A distinctive brewery is under construction a few miles southeast of Duluth in Midway Township. Oakhold Farmhouse Brewery specializes in mixed fermentation, a method of brewing that yields a class of beers commonly referred to as “sours.”
If all goes as planned, the brewery could be up and running by the end of the year, with beer available a few months later. There won’t be an on-site taproom but the brewery will self-distribute kegs and 750-ML bottles in Duluth and the Twin Cities. Among the beer recipes that have been refined are a rye saison, a hoppy saison (think Saison DuPont), a Flanders red and a sour cherry imperial porter.
As sour styles have exploded in popularity in the past few years, many Minnesota breweries have added sour programs. Oakhold will produce sour — or more accurately — “mixed fermentation” brews almost exclusively, a characteristic that sets it apart.
The “sour” label is a bit misleading. The catch-all term encompasses a wide range of styles, from Berliner Weisse to Gueuze, with flavor profiles that go well beyond sour. Common descriptors for the different beers in this category may include: tart, funky, acidic and even horse blanket.
While conventional brewers strive to keep bacteria and wild yeast out of their beer, mixed-culture fermentation harnesses bacteria and wild yeast to create particular flavors and character. Such beers are often compared to wine due to their complexity and aging capacity.
Oakhold co-founders Caleb Levar and Levi Loesch are a microbiologist and an engineer, respectively. They met back in 2010 at a beer tasting, connecting over a lambic home brewed by Loesch and his dad. Levar was impressed with the brew, which was made with yeast harvested from a bottle of commercially available Belgian lambic. “Caleb was surprised at the quality of the beer,” remembers Loesch.
Levar was working on his Ph.D. in microbiology at the time and began exploring and cultivating microbes specific to brewing. He and Loesch decided to buy a 59-gallon wine barrel for a collaborative brew using these cultures.
A typical home brew batch is five gallons. And full-sized barrels are a big investment. Loesch admits that if this first beer hadn’t turned out, their path might have been a lot different. “It was a huge gamble for a home brew, but it turned out great,” he says.
Since that first big success, the duo has been slowly but deliberately planning a brewery. Levar’s Ph.D. training in microbiology gave him the scientific background to create the right cultures for the type of beer they wanted to brew. But they recognized that transitioning from home brewing to commercial brewing would require some training.
Levar, who will be doing the brewing at Oakhold, began working as an assistant brewer at Fair State Brewing Cooperative in Minneapolis. He says he’s learned that brewing well takes mentoring and practice, not just enthusiasm. “One thing craft brewing needs less of is passion — the focus should be on being a good brewer,” he says.
Levar helped the now-esteemed Fair State start its sour program with microbes he cultivated. Oakhold is co-branded on the labels of these, allowing the emerging brewery to build name recognition. One of these collaborative beers, the Citra Sour, won “best beer” by popular vote at All Pints North Summer Brew Fest in July.
Once the Oakhold brewery is completed, Levar will leave his role at Fair State. He and his wife will move to Midway Township to run it. Oakhold’s bucolic property is home to an established apple orchard. Loesch and Levar have planted additional fruit trees, berries and hops. They have a long-term goal of growing grains as well, influenced by the Belgian and French tradition of farmhouse ales made with ingredients grown entirely on site.
Loesch and his wife live in Minneapolis and intend to start an Oakhold taproom in the Twin Cities within the next five years. Although current state law doesn’t allow breweries to have more than one taproom, they’re exploring creative distribution possibilities for Duluth.
The brewery is primarily funded by Levar and Loesch’s family and friends. While getting outside investors may have sped the process along, the pair remains set on a long-range vision for careful growth with close attention to quality. “We’re okay with being the brewery that does things slow,” says Levar. “The specific style of beer we’re brewing requires patience,” agrees Loesch.
Check out Oakhold’s Facebook page for updates.
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