It was only a matter of time before something was done about Northfield’s lack of a brewing community. It finally happened in 2011, when a home-brewer named Randy Clay dashed through a farm field.
Randy had lived in the area since 1996 with his wife, Tonja, and had spent the previous 4-5 years trekking to the Twin Cities for home-brew clubs. There had to be a better way, right? All he needed was another brewer. Even just one would do.
Well, he found one.
“I was at a little CSA farm,” says Randy, 46. “A couple had just moved to town and they were part of the farm as well. The owner of the farm was like ‘Hey Randy, you should go meet Gabe. He just moved here from Michigan. He’s a home-brewer.’ And I went running across the field like ‘Gabe! Gabe! You brew!’”
“Gabe” was a schoolteacher named Gabe Meerts. Randy caught him, and a homebrew club called the Milltown Mashers was born. Randy says the club is 25-30 members (and a wonderful slogan) strong today, but the first meeting was held in Meerts’ basement with a five-person roll call toward the end of 2011.
As word spread and the Mashers’ ranks grew, so too did the craft beer presence in the Twin Cities. The Surly Bill passed in May 2011, allowing breweries to sell pints of beer on-site. New breweries were starting to pop up, and yeah: you could say a few more were on the way.
With Northfield’s population creeping toward 20,000 and two colleges propping up the consumer base, how much time would pass before the movement made its way south to Northfield?
Derek Meyers wondered the same thing.
Derek and his wife, Laura, moved to Northfield in 2013. They both home-brewed, and joined the Mashers after a fruitful Googling of “Northfield Homebrew Club.” The club brought the Clay and Meyers couples together, and it turned out they’d both been mapping out breweries of their own. Their visions really jived, says Randy, and the four seemed to be a good fit.
At that point, you could say a brewery in Northfield was imminent.
This is the first part in a series of posts highlighting food, drinks, and people in the Northfield area. You can read the introduction post here.
Imminent Brewing was incorporated in early 2015, and opened their doors to the public for the first time in June 2017 (their one-year anniversary was last weekend). Derek Meyers jokes that naming the brewery Imminent put extra pressure on them to make their dreams come to fruition.
“If it’s Imminent, it’s got to happen, right?” he says.
Derek, 34, has lived a lot of places: he earned a Masters Degree in Environmental Politics from Colorado State, briefly pursued a Ph.D. in London, and lived in San Francisco for a spell. But his first home was Spearfish, S.D. It’s a town of about 15,000, with a college and a little creek that squiggles runs through town. Black Hills National Park is just south; the Wyoming border is just west.
He learned early not to settle for sub-standard drink just because that’s what’s available. When his parents drove to Minnesota, they came back with Schell’s; when he drove to Wyoming in his early 20s, he came back with Colorado-made New Belgium beers.
He began dabbling in home-made drinks in 2004, but wine was first. Home-made wine actually wasn’t that hard, he says: one bucket to ferment in, a glass carboy for secondary fermentation, yeast, and Spearfish Canyon cherries let him churn out a chokecherry wine he called “the best stuff we made.”
He and Laura had met by this time, and began dating in 2007. Laura hails from just outside Denver – though, like Derek, has a pretty impressive number of past addresses. She was interested in home-brewing, too, and they brewed together from time to time. Laura brought up one episode, in which they tried brewing a Belgian Abbey ale with lavender and wound up making some soap-tasting concoction.
“We could have marketed it to people to swear too much,” says Laura. “Wash Your Mouth out with Lavender Abbey!”
Derek and Laura were married in 2011. They moved to Northfield in 2013, and have been brewing together since.
Randy found the beauty of local craft beer thanks to a student exchange program in high school. Originally from Indiana, Penn., he spent six weeks in West Germany, biking through the rolling hills and hitting up local pubs with his friends over lunch hour. He remembers the rolling hills, big pints of weiss beer, and no pressure to get back to class.
“The house I stayed in, the local brewery delivered beer to their doorstep and wineries delivered wine to their doorstop,” he says. “That was all new to me, to see a culture where beer and wine was as much a part of the culture as milk and water.”
After returning to Pennsylvania for college, Randy followed some friends out to Colorado in the mid-90s. It turns out Tonja had done the same thing, and the two wound up working at the same mountain resort. They met in 1996, at a company party.
“Our boss at the time [said], ‘Hey Randy, be careful at this party tonight because you just might meet your wife here.’” Randy recalls.
Tonja is the team’s true Northfield native, and a St. Olaf graduate. Her time in Colorado introduced her not only to the abundance of flavor in craft beer, but the creativity of the makers’ branding. It’s one of the things that inspired her pursuit of a graphic design career, according to her bio on the Imminent website.
Tonja was offered an internship by a Minnesotan design company in 1998, which led to a full-time job and ultimately landed the Clays in her old hometown. Tonja knew Randy would have a hard time finding the beers he enjoyed back in the Rockies, so she gave him a home-brew kit for Christmas that year. In 2000, they got married.
One of Randy’s first brewing endeavors was inspired by a beer on the east coast, a beer he calls “the quintessential cream ale,” Genesee Cream Ale. Randy worked on an American ale that mimics a lager, a cold-fermented beer with corn and rice to help sneak in a hint sweetness. For 10-12 years, he estimates, he worked on that recipe.
He hasn’t stopped making it. If you want to try some – and, really, you should – go to Imminent and ask for a Gateway Cream Ale.
The Imminent team came well-equipped to run a brewery. Randy makes most of the beer, though Derek and Laura step in occasionally. Laura runs the front of the house and sales; Derek helps out with the taproom and handles distribution. The slick branding and color scheme? Tonja designed that, and she runs the marketing and merchandising.
The Mashers pitch in, too, from participation in Imminent’s Indiegogo campaign to the occasional guest brewing sessions. One of Imminent’s latest releases tips a cap to Tim Hanson, a member who suffers from Celiac Disease. Called Tim’s Gravel Grinder, it’s a single-hop IPA (with Shinook hops). Its gluten is reduced with a clarifying agent that’s added during fermentation. Imminent has a pretty good outline of this beer on their blog.
“We can’t call it ‘Gluten Free,’ so we say it’s crafted to reduce gluten,” says Derek Meyers. “We’re really happy with the results. The most important thing is that Tim came in and drank it, and he was pretty happy.”
Gravel Grinder doesn’t lose a step flavor-wise. This could be anybody’s go-to. Imminent’s also got a smooth, sweet stout; and a wheat beer collaboration with Northfield-based farmers. For this beer, suitably called “Lil’ R&R,” berries are brought in from Lorence’s Berry Farm and the rhubarb is sourced from Spring Wind Farm.
Derek admits the struggles of opening a craft brewery certainly didn’t skip the Imminent team. From the trademark double-and triple-checking for their name to finding their space … and then watching the deal fall through for that space, finding a new space, bidding on that space, and the legal trapeze rope they walked across to make it all work. Patience got thin at times, he says, but never ran out.
“There were so many little details, and so many little things you have to have together,” he says. “You do it once, and you think you’ve got it, and then you’ve got a problem. But as long as you’re patient, and you keep trying, eventually things work out.”
Imminent Brewing’s taproom is located on the south side of the Northfield Armory. Their schedule of events and hours of operations can be found on their website.
Minor clean-up edits were made and more information was added shortly after this article’s publication.