It’s a sleepy Tuesday afternoon at NorthGate Brewing. The taproom is closed and chairs are stacked upside down on the tables. NorthGate’s head brewer Dicky Lopez strolls in from the brewhouse floor and shakes hands with a strong grip. He’s sporting a heavy buffalo red flannel over his burly frame, a wild black beard, and a knit winter cap over a mane of black hair tied back in a ponytail. He looks like a head banging extra from a 1990s grunge rock music video.
He speaks in a deadpan way, but a jesting personality breaks through in sporadic bursts of laughter. We settle in at end of the bar and crack open a couple tallboys. Dicky’s can is decorated with the supernatural colors of the northern lights. It’s Canoe Country Cream Ale, a beer NorthGate created to raise funds for the nonprofit, Save the Boundary Waters. Above him, a full-sized canoe covered in their supporters’ signatures hangs from the ceiling.
Dicky takes another sip and says the nonprofit’s cause is close to him. “It was like every other weekend going camping growing up with my grandparents to Itasca, the Boundary Waters. […] It was never about where we were staying, it was always like where are we going to adventure to?”
The family took a number of road trips too, although, Dicky wishes he had spent more time taking in the sights on the way. “[A]n underappreciation growing up was the Black Hills until we were in high school. It was like, ‘Oh yeah, this is the Black Hills.’ It’s not just the Black Hills, it’s the Black Hills. Just like the Boundary Waters—there’s no other Boundary Waters, these are the Boundary Waters.”
Dicky was born in California, but at the age of two moved with his parents to Morris, Minnesota, onto his paternal grandparents’ farm. In 2008, he dropped out of college and returned home to figure out his next move.
“I always joked around with some of my old classmates that I was really good friends with still about moving [to the Twin Cities] and starting a life, so I packed up my car and just drove here,” Dicky says. “For I think the first year and a half, I lived on a loveseat hide-a-bed in a one-bedroom apartment with two other guys. So it was pretty great,” he laughs.
In January 2009, at the age of 21, Dicky got a job at Surly Brewing Company delivering kegs around to retail accounts. At the end of his shifts he kept noticing one brewer all by himself trying to maneuver bins of spent grain onto a truck, and offered to lend a hand. “I just helped him out because, you know, whatever, it’s another hour of work. I didn’t care. Then he brought me up on the brew deck and starting showing a bunch of stuff, and I was like, ‘This is awesome,’” Dicky remembers. That brewer was Jerrod Johnson, one of Surly’s new head brewers, and he took Dicky under his wing.
“Like any novice that comes to it, I was like, ‘So is this alcohol? You boil it to get the alcohol?’ I had no idea.” Dicky chuckles, remembering how green he was.
This tabula rasa allowed Dicky to ask questions that someone more familiar with brewing might be too self-conscious to ask. He worked his way into Surly’s cellar, rotating “between centrifuge, yeast handling, milling in, dry hopping, that kind of stuff,” Dicky says. “I was always asking questions at that point and just wondering why this and why that. Why at this temperature we need to do it for this long?”
During his six years at Surly, Dicky learned from Jerrod and Todd Haug, but also gleaned knowledge from a number of brewers including Derek Allmendinger, Mike Willaford, and Glenn Casper. While they came from different backgrounds, they all shared a similar mindset: “We only control so much. You just let [the beer] do its thing, and guide it, and forget about it. Then just make sure the temperature’s set,” he laughs. “Key thing, temperature set.”
Dicky admits that creating consistent products using the “go with the brew” approach was easier at Surly than it is at NorthGate. “On the system I was raised on, it was a 30-barrel brewhouse to 60-barrel fermenters to 120-barrel brite tanks. So it was this blend—if it was wrong here, the correction could be made over here, in anticipation for what might go wrong.” On NorthGate’s 20-barrel brewhouse and 20-barrel fermenters, however, “you have to really get as close as possible.” But he’s found that brewing at NorthGate has honed his technical skills as a brewer, one of the reasons the company promoted him to head brewer last year.
He started at NorthGate back in November 2015 under Tuck Carruthers, who needed someone to the brewhouse while he took paternity leave. Dicky heard about the opening and saw an opportunity to brew a wider variety of styles.
“You need to do the things that pay the bills, and unfortunately, that was kind of everything that we did at Surly,” he explains, remembering how his days in Brooklyn Center were dedicated to meeting the demand for Furious and Hell. “It was only sometimes where we got to have fun and make Wet, a beer that’s ridiculously complicated to do.”
So he applied for the position at NorthGate. “[Tuck] called me up, said ‘Come on in.’ It was super informal, we had a beer, we just talked a little bit, and he was like, ‘Cool, you seem awesome. Let me know by the end of the week if you want the job,’” Dicky recalls. He accepted the position and learned to brew NorthGate’s lineup of English-style beers. In 2016, Dicky was promoted to head brewer, taking the reins from Tuck.
Dicky is now responsible for all of NorthGate’s beer, and is putting his personal stamp on the brewery’s newest offerings, including the limited release pale ale series called Achievement Unlocked—a nod to his love of video games and Xbox. “It’s this whole ‘Level’ program that’s going on here that’s taken its own course because we have more and more gamers coming in—either PC or console,” he says, adding with a laugh, “The PC guys you’ll know, because they’ll start making fun of it.” He’ll continue the series in 2017 with new releases at the taproom.
Dicky has also found himself in a familiar mentorship role with his assistant brewer Brandt, known as P.B. “I was asking very minimal things of him, and then just like me he started asking, ‘I don’t want to sound dumb, but what are you doing,’” Dicky says, remembering how he asked the same questions eight years ago. “And I just got in the same habit and I’m sitting there thinking, ‘Wow, I sound like Todd and Jerrod. Now I’m the old guy. God!’”
He laughs again, and sits there with a quiet smile as it sinks in just how far he’s come since the first time he stepped onto a brew deck. Dicky tips back the rest of his cream ale, gets up, and walks back to the brewhouse—his brewhouse—to get back to work.