Over the last five years, the craft brewery movement has grown exponentially in Minnesota. The Associated Press says licensing records show two-thirds of Minnesota breweries have opened just since 2010. So, we decided to help you – and your livers – keep up with the taproom trend by stopping by some of these Twin Cities brewhouses. First up, Big Wood Brewery in White Bear Lake.
In 2009 Steve Merila was the owner of a wood flooring distribution company in Vadnais Heights. As his friend, and co-owner of Big Wood Brewery, Jason Medvec said, business had been good. But then the economy took a turn for the worse. Workers were coming in looking for a job, but were leaving empty handed. Morale was low.
“And as anybody who’s met Steve knows, he really loves to make people smile and cheer people up,” Medvec said. “One thing that made people happy was his beer. So, he put in a small brew system in some empty warehouse space.”
From there, Medvec says Merila got the licensing, hired a brewer and began brewing beer. He would serve the beer at seminars he hosted covering topics that pertained to the wood flooring industry, such as installation.
Soon, people began to form an appreciation for the beer and the small brew house grew to become Big Wood Brewery.
“So, it came out of a desire to really cheer people up during some tough times. That’s where we kind of came from,” Medvec said.
And it’s that idea they aim to emulate in their taproom.
So, along with Medvec, head brewer Ty McBee and assistant brewer Tim Daglow, I learned a little bit about Big Wood and got a taste of their taproom.
Big Wood Brewery
Owner(s): Steve Merila and Jason Medvec
Head Brewer: Ty McBee
Location: 2222 4th Street, White Bear Lake
Hours: Taproom: Wednesday – Friday 3 – 11 p.m., Saturday 1 – 11 p.m. Tours: Saturdays starting at noon.
Contact: 612-360-2986 or firstname.lastname@example.org
So, you sort of alluded to reasons the brewery was named Big Wood, but tell me exactly how you landed on the name.
Medvec: [The history in wood flooring] that’s where the name came from, although people think otherwise. It comes from the wood flooring industry, and a hell of a sense of humor, too. We don’t take ourselves too seriously here.
Definitely makes for a fun environment! Speaking of, how did you land on White Bear Lake as the home for your brewery?
Medvec: When we were looking for spots we looked at places in Northeast, we looked at places in Minneapolis and we looked at places in St. Paul. Once we announced that we were going to put a brewery in and we were looking for a home, we got letters from Lino Lakes, Hammer Heart wasn’t there at the time, Anoka, Hugo, all these towns that wanted a brewery. And I’ve lived here in the community for about 22 years now, so it’s kind of home to me. And Ty lives very close by and Steve’s kind of from around here. But we wanted to be one of one instead of one of many. We just wanted to be doing our own thing out here and be our own little destination location.
With so many breweries popping up around the Twin Cities it makes sense you’d want to differentiate yourself like that. How else do you differentiate your brewery?
Medvec: We’re at a point in the brewing industry now where we have about the same, if not more, breweries now than we did prior to prohibition. In the days before prohibition there was a brewery in every town, and that’s kind of what helped define the town. All the locals would go in and drink at that particular place. So, I think just the fact that we’re in White Bear Lake differentiates us from the other breweries. And again, not that they’re doing bad, we love them all. Everybody does their own thing really well and they each have their own characteristics, whether it be the styles of beer that they brew, or what their taproom is like or what their brewery is like. Everybody has their own unique characteristics, but we’re just kind of our own thing out here.
White Bear Lake seems to play an important role in your identity as a brewery. Other than just being an active business in the town, how are you involved with the community?
Medvec: We are pretty actively involved in the community, donating to the community and helping out our businesses around the community and so on. We partner with the local businesses – especially the food. The pizza places and the food that’s around here, we have their menus in our taproom so people can order a pizza from Olive’s or Pezzo’s and bring it in. And some of them will even deliver. Not all, but some, will even deliver here.
What was the first beer you brewed at Big Wood?
Medvec: Back in 2011 is when we partnered with Ty, and he became our head brewer. We didn’t have the brewery built at that time, so we started brewing small batches on our small system. The first batch of Morning Wood (a Coffee Stout) that he brewed won best beer at ABR, which is the Autumn Brew Review. Very prestigious beer festival. I think we were surprised, even knocked over, when we won it because there are a lot of great Minnesota breweries, and to be the new kid on the block and brew a small batch, bring it to a festival and to win was huge for us. So, that was the first beer we officially sold on the market.
What is the most popular beer at Big Wood?
Medvec: From a sales stand point, Jack Savage (their American Pale Ale) is one of our biggest sellers. Bad Axe (their seasonal Imperial IPA), is another one of our biggest sellers, but that’s seasonal. So when that comes out, we sell that really fast. Morning Wood, however, is not our biggest seller but it is our most awarded beer.
As you mentioned, an APA is your biggest selling beer. IPA, APA, EPAs are huge right now. They’re known to be more of a hoppy beer. Why do you think people are hopping on the hops train?
McBee: It’s one of the most important ingredients in beer. What you can do with a hop is accentuate flavors that already exist in the beer, or bring out flavors that exist in the hops…Hop-centric beers are driven by hop-heads. Hop-heads are the people that are really driving this beer movement. They are talking to their friends. They’re the people that when they show up some place and their friends are drinking Heineken, they’re like ‘Just take one of my beers and try it, and you’ll never drink that again.’ And [the friend] is like ‘Well, I don’t know if I’m going to like this.’ And then they’re like, ‘Oh my God, this is great.’ Barrel-aged bourbon stouts are tailing on the coat tails of IPA.
Medvec: IPAs have been having a run for 10 years, and it shows no signs of slowing down. It is hands down the biggest category out of craft beers. And it’s growing at a tremendous rate. The next biggest category, as a whole, is seasonals, which covers a range of forever. So that’s number one and two. And then pale ales is the number three category…I don’t always feel like a hoppy beer, but I don’t think I could ever have them out of my life completely. Because once you fall in love with IPAs, you’re like, ‘Oh my God, there’s a lot of flavor in that beer.’ And that’s what you fall in love with.
McBee: It’s all flavor. It’s all hop flavor. They’re fun.
What is your favorite beer that you serve at Big Wood?
Medvec: Bad Axe. Ty brewed that for me as a surprise one time. It was my birthday present. Seriously, I love big, high alcohol content, hoppy beers, so when Ty brewed Bad Axe I was like, ‘I like this!’ This is my favorite. Not only is it my favorite beer of all time, but it’s my favorite brewed here at Big Wood.
Daglow: I go back and forth between the Wicked Ex (an IPA) and the Bad Axe. The last batch of Wicked Ex that we brewed I think was probably our best batch that we brewed so far. It’s one of those beers that if I could keep a full glass all the time, I would.
McBee: Mine is Weissenheimer (a Wheat Ale). And that is because I only put two kinds of grains in the beer and it takes me six hours in the brewhouse to make this beer, and I toil the whole way through. It’s a challenge to make the beer. It keeps me on my toes. It’s 6.6 percent [alcohol]. It gets the job done. And I think it’s just a home run for a wheat beer. I’ve always kind of liked wheat beers. I’m an IPA guy, but you give me a good wheat beer and I’m drinking that all day.
Why do you think the craft beer movement has taken off in Minnesota, and the country, as it has?
McBee: I think you could probably thank Midwest Brewing and Northern Brewer for sprouting a lot of home brewers who realized that maybe it wasn’t exactly far-fetched to try and become a professional brewer….I think it is a local thing. I think we have been forced fed everything on the T.V. and it’s not good. And now you have this opportunity where you can go to the farmers market — you get all your organic goodies, make a pie, take it to Thanksgiving and be like ‘I made this from scratch with stuff that was from right over here.’ And we take the same pride in that philosophy.
Medvec: Consumers are getting smarter about the products that they put in their bodies. From the food they eat, to the surge of the organic movement. It’s becoming more and more about quality and less and less about quantity. And that’s kind of the craft beer movement in a whole. It’s about the quality of the beer.
Daglow: There’s just a lot of that kind of stuff happening, where people are just playing with fun things to do with the stuff that they’ve got. It doesn’t take a whole lot for the consumer to get on board with that, that’s easy. Something new all the time and its consistently good. I’ll take it. Let’s have it.
So for people who have never been the brewery, how would you describe Big Wood in one word?
Medvec: Fun. That was an easy question. And the reason is because we’ve always defined ourselves by that. We said from the beginning it’s the reason we got into the business – we just wanted to have fun.