The snowstorms may be done for the year (with the emphasis on may), but Minnesota is experiencing quite a flurry of new brewery activity. Way up on the North Shore in Two Harbors, Castle Danger Brewery started selling beer in March. April 1st saw the suspiciously auspicious announcement of Pour Decisions Brewing Company, believed at first by most to be an elaborate April fool’s hoax. It was no joke. Co-founders Kristen England and B. J. Haun expect to have beer on the streets in July. Another up-and-comer planning a July release is Steel Toe Brewing. Husband and wife team Jason and Hannah Schoneman have been quietly building out a leased St. Louis Park industrial space since February. The brewery is in place, if not yet plumbed, and they expect to fire it up in June.
Steel Toe brewer Jason Schoneman isn’t just another homebrewer deciding to go pro. He brings years of professional experience with him. His career track started after a move to Boulder, Colorado from his native Iowa. While living the ski-bum life and sleeping in the back of his truck, he was exposed to the great beer scene on the Colorado Front Range. When he moved back home he missed the beer. “The big thing back then was Busch Light. I figured if you can’t find it, you’ve got to brew it.” He started homebrewing in 1997 and caught the brewing bug.
Hannah’s job took them to Bozeman, Montana where Jason was hired at Lightning Boy Brewery. In a story that seems common in the industry, he started out working 15-hour days washing kegs and filling bottles. “That was the test,” he says. “If you still love it after that, then it’s the right fit for you. For me it was the greatest thing. It didn’t feel like work.” After a couple of weeks he was promoted to brewer.
Their next move took them to Wisconsin where Jason was unable to find a job as a brewer. Not wanting to give up the dream, he bit the bullet and enrolled in the Diploma Course at the Siebel Institute brewing school in Chicago. “I did the whole thing. Racked up the credit cards and took a leap of faith. We figured if you’re going to do it, do it right.”
Newly armed with Siebel credentials, he was hired at the Pelican Pub & Brewery in Pacific City, Oregon, where he once again started out washing kegs and filling bottles. Within four years he had advanced to the position of Head Brewer. The time at Pelican was formative. He learned there what it takes to make a brewery go, gaining experience in all aspects of brewery operations; wholesale distribution, dealing with customers, tours, brewery logistics and maintenance. “I had a great mentor there. He taught me how to stay really consistent every batch. That is so important. I don’t want to experiment on people. When somebody has our product and likes it I want to be able to give it to them again.”
The birth of their first child prompted a move back to the Midwest to pursue the long-held dream of opening a brewery of their own. The Schonemans feel that they are in the right place at the right time. “It’s been a lot of fun for us to come back here from the Northwest where there’s a great brewery around every corner, and hear people getting excited talking about really flavorful beer.” says Hannah. “The big hoppy beers. The Big malty beers. It’s fun to hear that conversation happening that we haven’t heard any other time that we’ve been up here.”
They are interested in starting small and staying small, keeping operations intimate and local. They anticipate limiting distribution to a small circle around the Twin Cities metro. Jason believes that their converted dairy tank brewery should allow them to produce around 3000 barrels annually. They have plenty of space to add additional fermenters as needed to keep up with demand. They are still working on securing funds for the start-up, creating a Kickstarter page where supporters can donate. If the licensing and such goes smoothly, they expect to be brewing by June and have beer out the door by July.
Jason doesn’t want to make beers that necessarily fit into any neat style category. He plans to launch with a light, summery ale. He describes it as a cross between cream ale and golden ale; unfiltered and cloudy with light malt flavor and floral hop aroma. Within the first couple of months they also plan to release a big, west-coast double IPA, an imperial red, and a stout that falls somewhere between foreign extra and oatmeal. Longer range plans include barrel-aged barleywine and imperial stout and possibly some experiments with sour beers. But those can wait until they get off the ground. As Hannah put it, they will get done “when and if we are able to do them.”