First Rack, First Sips and First Aid: A Preview of Utepils Brewing in Minneapolis
Dan Justesen sold me on Utepils Brewing when he dared me to say “Utepils” without smiling. I couldn’t.
It’s pronounced “OOH-teh-pilz.” Here, try it.
The Crew-tepils (sorry) has been the primary user of the social media hashtag #AsTheBuzzBuilds, and build it has. Saturday, February 18, the buzz reaches its crescendo and the doors to Minnesota’s six-largest brewhouse swing on open to the public. I trekked over to the taproom and had some good words with President Dan Justesen (pronounced “Dan JUS-teh-sen”) and National Sales Manager Brad Magerkurth (pronounced “Brad the Beer Guy”) over a game of pool. I enjoyed Ewald the Golden, a hefeweizen; and Copacetic, a kolsch. I was saved from the precipice of death by Taproom Manager Kelsey Bomgaars after a stunt gone wrong.
It went a little something like this:
Brad the Beer Guy: How do you make a small fortune in the beer industry, Dan?
Everyone in Unison: You start with a large fortune!
We toast to … yeah, I guess losing our money.
Me: Utepils is Norwegian for what, now?
Dan Justesen: The anticipation and longing, for that first beer you can enjoy outside in the sunshine with your friends after a long, cold, dark winter. They figured it would be easier to have one word, instead of a bunch of ‘em. If you went to Google it, it’d probably say “outside beer”; but, if you talk to a Norwegian, they’ll give you the definition I gave you.
Brad suggests we play cutthroat. Dan and I concur. Hold this thought.
BBG: So it’s 1-5, 6-10, 11-15. I’m used to playing versus a 10-year-old, so this should be more difficult.
I set up to break in overly-theatrical fashion, and send the cue ball on a laser into the rack. The rack vaporizes on contact, and the cue ball ricochets off into Golden Valley. Brad steps up to the table and misses.
FH: Take me into the moment when everyone was in the room and you decided, ‘This is it. We’re doing it!’
DJ: That was my wife and I. I said, “I’m leaving my other brewery. Do we just go to Belize, and crash on the beach, or do we go and do something more of an adventure in life?” She looked at me and said, “I don’t want to go to Florida when I’m old and worry about whose dog is crapping on whose lawn, or whose grand-kids are in the pool. Let’s do something adventurous.”
BBG: I was rebuilding a crappy 1904 house in St. Paul and open a copy of the Pioneer Press, and –
FH: There it is!
On my ensuing shot, the 5 ball rolls into a corner pocket. I ecstatically proclaim my ownership of the 1-5 balls.
BBG: Back in college, before I was 21 in California – so nobody can extradite me – we were home-brewing, and we found out we were making more beer than we could actually drink. We started giving it away, and it just kind of started there. We had this secret bank system. We would throw our empty cans out [onto the back porch] and fill it up to the point we couldn’t walk out there. We knew it was time to get more beer after we went to the recycling center.
DJ: I’ve done that. I took a whole bunch of minted money and turned it into two pennies.
FH: When did the wheels really get going on this project?
DJ: When I left Vine Park. I took two months to grieve, then I sat down and started writing a business plan in Summer of 2014. I thought I knew a lot about the beer business; but, as you try to write it all down, you realize what you don’t know. What I did know were people. I would call people, Brad being one of them, and I had all kinds questions. I called up Brad, who I’d met 15 years earlier at a beer class, and he said, “I can talk to ya. I’ll buy you lunch.” That was even better than I’d expected.
BBG: I was pretty happy to buy Dan lunch. I’d just gotten fired; so I found myself with a dearth of time to hang out, drink beer, and plot with another guy who was out of work. It was excellent.
FH: Do you remember something specific Dan didn’t know?
BBG: That’s kind of a trick question. The beer business is like Encyclopedia Britannica – not that anyone knows what that is anymore, but everything you learn takes you down three channels of things you don’t know. Two cabbage-heads are better than one, though.
The project has really been kind of a jambalaya of people in the beer business: [Utepils Head Brewer] Eric Harper with everything he did at New Glarus and Summit; me with the 18 years of wholesale; Kelsey with her taproom experience. We’re kind of like a pie that’s been reverse-eaten, in that pieces are being eaten back into the tin. Every little piece is perfect, and it’s really cool.
DJ: You know Frank, you’ve got me trying to play pool. I’ve demonstrated my inability to do that.
FH: Aw, come on. You’ve taken one shot!
DJ: But it illustrates what is true. I really don’t know how to do anything. All I really know how to do is find really great people who have a lot of talent, and I try to encourage them to let it come out. They were all made owners, because I don’t want them to feel like this isn’t their place.
FH: Tell me about this Hefeweizen.
DJ: You tell me about this hefeweizen. You’re the one drinking it.
No singular element jumped up and hooked me; but, at the same time, I couldn’t put it down. I wanted it by me at all times. I’m no beer judge, but trust me when I say this: whether I’m slaughtering pigs in Angry Birds Epic, wrecking a pack of brats in the park, or suffocating my friends with dog photos on Facebook, this beer will be an accessory to a great many crimes.
DJ: I think it’s a fabulous beer style that’s very under-represented in the market around here. The reality is, those of us who drink it probably drink imported German beer. Hefeweizens are meant to be drank fresh, and those transport distances diminish the flavors. This is built to be delicate, it’s meant to be drank fresh, and it’s got a nice aroma to it. I think it’s beautiful.
It’s now been my turn for 10 minutes. I remind everyone that I’m 1-5, then watch in sadness as the 11 falls in.
DJ: Is the table still open?
FH: No. I think you’re 11-15.
BBG: I’m 11-15, so you wanna shoot those or you wanna shoot 1-5.
FH: No, I’m 1-5.
It’s now obvious to Brad nobody else understands cutthroat. He explains it for us, using small words, slowly.
DJ: Clearly we just decided this, and now the best shot I had is the one I can’t take.
BBG: That’s my method for winning: withhold the rules. I learned that from my wife.
DJ: Which one?
BBG: The second one, the one that stayed.
DJ: Because you learned the rules.
From the brewery entrance, a roughly four-foot-high barrier separates the path to the taproom and a path to the bathroom. To most people, that means walking all the way to the end of this divider, then all the way back to the bathroom entry. I didn’t see it that way. I saw an obstacle that was meant to be gone over. I saw something onto which I had to hoist my big ol’ booty, something over which I had to swing my legs fabulously, and something off which I had to propel myself and land squarely at the foot of the bathroom doors.
I was going to do it regardless, which I say now only because they said yes.
Me: Would it be all right if I just parkoured over this wall to the bathroom?
Utepils Employee: Sure. Just don’t hurt yourself.
I then proceeded to parkour over that wall and hurt myself.
The man next to me at the bathroom sink didn’t ask why I was digging into my thumb, but I could feel a curious glance. The man at the entrance checking IDs just laughed at me. He probably thinks I won’t try that again. The folks next to me at the crowded bar didn’t ask why I pinching, squeezing, pushing and sucking my thumb. I wouldn’t have, either.
St. Kelsey Bomgaars did, though.
KB: Are you okay?
FH: [All of what you just read]
KB: I’ve got stuff for that.
FH: You do?!
KB: Yeah. Let me check the first aid cabinet.
Kelsey vanished into a dark nether beyond the back of the bar. She re-emerged shortly with four or five packets of cloths, gels, and something called SLIVER OUT. It’s a miniature shiv. Using it, I removed most of the sliver.
I saved the rest of my surgery for later, like sometime when I didn’t have strangers three inches away from me on all sides.
FH: How’d that whole thing with the Bryn Mawr name go down?
DJ: We went to the Craft Brewers’ Conference in Portland, and I took a ride down to Salem to do some brewery research. We ended up being interviewed by the local paper. We appeared quoted as the owners of Bryn Mawr Brewing Co., and there’s a Bryn Mawr Vineyards in Salem. Both of those owners are attorneys, and they decided they should get a hold of us and have us cease and desist use of that name. We argued that they’re an eight-acre winery that only sells in the Pacific Northwest; we make beer and we only sell in the Midwest. We’re going to be in cans. They’re going to be in bottles. They felt there would be consumer confusion; so, because they had the trademark already established, we decided we needed to gracefully not spend more money on attorneys’ fees.
My dad didn’t teach me a lot, but what he did teach me is you don’t get into a pissing match with a man with a fire hose. When the vineyard has two attorneys who don’t have to pay legal fees, and I’m paying mine by the hour –
FH: That’s a mighty big fire hose. How far did that set you back?
DJ: It happened right during our fundraiser, so we wanted to keep it at arm’s length. Once we got done with the fundraising, we knew we had to change over. That put us into about a three-week tizzy. We’d be sitting around the table throwing a million ideas around, at the same time on our phone Googling to make sure we didn’t get into the same problem. [Utepils] was the original name of the holding company, so we decided, “Why don’t we just embrace it?”
It’s a great story. It begins a conversation. As soon as someone sees it, they’re going to try to pronounce it, and now we’re talking. How do you pronounce it, what does it mean?
FH: How are you feeling as you get set to open?
DJ: I actually use the word numb a lot. We’ve jumped so many hurdles for so many years. I keep waiting for the next hurdle to appear. It’s really exciting to watch people come in and be like, “Wow.” [The space is] something we didn’t notice. We’ve been inside it the whole time. We liked it, but we saw it change a little at a time. We see people walk in, and see their heads go up. They see the scale, the two-story-high fermentation tanks. Our brewhouse is the sixth-largest in the state on opening day.
FH: What day do you remember the interior changing the most drastically in here?
DJ: There are two: the day they cut the windows out of the wall, and the sunshine came streaming in; then, when we started tipping up the equipment. I saw it about an inch from the ceiling, and started worrying about crapping my pants. “It’s gonna take a year to get another one of those tanks. Don’t drop it, don’t drop it, don’t drop it …”
FH: These tanks came from Germany, correct?
DJ: All of this was custom-designed in Bavaria. I was debating between North American equipment, but [Mike Miziorko, who present sits on Utepils’ Board of Governors] said, “You’ve got to go to Germany. You’ve gotta go to the Brau. It’s the biggest brewing equipment tradeshow in the world.”
We spent a week there, we met with all of the companies we were considering. Within three days of our return to America, we had new bids from all of them at considerably lower prices. Once I spent the money to show up, sit with them, go out to dinner, drink with them into the late night hours, they knew that man was buying equipment. They gave me the real price, and we started negotiating from there. People do business with handshakes still there. They have contracts, but the reality is I had no money at all. I got a $1.5 million worth of equipment on a handshake.”
BBG: I wanted to comment a little about that handshake thing.
DJ: That’s all I shook, Brad!
BBG: Take that as you will, Mary Anne with the Shaky Hand! That’s a Who song, by the way.
A lot of these companies, even though they’re massive, are still family owned. They’re giving you their trust to translate their story into the states, and it takes a very particular person to want to travel for thousands of miles to sell a product and bring it into basically like another universe. They’ll check your credit report later on, and the wire transfer had better be there, but if you don’t have the trust – you can’t do anything in life. This whole world is built on trust.
The pool game became much less suspenseful once everyone knew how to play. Dan eliminated himself to prepare for another interview. I emerged victorious after Brad sank the winning ball into the wrong pocket.
You can find more information about Utepils Brewing at utepilsbrewing.com.
RELATED: Did you ever see the day I took my mother-in-law and her friends to try 75 beers? How about the time my wife and I hit 15 breweries in one day? We don’t mess around ’round here.