The new year ushered in some changes at Fitger’s Brewhouse. Alex “Coke” Chocholousek stepped into the role of head brewer on Jan. 1. Chocholousek is the fifth brewer to head up operations at the Brewhouse and says he looks forward to continuing the brewpub’s legacy of quality and innovation.
Experiencing the Brewhouse’s Starfire Pale Ale on cask about five years ago was a life-changing moment for Chocholousek. “Every brewer has those one or two beers that hit you just at the right moment to introduce you to craft beer. Starfire was definitely one of those for me … I’ll never forget that,” he says. “To be able to come here and now brew these recipes that I’ve been drinking for so long and admiring for so long — I’m really honored.”
Moving forward in 2018, Chocholousek says the brewery’s primary focus will be on quality. “Quality guides our decisions right now. We want to continue cranking out some of the best beer on the north shore,” he says.
When asked about his personal brewing philosophy, Chocholousek says “brew with intention” is his mantra. “I really like to intentionally design recipes for a specific flavor profile or a specific mouthfeel and body. I don’t like to design a recipe and wait to see what it’s like. I usually have a pretty good idea of what it’s going to be before it ever hits the glass.”
In addition to producing old favorites and special brews regulars have come to expect, like the cherry batch, wheat wine and blueberry porter, there will be some new surprises. Patrons can expect a variety of “highly drinkable” brews and “some exciting stuff Duluth hasn’t seen before,” according to Chocholousek. “We’ll have a lot of new stuff in barrels, both clean and sour,” he adds.
A series of beers to celebrate the Winter Olympic is in the works. The first is an ale made with wild rice called Miracle on Wild Rice. Also new for 2018: Just Take Action, the Brewhouse’s parent company, has plans to establish unique beer identities for each of its tied houses (which include Endion Station, Burrito Union and the Rathskeller).
Chocholousek says people can expect to go to each of these locations and find different specialties and rotators on tap, with a focus on variety across each establishment. Variety is a key aspect of the Brewhouse that Chocholousek has admired and intends to continue. “It’s kind of the mystery of Fitger’s. You walk in and you’re not sure what’s going to be on. That’s the big draw for me as a beer lover of all styles.”
Chocholousek, 27, grew up on a 111-year-old farm in Gregory County, S.D. founded by his great-great-grandfather. He fell in love with craft beer and started homebrewing while in college at St. John’s University.
An education in environmental studies and philosophy — and particularly systems theory — influences Chocholousek’s brewing. “Brewing is a systems approach to a task,” he explains. “There are a lot of moving pieces and different parts that need to come together to make it happen. I think that sort of systems thinking has really allowed me to do well in the brewing world.”
After college, Chocholousek went on to work for a couple of years as the director of campus sustainability for the College of St. Benedict. During that time, he reached out to dozens of breweries in St. Cloud and the Twin Cities, offering to scrub floors for free in exchange for an education. Beaver Island in St. Cloud obliged and he was able to get some hands-on training, participating in several brew days.
When his job contract with St. Ben’s was up, Chocholousek decided to pursue professional brewing as a career. An outdoor enthusiast, he says he always wanted to live in Duluth and set his sights on a position at a Twin Ports brewery.
Chocholousek started out as a tour guide at Canal Park Brewery and eventually worked his way up to assist with brewing. Later he landed his first official brewing job at Castle Danger Brewing. He credits Ryan Woodfill from Canal Park and Clint MacFarlane from Castle Danger for mentoring him and helping refine his skills.
After about a year working at Castle Danger, Chocholousek noticed that Fitger’s Brewhouse was hiring a brewer. He immediately put in his application, having long been inspired by the brewery. “The quality has always just been top notch. Really good recipes. Really solid brewing technique. And they’ve always been an innovator, always been on the cutting edge of brewing ever since they started 23 years ago,” he explains.
Chocholousek landed the job and assisted head brewer Ted Briggs for about a year. He was recently chosen to succeed Briggs, in part because of his respect for the brewery’s history and role in local craft beer culture. JTA management believes the transition in leadership will ultimately be a better fit for the brewery and for JTA, as it refocuses on its core brands and looks to build camaraderie between brewers.
The Brewhouse has a staff of seven, including Chocholousek. “I’m really excited to be working with the crew we have assembled here, he says. “We don’t really have a hierarchy in the brewery … Titles just determine who makes what decisions. I’m definitely working alongside the crew, not working above them in any way. It’s fun to be here and working with these guys. We have a lot of fun every day.”
Fitger’s Brewhouse has the distinction of being Minnesota’s oldest brewpub. Parters Tim Nelson and Rod Raymond opened the pioneering establishment in 1995. For the first couple of years, the Brewhouse served a variety of available craft beers. In 1997 it started producing its own beer, with Mike Hoops as the inaugural brewer. His brother Dave Hoops took over in December of 1998 and was instrumental in defining the brewery’s “North Coast Style” brews and training a generation of brewers during his 17-year tenure.
Frank Kaszuba worked under Hoops for 14 years and led the brewery for a little over a year after Nelson divested from the venture and Hoops stepped down in September 2015. After Kaszuba left, Ted Briggs, a veteran brewer from Michigan, served as head brewer for about a year.
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