Grand Rapids joining the beer-brewing boom

Grand Rapids is already known for its tourist appeal. Located in a county with more than 1,000 lakes, there’s plenty of natural beauty to absorb. Now, there may be another reason to visit this northern Minnesota city – craft beer.

The small city has not one, but two beer brewing establishments in the development phase. The first, Cantankerous Brewing, plans a 6,000 square foot brewery to be located in a former telecom storage facility. Owners Andy and Tasha Klockow plan for production and tap room space in the facility, with an October opening expected (see story on page 8). The project carries an estimated price tag of $1.1 million.

The second beer brewing establishment would be a more ambitious venture. Rapids Brewing Co. plans a $3 million investment with production facilities, a restaurant and entertainment venue.

Rapids Brewing Co. is under the ownership of Northrock Development, a partnership between Ed Zabinski, a former banker and city councilor, and Matt Lehtinen, former president of Magnetation.

The business partners originally planned to launch their venture in the city’s historic Old Central School. Northrock entered into a preliminary development agreement for the site with the city’s Economic Development Authority during 2014. Modifications uncovered in a feasibility study, along with historical registry requirements, proved problematic.

“The project just got too expensive to do there,” Zabinski said.

Northrock executives searched for alternative property in downtown Grand Rapids and turned to an abandoned township hall. In addition to the hall, which the city sold to Northrock last month, two adjacent properties, a massage therapy center and an abandoned movie theater also were sold for the development.

Although proposed to the city in 2016, the reconfigured project was stalled due to Zabinski’s position as a Grand Rapids elected official.

“We approached the city in July, but couldn’t purchase the building while I was on the city council,” he said.

His councilor term expired at the end of last year and he did not seek re-election. That freed the partners to purchase the township hall and get plans back on track.

“It was as quickly as we could move under the circumstances,” Zabinski said.

Rapids Brewing Co. is planning a 2017 fourth quarter opening. A number of critical pieces have already been put into place for the development. Bill Martinetto has been hired as the general manager, and a memorandum of understanding is in place with local musician Sam Miltich to book acts at the establishment. Management expects to pair food with craft beer and entertainment. For example, Rapids Brewing Co. could host a Memphis Barbecue night coupled with a matching beer and blues music for entertainment. A brewmaster has yet to be hired.

For city officials and community stakeholders, the success of this venture is about far more than the 13 FTEs who would be hired to run Rapids Brewing Co. It’s also about downtown revitalization and another avenue for tourists to explore.

Grand Rapids Community Development Director Rob Mattei said the redevelopment of that area, known as Block 19, has been a top priority since the city completed its development work plan in 2006.

The redevelopment of Block 19, said Mattei, has been viewed as vital because the area is a gateway to and provides the first impression of downtown for many visitors.

“I think this is going to go a long ways towards the refurbishing and revitalization of this block, and it certainly fits in well with the Arts & Culture study we’ve been doing,” Mattei said during a public hearing regarding the township hall sale.

Mattei also hopes synergy will develop from the addition of Cantankerous and Rapids Brewing.

“Craft brewing has certainly made Duluth a (tourist) destination,” he said.

The success of the craft brewing industry in Duluth is an example upon which Northrock hopes to capitalize. They have enlisted Superior’s Bev-Craft group to help with the effort.

Described on its website as a “craft beverage think tank,” Bev-Craft assists start-up breweries from the concept phase to implementation. Services offered include “development assistance, brewhouse planning, recipe formulation, ingredient selection, brand creation and sales planning and assistance.”

Bev-Craft CEO and Director of Development Tim Nelson is no stranger to the industry. Nelson co-founded Fitger’s, Minnesota’s fifth brewery, in 1995. He also recently unveiled plans to revive the brewing industry in Superior with Earth Rider Brewing Co.  Remodeling of an existing structure for the $2.5 million project is expected to begin this spring. Brewing at the facility, which is located at 1617 N. Third St., is planned for late summer.

Earth Rider is Bev-Craft’s second brewery. The first is Hoops Brewing Co. in Duluth. The Twin Ports is a natural fit for a beer brewing expansion.

“The head of the Great Lakes have a strong and growing indie beer culture, the best brewing water anywherew and several outstanding breweries,” Nelson said in his Earth Rider announcement. “We’re excited to produce a local product that bolsters the economy and culture.”

And, it’s not just the Twin Ports that has found success in the industry. In 2015, the last year complete figures are available, the national Brewers’ Association reported an overall 0.2 percent decline in beer sales. The same year, however, the market for craft beers increased by a whopping 12.8 percent. Craft beers also are taking on a market previously dominated by European brands. The number of barrels of craft beer exported from the U.S. increased by 16.3 percent in 2015 – or 446,151 barrels. (There are 31 gallons of beer per barrel.)

The success of the Twin Ports brewing industry in recent years – which includes companies such as Bent Paddle, Fitger’s, Lake Superior Brewing, Canal Park Brewing, Thirsty Pagan, Blacklist, Dubh Lihn and Carmody’s – has been an inspiration for those closely associated with the Rapids Brewing Project. They hope the booming industry will spell success for their venture as well.

“Grand Rapids is not Duluth, but we’ve done our market research,” said Zabinski.

There are still a number of pieces to fall into place, but so far, the stars have aligned in Rapids Brewing Co.’s favor.

“There are still lots of moving parts,” acknowledged Zabinski.

But, with Bev-Craft’s help, Northrock executives think their 15-barrel brewing system will produce craft beers worth the trip.

“We’re doing everything right in terms of equipment,” said Martinetto.