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Local Brewery Finds Success, but Looks to Expand

By Alex Schlee

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Since their legalization in Minnesota in 2011, craft beer breweries have become increasingly popular throughout the state.  Independent brewers seem to be popping up all over, and Bemidji is no exception.  A whole slew of new businesses have rolled into town since this past summer, including the Bemidji Brewing Company, which opened its doors on the corner of Fourth Street and Beltrami Avenue on July 19th, 2013.

Bemidji is already home to many bars and restaurants, but Bemidji Brewing’s license is specifically labeled as a taproom, meaning that they can only legally sell products that they brew themselves.  Patrons here are served Bemidji Brewing’s own brand of beer, all made on-site.  Because of the small scale of their operation, their beer is made fresh by the four co-founders of the business: Tina Hanke, Megan Betters-Hill, Tom Hill, and Justin “Bud” Kaney.  There is no food served on location, but patrons wanting to eat while enjoying their craft beer are encouraged to have food delivered to the taproom from any of the local restaurants.

BemidjiBrew3Since opening in the summer, Bemidji Brewing has been enjoying success as a very community-based project.  Initially, the taproom’s founding was partially funded by a Kickstarter.com fundraiser where over 250 backers donated to support the growing business, totaling $17,500 by early 2012.  The four founders made connections with many of Bemidji’s populace during their fundraising, which is still apparent during the taproom’s open hours, when the venue is bustling with people, many of whom are known by name to co-founder Bud Kaney.

“People wanted more of a craft beer experience in Bemidji,” said Kaney.

For Kaney, craft brewing started out as a hobby he and his friend and fellow co-founder Tom Hill took up during their time attending Bemidji State University.  After they graduated, they continued to pursue brewing, looking into ways to start making a profit off their pass time.  They recruited Tina Hanke and Megan Betters-Hill, the other two co-founders of Bemidji Brewing, to their team to round out the skills and knowhow they would need to get their endeavor off the ground.

Bemidji Brewing, on its inception, operated out of Harmony Co-Op’s Community Kitchen, bringing in all their equipment, brewing a batch of beer, and then packing up and leaving until next time.  At the time, none of the founders even lived in town.  According to Hill, it was a hassle to manage, but it allowed them to at least get their beer on the market and put together a business plan for when they eventually landed their own space in July.  Many options were discussed when it came to picking a place to move in, but every conversation between the four founders went back to the city of their alma mater.

“We really wanted to come back to Bemidji,” said Kaney.  “We just love the community here… The response has been great.”

As of now, Bemidji Brewing is still a fledgling operation.  Only Kaney, Hill, Betters-Hill, and Hanke run the business, and between the four of them there is a lot of work to be done.  The taproom itself is only open a few days a week, from Thursday through Saturday, 4-9 p.m.  For the rest of the week, most of their work is dedicated to brewing.  Usually, they’ll try to start two batches of beer a day, but it’s not as simple as finishing up in twenty-four hours.  A batch of beer takes up to twenty days to fully run through the brewing process, between ten and fourteen of which are dedicated to fermenting and constant temperature monitoring, and another three to four are spent settling in the cooler.  Because of this long process, the amount of beer they’ll begin to brew in a day depends on how much space is available in their limited fermentation chambers.  They stagger their batches in a way to keep a steady production line going though.

Lack of storage options means that Bemidji Brewing is forced to serve up their products as fast and fresh as possible.  They have the storage means to maintain a decent stock for the space that they have available, but the company wants to expand.  Currently, Bemidji Brewing beer is sold at Brigid’s Cross Pub down the road from the taproom, but the company’s capacity means that this one contract is all they can manage.  There isn’t a lot of excess stock to sell off yet.  According to Kaney, they company has received around 40 other offers from the Bemidji area to carry their beer, but they can’t meet demand.

In hopes to step up production, Bemidji Brewing is taking on volunteer workers.  There has been talk within the company about offering internships through BSU as well, but any plans to follow through with such an opportunity are still far in the future. Information about the opportunity can be obtained through Bemidji Brewing’s email: info@bemidjibeer.com.

Regardless, according to both Hill and Kaney, any further help on staff would result in more supply, which would mean longer hours for the taproom, and possibly expansion to larger facilities for the Bemidji Brewing Company.