Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Waconia Brewing Company: An Early Preview!

In case you folks haven't been paying attention, "this craft beer thing" has really been taking off over the past few years!  There are production breweries, brewpubs, micro-breweries, nano-breweries, and more popping up all around the state of Minnesota (as they are across the United States.)  Many more are in the planning and construction stages as I write this.  Some naysayers have been decrying this boom as a fad and one that will crash like the ill-fated early 1990's brewery bust, but I think that is unlikely to happen.  This generation of craft beer drinkers is (mostly) not in it for the funny name or fancy label, but for variety and flavor.  Now nearly every bar or restaurant with a liquor license has at least a few craft beers on tap, or at least some transitional ones like Sam Adams or Blue Moon.  Many servers know their beer styles these days and some places even have full fledged Ciccerones on staff.  However with this craft beer rise, there is still only so much marketshare for that small piece of the beer-drinking pie.  The burgeoning craft beer enterprise will probably hit a certain saturation point and some of the weaker breweries (those with inferior beer or poor business sense) will likely fall by the wayside.

A way to get around this growing competition for tap-handles and shelf space is to focus more on a neighborhood or local market.  This is actually a trend that harkens back to the pre-prohibition days when nearly every town had its own brewery, before the massive consolidation of breweries into a few monolithic multinational corporations.  As a beer blogger I'm certainly seeing a trend toward this, especially out in the more distant suburbs of the Twin Cities.  Enki brewery in Victoria has already breathed new life into the sleepy downtown area, appealing to a lot of locals to fill their tap room.  Roets Jordan Brewery is poised to open this summer and aims to supply the local market in that historic city.  And now in my own town we have another contender for small local brewery on the horizon: Waconia Brewing Company!  Looking at my handy copy of Land of Sky Blue Waters by Doug Hoverson, I discovered that the last brewery in Waconia shut down between 1888-1890.  Its about time we had another!

I had heard rumblings about the brewery from a few of my sources, but information was sketchy.  Since I live in Waconia, I wanted more news!  So I stalked these poor unsuspecting entrepreneurs and invited them over for an exclusive interview for the JABlog.  I was lucky enough to get a chance to meet with Peter and Bob DeLange the other night at my bar to discuss their plans for the upcoming brewery.  Here is the scoop as of this writing.

Just who are these mysterious men who want to bring craft beer to the city of Waconia?  Bob and Peter are two of four DeLange brothers who have a history of working together when younger in a family run restaurant.  Peter and his wife Dee have been living in the area for several years and are currently building a new home in Waconia.  Bob recently moved here from Iowa with his wife Kaye and son, but we'll forgive him for that since he was smart enough to move to Minnesota!  Talking to the two of them one can easily tell they are brothers, as they share a camaraderie and comfort level with each other that can only come from being close family.  They obviously share a love of craft beer, but I was intrigued to discover that they are avid board game aficionados, even getting all four brothers together each year for several days of gaming and beer drinking.  Now that is a way to stay close to your family!  Currently Bob is in charge of organizing the construction aspects of the brewery and will be doing much of the "operations" work once the brewery opens.  Peter is doing most of the business planning.  Dee is working hard on the tap room design, branding and social media for the brewery.  Their younger brother Kevin is involved with the award winning Dry Dock brewery in Colorado, and is offering consultation on brewery design and set-up.  This is truly a family business!

When asked about the brewery itself, the two have a lot to say!  Obviously, there is still a fair amount up in the air at this stage in planning, but some decisions have been made already.  The brewery will be right downtown in Waconia, next to Unhinged Pizza, in the space that once housed a daycare center.  I can bet right now that pizza sales are going to sky-rocket!  They have already ordered their 10 barrel brew system, with 20 barrel fermenters and serving tanks.  The goal at this point is to have about half of the brewery building be taken up by a tap room and the other half for the brewery itself.  Initially they plan to focus on the taproom experience with growler sales at the brewery, but allowing room for a bottling line and distribution in the future.  They also aim to have some kegs on tap at local area bars and restaurants as well.  They hope to open in late Summer or early Fall of 2014, but construction, inspections, and licensing can sometimes throw breweries for a loop and cause delays.  I've got my fingers crossed for them to get things rolling as quickly and easily as possible!

Why Waconia?  They had asked themselves years ago, "Why does Waconia not have a brewery yet?"  Now with Bob moving to the area, this seed of an idea is becoming a reality.  They decided to name the brewery after the city of Waconia because, according to Peter they are proud of this town!  From a location and branding standpoint it makes sense too--just look at Excelsior Brewing's popularity.  Bob mentions one of his main goals as "Bringing the craft beer experience to the area."  I think that is a wonderful ambition, and one I've been encouraging for several years as well through this blog and the Jack Of All Brews Homebrew Club.

When asked about the philosophy of the brewery, Peter and Bob both seem to agree that their main desire is to create a local taproom that has a very comfortable and community atmosphere.  They want the environment in the brewery to be relaxing and laid back, allowing people to get together to socialize in town.  They hope to have game or trivia nights and possibly host acoustic music from time to time.  I think this type of setting will certainly appeal to me, and will offer something not available in the current downtown Waconia bar scene.

But what about the beers?  Beer details are still up in the air a bit at this point, but the brothers do have some ideas on that front.  Peter is a homebrewer and loves hoppy styles, so they will need something with some hop character to satisfy him.  Bob is a big fan of double IPA and really wants one of those on tap, but also likes German Hefeweizens.  They hope to have a stable of 4-5 regular beers with another 5-6 rotating special beers for variety.  They will likely have a lighter style like a kolsch or a wheat beer to appeal to the craft beer newbies as well.  They do plan on hiring an experienced brewer as they get closer to opening, so if you know anyone who fits the bill, please pass this information on!  The small size of the brew system will allow them to experiment a bit and try new things--something I'm always a fan of.

After hanging out for an hour and half with these guys at my bar and sharing my homebrews, I have a good feeling about this venture.  Both Peter and Bob are personable, friendly and open to new ideas.  They have been working hard behind the scenes to make this dream a reality and are now ready to move on with the nuts and bolts of construction and with endless reams of paperwork.  This is why you will never see me quitting my day job to open a brewery!  I think the DeLanges have the right idea with their current business plan: the aim of appealing to the local taproom drinker with an assortment of well-crafted quality beers.

I appreciate these guys taking time out of their busy schedules to meet with me for this interview.  I hope that I'll be able to share more information about Waconia Brewing Company over the coming year, and look forward to sipping a pint of their beer and playing some Lords Of Waterdeep or Settlers of Catan at their taproom!  Head over to their Facebook page HERE and like them now!

Addendum 10/2014:  Waconia Brewing is open!  My initial impression is that these guys are on the right track.  I'll be writing up a more in-depth review when I get a chance.

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