Voyageur Brewing Company recently hired Stuart Long to head up its 20-barrel operation on historic Highway 61 in Grand Marais. The new brewer hails from Southern California and intends to make a few changes at Voyageur, which he hopes will usher in a new era of growth for the company.
Voyageur’s production brewery, restaurant and taproom opened in early 2015. It’s on track to produce about 1,500 barrels in 2017, putting it at roughly the same level of output as Lake Superior Brewing Company in Duluth and South Shore Brewery in Washburn/Ashland.
Seventy percent of Voyageur’s beer is sold on site. “We are a destination brewery in Cook County on Lake Superior in Northern Minnesota,” says CEO Mike Prom. “That’s different from being a neighborhood brewery in Minneapolis. We’re part of people’s adventure, part of their getting away from normal everyday life.”
About 40,000 people will visit Voyageur’s taproom in 2017, making it a great test market for the company’s beer. Prom estimates 70 percent of taproom guests come from Twin Cities metro area. “We want to win them over here first and then hopefully they buy our beer when they get home,” he says.
It’s ambitious for a brewery to combine production, food service and a taproom. Prom says the primary benchmark for comparison within the state is Surly. Voyageur has the distinction of being in a remote location near Lake Superior and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area — clearly an asset for its taproom.
Voyageur’s distribution has room for growth. When beer goes on tap at locations in the Twin Cities, Prom says it’s often gone in three days. But because of tap competition, they may have to wait three months to get back into the tap rotation. He notes that bottle sales have done well because they’re more consumer driven.
Prom notes the brewery has an opportunity to grow its distribution but wants to make sure they’re ready. He expects Long to help the brewery improve aspects such as efficiency and yield.
Long says he has a deep understanding of the brewing process, which is a critical factor for small breweries looking to expand. He intends to help the brewery implement standard operating procedures. “It’s the next level of growth for this company … As a brewery grows, just like with any manufacturing plant, there have to be SOPs written in … where everything is being written down and everybody is doing things the same way,” he says.
Such standards help ensure a consistent product, according to Long. “The mark of a really good brewer is getting that consistency down. It’s a tough thing to do, especially when brewing on a small scale … Quality and consistency and high standards are aspects that I’ve been fortunate enough to be a part of with other companies and that is what I’d like to bring to the table here.”
As with many homebrewers, Long started making beer before he was of legal drinking age. He got a job on his 21st birthday in packaging for the Lost Abbey a respected brewery in San Marcos, Calif. known for its Belgian-inspired sours and barrel-aged beers. He was in his second year of college at the time but dropped out because he fell in love with the industry and determined he wanted to be a brewer.
“I was happy because I was doing something I really enjoyed doing. And my parents were stoked because they didn’t have to pay for college anymore,” he jokes.
Long worked his way up to cellarman and brewer at the Lost Abbey. “I got to work in all facets of it, from brewing to barrel aging to blending beers,” he says. “I got to work with some really awesome people.”
After about four years, Long decided he needed a change. He went to work for Silver Moon in Bend, Oregon, a brewery that has earned Great American Beer Festival medals for its classic beer styles. At Silver Moon, Long worked under Brett Thomas and credits the brewer with helping him further hone his skillset.
“I went from doing these really heavy, highly hopped, crazy experimental beers to just doing really classical styles. It really gave me a cool perception on recipe formulation and just being light-handed with materials. I think that’s really where I started developing my own style was at that point,” says Long.
While Long was working at Silver Moon, the company changed hands. This gave him the chance to be involved with reformulating recipes and helping with other aspects of the business, such as re-branding efforts. The knowledge and creative freedom this afforded him as a brewer was formative.
For the past three years, Long has been consulting on Depot Springs, an ambitious brewery, restaurant and event center project in La Mesa, California. Wanting a more stable situation, he decided to return to brewing full time recently. He put his name and résumé out on brewer forums and caught Voyageur’s attention.
Though Long had never visited Grand Marais before, he notes that it fits his lifestyle well, since he enjoys hiking, hunting, fishing and other active outdoor pursuits.
“It was a natural choice to come here. It had everything that I wanted. My dream is to have 10 acres with some water around it. Here I am. It was an easy decision for me,” he says.
Long says this new opportunity will allow him to continue his education and growth as a brewer, which is important to him. He also appreciates that the owners are giving him the creative liberty to revamp and help rebrand products to steer the company forward.
Long would like to see and expansion of Voyageur’s distribution and production in the next couple of years. “I would like to see this company kicking out 4,000 barrels in the next two years,” he says.
Voyageur will maintain its four flagship beers: the Devil’s Kettle India Pale Ale, Trailbreaker Belgian Wheat, Palisade Porter and Boundary Waters Brunette Brown Ale. Long says he may tweak the recipes a bit to ensure they’re in line with style guidelines and future hop contracts.
“The beers are naturally going to change and a lot of that is just going to be into my style of brewing. I think every brewer has a way they do things. My beers are going to taste different than my predecessor here,” says Long.
Long calls his style of brewing “flavor-forward” and notes his goal is well-made, consistent and flavorful beers. “What I really like to brew are beers that stand out on their own with how much flavor they have,” he says. “I think you’re going to be seeing an increased intensity in the beers.”
The Sled Hound Session IPA, which features aromatic mosaic hops, was Long’s first Voyageur brew. For the holidays, he brewed up an imperial stout that he says will have bold caramel and chocolate flavors. Since not all brews are bottled for distribution, people have a reason to make the trek to the taproom.
Long is bringing in a pilot system and intends to offer homebrewing classes and taste panels where people can learn how to pick out off flavors. He views his role as not just brewing but also educating people. Though he hasn’t had a chance to meet many Minnesota brewers, he’s looking forward to helping build the craft culture here.
“I think that the Minnesota beer market is growing I think that craft brewing and small brewing — the 30-barrel or less guys — are growing and are really making a presence,” says Long. “If there’s one thing that is really important to me it’s that camaraderie that the brewing industry is known for. It’s the mentality that what helps me is going to help you, what helps my business is going to help your business. And I think that’s the direction that these craft breweries, us included, need to promote.”
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