt Hall. The brewery has gone from the founders' basements and backyards, to self-distribution from their van and, ultimately, to community institution.
Courtesy of Lift Bridge
Sitting with co-owner Brad Glynn over a barrel-aged Silhouette and Irish Coffee Stout as the band played next door in the taproom, The Hot Dish caught up on the brewery's growth and their place in the booming craft brew scene and local food movement.
Hot Dish: Did you expect the Farm Girl to take off the way it has? You're really the only one making a saison in the local market -- at least it was like that in 2008.
Brad Glynn: It's named after my wife who is the farm girl -- she grew up in Jackson, Minnesota -- everyone has a palate for really light beer down there. When we were doing a lot of homebrewing in the backyard she never liked the extreme hoppy and extreme strong and oak. And so we thought about an approachable beer with some complexity.
Saisons fit that perfectly because they're refreshing, they can be really light, and they can be brewed to have a lot of funky Belgian character too. They straddle both sides of the fence between approachable and complex, crafty beer. We started brewing that and, as we were working through the recipes, we were having a lot of backyard parties and that beer kept going first. It was obvious that one was popular and that's why we released it first. It was our most popular beer, had a great name, and a good story.
We did have people say, early on, "You're doing a saison? You're going to have to educate the public on what a saison is and what Belgian beers are." We thought: it tastes good. People will seek out good beer and it will work. And it has. I don't want to say we were surprised. Still, it's crazy how much goes out. I wouldn't have imagined it if youeasked my five years ago how much of it we brew today.
Courtesy of Lift Bridge
HD: Another thing that distinguishes you from other breweries is that you use a lot of spices and zests. What got you interested in that?
Glynn: We're foodies at heart so, for me, beer is always a bit more culinary -- not just drink to chase the sorrows of the day or whatever, it's also to have a cool experience. Just like having a good meal at a restaurant or having something at home that's special. I always think of pairing beers with food. With our Chestnut Hill Brown Ale it was: I want our brown ale to taste really brown, be bold and have complexity so it's not just about roasting malts. We put a bit of cinnamon and allspice in to set it off and give an underlying layer so it's not just another brown ale. That makes it real food friendly because you can pair it with desserts or with other main courses that might involve more spice, a meat dish for instance will play nicely together. Our Biscotti is the same thing, a real culinary experience of "Let's turn this cookie experience into a beer form." What does the cookie taste like? Anise, vanilla, okay let's put them in the kettle. You mix all that and it creates more of an experience than just a Belgian ale. It's got these spices and wonderful things going on.
HD: Is that just trial and error to see what works?
Glynn: Yeah, trial and error. I'll never forget when we scaled up Chestnut Hill. On a homebrew level, using a bit of fresh allspice or dried allspice. You crack it, put it in the grinder. The first time we did it on the big scale we did a quart of it and we did two brews to mix into one--that's what we do here as we have a 15 barrel brewhouse but 30 barrel fermenter, so we're always brewing twice into one fermenter -- so I took the first half and we put it in. I tasted the wort and it tasted like gingerbread. Then we didn't put any in the next batch and luckily the blend was nice. It was a little strong on allspice, that first batch, but then we backed off from there. It can get a little hairy but that allows you to tweak it from time to time and dial in on how you want it.
We did the oyster stout where we had no idea, no benchmark, for how many oysters to put into a beer. In that case we looked at some recipes and talked to other brewers and people were all over the map. We took a mix of what we thought, ended up putting a couple hundred pounds of both shells and bodies and oyster liquor and it turned out good. We got lucky there.
HD: A big part of your identity is tying in with Stillwater associations. Are there elements of your flavor profiles that you feel reflect the community or the culture?
Glynn: Local breweries are brewing stuff that local people will drink. There's a fair amount of "What will people drink?" Hop Dish is an example: hops are going crazy in Minnesota -- people are loving hoppy beers -- so we'll brew more of that. That's obvious. What's less obvious is using local ingredients or injecting what people like around here.
We brew balanced beers. We have a couple strong, nice beers like Silhouette and Commander that are bold but they're not harsh. We try to make real balanced beers and to work in interesting things like spices. I think that speaks to our demographic here. We're not in your face with ingredients, we're not doing super-high alcohol Belgian beers like some breweries do -- that might work great for them and their demographics, but if we just did all Belgian Tripels or Quads, a lot of people around the community would be "That's good once in a while, but you can't drink that every day." You try to brew what works in your region but, specifically, our goal is to create balanced beers. People around here appreciate things in a bit more balance.
We also try to mix in local ingredients. When we were first doing our Harvester beer, which is with fresh, local hops, we were using some South Hill hops -- South Hill is in Stillwater, where I live. We try to do that still, though our gardens wouldn't be able to do a batch like this. The past two years we've gone with Hippity Hops in Forrest Lake, a little commercial hop farm. We go up there, pick hops, and have a blast. Then the next day we have what we call Pickin' and Grinnin' here at the brewery. We'll have a bluegrass band playing and we set up an 80-foot long table and lay the hop vines out and everyone picks hops. We collect them in buckets and we're brewing at the same time, so we're dumping into the kettles as the band is playing. Last year we had 250 people here just picking hops, having a beer, making necklaces and headdresses out of them and dancing to the music. That's our community beer. That kind of stuff really resonates and that's what we try to do, to find things like that and involve people.
HD: There's a lot of growth in Minnesota brewing right now. Do you think it's a scene that can become over-saturated?
Glynn: I think people are going to find their own niches. Walking down Main Street in Stillwater or Uptown Minneapolis there's restaurants everywhere, but each one has its own feel. You're probably not going to have three Moto-I in a row, but you'll have Moto-I and Common Roots and Bulldog and these places doing their own thing.
You have taprooms now, too. In Denver alone there's 70-some breweries and some are just a taproom on a little three barrel system. The number of breweries are increasing but the number of barrels are decreasing. I think it would be great to have little corner brewpubs, essentially. It's in my neighborhood and it's one dude or whatever and they make three barrels at a time of kickass beer.
I think there's opportunity for everyone to find what is going to make their business and themselves the most happy as a business owner. What do you want out of your business? Do you want to be the next Sam Adams? Keep trying, that may be a tough road, but you can do other things that are going to make you happy and profitable and make drinkers around you happy and comfortable.
To expand on that a little, in Portland craft beer has a 30 percent share of the market. Here it's still less than 10 percent. There is upside. We're a big market and there are still a lot of people that will not drink craft beer for one reason or another.