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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Brew It Yourself

Northern Brewer fuels passion for craft beer, wine

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The last two decades have seen a meteoric rise in the do-it-yourself (DIY) work ethic. With Internet information at our fingertips and television shows devoted to teaching audiences how to be self-reliant, ordinary people are learning to do just about everything for themselves, from home improvement and car repair to making music and brewing beer.

At Northern Brewer, a St. Paul, Minn.-based home-brew and winemaking supply company that opened a retail store in West Allis in November, Assistant Retail Manager David Kelley witnesses the DIY movement daily. “The exponential growth of companies like Dogfish Head Brewery, Rogue and Sierra Nevada is a testament that people are enjoying craft beer,” Kelley explains. “We’re finding that people who enjoy those beers want to make something different too. They want to try to do it themselves.”

One might say Northern Brewer has its roots in Scotland. Before founding the company, Chris Farley studied abroad in Edinburgh while attending Macalester College in Minnesota. He arrived in the European country a teetotaler and returned to the States armed with a deep appreciation for good beer. Committed to learning more about the burgeoning microbrewing scene of the early-1990s, Farley scored an internship at James Page, a Minneapolis-based microbrewery. He learned from his vantage point behind the scenes that the company was earning most of its revenue from the small home-brew supply shop, not from brewing beer.

In 1993, two of Farley’s college buddies each loaned him $4,000 to open Northern Brewer, his own home-brew supply store, on Grand Avenue in St. Paul. The entrepreneur expanded his reach with an impressive mail-order catalog and established his company on the Web early. The retail store soon proved to be too small to accommodate all of the sales generated from the mail-order business, so Northern Brewer opened an enormous warehouse in 2004 and expanded again in 2007. A move south to Milwaukee seemed like a natural progression.

“We spoke with some of our vendors from the Milwaukee market and their information indicated that, for the size of the city, the amount of home-brewing retail was very low,” Farley explains. “The city has such a great history for beer and brewing… It made no sense to me that Milwaukee wouldn’t be a great market for home-brewing.”

Northern Brewer has developed a large customer base and a trustworthy reputation through its substantial online presence and mail-order business, so when the company opened its 11,000-square-foot store in an old furniture warehouse at 1306 S. 108th St. less than five months ago, DIY brewers and winemakers flocked to the location.

“You can see a picture of a product,” Farley says, “but to be able to get your hands on it, kick the tires, so to speak, is, for a lot of people, pretty important.”

A visit to the Northern Brewer retail store is a study in how accessibility has made the DIY game a reality for so many people. “Twenty years ago, a home-brewer could find one type of malt extract available and a couple hop varieties,” Kelley explains. “Now we have close to 50 different hop varieties in the store, nearly 100 varieties of yeast, 20 kinds of dry and liquid extracts and 80 types of grains in one room. Anybody can brew any beer they can ever imagine.”

Northern Brewer carries such an expansive range of equipment for making beer, mead, cider, sake, wine and soda that people can choose how invested in the hobby they want to be. The company’s most popular products are the home-brewing starter kits, which contain all the specialized equipment needed to start brewing 5-gallon batches of beer at home. Unlike many proprietors in the home-brewing industry, Northern Brewer creates its own starter kits based on personal experience with the equipment, so the kits are designed for ease of use and producing quality product.

Northern Brewer helps make the leap into the DIY state-of-mind even easier with a series of informative classes that range from beginner topics, such as “Intro to Brewing,” to more complex areas of study, like “Going All Grain.” While the do-it-yourself work ethic focuses on completing tasks without relying on professionals to do it for you, it’s reassuring to know the staff at Northern Brewer’s retail store is there to help you make your DIY project a good one.