On January 2nd, generic mind Pour Decisions Brewing Company and Bent Brewstillery shook the Twin Cities beer scene with the announcement that they had merged. The Pour Decisions brand was gone and the new conglomeration would henceforth be called Bent Brewstillery. Gone too, order pills it seemed, online were the Pour Decisions beers. The new marketing pushed only Brewstillery brews. I think very few beer drinkers anticipated this development. More than a few were wondering exactly what was going on.
After a more than rocky start, Roseville-based Pour Decisions launched at the State Fair in 2012. They had initially announced their existence on April 1st, 2011, but problems with municipal regulators led to a delay of more than a year before they were actually able to open. Led by multiple-award-winning, St. Paul homebrewers Kristen England and BJ Haun, Pour Decisions specialized in tweaked versions of classic styles, many of which were based on historical recipes gleaned from old brewer’s logs from some of England’s most revered breweries. They were also known for their excellent revivals of nearly extinct styles like Berliner Weiss and Gräzter. Always extraordinarily well-made, the Pour Decisions lineup was perhaps a bit esoteric for the average beer drinker.
Bartley Blume introduced the Twin Cities to his Bent Brewstillery beers at the 2013 St. Paul Summer Beer Fest. He wowed the crowd with Ghostface Fatha, a version of his strong, black ale infused with ghost peppers, the world’s hottest chili pepper. Blume’s beers were brewed under contract by Kristen at Pour Decisions. The contract arrangement was later changed to an alternating proprietorship as Bent Brewstillery became better established. Blume was in the process of adding a still at the brewery for the production of distilled spirits when the merger was announced.
The taproom at the brewery is currently closed for renovation. I’ve seen the new floor-plan and relatively big changes are coming. The taproom area will be expanded with additional tables to allow for more seating. The still will occupy a space at the front of the brewery near the taproom. The plan is to have the taproom open again in March.
I sat down with Blume at the brewery to get the low-down on the merger and the plans for Bent Brewstillery.
You come to the merger with a set of Bent Brewstillery beers that seem to be the focus of your marketing right now. I know there are a lot of fans out there of some of the Pour Decisions beers. I personally think that Patersbier was one of the best beers being made in the state. How many of those beers are going to stick around?
You know, that’s undecided as of right now. Patersbier, yes, is one of the ones that is going to stick around. It will be renamed into something else. That’s something that Kris and I agreed on as far as the name of it. It will be a patersbier; because that is really a style of beer more than it is a name of a beer. So we’re going to come up with a new name for it. It will be branded, of course, under Bent Brewstillery, but it will continue to be made.
That makes me happy.
I’m sure it makes a lot of people happy. I mean, they’ve got a really big fan base for that beer. The last thing we wanted this merger to do was piss off all the fans of Pour Decisions. So were going to definitely keep that one and who knows really what else. But that was the first and foremost decision made was that we’re keeping Patersbier; keeping that same recipe and moving forward with that.
There are others, too. Maroon & Bold will continue to be a seasonal release. It’s another great beer. We’re uncertain about Infidelity at the moment. Uncertain about St. Whatshername. The experimental stuff like that will still continue to go on. I mean a lot of the stuff that Pour Decisions has made in the past has been one-offs, never to be made again. That is the same sort of thing that we’re going to continue to do, unless it turns out to be something that’s really great and that we want to keep around. Then that turns into a year round beer, too.
Some of the sours, like the Berliner weiss?
The sours are staying around. Which ones I’m not sure. One of the things that I want to do is focus a little bit and start making larger batches of some of these great sours so that we can get them out there on shelves. Put them in 750s or even into 22s and get them on liquor store shelves, and bring them to bars and restaurants, and get them out there to more people as opposed to just being able to get it here in the taproom.
Between me and Kris we have so many ideas. The biggest challenge is pairing them down to what we want to do first, second, third and all that. That’s the beauty of having the taproom and someone who is so experienced, like Kris, as the head brewer. We will be able to make all these experimental things and try them out. Put them in the taproom and see how we like them, and then make our decisions based on that. So we’re really leaving a lot of this stuff open for basic development. As we go we’ll just feel it out and fly by the seat of our pants in this regard. That’s what keeps it exciting. It keeps it new. It keeps it fresh. It makes it interesting and keeps everyone happy.
Let me back up. How did you get into this? I don’t mean this merger. I mean this business in general. How did Bent Brewstillery come about?
About six years ago my wife bought me a Mr. Beer kit for Christmas. I brewed my first batch of beer and I was instantly obsessed. Up until then I enjoyed cooking. So I’m used to putting flavors together and that sort of thing. I’m not formally trained or anything, it’s just a natural ability to put different flavors together to make something different. Even my ravioli, it’s poured out of a can, but it doesn’t taste like ravioli out of a can when I’m done with it. I sauté onions and garlic first and dump it on top of that. I throw in rosemary and basil and all these other herbs and spices and make it something completely different. Even something as simple as that has helped fuel my desire to create beer.
After the first couple of batches of cutting the cans open and dumping stuff in I started saying, “It’s got to be harder than this.” So what’s the next harder step? That’s when I went to all-grain. I started doing all-grain batches knowing that this could potentially be preparation for a career. Not that I had made the decision right there, “I’m going to be a brewer.” It was just, why don’t I take the necessary steps that I would do if I were to become a brewer without buying a brewery and everything like that; without spending a huge amount of money.
What were you doing?
My past life? Well, my education is an electrical engineering degree from Auburn University down in Alabama. So with that I worked with NASA for quite a while. I worked with the Department of Veterans Affairs for a while. What brought me to Minnesota was a job at an aerospace company called Aero Systems Engineering. The company builds high-speed, aerodynamic test facilities, like wind tunnels and jet engine test cells. Things like that. So I started with that company as an electrical engineer and from there was promoted to a business development position with the company. I spent the last twelve years of my life as a business development manager for this aerospace and aerodynamics company. So that gave me a lot of the business background that you need to start a business like this and to grow it into what it needs to be; the exposure, the networking, the sales, the marketing, and all that sort of stuff that you need.
Engineering is one of the big three or four careers that brewers come out of.
It is. Yeah. Absolutely. And I can see why. The creativity gets stifled so much in the engineering field. And there are so many engineers who are creative and who want to have an outlet for that creativity. You think of engineers as being 100 percent right brain. A lot of them are. But the ones who have some of the left brain, some of the freedom and creativity, want to do something other than just engineering. And this is a great way to express that, because you’ve got both. You’ve got process control and the creativity in altering that process that changes the flavor of the beer. It really is the perfect segue into this sort of career. So I did that for many years and I just decided about two years ago that I was going to do this. I had done everything that I can do. My recipes are developed to the point that I think they are just right for the public. The only thing left to do besides incorporating, which I had already done, was to find a space and start building out an extremely small…at that time my business plan was to build extremely small brewery slash distillery with a very small taproom.
So how did distilling come into this?
You know, I picked up a book. I read a book. That’s exactly how it started. After that I was hooked. I read a book about it and I saw all the additional complexities to it. I saw so much room for interpretation of that process. I said, “No one is doing this here in this state.” They are all over the east coast and west coast and places like Colorado. There are all these craft distilleries. How come there are none here in Minnesota? So I look at that as another canvas to paint on. The beer canvas has been painted all over. It’s getting harder and harder to find a blank area that hasn’t been painted on already. So I saw this as another way to get out there and be creative and put some more of my ideas into the market and see what other people thought. To me it’s two things that go hand in hand. I mean really, you need a brewery in order to distill. You can’t have a distillery that doesn’t have half of it that’s a brewery. So to me it seemed like two businesses that should always be hand in hand. The scientific-ness of it, the complexity, it was just great. Brewing is cool. Everybody knows brewing is cool. But distilling, that’s sexy.
This is something that I’m not familiar with. I’ve familiarized myself pretty much with the laws around breweries and brewing. What are the legal issues with connecting a brewery and a distillery?
There are no laws against it, except that they are separate spaces. As long as the distillery proper is separated from the brewery proper, that’s really the only legal requirement. How you do that is really up to you and what your TTB (Tax and Trade Bureau) agent approves. My TTB agent approved me having an eight foot high security fence around the distillery. That was the plan here when I was going to build it in the back corner. After several months of talking with the Pour Decisions guys and telling them my woes of finding my own place for a distillery, BJ said, “Why don’t you just build it here?” So I was going to lease a little bit of space, like 500 square feet, and build my distillery back there. And talking with the TTB, as long as it’s separated and lockable, it’s fine. A lot of people read the regulations that say it has to be separated and they automatically assume the worst. They think you have to have a separate entrance, and walls, and all this other stuff. That’s really not the case. As long as it’s separate, it doesn’t have to be a separate building, or a separate door, or a separate entrance, or anything like that. It just has to be separate.
There is a brewery in Iowa that’s in a winery. It shares the space with a winery. It’s separated by a four foot chain link fence.
Exactly. That’s something that I wouldn’t mind doing as well. I would like to have the trifecta. Brewery, distillery, and winery. Why not? There’s no reason why not. What the heck. Make a little bit of everything. I make several ciders that I think are phenomenal. But it’s something that I can’t make as a brewer or distiller.
How did you initially get hooked up with Pour Decisions?
Well, originally my business plan was to have my own tiny little taproom and brewery, and to have another larger company contract brew for me for distribution. What I made on my own little, tiny, 1000-square-foot premises would only serve the taproom. The distilled products of course would be sent out because that’s the Minnesota law right now, they have to be distributed and you can’t serve them at the distillery. So the idea was I would make just enough for the taproom and I would have another brewery make the beer for distribution for bars and restaurants.
Well, I came in here soon after they were opened and started talking with Kris about it. First it was, “No. Not interested.” I come back in a couple days later or the next week. “Nope. Still not interested.” I came in a couple of weeks later and he was like, “You know what? I was talking to BJ about it the other day and he thinks maybe it’s something that might work. But we’d have to talk about all the details. It would have to be financially beneficial to us to take time out of our schedule to brew beer for you.” So that’s when it started.
We started brewing beer and things were going good. We changed to an alternating proprietorship as opposed to contract brewing. And then we had another alternating proprietorship agreement for the distillery. I just got so integrated here. Everything was good. The relationship was good and everything was rolling along pretty well. And then BJ brought up the idea, hey why don’t we merge and become one company? It’s beneficial to both of us. We don’t compete against each other now. And I think I bring a lot to the table that they were looking for. They needed an outside guy, someone to be out there, to do the promotions, and the marketing, and all that sort of stuff.
What went into the decision as to which name to take?
It was an offer on their side for me to come into this and call it Bent Brewstillery. And I agreed. I was looking for my own company. That was the thing. This is what I’m building. This is what I’m creating for my brand, my image, the distillery and all that stuff. I think they knew that was where I was going to go and they felt like it was probably best for them too to bring it not only under the brand of Bent Brewstillery, but also under my leadership. I’m the President of the new-formed – well it’s not really a new-formed company – but of the rolled-into company of Bent Brewstillery. That was another thing that was to everyone’s advantage, to have someone with business acumen become the leader of the company, become the president. Being that I already had my brand and image and everything, to roll it in under my brand just seemed to be the most logical way.
That business acumen an important part of running a brewery that some don’t have.
Very often when you have friends come together – homebrewers who want to make a business – you have to have complementary people, not similar people. You have to have someone who is logistical, someone who can do the day to day operations, and you have to have someone who will do all the other stuff that doesn’t have anything to do with brewing beer. That’s definitely one of the things that’s required in running a business nowadays. And a lot of people don’t understand the fact that a brewery isn’t just a bunch of people running around brewing beer and drinking it up. To tell you the truth, we don’t really drink that much anymore because we’re so busy doing the things that we need to get done in order to run a business. I’ve been asked that question several times, “How is it that you’re just not drunk all the time?” Well, I’m kind of too busy. I’m running a business. To tell you the truth, I’ve cut down quite a bit since all this happened. It’s a good thing, of course. I don’t miss it. I get my chances in every once in a while. There are always functions that you go to and you have a couple of beers. Things like that. But to me this is just so much fun. I’m enjoying the hell out of it, being creative on my side of things and Kris being creative on his side of things. It’s just a blast.
This is always a hard question because I’m asking you to pigeon-hole yourself, but if you could define the overarching concept, or character, or profile of Bent Brewstillery as it is now, what would you say?
There have been several things that have been thrown around. Bent Brewstillery’s central theme has always been defying the classification of normal beers. Everything we make is a bit of a hybrid. Pour Decisions was “Innovating the traditional.” Kris has been brewing a lot of these beers that haven’t been around for years, decades, centuries; bringing some of these things back to life. So how we’re going to put those two things together is something still to be figured out. But one of the things that we like to say is that we are rebels against style. I’ve never like to be pigeon-holed. That is our pigeon-hole, that we’re not pigeon-holed. If that makes any sense.
Both of our current beers, Nordic Blonde and Dark Fatha, are hybrid beers. Somebody with a lot of experience like yourself or Kris could probably take Nordic Blonde [described as a pale ale/blond ale cross] and find a classification for it. But we like to keep it simple and make it easy to explain. Everyone knows what a pale ale is. Everyone knows what a blond ale is. You start getting into some of the more obscure classifications and people don’t really know what you’re talking about. Same for the Dark Fatha, it’s probably classifiable somewhere, but when I first brewed it I didn’t think about classification. I thought about the things I like about certain beers and combined them into what I thought was a good beer. And that’s really all we’re interested in doing is making good, drinkable beer and not being restricted or feeling like we have to be in a box around a specific style guideline. We’ll be doing the same thing with our IPA. Our IPA will be very different than other things that are out there on the market right now. At least we hope so. But that’s kind of the thing is that we don’t really want to be defined by anything in particular except that we are making beers that really aren’t defined.
I primarily write about beer and I don’t even really drink spirits except gin, but I am interested in what’s going on in the distillery side of this. Talk a little more about your plans for that part of it.
We’re going to be coming out with a whiskey [called Unpure] to start with and a gin. Those two are going to be the first two releases. In the meantime, we’ll be putting bourbon back for long-term aging. Long-term is a relative term. Whether it’s six months or twenty years, we won’t know until we start tasting it after the first few months and see what it tastes like. It’s ready when it’s ready. It’s like brisket. I cook a lot of barbeque. Brisket is done when it’s done. You don’t just stick it on there and say you’re going to take it off in thirteen hours. You take it off in six if it’s hot enough and tender enough. That’s what you’re really looking for, is when it’s done. But the whiskey is going to be an un-aged, pure-malt whiskey. We’re taking the same concepts that craft brewers use – high quality ingredients, highest care in production, not as concerned about efficiencies, but more concerned about flavor – and putting that into a spirit. I think that’s the way you get a spirit that is minimally aged and yet still tastes good and doesn’t taste like white whiskey.
Will it be a clear whiskey?
No, it won’t be.
If you’re not aging it, how are you getting color?
Good question. What I’m going to do is filter it through charred oak and charred apple wood. Both of these woods, as it’s filtering through, are going to impart color as well as filter out some of the impurities. And once it gets to the apple wood, the apple wood is going to impart some sweetness into the spirit as it comes through. So you’re going to round out the edges of a rough spirit, as well as give it the proper color that it should have. But the color really is a psychological thing. It’s a byproduct of aging in a barrel. But it’s something that’s important. It’s supposed to have the right color. It’s supposed to be pleasing, visually appealing. So we’re going to filter it through the two woods like that and get a spirit that’s drinkable right off the bat. I mean, I say un-aged. It’s going to take probably two weeks without the filtering. The filtering will probably take about a week for it to filter through all of the stuff and get to the bottom. And then also there’s a period of settling to get anything that’s in suspension settled out. Then we’ll rack off of that and into bottles. So it will still be a three week or so process.
And what about the gin? Like I say, gin is the only spirit I drink and I really like gin.
You like gin because if the juniper berries?
I like a really herbaceous gin.
Well then you might like this one. Our gin is going to have a minimum of twelve different botanicals in it besides juniper berries. We’re going to focus heavy on the aromatics. Without giving away all of my recipe, lavender will be included in our botanical list. Some citrusy things like lemon peel, grapefruit peel, that sort of stuff. A little something to help sweeten it a little on the flavor side, some Madagascar bourbon vanilla beans. We’re going to add a little bit of spiciness with some tellicherry black peppercorns and things like that. Lemongrass. Ginger. That’s a very small portion of the list of things that are going into this gin create something that’s smoother, something that’s not so focused on the juniper berry, and something that’s crafty. Just juniper in a gin isn’t quite as crafty as it could be. You can get so much more creative than that. We’re going to experiment around with that one too. We’ll probably end up aging some in a barrel. That’s something new actually. I wish I could say that I thought of that originally, but I’d heard of it happening in other places and I thought that’s a great idea. There’s just none made here yet. So getting crazy with the gin is something I’m really looking forward to.
And besides the Unpure being pure malt, it’s going to be smoked malt whiskey, so it’s going to have a fair amount of smokiness to it. It’s not the peat-smoked malt like you get from scotch. It’s going to be more of a cherry-wood, apple-wood, oak-smoked flavor from that. My recipe for bourbon is top secret at the moment, but it is also something that is off the beaten path. By definition it has to be 51 percent corn, but that’s really the only requirement. After that, go crazy with the cheese whiz. We’re going to do something a little bit different than other people do with their bourbons.
So kind of maintaining continuity with the philosophy of the brewing side.
Yes, absolutely. It would be very easy to add hops to the Unpure mash bill and create a beer out of it. We want to be true to our roots of brewing and make something that’s beer inspired. That’s where the bourbon is going to come from. The rye whiskey, we’re going to have something very different for the rye as well. We’re going to experiment will all different types of aging processes and things like that. I hope to make a brandy as well. We’re even talking about making rum out of some local sugar beets. About the only thing we can’t make is tequila. There is no natural source of agave around here. I do want to stick with local things that you would find here. If we were further south in Texas or something it would be great to make tequila, but I just don’t think it fits…
We’re in Minnesota.
Right. We’re in Minnesota. I doubt I’ll ever make vodka either.
Vodka doesn’t taste like anything. There is no point to vodka.
Exactly. That’s the way I feel, too. There’s no point. Nothing against people who make artisanal vodka, but if your goal is to make something with no color, no flavor, and no aroma, where’s the creativity? It’s what you put back in it that makes it interesting.