I’m standing with Ben Flattum and Tucker Gerrick on a restaurant patio in Denver. It’s early October, and the Great American Beer Festival is hours from kickoff. These two are part of the team sent to represent Minneapolis’ Fulton Beer, and we’re on this patio for an event hosted by Jameson Irish Whiskey. We’d just watched a barrel get dismantled and now we’re milling around under a hot, bright sun.
The Fulton taproom is 913 miles away by car, and the rest of the Fulton team has plans of their own back in the North Loop – this same weekend, Fulton is celebrating its 10-year anniversary. Wow, right? Some of these breweries are turning 10 years old now!
Fulton Beer’s origins trace back to the Fulton neighborhood of South Minneapolis, where four pals decided to escalate their home-brewing passion to a large-scale business. It worked: according Fulton’s Wikipedia page, Fulton was the first brewery in Minneapolis to open a taproom at their brewery, and the second in Minnesota. The next year, they expanded with a separate production space in Northeast Minneapolis. Since then, it’s been all whiskey barrels, bike rides, and wrestling. Flattum says the brewery is also on track to produce over 30,000 barrels of beer this year.
I ask if there’s anything we might not know about Fulton at this point, and Gerrick has an answer for me right away.
“We’re not rich,” he says. “We’re the fourth-largest brewery in the state and we’re still just hustling.”
Gettin’ Down to Business
Gerrick, Fulton’s Director of Marketing, was born in Illinois and bounced around the Midwest during his childhood before landing in Minnesota for the first time. He’d spend a while in California before coming back to Minnesota and taking root in 2012. He’s been with Fulton since November of 2014. Fun fact: around the same time, he wrote an article about Minnesota’s brewery boom for California-based clothing company The Hundreds.
Flattum is a key account manager for on-premise sales at Fulton. He’s from Stillwater originally, graduated from the University of Minnesota, and has been with Fulton since 2013. My last interview with him was roughly 45 minutes of catching up, 30 minutes of watching wrestling matches, and roughly five minutes of actual interviewing.
Good things happen when Flattum talks over drinks. He offers the partnership with Jameson as one example: he was in the right place (in this case, Cuzzy’s Grill and Bar) at the right time (just after Minnesota became an option for Jameson partnerships), got to talking with some representatives from the distillery, and it took off from there. He says the partnership that produced Hefe-Wheaties – a collaboration with Mpls.-based General Mills – began in similar fashion.
“Just feed me booze, and watch the money come in,” he says.
Fulton has also released special beers for the Star Tribune‘s 150th anniversary and Game Informer‘s 300th issue. Wrestling fans might recognize the Fulton banner from this Darin Corbin/Orange Cassidy match. Fulton also sponsors a wrestler.
Gerrick says he seeks out partnerships as opposed to just sponsorship. If they can work with people, rather than just cut someone a check and look for their logo on a flier, that adds more value both ways.
“How can we help our partner solve another business problem possibly associated with why they’re throwing the event in the first place?” he says. “How can we ‘show up’ for this partner in a way that is unique to us? Asking these questions helps us identify ways to be authentic in a space. And what that means is we’ve become an asset to our partner and our partner’s customers/guests because we’ve actually helped out or made something better.”
A report from the Brewers Association confirmed what we keep hearing: the craft beer industry continues to grow. The latest brewery tally nationwide, per the report, is 7,480 – with another 2,500-3,000 in planning based on active Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) licenses.
In Minnesota, Minnesota Public Radio has the brewery count at 178 as of last year. When the guys began with Fulton five years ago, per that same article, there were 82. Naturally, the approach to both sales and marketing has changed in that time.
“Beer used to sell itself,” says Flattum. “We were allocating, we weren’t selling. Now we’re selling. You’ve got to become a little more cerebral and a little more strategic about where you’re putting which beer and who you think would be best supporting it.”
As Gerrick says, “It’s not enough to brew extraordinary beer anymore.” Positioning is important, too, and making sure your brand sends a consistent message. Gerrick says another key battlefield is the liquor store, where a 2017 Nielsen study says about 70 percent of beer-buying decisions are made right at the shelf.
“Literally right when their shit smacks you in the face,” he says, “is when you’re deciding.”
Best Break Room Ever
This year, Fulton introduced their first house-made non-alcoholic taproom options: Non-Blonde, a non-alcoholic version of Lonely Blonde; and Hop Water, a non-alcoholic sparkling water. I didn’t love the Hop Water, but I’ll tell you this much: it beats the hell out of syrupy fountain pop, and getting gut rot if you have more than one glass.
“People want to be in social settings without the pressure to drink,” says Flattum. “Having options for everyone is important. We used to just have Diet Coke and we thought, ‘We can do better than that.’”
And you undoubtedly saw the slick 1968 Airstream trailer parked in the taproom’s front foyer. That’s Fulton’s Taproom Kitchen, one of (if not the) first brewery-owned food trucks to permanently post up at the taproom. It was unveiled two years ago, and Gerrick says it allows them to advance the level of experience they offer their guests.
An in-house food program also allows them greater control of that experience.
“If someone in the past had a bad experience with one of the random food trucks there that day, that immediately reflected on us,” he says. “Guests don’t always know or interpret the difference between the brewery and the food truck. This way, we own our failures and successes completely.”
Let me tell you about a success Fulton owns: I eat the Mayor’s Fries one Friday night and I’m ready to burst, but nevertheless considering a second order. You’ll eat these and you won’t wonder how these fries won Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey’s Fry Throwdown this year.
The menu is kept pretty simple for the Taproom Kitchen – burgers, sandwiches, sausages, poutine, pretzel, nachos, and a few more things. You can see the full menu here.
And now let’s talk about those hard seltzers.
“Do you even like seltzer?”
Gerrick says his team saw the first signs of a seltzer-driven market disruption in March of 2017 when … well, when the Fulton guys drank a bunch of it in Brainerd one night. He recalls a towering pyramid of White Claw cans on top of a refrigerator. He says the number of cans they accrued might have been in the hundreds.
“We should have known right then and there to start working on it,” he says.
And now here we are, with a CNN story titled “America is Running out of White Claw Hard Seltzer” from September and UBS analysts suggesting the seltzer category could be worth $2.5 billion by 2021 (per Business Insider). At Fulton Gran Fondo this year, the brewery unveiled their response to the seltzer craze: a seltzer of their own.
Gerrick says that, besides the opening of the brewery spaces themselves, the seltzer project has been one of Fulton’s most time-intensive projects. From locking down the specialty yeasts and fruits to the hours of research and development, he says the brewery spent nearly a year working on it before the first batch was even made.
“It’s been quite the ride and continues to be a super fun, new space for us to create and problem solve in,” he says. “We’re (beer) nerds, after all.”
Flattum called Fulton’s hard seltzer sales “insane” and notes they’re made with real fruit purees. That lends to an abundance of flavor and a clean finish, he adds, as opposed to weird medicinal qualities. I’ve only had the blood orange so far, but I really like it.
“Clean, getting cleaner,” Gerrick adds, “with every batch.”
By 5:30 p.m. on a Friday night in November, the taproom is swelling with people. If you want to sit down at this point, you’ll probably have to sit close to a stranger. A lot of people are standing. You’ve got the Fulton Manifesto on one wall, a big pink squiggly skull on another, and the words MPLS MADE glowing in red above four booths in the back. A line from the manifesto: “Anything worth doing is worth doing with soul.”
Gerrick says a taproom expansion is on the horizon that he says will bring them into the next decade or so. He says the brewery will look and feel the part of a decade-old brewery and neighborhood pioneer. I ask what the next 10 years might look like from an industry standpoint. It’s hard to know, they say, and their very own seltzer is a good example of why.
“I think the guys would have scoffed, as would most of our customers,” says Gerrick. “But as things change, the world changes, consumers change. We take what we do seriously, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously. And we’re ready to take that into whatever [the future] is. If it’s hard seltzers, if it’s the food experience at our taproom, if it’s an event experience, doesn’t matter. We’re all about bringing people together … and we’re going to continue to do that until infinity and beyond.”