Bemidji brewers found passion at BSU (Alumni)

Mondays and Wednesdays are brew days at the Bemidji Brewing Company. So a Thursday morning finds owners Tom Hill (’06) and Justin “Bud” Kaney (’08) straightening up the taproom in preparation for the weekend release of an English mild, a ruby red beer, malty with hints of toffee and caramel.

20140530-BSU Magazine-Bemidji Brewers

Hill, head brewer, keeps six brews on tap and introduces a new flavor every couple of weeks at the downtown brewery. Among favorites is an Indian Pale Ale, best swirled before swigging to intensify its tropical fruit and citrus hop aroma.

For the owners, one of the most rewarding things about owning a brewery is sharing the craft with others.
“It opens up an entirely different world previously relegated to wine and other culinary experiences,” Kaney said. “Yet it doesn’t have quite the pomp, so it’s exciting a lot of people.”

He and Hill – together with Hill’s wife, Megan Betters-Hill, and Kaney’s fiancé, Tina Hanke – founded Bemidji Brewing Company in 2011.

They opened last July at 401 Beltrami Ave. This spring, they were one of 10 Minnesota breweries – along with 20 national breweries – invited to participate in the inaugural Rare Beer Fest at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul.

“We’re not just another Twin Cities brewery,” said Hill, noting that building community and educating people about different kinds of beer is part of their mission. “We’re distinctly our own. We have a taproom right downtown where folks can gather and identify with Bemidji.”

Kaney of Wittenberg, Wis., and Hill of Hibbing discovered their passion for craft beer while attending Bemidji State University. Hill, a sophomore in 2004, started brewing with his college roommates. He met Kaney four years later when Kaney was a senior and Hill was back on campus for graduate studies.

Both graduated with a degree in design technology, and Kaney ended up in one of Hill’s machining classes. Hill invited Kaney to see his brewing operation, and Kaney admits that from the first brew, the thought of starting a brewery took hold. “Brewing beer can be pretty empowering,” Hill said.

Still, it was just an idea. Hill moved to the Twin Cities so he could be closer to the state’s then-fledgling microbrew culture. Kaney took a job with Hasbro Toys in Rhode Island but soon realized something was missing. “It was work primarily in a cubicle – there were toys everywhere, which was cool – but it was still a cubicle,” he said. “That’s when I called Tom.”

Starting a new business is always risky, but Hill and Kaney are glad they took the risks. “If Bemidji Brewing failed tomorrow, I would absolutely start something new,” Kaney said. “I’ve never had such creative challenges – the opportunity to mop floors and talk strategic partnerships. It’s fundamentally more human than clocking in and clocking out.”

And the business continues to evolve. Bemidji Brewing produces about 186 gallons of beer a week, most of which is sold over its own counter. In the coming year, the owners plan to invest in a 30-barrel brewing system capable of initially producing 1,860 gallons a week at an off-site location. The goal is to distribute their label throughout the region as a full-fledged distributing microbrewery.

Their BSU education in design technology has also proven valuable. “Beer is a manufactured product that has a lot of similarities to hard goods in terms of consistency, accuracy and repeatability,” Hill said. “A lot of that certainly translates into beer production.”

For Hill and Kaney, landing back in Bemidji has been a stroke of good fortune. They love the outdoors Kaney said, “Bemidji has that in spades.” But they considered a variety of markets before choosing Bemidji. Kaney and Hanke spent a year exploring the craft beer culture in Montana, which has more than three times the number of breweries per capita than Minnesota.

“You can see how craft beer has penetrated really small markets in Montana, and you know it can be done,” Kaney said. “Rural America is starting to take up craft beer.”

Matthew Hale, bar manager at Brigid’s Pub in downtown Bemidji, agrees. Brigid’s Pub was Bemidji Brewing’s first customer.

“There was that missing niche,” said Hale, noting that his patrons have long been asking for local brews. “Now they ask first, ‘What do you have from Bemidji Brewing?’ It’s been nothing but great to have them here. Their beer is really clean, crisp – textbook to the style they represent.”

Kaney and Hill appreciate the community support and plan to stay engaged in promoting Bemidji and good beer.

The last Bemidji Brewing Company closed in 1918, just before prohibition. Kaney and Hill are excited to bring back a local company.

“We want to be part of the economic engine, part of a change for community good,” Kaney said.

Cindy Serratore is a Bemidji-based freelance writer.

This story originally appeared in the Spring-Summer 2014 edition of Bemidji State University magazine. View the complete issue online.