Editor’s Note: Jenna Laffin brings us the story of Barley John’s Brewpub out of Minnesota… or Wisconsin. The jump across state lines is in great part due to outdated legislation. Many of our readers will be all too familiar with outdated legislation when it comes to craft beer and brewing, so, sit back, pour a glass and enjoy the read. Aside from being an intriguing story it should also serve as a reminder to both state and provincial governments of the need to keep up with our evolving industry. (Photo Credit: We Got Served)
Bring up Prohibition in Minnesota, and we might think of clandestine crossings into Canada across lakes and rivers to get the best beer possible. Due to Prohibition-era laws, though, modern-day Minnesotans might have to be stealthy again and cross the St. Croix River into neighboring Wisconsin to bring home cans or kegs of Minnesota’s best beer.
If this sounds like twisted logic, the founders of Minnesota’s Barley John’s Brewpub are apt to agree. Partners John Moore and Laura Subak have been running their beloved brewpub since 2000; after multiple awards for their beers they decided they wanted to expand their operations to include distribution.
Unfortunately, Minnesota has a three-tiered system of alcohol sales that doesn’t allow brewpubs to sell their creations in liquor stores. Before Prohibition, there was a freewheeling system of “tied houses” in which large-scale liquor producers owned bars and aggressively pushed their products on blue-collar patrons. Even after Prohibition ended, lawmakers tried to appease prohibitionists by separating producers, distributors, and retailers so that no big manufacturer could monopolize the market. In current definitions, breweries are considered producers and are allowed to sell to wholesale distributors, while brewpubs are retailers that can produce limited quantities of beer. Though Minnesota has a long, rich history of beer brewing, it was also the home of Andrew Volstead, the man who first ushered in nation-wide Prohibition with his 1919 Volstead Act. And thus Minnesota was one of the states to adopt this three-tiered system.
Some change is in the wind, however, with the passage of the 2011 “Surly Bill.” Surly Brewing Company is one of the most popular microbreweries in Minnesota and had the wherewithal to challenge the system. Breweries in Minnesota are now allowed to open taprooms onsite to serve their beer for direct consumption. Since 2011, breweries with connected taprooms have been popping up all over the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul.
But the recent legislative changes haven’t helped Moore and Subak any. The pair began brewing for fun at home in 1991 (which has been legal in the United States since 1978). The fun turned lucrative a few years later when Moore began brewing for the James Page Brewing Company, which was one the first microbreweries in the United States to jumpstart the craft brew craze. Moore then attained a diploma in brewing technologies from Seibel Institute in Chicago.
The dream to open a brewpub began in 1996 for Moore and Subak as they sat in their sunroom talking about beer. They didn’t just want to share their delicious beers—they wanted to create community. As the gregarious Subak said, “We loved to cook and we love people, so a brewpub was chosen over a brewery.”
Four years of planning and business education later, Moore and Subak opened Barley John’s Brewpub in New Brighton, Minnesota. They had a serendipitous encounter when they were searching for property for their brewpub and happened to check at a Chinese restaurant that always seemed closed. The location had once been an A&W Rootbeer that Subak used to ride to as a kid. It just so happened that the owners of the Chinese restaurant were ready to sell, and had not yet put the property on the market.
In the fourteen years since Moore and Subak founded Barley John’s, they have certainly succeeded in creating an appreciative community out of Minnesotan beer aficionados. Barley John’s has won the Great Snowshoe Award for the best beer at Minnesota’s annual Winterfest four times (no other brewery has won that many times; Surly Brewing Company, in comparison, has won twice).
Though the winningest members of the Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild are only a short drive north of Minneapolis, many Minnesotans have never tasted Barley John’s beers. That’s why Moore and Subak want to expand their community. They will be breaking ground just over the border in New Richmond, Wisconsin in August of this year, and hope to start brewing before the end of 2014. Their immediate plans are to brew four of their most popular beers for distribution, including the Wild Brunette brown ale, named after Subak. These four beers will be distinct in style to appeal to a wide array of tastes, and they plan to offer more selections in an onsite taproom.
The new Barley John’s Brewery will begin distribution in Wisconsin and Iowa; Minnesota is still off the table unless legislation changes. The law is frustrating, yet the couple plans to “go with the flow and prioritize” as they divide their time between keeping their loyal customers happy at their brewpub and widening their reach through the Midwest via the brewery.
Perhaps Moore and Subak will find luck on their side again, and Minnesota will repeal its prohibitive laws. Until then, they will continue to do what they do best: brew the most delicious beer in—and out of—the state.