It was about one o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon when the head brewer asked me, “Is it too early to drink?”
“Naw,” I replied. “That’s why I’m here.”
It was about one minute after I arrived at Big Wood Brewery’s new basement taproom in downtown White Bear Lake. Ty McBee cracked open tall cans of the brewery’s American pale ale, Jack Savage, and entered its auburn contents into a pint glass for me.
The ale was the obvious choice, co-owner Steve Merila says, because the red flannel I wore matched Savage’s distinctive plaid can. Merila was hospitable, but didn’t pour the beer because he was busy folding T-shirts with suggestive slogans.
As I sip and chuckle, co-owner Jason Medvec adds, “We don’t take ourselves too seriously. We have fun and drink a lot of beer.”
Three years ago, neither Merila nor Medvec nor McBee had any commercial craft brewing experience, but they were self-employed or enterprising entrepreneurs. McBee, a remodeler, brewed from home. Medvec had owned an advertising firm for 20 years. Merila ran a $20 million flooring distribution center.
As the recession dragged into 2010, Merila’s store in Vadnais Heights became a hangout for customers from other flooring stores who had fewer customers of their own. One way to help, he thought, was start a brewery.
“Remember the show ‘Scooby Doo’? ” Medvec interjects as I gulped the ale. “They would walk to a bookshelf or a fireplace and someone would pull out a book. It would spin around to a secret passageway. That was the coolest part of the [old] brewery besides the beer.”
Merila, who has a head of untamed hair to match his ideas, had something similar to the cartoon in his office: a bookshelf/wall that rotated to reveal a hallway to a small brewery with a couch and TV.
“When I started, I didn’t know anything about beer,” he says, as his pint of ale was the first to disappear. “I knew I liked beer, and all my customers drank beer, and the door helped. I wanted to be a very legitimate craft brewery, but I didn’t care how small I was at that point. I wanted to get into it as another service to my business, a goodwill gesture.”
Merila attended a Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild meeting, with an attempt “to score some tickets to Winterfest 2011.” Leaders from Minnesota’s premier craft brewers, Summit and Surly, were talking about donating beer to festivals.
“So, if I bring beer, I can be in the festival?” Merila asked.
“Yeah,” they replied. “Do you want to be in the festival?”
One problem: He didn’t have any beer at the moment. He brewed the next night.
Meanwhile, Merila talked to Medvec about how he should join the fledgling brewery. “I was getting excited about the craft movement and especially the quality of people in it,” Merila said. “Just really salt-of-the-earth guys that really love what they are doing.”
At Winterfest, Medvec got on board, but they needed a new brewer. Six interviews were conducted in one day. Five of the candidates brought beer. Four had business plans. One even ordered equipment. One showed up without a plan, purchases or even pale ales. In fact, Ty McBee “was the one with sawdust still on my T-shirt.”
How, then, did he get the job?
“Right off the bat, I think that we all just got along,” McBee says.
McBee joined in July 2011 and set off to brew the latest batch of their “flagship” coffee stout. Merila and Medvec soon discovered how smart it was to hire McBee.
The Autumn Brew Review in Minneapolis drew more than 80 breweries and hundreds of beers to its September celebration in 2011. The brews vied for each attendee’s vote for “best beer.”
The trio brought one; “It was basically our first batch,” Medvec says, so McBee didn’t have high expectations. This is how they pitched their first brew in the program: “The blast of coffee flavor in this beer will send you right back to this morning when you woke up, stretched and thought, ‘Hey, this is gonna be a great day!’ It adds hints of oatmeal and malt to make every coffee-lover’s secret beer come true.”
When McBee learned they had won, he must have thought he was dreaming or that Medvec and Merila were messing with him. “I was like, ‘Aww, you guys are hilarious.’ I didn’t believe them,” McBee says. “You don’t go to those things and win right out of the gate. That was what I was thinking. You have great breweries going there.”
“It was a fluke,” Merila says, “until we won it the next year.” In 2012, they beat out more than 100 breweries and hundreds of beers. “Based on the name and what they’ve used for other names for their beers, they have a bold, outgoing personality, so I tasted that in the beer,” says Dan Justesen, president of the Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild and co-owner of Vine Park Brewing in St. Paul. “That is a huge part of any brewery’s success. A: It needs to be good enough. B: It needs to have some pizzazz and something to have it stand out. That will sell a good beer.”
On the heels of consecutive awards at the Autumn Beer Review, fans clamored for it in bars and liquor stores. For 15 months after the first win, Big Wood fielded this question over and over again: “When can we get your beer?” That first beer hit the shelves in December 2012, followed this spring by Jack Savage and Bad Axe, its imperial India Pale Ale. Big Wood beers are now on draft in more than 100 bars and sold in cans at more than 600 liquor stores across the state.
Big Wood is also on tap down the street at Washington Square in White Bear Lake.
“They seem like good guys that care about brewing good beer, and we do the same here, so it was a good fit for us,” says Naomi Krautkramer, Washington Square general manager.
On that Wednesday afternoon, we finished the Jack Savage beers. Medvec and I then split a Bad Axe as he shared the game plan for a taproom and offices in 5,000 square feet in White Bear Lake.
“We wanted it to feel like a quaint place and fit into White Bear Lake,” says Medvec, a resident. “We could have moved to Northeast [Minneapolis] and built this, but we wanted to be the brewery in an area.”
The brick taproom will have a bar to seat about a dozen, outdoor seating tables for more than a dozen, a small stage for performances and enormous wooden doors leading to the brewery and offices. “We wanted that English pub atmosphere,” Medvec says. “You can walk in and feel comfortable.”
Just like the release of their beer, people have clamored for when the taproom will open in September.
“People are excited to have a brewery so close,” Krautkramer says. “People are asking when they can go there.”
Big Wood’s Lineup
The starting five beers offered by Big Wood:
STYLE: American pale ale
ABV: 5.3 percent
SLOGAN: The friendliest of ales
NOTE/QUOTE: “First beer ever in a flannel can,” Jason Medvec says.
STYLE: Coffee stout
ABV: 5.5 percent
SLOGAN: Malt beverage with coffee added
RELEASE: December 2012
NOTE/QUOTE: “This is our flagship,” Medvec says.
STYLE: India pale ale
ABV: 6.6 percent
SLOGAN: Bitter bite, citrus soul
NOTE/QUOTE: “Our standard IPA,” Medvec says.
STYLE: Imperial India pale ale
ABV: 9.8 percent
SLOGAN: Aggressively hopped, smooth finish
RELEASE: March 2013
NOTE/QUOTE: Despite high ABV, “it’s really drinkable,” Medvec says.
Big Wood’s Lumber Big Wood has brought home the lumber, er, awards.
Morning Wood: Best beer at the 2011 and 2012 Autumn Beer Review
Bad Axe: Best beer at the 2013 Rochester Craft Beer Expo
Big Wood: Best brewery at the 2012 Lord Dabbler’s Cup at the St. Paul Winter Carnival
Big Wood: Best Minnesota brewery at the 2012 St. Paul Summer Beer Fest