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  • Writer's picturePaige Latham Didora

lagers, dreams, and anniversaries at northbound smokehouse

Sometimes big dreams are realized in phases. For Jamie Robinson of Northbound Smokehouse in South Minneapolis, the dream of opening a brewpub over seven years ago may seem like it came true. And in many ways it did. His days of knocking on neighbors’ doors with his Free Beer for Life offer certainly turned heads and brought in the startup capital required in an unprecedented way.

Northbound opened with three partners, and now only Jamie remains. To successfully launch, he gained experience in the front-of-house and in the brewery at Town Hall Brewery for years. It was there that he fell for the idea of beer and food together under one roof.

But if he’s honest, he will tell you that Northbound was lacking the full realization of the dream: to be a lager brewpub. “That’s where the industry was headed in 2011,” he explains. It’s both accurate and laughable to say that, as if the industry either took a severe set of detours, or Jamie had some serious foresight.

The space that became Northbound seven years ago didn’t have the ideal ceiling height or footprint to allow for brewing lagers. Batch size and turnover were restricted by what now seems like a miniature brewhouse size in many ways. Upon opening, Northbound estimated the creation of 600 bbls per year on a 7-barrel system. Within six months, they added two 15-barrel tanks. Even with the addition of the larger tanks, it was the demands of the calendar and the customers that Jamie was up against — they simply had neither the time nor the space.

Lagers take more time for fermentation and conditioning, which restricts the flow of product from ingredients, to tank, to glass. Jamie’s favorite lager, the pilsner, takes about 13 weeks to be fully conditioned and ready to serve. Compared to an IPA that can go from zero to sixty in less than a month, 13 weeks seems like an eternity. This is due to several differences between lagers and ales. The first is temperature. Like proofing yeast or dissolving sugar, anything that happens cooler happens slower. Lager yeast requires a cool, controlled environment. Also, lager yeasts take a longer time to clean up their own byproducts, chemical products of fermentation that must be allowed to leave the beer in the lengthy conditioning process, otherwise the beer isn’t palatable.

Not wanting to slow the flow of beer to the eager, thirsty crowd (remember the beer scene in 2012?) lagers were out of the picture. It wasn’t worth tying up a tank for three months or gambling with green beer.

Northbound was immensely successful as a neighborhood brewpub. In 2013, their first full year, they produced almost 1,000 bbls without any distribution outside the four walls of the restaurant. Jamie attributes the early growth in part to a fortuitous change in Minneapolis legislation, the approval of growler sales in taprooms on Sundays; In spring 2013, they experienced a 53% increase in growler sales alone. It was tough to keep up at times. With investors and patrons arriving with growlers to fill and brewpub guests demanding the IPA, turnover was at a peak.

However, since the passage of state-wide Sunday liquor store sales, fewer consumers are dependent on breweries for Sunday purchases. Northbound experienced a 43% drop in growler sales when the law came into effect.

But in a funny twist of fate, it was this booming success followed by market stabilization that put Jamie back on the doorstep of his original dream: lagers. The 15 bbl tanks that were once used to house Big Jim IPA, their flagship and bestseller, were soon not turning over as quickly as before. And if there’s anything that shouldn’t sit around very long at a brewery, it’s an IPA. Jamie had an idea to do what they could not do before. 13-week fermentation was suddenly a breeze, especially in the quieter winter months.

When it comes to making pilsner, if you’ve got the time and the space, there is only one more enemy: the water profile. “Authentic Czech pilsner needs the right water profile,” Jamie explains. Otherwise it’s not worth doing.

As Master water chemist and brewing water expert A.J.deLange once said, “Municipal water supplies in developed countries are such that, while they may not be ideal for brewing, one can make many passable beers with them. Many brewers do exactly that for their entire brewing career.

Jamie was after more than passable beers — lagers were his dream all along. To that end, he had visions of making custom water profiles for each lager he produced, starting with Pilsner. The water from Pilsen, the birthplace of the pilsner, is quite unique. In general, lighter, malt-forward beers benefit from soft water and less residual alkalinity (or more acid). The source of water in Pilsen is extremely soft. Soft water accentuates the sweet cereal malts which are then balanced by hop spice and aroma.

It was all-or-nothing for Jamie, and he made the decision to engineer his pilsner water by first putting it through a reverse osmosis (RO) system to remove positively everything from the water, and then build a recipe to mimic the water of Pilsen. This was a turning point for Northbound and one Jamie could only have realized because of their unique situation, seven years after opening.

While a carbon filter removes chloride, fluoride, and other larger particles from the city water supply, RO provides a wonderful blank canvass for engineering brewing water. It’s not terribly common in the brewing world, but it’s the best route for brewers with less-than-ideal brewing water, or exacting tendencies that require stringent water profiles. Steel Toe Brewing in St. Louis Park, for example, has been using RO water for years.

Jamie enlisted the help of his brother-in-law, chemical engineer Zach Schmidt. Zach has experience managing the RO water system at Target Field, among other water projects. Zach is currently working on building a water calculator that any brewery can use once they know their variables.

Until this week, the only RO water profile created by Zach and put into practice was for the pilsner. But starting this Friday, as part of Northbound’s Anniversary Week, Jamie will be releasing the brewery’s first Oktoberfest, their second lager. And, “when we catch up, I’m hoping to make water profiles and do a series of beers of the world,” he explains with excitement.

While the dream is finally here and it’s going down easy, one glass at a time, there is still progress to be made. Jamie explains that he’s been struggling with a balance of authenticity versus likeability. At the end of the day, what is the value of being exactly to style if people don’t like the beer? “We have to walk a tightrope and think ‘how do we tweak this?’” Historical beer can be a beautiful thing, and also a challenge given the collective palette, which has evolved rapidly in the last seven years.

This Friday, 9/20, make your way to Northbound Smokehouse to try their bonafide Czech-inspired Pilsner and their anniversary Oktoberfest, along with a handful of other anniversary releases. While lucky number seven saw the fulfillment of a dream for owner Jamie Robinson and his dedicated staff, you can just tell your friends that the beer is so good because there’s something in the water.

#Oktoberfest #SouthMinneapolis #craftbeer #lager #anniversary #Pilsner #NorthboundSmokehouse

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