Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Lazy Loon Brewing: Victoria, MN

So back to beer related stuff!  I was recently excited to discover that one of my homebrew club members was secretly converting his garage into a production brewery...unexpected and very cool!  I met with owner and brewmaster Jonathan Lueck to check out his facility and get the skinny. 

Proud papa showing off his beery offspring!

Getting to Jonathan's home in Victoria, MN was a pretty quick trip for me from Waconia.  His home is on a lot that used to host a decrepit farmhouse and some of the left-over debris remains...currently being used as a haunted house for Halloween.  In the attached garage of this unassuming but nice home lurks stainless steel, pallets of cans, and large lager coolers.  The door to the house from the garage apparently had to be sealed over to conform to regulations for a production brewery.   I have to say that this brewery garage is the first of its kind that I have ever visited--and after visiting hundreds of breweries, that is saying something!  Not only is Lueck brewing small batches there, he has his own Cask manual canning line as well.  The canning line has the ability to convert to an automated system in the future and handles 12 and 16 oz cans.  Each can is labeled by hand in advance of filling.

Canning beer on a small scale!

Jonathan has a degree in Economics, and is a practicing CPA and Attorney focused on small business consulting.  With said background he certainly has the knowledge needed to start a successful small business, something that many brewery owners lack.  He spent a great deal of time and effort looking into the necessary laws and requirements needed for opening his brewery and as a result was able to get his home brewery going fairly quickly. 

When asked about the origins of his interest in beer, Jonathan responded: "
With a German farming background, I seemed destined to have an interest in beer.  My hobbies have always involved being a “creative craftsman”.   As I started to learn more about how beer is made, the more I appreciated the craft of brewing.  The  potential for creativity is endless."  His favorite beers to drink are lagers and change with the seasons.  He mentions specifically migrating back to Schells since they have done an amazing job at developing craft lagers.

Not only does Jonathan like to drink lagers, but also to brew them.  I asked him about his decision to focus on those styles for his brewery, and his response was very technical:  "Craft breweries currently have roughly 10% if the market.  The craft brewing industry continues to go after and gain additional market share.  However, the trend is to continue to seek additional market share with the same approach.  I took a step back and analyzed the market to identify an approach to reach the part of the market that craft beer has not focused on.  The answer was obvious, lagers."

The biggest question I had for him was "Why build your brewery in your own garage?"  In typical fashion he returned with a well thought-out and economics minded answer:

"Establishing a brewery on my property allowed me the opportunity to enter the industry without the pressure of producing at levels necessary to cover the fixed occupancy costs.  This gives me the ability to be flexible and creative.  The small batches and labeling of cans provides the freedom to continue to develop the brand through many styles of beer, rather than being married to a minimum order of over 90,000 pre-printed cans.  If you think about it, we have the flexibility of a taproom with the portability of a full production brewery.   The establishment of this brewery is also a proof of concept that a nano-brewery model can produce and package.  We are now in a position to consult with others who wish to enter the brewing industry, but do not want to mortgage their future to do so."

"The long term goal is to continue to work the business plan with a focus of moving the location off site.  The future location will be a production facility with a tap room.   We are seeking a location that will allow us to have a tap room that is an experience, rather than just another room to drink beer."

To me this sounds like a good plan for a small business--gaining a following and name recognition with the eventual plan to increase production over time.  This has a similar feel to contract brewing with another brewery, but with the benefit of having more control over your beer and the brewing process from the beginning. 

So what about the beer you ask?  Jonathan let me try out a few of his test batches before their unveiling to the beer world.  Up front, I'm not as much of a lager guy, but I do respect and appreciate well crafted lagers.  Lueck's flagship beer is the Lazy Loon Lager--an American pilsner style that will have a broad appeal to those who are wary of "Craft Beer."  I liked the taste I had, enjoying it more than some American lagers from the big guys. 

The next taste was a summer version of the Lazy Loon with lime.  I got to try two different batches, each using a different technique for adding the lime flavor.  Both were bright and refreshing, but my favorite was actually when I blended the two samples together!  Haters may hate, but there is something happy about a hint of lime in a lighter lager.  The base beer for this has more flavor and body than another popular "lite" version of lime lager.

The Volksfest is his version of a maltier lager for fall, not quite an Octoberfest/Marzen but in the same vein.  This was also a decent and drinkable beer, but a bit too sweet for my personal tastes.

His Hat Trick is a label that will potentially be like Schells Snowstorm--a seasonal beer that may be an entirely different style and experience each time.  An intriguing prospect for those who tire easily of the same old thing, and one that allows him some opportunity for experimentation in recipe design.  This is early in the life of Lazy Loon Brewing and Jonathan is clearly working on dialing in his small 1 barrel brew system and lagering methods.  As a result of this, there is going to be a bit more variability batch to batch than in larger production breweries.  He seems open to suggestions and is interested in trying new things.  He has some interesting ideas involving collaborations with Jack Of All Brews homebrew club that I'm excited about!
To finish Jonathan wanted to make sure to thank the folks at Surly for their assistance,  Mike at Vintage in Chanhassen,  and Jason at MGM (Chanhassen, Chaska, Waconia, and Spring Park).  His beers are already on the shelves, so you don't have to take my word on it: try them yourselves and tell me (and him) what you think. 


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