A division of Cold Spring Brewing Co., Third Street Brewhouse beers begin landing on shelves and bartops in the coming week all over Central Minnesota. The initial offerings include Bitter Neighbor, a black India pale ale; Lost Trout, a brown ale; and Rise to the Top, a cream ale. They represent the first steps toward lifting what longtime employees say has been a reputation for inconsistent and cheap beer.
If that's going to happen, DeGeest says his dream team will lead the way. That includes:
—A man from Jamaica with more than 30 years of brewing experience.
—A local brewmaster who has been with the company for three decades.
—A man from Scotland who plays the bagpipes and has worked in the industry in the U.S. since 1994.
They are among a host of others from near and far — some with a lot of experience and some with little — whose goal is to make the most of a $12 million investment.
"When we said we were going to create Third Street Brewhouse, a lot of people thought we'd probably add on a little room to our existing building. They don't understand how your commitment affects your product. We're proud of our past, but we want to celebrate our future. That's what we're going to do here," said DeGeest, vice president and general manager at Cold Spring Brewing since 2008 and former chief financial officer for the company.
The 7,800-square-foot Third Street Brewhouse includes five giant tanks for brewing, some of which you can see through windows from the taproom. The system can create 75 barrels of beer at a time — more than 2,300 gallons.
The brew is then piped to 10 45-foot tall fermentation tanks in the rear of the complex. Each fermentation tank is capable of holding 450 barrels, or about 6,200 cases of beer. There also are a couple of smaller fermentation tanks that eventually feed into three 450-barrel conditioning tanks. Through a cycle that ranges from 15 to 28 days, that's how the brewery will make its suds.
Outside, two bulk malt silos can hold 100,000 pounds each. There's also a spent-grain silo that collects the grain after it's been used to make beer. The spent grain has a high nutrient value, little moisture and is good for livestock. It's sold to farmers.
"We used to pay someone to haul that spent grain away," DeGeest said. "Now someone's paying us to take it away. It's not a lot of the whole operation, but it's a significant income that otherwise was wasted.
"It's mostly automated here, compared to the manual process we've used before," DeGeest added, raising his voice above the machinery as a dust aspirator dominates the center of the building, where raw materials are offloaded. "That helps because once you get it right, you can make the same beer again and again and again."
The key, however, is getting it right that first time. That's where guys like Horace Cunningham and Mike Kneip come in.
Cunningham, 59, earned a degree in natural sciences from the University of the West Indies Mona in Kingston, Jamaica. He worked for breweries there and in Grenada and Barbados, where he became brewmaster for Banks Breweries Limited. After 14 years, he moved to the United States and became brewmaster and vice president at the respected Summit Brewing Company in St. Paul.
He worked for Summit for eight years and had an additional stint as vice president of operations at Terrapin Beer Company in Athens, Ga. It was there that he heard about Third Street.
"Not many brewers get the opportunity at the end of their career to step into something like this," Cunningham said in a second-floor conference room that overlooks the brewing tanks.
His office is just down the hall, where his title reads director of brewing. A member of the executive committee of the Master Brewers Association of America, he created the recipes for the initial three Third Street beers.
"This is a fantastic, state-of-the-art facility," said Cunningham, whose voice retains a tinge of his Jamaican heritage. "It supports a continuance of what's growing in the market. We also have a great team with a lot of enthusiasm ... that's what's important. We have other people here who are very competent to do what I'm doing and help others learn."
One of those worthy of instructing would be Kneip, who graduated from St. Cloud State with a degree in chemistry. Now 62, he has worked at Cold Spring's brewery since he was 19 years old, stacking empty returnable bottles.
"I'm not much of a computer guy, so some of the younger ones have to help me along," said Kneip, who lives in the same farmhouse where he grew up and addresses his new co-workers with a deep-rooted Central Minnesota accent. "Hopefully, I can guide them in some of the old system of art and science in brewing ... there's never a dull moment around here."
Kneip said the new brewhouse has brought a fun challenge to his job.
"We used to just make main street beers," Kneip said. "In Cold Spring, we had Gluek and we were trying to compete against the Budweisers and the Coors. Our ingredients used to be pretty much sugar, barley and yeast. Now we're making fruit beers and using spices and a whole world of contract brewing is open to us. (Cold Spring Brewing) poured a lot of money into this brewhouse. That gives you an idea we're going to be around for a long time to get that money back out."
That's especially important to Bob McKenzie and many others who signed on recently. McKenzie has degrees in chemistry, brewing and distilling from universities in Glasgow and Edinburgh, Scotland. He came to the U.S. in 1994 to help launch Sherlock's Home, an authentic British-style pub in Minnetonka. Five years later, he became senior brewer at Granite City Food & Brewery. He moved up to become director of field brewing operations, overseeing 26 stores. Last year, he was head brewer at Rock Bottom Brewery in Minneapolis before jumping at the chance to be assistant brewmaster at Third Street.
"When I was with Granite City, I knew Horace," said McKenzie, 40. "I was intrigued when he decided to come here and I figured he would realize a good thing. I've been with a lot of brew pubs in my time. I decided it was time for something bigger."
McKenzie, who has played the bagpipes and marched in parades celebrating his homeland, believes it's the varied background of the Third Street staff that will make it successful.
"We've got experienced people from a lot of different parts of the world and the U.S.," he said. "I know what beer in Scotland should taste like. Hopefully, I can bring some authenticity to it when we're making beers from my background. The same with all the others here. We all like beer equally and we're all brewers. We have a lot of strong personalities that make a good work environment. It's reinvigorated some of us and the way to make a good product is to enjoy your jobs."
Third Street has two technical brewers, perhaps as comfortable behind a computer screen as atop a vat.
Adam Theis is from Cold Spring and graduated from the University of Minnesota. He followed that with formal training at Doeman's Academy in Bavaria and worked for six years at Town Hall Brewery in Minneapolis.
Christopher Laumb, the former brewmaster at O'Hara's Brew Pub, later McCann's, in St. Cloud, is one of the most recognizable beer talents in the area.
St. Cloud State University graduate Michelle Hovanes is the brewing lab technician.
Third Street has seven brewers. Victor Esplan has been with Cold Spring Brewing since the early 1970s. Brian Freyman joined on in 1997 and Grant Wendt followed three years later. The rest are relative newcomers. Jerry Dusich joined last year, but has 20 years of experience and is a founding member of the Cloudy Town Brewers association. In the past three years, three avid home brewers have turned pro - Dave Gallagher, a St. John's University graduate, Karl Schmitz and David Otto.
Cunningham insists they will make the difference.
"All the machines and computers can't change the fact that nothing happens until someone pushes a button or turns a valve," Cunningham said. "Everyone here realizes their role and, hopefully, they can go home and say, 'Wow, you know what I'm going to be doing tomorrow?' That's the only way we can do great things."
That's what DeGeest has his mind set on, and it would be quite a transformation from when he first came to Cold Spring Brewing in the early 1990s. About 15 years ago, the brewery nearly went out of business.
Cold Spring Brewing's rich history dates to 1874. But by 1996, about the same time the brewery acquired the Gluek brand name, there were just six employees and the focus was shifting from beer to energy drinks and other non-alcoholic products.
By the end of the year, the brewery was unable to meet its payroll and checks were bouncing. Beverage International Group out of Colorado, which had bought the brewery in 1995, terminated its employees and the facility came into possession of First National Bank of Cold Spring.
Now there are about 200 employees, more in the summer.
DeGeest, 47, grew up in South Dakota and moved to Marshall to work in finance and operations for Schwan's. His wife is a teacher with relatives in Central Minnesota, and DeGeest leveraged his experience to join Cold Spring Brewing in the early 1990s.
But when the brewery reopened in March 1997 under former president Maurice Bryan, Mabel Coborn and other investors in a group named Reflow Inc., DeGeest had moved on.
"I had five kids, and for a while I was coming in to work without getting paid," he said. "You do that when you get attached to something. But my wife didn't understand and eventually I had to make a move."
He worked in finance for Coborn's until returning to the brewery in 2005.
Within the next 30 days, Third Street Brewhouse beers will be available throughout Central Minnesota and in the Twin Cities at key retailers and bars. Bernick's is handling the distribution and will oversee exposing the brand to around Minnesota, including Rochester, Duluth, Alexandria, Fargo-Moorhead, Marshall, Hibbing and Virginia.
He said the company initially kept a low profile to add to the mystique of the new brewhouse. But they have grand plans.
His first goals are to be available in every establishment in the area and to distribute through the five-state region. The plant can be configured for additional capacity to the point where DeGeest says in 10 years Third Street could annually produce 400,000 barrels - or the equivalent of 5 million cases.
"If the business is there, we could do it. If not, we're fine where we are now," DeGeest said. "But if you're going to have a brewery, do it right or get out of it. The low point for me was a few years ago when you'd do something in your social circle and no one ever asked any of us to bring our beer. I'll know this has been successful when people I know start asking me to bring cases of Bitter Neighbor or one of the others to a party. That's how I'm going to measure success."