Monday, June 2, 2014

Schram Vineyards Winery & Brewery

As most of my readers know by now, I'm a super enormous beer geek and live in the far Western reaches of the Twin Cities.  As a consequence, I can't just hop on my single gear New Belgium Cruiser (yes I have one) and ride over to Dangerous Man or Indeed for a pint of beer.  So when I get contacted with news of another impending brewery out my direction I end up pointing like a fine hunting dog on the scent of a plump pheasant!  For those readers located on the other side of the Cities, the Western Hinterlands have recently had Enki Brewing open in Victoria, and Roets Jordan Brewery should open soon as well.  We have a couple other breweries opening down Shakopee way that I need to investigate further.  And most recently I interviewed the brothers DeLange about Waconia Brewing (check Here for that interview.)  Now, my adopted home town of Waconia will also be home to Minnesota's first combination of vineyard and brewery:  Schram Vineyards Winery & Brewery!

Not too long ago Aaron Schram contacted me about his plans to expand into brewing, and I met with him just the other day to talk about the details.  I've actually known Aaron and his wife Ashley for a while but none of us had recognized our mutual interest in beer and brewing until quite recently.  In this interview, we'll cover some information about the vineyards, then move into more details on the brewery!

I showed up to the vineyards in the afternoon to a scene of frenzied construction and landscaping.  The winter had been long and difficult, slowing plans for the winery tasting room and cellars, as well as deep frost limiting landscaping efforts.  Then the monsoons began, bringing mud pits and Bobcat malfunctions, continuing the difficulties.  Ashley met with me as I drove up, inviting me onto the property and greeting me warmly.  She is a very sharp and stylish mother of two who works hard on the winery and excellent website, but also has a day job for a financial company! 

Soon Aaron ambled up from the thick of the construction zone, decked out in battered workman's duds and having just lost a vicious battle with some blackboard paint.  With a wry grin, he showed me his blackened and sticky hands, indicating that a handshake was out of the question for now.  I was struck by Aaron's happiness in the midst of all this chaos.  When discussing any issues that have arisen with construction, planting, or even paperwork, he seemed to take everything in stride as simply an obstacle to surmount and get on with their plans.  Currently he works full time in project management and all of the effort he puts into the Winery is on his own limited free time.

With an air of an excited school child showing off his new tree house or fort, he began taking me through the current winery and the future brewing area.  During this tour I got some background on the whole venture.  Aaron had wanted to do something like this for years, and he and Ashley started planting vines on their Waconia farm in 2008.  They currently have an area of about 6 acres and over 4000 vines of different cold-hardy varietals, and hope to expand even more in the future.  They currently grow the grapes for about a third of their wines, buying another third from other Minnesota growers and yet another third from Washington state.  Aaron likes to get those West Coast varietals to blend with some of his Minnesota grapes, resulting in more balanced finished wines.  Aaron has had some experience working at St. Croix Vineyard but most of his knowledge at this point is self taught by researching, reading, and experimentation.  He is considered the head wine maker, but has other assistants who help out with the process as well.

The winery tasting room (and cellaring area below), are set into the hillside, with an excellent view of Reitz Lake and the spreading rows of grapevines across the hills.  Currently there is a fair amount of work to be done yet on that large project, but the location really will be amazing when it is finished.  On the hill above the future tasting room is the current open air covered pavilion.  This is where most of the beer serving will take place once both areas are finished, separating the wine and brewery experience a bit.  When I was out there, they were painting (that cantankerous chalk board paint!) and I could see over 10 spots for taps on a serving wall!  The Schrams hope to have about 4-5 regular house beers and another 5-6 frequently rotating beers available.  They also make some lower alcohol melomels (honey wines with fruit) that they initially started selling on tap only, but have been popular enough that they needed to start bottling them!  They get their honey from a local Minnesota producer.  As a mead-maker myself, I look forward to trying those soon. 

Opening for business in the summer of 2013, the Schrams currently make six other wines, with the full range from white to rose to reds.  When asked what his favorite wine was, Aaron responded easily and without hesitation, "The Marquette."  He then went on to tell me that it had won a silver medal at the International Cold Climate Competition last year!  "I've been saving a couple of our best barrels and plan to release them as a special Reserve batch this year," he continued, patting one of those barrels affectionately.

With all that effort going on for the wine side of things, Aaron has also set his sights on beer.  "I've been thinking about adding a brewery since I accumulated some used winery equipment in South Dakota about 2-3 years ago that also has great potential for use in brewing.  Initially the laws in Minnesota just weren't where they needed to be, but things have changed a lot recently here."  Nicholas Smith, a Cicerone trained homebrewer, will be taking on the reigns of Head Brewer.  I've actually met Nick before.  He is a very knowledgeable guy who has been doing research and wine chemistry for the U of M for over 8 years after working briefly for Beringer Vineyards.  It looks like Phil Peterson and a couple other staff members will also be assisting in the brewing process.

The current brewery is a Franken-Brew system, meaning they have cobbled it together from different objects and created their own functional stainless steel art!  The electric brew kettle is one of the smallest I've seen in professional use--only 1.5 barrels!  That comes to roughly 46.5 gallons per batch.  Popular Minnesota craft brewery Summit has a 150 bbl brew system.  You don't even want to think about what size AB-Inbev uses!  Schram's fermenters are over 80 gallons so they can brew two batches and put both into one fermenter to double the final batch size, but this is still very small.  I have a 10 gallon stainless steel brew system at home that is only about a quarter of the size!  One positive to doing this small batch technique is being able to brew batches frequently and really dial in the system and get those beers perfect.  The negative is also that you need to brew very often to keep up with demand!  Aaron and his brew crew have a plan to create a large selection of specialty and small batch brews, and having a smaller system certainly makes this an easier proposition.  They plan on having a saison, porter, pale ale, blonde and possibly a cherry wheat as their house beers, with a frequently rotating selection of others.  They do hope to expand the brewery at some point if things are going well, perhaps keeping the current brew system for doing test batches.  With their head brewer's history as a wine scientist, they already have things set up for a small lab to deal with cell counts, yeast health and quality control.

When asked about his personal favorite beers, Aaron mentions German wheat beers as something he hopes to do right by.  He discovered this style in Germany and feels that most American versions lack the character of the true German Hefes.  I tend to agree with him on this! 

They plan on initially just selling beers by the pint and the sampler at the brewery, and will likely sell growlers there as well.  Aaron has home intriguing ideas for either hosting homebrewers to scale up their recipes for use at the tasting room, or even having novices work with his brewers to brew personalized batches.  The idea of personal boutique batches is more of a wine concept, but with the nearly infinite range of beer styles, I think this may be a great niche to fill in our brewery market.  Aaron says, "Most of the beer business is so over commercialized.  I want our brewery to be different and much more local." 

Besides these different ideas for his brewery, Aaron has some intriguing plans for his beers.  His eyes lit up when he started talking about some of these experimental beers, and the excitement is certainly infectious!  He hopes to try some beer/wine hybrids, which is a fairly rare style in the commercial world.  I've tried 61 Minute from Dogfish Head that combines a pale ale with Syrah grapes, and that was interesting.  I've heard recently of Lucid trying out a beer using Parley Lake grape juice, but haven't been able to try it yet.  And of course the Schrams would be wasting a great opportunity if they didn't try aging some beers in their used wine barrels!  I suggest trying some Belgian styles for that.  Jon Schmidt from Waconia's local coffee house the Mocha Monkey has already partnered with the Schrams to work on a collaboration coffee beer!  I got to try a preliminary homebrewed test batch of this on my visit, and look forward to trying the final scaled up beer. 

Since Schram Vineyard & Brewery is poised to be the first of its kind in the state, I asked if they have had any difficulties along the way.  Weather issues notwithstanding, they have certainly been breaking new ground when it comes to paperwork and licensing!  With different laws and requirements for wineries and breweries many things have had to be tweaked.  Some equipment can't be shared between both, requiring the Schrams to purchase a second expensive pump or tank, simply because of current laws.  Some areas of the brewery and winery have to be separated by walls, requiring more build-in.  Others areas are required to be in a completely different building.  Also when discussing this type of project with City, County, State, and Federal offices, one can discover different and even conflicting laws and rules.  Despite these concerns, it seems like things are currently going pretty smoothly and Aaron still has hopes to open the brewery by mid June of this year. 

One concern I've heard in the Beer-Geek-Isphere is about saturation of the market for craft beer and about increasing competition between breweries for a limited audience.  I've discussed this concept in previous posts, but I think it bears some more scrutiny.  I think there is certainly a cap on the number of bottles a liquor store can stock and sell.  This is why the big guys like Bud/Miller/Coors each have ten different types of cans and bottles--to take up more shelf space!  Larger craft breweries also fight for shelf space against them and now also other craft breweries.  A small upstart local brewery is going to have a hard time competing with all of that.  It is precisely this issue that has prompted many smaller town breweries to focus more on the local sales to get them into the marketplace.  Some are content to supply that local market without plans of expansion.  Look at Steel Toe--they could easily increase in size and distribution, but want to stay small and local.  Others, like Enki and Excelsior, started with local sales but have already expanded more into tap sales and even bottles once their popularity and name recognition have grown. 

Are two breweries in Waconia too much?  As a resident of the city who will be in a mood for different experiences and beers at different times, I say "No Way!"  The experience and tap room at Waconia Brewing will surely be a different one than the Schram's.  Also having met all the people involved in both of these ventures, I really admire them all and think they will bring different things to the table.  The more breweries we have out in the West, the more beer tourism we will see.  Look at all the bike pub-crawls, pedal-pubs, beer buses, etc. to breweries in Northeast Minneapolis!   Take also, the case of the Waconia wineries--we now have three in our small town.  Each of them are different: Parley Lake has a more rustic feel and is located within Deardorff Orchard; Sovereign Estate has a more classic French Chalet feel; and now Schram will appeal to both the wine and beer drinker.  Talking to Steve Zeller of Parley Lake recently, he mentioned that they had seen an increase in traffic to their winery since the opening of the other two vineyards, as well as more "wine trail" visitors to the area.  He seemed to feel that more local wineries would draw more people to all of them, and not have a huge direct competition effect.  In fact the three wineries are cooperatively hosting a progressive dinner in June with stops at each of the wineries for a different meal course! 

Having seen the work in progress at Schram Vineyard and Brewery, I have high hopes for their success.  I didn't take many pictures at this point since things were not in their final places and much landscaping was still in process.  According to Ashley, they really made a lot of progress that week and things are already looking much better out there.  The winery itself is now open for business, so please go check them out!  I plan to go back for a full review later this summer, once the brewery itself is up and running.  I would actually like to do a series of reviews (and perhaps interviews) of the other Waconia wineries around the same time as well. 

Aaron and Ashley have a lot on their plates with the winery and brewery expansion, raising two wonderful children, and both working busy day jobs.  They have heart, drive and a palpable excitement for this dream of theirs--and that will have to be enough to get them through this tough start!  I'm looking forward to seeing how they handle the challenges before them and really want to see Minnesota's first winery and brewery in action! 

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