If you drink beer in Minnesota, odds are Schell’s Brewery is a regular term in your vocabulary. You might have even been on their brewery tour.
But, what if I told you this decades-old brewery was doing something new? What if I said they’re pushing Minnesota beer into the final frontier? What if I told you I binge watched multiple seasons of Star Trek in college?
Nerd jokes aside, Starkeller Brewery–the newest project of Schell’s–is truly pushing the future of Minnesota beer in a new and exciting direction: sours. While several Minnesota breweries already make their own sours, and there are some devoted exclusively to the style, Starkeller’s opening shows that even the big dogs are buying in.
Thanks to the gracious generosity of Jace Marti, the head brewer, I weasled my way into Starkeller Brewing just days before they opened to the public.
Jace told me stories of the brewery’s history and how each piece came thoughtfully into place. From the decor in the entryway (old plumbing parts from past Schell’s equipment) to the patched tin wall (from the walls of the barn that originally stood on the property), history seeps into every aspect of Starkeller. This is especially true for the beer experience: all the sours are fermented in enormous cedar tanks from Schell’s storage. Originally, the tanks were used for Schell’s non-sour beers. The cedar was known for holding onto very little flavor, making them great for fermenting lighter beers.
Turning these brewing antiques into usable fermenters for the sour program was no small task. Primarily, Jace had to find a way to strip the wax layer from inside each tank. After many hours of Googling, and plenty of tests on sample boards, the brewer ended up dry ice blasting the interior of each massive barrel. The taproom was built around the fermenters, situating them as a gauntlet of looming homages to beer history.
Jace’s passion for sours and commitment to sharing the history of family-owned Schell’s Brewing shows when he lights up talking about the brewery. “These tanks are a footnote in the history of brewing, and to be continuing and starting a new chapter with them in something that they totally weren’t intended for is what I love about it. It’s part of my family and the brewery’s history in a way that is unique only to us. That’s why I started this.”
When Schell’s first launched their sour program, there were only 42 beers in the whole style on Beer Advocate. Now, you can find nearly 2,000 listings. I’ll gladly raise a glass to Starkeller’s role in making sour beer a regular at my dinner table.
While the now-open brewery is beautiful and steeped in personal history, the process of opening was far less romantic. After year-long delays due to paperwork, and some very steep learning curves with the testy style, Jace was more than ready to finally open his doors to the public. “I struggled with not seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. After a couple of the beers came out, I had to keep the burning desire that I had when I first started. It’s easy to settle on your successes, but you need to have the drive you had when you first started.”
Now, Jace is enjoying all the light at the end of his tunnel. One of these lights is sharing his beer with the community. “New Ulm has kept us alive, and we will do everything we can to give back to them,” says Marti. One way Starkeller will do that is supporting local chefs with their open kitchen.
“Food pairings are a great introduction to sours, so we’re excited about the open kitchen. Sours have a high carbonation and acidity, and they’re more dry, so they can cut through the bigger, bolder flavors in food. They have enough to complexity to stand up to all the big flavors. That means chefs might also try something they wouldn’t normally cook in their own restaurant.”
I enjoyed one of Starkeller’s sours–a Berliner Weisse aged on blackberries–that was refreshing and rich all at once. He hopes to pair it with a blackberry cheesecake.
Just days before opening Starkeller–a passion project filled with unexpected challenges–Jace was finally able to relax and take in the sweet (or sour?) accomplishment. His advice reflected the hindsight of a man who has just summited a challenging mountain.