10 Years in Beer: Lift Bridge’s Dan Schwarz on lessons learned, the future of the brand, and Minnesota’s beer industry

The Lift Bridge team of employees // Photo via Lift Bridge Brewing Company Website

Lift Bridge Brewing Company is celebrating 10 years in business this weekend. Since its start in 2008, the Stillwater-based brewery has grown in production from 108 to 19,000 barrels; in April, they announced a new brewing facility that will allow them to expand even more. // Photo via Lift Bridge Brewing Company Website

Ten years ago, a group of homebrewers launched Lift Bridge Brewing Company in the historic river town of Stillwater, Minnesota, selling their first keg in September 2008. Since then, the company led by Dan Schwarz, Brad Glynn, Trevor Cronk, and Jim Pierson has planted itself firmly in the top 10 largest craft breweries in the state, growing annual production from 108 to 19,000 barrels of beer.

But they have plans to climb even higher on the list in the next 10 years. In April 2018, the company released details for a new brewing facility located near their current location, which will afford them room to expand production as well as their taproom.

This Saturday, August 18, Lift Bridge is marking its 10th year in business with an all-day party at their original brewery space on Tower Drive. We spoke with Lift Bridge president and CEO Dan Schwarz about the past decade, what the future holds for the brewery, and his thoughts on Minnesota’s beer scene.

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Growler: As you look back on the past decade, what is your proudest accomplishment personally and as a company?

DS: It is hard to pin one down. We are proud to remain one of the largest and most successful breweries in the state. Farm Girl Saison, the brand that we rolled out with, became a success and 10 years later is still our top-selling brand and one of the most recognizable brands in the Midwest. We worked with other breweries to pass the taproom bill and we are the oldest taproom in the state of Minnesota. We are always proud to have success while sticking to our mission of being a great steward for our community and woven into its rich historic fabric.

What’s the hardest lesson learned in your 10 years in the beer business?

DS: There are lessons to be learned each day. One lesson that stands out for sure is that everything takes longer than you expect, and that it will cost more than you think it will.

Lift Bridge is celebrating its 10-year anniversary Saturday with a special bottle-conditioned Farm Girl Saison, brewed with champagne yeast for an extra bubbly pour. // Photo via Lift Bridge Twitter

Your 10th anniversary beer is a special variation of Farm Girl, which makes sense since it’s Lift Bridge’s most popular beer. Are you surprised that Farm Girl has had this amount of staying power, considering consumer tastes have shifted so dramatically to IPAs and boundary-pushing styles?

DS: We are proud of the quality, consistency, and the broad appeal of Farm Girl Saison. When you focus on those three things, you have a great chance to be around for a long time. It has become a must-have on any tap lineup.  

How do you feel about the hazy IPA craze? What do you think the next craze will be?

DS: We are fans of hazy IPAs and we did a limited release (Hazy McHazeface). IPA and hops have been a cornerstone of the craft beer movement, and the hazy IPA style is an evolution of the consumer demand for hops. It will likely be here for some time to come. We will likely see evolution on other styles, too, including Berliner weisse, stouts, and sours.

The landscape of the industry has changed dramatically since you opened Lift Bridge. How has the brand changed over the years and in what ways has it remained the same?

DS: There have been changes in the look of our branding, but really the brand itself remains the same as it did when we started. We wanted to reflect the St. Croix River Valley lifestyle, quality, and artisan-crafted products.

How does the new brewery project factor into the future of the Lift Bridge brand?

DS: We want to expand the experience that people have when they come to the brewery so they can connect with our brand. People want to see where and how the beer is made, and the new brewery will help us do that better than we can today.

What advice do you have for anyone interested in opening a brewery today?

DS: Do your homework. There are great resources with the Brewers Association and the Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild. Join those organizations, read the books, and make sure you define clearly what your brand will represent and who you will serve.

Where do you see Minnesota’s craft beer industry heading in the next 5–10 years?

DS: I see the market maturing and the number of new breweries opening slowing down. It will continue to be strong and the market share of craft beer and Minnesota craft beer will continue to grow. Currently craft is at 20 percent in Minnesota, and I would expect it to reach 25 to 30 percent in the next five to 10 years.

Where does Minnesota fit into the U.S. craft beer scene?

DS: Minnesota always seems to have its own take. I see Minnesota being in the top-five states when it comes to quality and creativity.

And yet, Minnesota is not often recognized as a hub of craft beer in America from a national perspective. Are there hurdles in the way of Minnesota being recognized nationally, and does it even matter?

DS: I don’t think it matters, but Minnesota is flyover country and the opinion makers on the coast focus on what they are doing. We know we are making great beer and it is a great time to be a beer drinker here in Minnesota.

Celebrate with Lift Bridge this Saturday, August 18, from 12pm to 10pm at the Lift Bridge Brewing Company taproom: 1900 Tower Dr. W., Stillwater, MN 55082

About Brian Kaufenberg

Brian Kaufenberg is the editor-in-chief of The Growler Magazine.