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Progress: A six-pack of Brainerd lakes breweries

Owner Chris French fills a beer from the tap at Big Axe Brewing Company in Nisswa in this file photo. Kelly Humphrey/Brainerd Dispatch1 / 6
Owner Patrick Sundberg talks about the growth of Jack Pine Brewery in Baxter in this file photo. Kelly Humphrey/Brainerd Dispatch2 / 6
Mark Lelwica, co-owner and president, talks about the process of opening Roundhouse Brewery in the Northern Pacific Center in Brainerd in this file photo. Kelly Humphrey/Brainerd Dispatch3 / 6
The front windows of Cuyuna Brewing Company in Crosby display the beers the brewery planned to debut with in this file photo. Kelly Humphrey/Brainerd Dispatch4 / 6
Jesse and Jessica Bleichner talk about their plans for opening the Local Artisan Brewery in Brainerd in this file photo. Kelly Humphrey/Brainerd Dispatch5 / 6
Owner Mark Anderson talks about coming up with the name of Gull Dam Brewing in Nisswa in this file photo. Kelly Humphrey/Brainerd Dispatch6 / 6

With the opening of '14 Lakes Craft Brewing Company' in Crosslake this summer, there is now a six-pack of breweries operating in the Brainerd lakes area.

The 14 Lakes Craft Brewing Company is featured in this Progress Edition, while the other breweries were featured in last year's edition.

A lot has changed in the past year, with one of the existing breweries moving into a larger location, while another brewery featured last year didn't get off the ground.

Local brews continue to pop up at beer festival events in the area, including the upcoming Harvest Moon Brew Fest Saturday in Aitkin. Jack Pine Brewery, Cuyuna Brewing Company, Roundhouse Brewery, Big Axe Brewing Company and Gull Dam Brewing will join the selection of beers from throughout the state at the event.

Jack Pine Brewery

The first brewery in the Brainerd lakes area, Jack Pine Brewery of Baxter, went through a period of great change since last year. The brewery moved from its original location in an industrial park on College Road to a new, bigger location on Edgewood Drive North, next to Arrowwood Lodge of Brainerd Lakes.

The new location features a larger 15-barrel production system, which replaces the old three-barrel system. There's a full canning and bottling line, which has increased distribution options for the brewery. The brewery is currently canning 60-100 cases of beer at a time, owner Patrick Sundberg said. But at full production, the brewery can can 150-200 cases per day, at 24 beers per case.

The old location's maximum production was about 800 barrels per year. The new brewery can produce 2,000 barrels per year, but Sundberg said he doesn't want to push the production capabilities in the system's first year.

"It's fun growing, but it's also stressful," he said.

The square footage more than doubled in the move, going from 3,000 square feet to 7,000 square feet. There's now an outdoor patio space, bigger taproom and the option to host food trucks. There's also a space available to rent out for private events.

Brewery tours at the old location had to be stopped, because of a lack of space. Sundberg said he'd like to bring them back, but the brewery is still getting settled after the move.

"It's on our radar, but we're still kind of in transition mode," Sundberg said.

The brewery started hosting trivia nights on Tuesdays, put on by Trivia Mafia, which hosts trivia nights throughout the state, as well as at other area breweries. The first couple weeks were hit and miss, Sundberg said, but trivia night attendance has started picking up.

Cask Thursdays, a recurring event at the old location, has been put on hiatus following the move, Sundberg said. Cask Thursdays involved carbonating beer in a cask with sugar, instead of in a brite tank. The brewer then added a new flavor to vary the taste of the cask beer.

The new location allows the brewery to do infusions with kegged beer as well as casks, Sundberg said. The brewery will still experiment with infusions, he said, and those beers can go on tap in the taproom or in a cask.

The brewery has four full-time employees and 11 part-time employees. The new location is busier in the middle of the week, Sundberg said, which means there's more shifts for part-time employees to work.

Gull Dam Brewing

The first brewery to take up residence in Nisswa, Gull Dam Brewing, opened in October 2014, founded by owners Mark and Barb Anderson.

The brewery's distribution has expanded tremendously since last summer, Mark Anderson said. Gull Dam Brewing beer is on tap in more than 120 establishments, mostly in the Twin Cities area, he said. It's a popular beer among metro residents familiar with the Brainerd lakes area, he said.

"It's an easy sell to bring the Brainerd lakes area down to the Twin Cities," Anderson said.

The production projection for this year is a little more than 2,000 barrels, which is about double last year's production. He credited the beer's growth to a beer consultant who brought a chemistry background to the Gull Dam Brewing process. He hopes to start canning the beer by the end of this year as well.

The brewery consistently has eight to nine beers on tap, Anderson said, which is right where he likes it. If there are more beer options, he said, people get overwhelmed.

There are 12 employees, between full-time and part-time employees.

Thanks to an outdoor stage added in May 2016, the brewery hosts live music every Friday and Saturday night, Anderson said. The brewery also started hosting a wood-fired pizza food truck.

In July, the brewery started selling growlers on Sundays, Anderson said, and so far, sales have been limited. It's more of a convenience purchase for someone already visiting the taproom on Sunday for a pint, he said.

Big Axe Brewing Company

Nisswa's second brewery, Big Axe Brewing Company, opened in May 2015 and earlier this summer celebrated its second anniversary.

In the past year, the brewery acquired the adjoining Happy Camper Cafe, owner Chris French said. He added a couple new brewing tanks to upgrade production capacity, as well as a small canning line. The production projection for this year is 400-500 barrels, he said.

The beer is on tap on a full-time or rotating basis at a few different establishments in the Brainerd lakes area, French said. There are seven kinds of beer available in cans at a few different liquor stores in the Brainerd lakes area and in Minneapolis. Canned beer is another way to get Big Axe beer in the hands of beer drinkers throughout the area.

"It shows other people what we have and also just give another option for it," French said. "So far, it's been received well."

The brewery has been hosting Trivia Mafia trivia nights, first on Wednesdays and now on Thursdays, for over a year. There's also live music occasionally.

The Nisswa City Council in July 2016 allowed the brewery to sell growlers on Sundays. It's nice to have the boost in revenue from Sunday growler sales, French said, but it's even nicer to not have to answer to the question about Sunday growler sales anymore.

"We're just as happy that we can make our customers happy," French said. "We don't have to turn them away when they come in on a Sunday."

There are about 25 employees between the brewery and the restaurant, French said, most of which are part-time.

Roundhouse Brewery

Roundhouse Brewery in Brainerd opened its doors in April 2016 in the Northern Pacific Center. It's the first brewery to operate in Brainerd in about 100 years, according to the Crow Wing County Historical Society.

Mark Lelwica, co-owner and president, said the beer is now on tap in about 45 establishments in the area, including a few in St. Cloud. The brewery recently started canning its beer, he said, and the beer is available in cans in about 20-25 area liquor stores. The brewery's distributor, C&L Distributing, has helped expand the brewery's reach.

The brewery doesn't have canning equipment, Lelwica said, so a mobile canning business visits the brewery once a month to can beer. There's two beers available in cans so far, with a third to launch in September.

From April to December 2016, the brewery produced 230 barrels of beer, Lelwica said. The production goal for 2017 is 500 barrels, he said, more than doubling the production from 2016.

"(We want) a lot more capacity, as we get more efficient at what we're doing," Lelwica said. "There's learning curves with everything."

The brewery started hosting trivia nights on Wednesdays, put on by Trivia Mafia, which hosts trivia nights throughout the state, as well as at other area breweries. The brewery also hosts monthly Traveling Art Pub events, Lelwica said, as well as live music, meetings and gatherings.

There are about a dozen beers on tap at any time, Lelwica said, as well as a variety of non-alcoholic options, including lemonade and root beer. The brewery has 10 employees, including brewer Chuck Martin, who now has an assistant. A taproom manager fills a variety of different roles, Lelwica said.

Cuyuna Brewing Company

The craft brewing craze came to Crosby when Cuyuna Brewing Company opened Jan. 27 in a 100-year-old building on Main Street.

When the brewery opened, owner Nick Huisinga and his wife were still living in Willmar. They would drive to Crosby Thursday night after Huisinga got off work and run the brewery from Thursday to Sunday before driving back to Willmar.

After a couple months, Huisinga realized they could no longer run the brewery part-time. He and his wife moved into an apartment above a downtown Crosby business around the end of April and have ran the brewery full-time ever since. The brewery is now open seven days a week, which will be the case from Memorial Day through Labor Day.

Huisinga hasn't started distributing beer to bars and restaurants because it's been hard enough to produce enough beer for the taproom. Memorial Day and the Fourth of July left the brewery with only a few beers on tap, so Huisinga doesn't plan on distributing beer until the fall or winter. It depends on the week, but Huisinga is brewing two to three times a week.

"There's a couple beers that we can't ever keep on tap," Huisinga said. "I'll brew a batch and it'll be gone in two weeks."

So far, Huisinga has brewed about 132 barrels of beer in the first six months, which is much more than he thought he'd be doing. At this point, Huisinga thought he'd still be working his full-time job and running the brewery part-time. It's a lot of work, but better than the alternative of not being able to sell enough beer to cover expenses, he said.

"When you're selling that much, you're not really needing that other job," Huisinga said. "But also, you're having to work more, because there's that much more brewing and cleaning to do."

There are about 10 part-time employees who cover shifts in the taproom, Huisinga said. His wife covers accounting and ordering, while he's the only backroom production employee.

Local Artisan Brewery

One brewery in last year's Progress Edition failed to open after running into issues with its location.

Jessica and Jesse Bleichner were planning to open the Local Artisan Brewery in a first-floor space in the Franklin Arts Center in Brainerd. They wanted to experiment with much smaller batches than other breweries in the area.

In fall 2016, the Brainerd City Council went through the process of amending the city's liquor zone map to allow the brewery in the mixed-use facility. Brainerd Public Schools issued its opposition to the location, based on its policy prohibiting drugs and alcohol in school facilities. The district's lease covers the auditorium, cafeteria area and gymnasiums, and also references common areas.

Because of the district's opposition to the brewery's location, the Bleichners did not open their brewery and did not find a new location for it. Jessica Bleichner said via email they are keeping their eyes open for another location, but are not rushing into it.

"We are hopeful that eventually we'll have The LAB in operation, and full of amazing local goodness," Bleichner wrote. "Using as many local resources as possible will always be the focus of our business plan. We are patiently waiting for the perfect opportunity to put it into action."

HED: Timeline of Brainerd lakes area breweries

• January 2013—Jack Pine Brewery opens.

• October 2014—Gull Dam Brewing opens.

• May 2015—Big Axe Brewing Company opens.

• April 2016—Roundhouse Brewery opens.

• January 2017—Cuyuna Brewing Company opens.

• Spring 2017—Planned opening for Local Artisan Brewery.

• May 2017—Opening of new Jack Pine Brewery location.

• September 2017—Planned opening for 14 Lakes Craft Brewing Company.

Spenser Bickett

Spenser Bickett covers the Brainerd City Council and education. A native of the Twin Cities, Bickett attended the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, where he majored in journalism with a minor in political science. After graduation, he worked for the International Falls Journal as a staff writer before coming to Brainerd.

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