With a flecked beard, an easy-going smile, and a plaid shirt that’s more of a uniform than accessory, Ryan Mihm looks like he’d be just as comfortable cutting logs as slinging kegs.
He’s been brewing professionally for almost a decade at Maine’s Allagash Brewing Company, New Belgium in Colorado, and most recently, Insight. Now he’s starting a new chapter in his career, landing the head brewer spot at FINNEGANS Brew Co., just as the brand expands Shakopee production and builds out a four-story destination brewery and taproom in East Town Minneapolis—both in partnership with Badger Hill.
Mihm honed his craft in breweries large and small—spanning diverse regions, production styles, and business models—but this move represents a new realm. With FINNEGANS’ “for profit nonprofit” approach, as he describes it, 100 percent of proceeds from beer sales goes to fight hunger. Aside from Newman’s Own, it’s the oldest company of its kind in the nation, and over $1 million in locally-grown produce and food has been donated to local communities since 2000. But this year, FINNEGANS moves from making its handful of beers—formerly produced by Summit and available in stores and bars across the metro—to having a full-fledged, brick-and-mortar presence downtown.
The season is one of huge growth for the FINNEGANS brand and a turning point in Mihm’s life and career.
“What FINNEGANS does for the community—it just aligns with me, socially,” Mihm explains. “I’m excited to be part of a company that does good for the surrounding areas and isn’t just about growth. I’m at a different place in my life now; I’d rather be doing a good thing for humanity.”
Mihm is charged with overseeing production of FINNEGANS Irish Amber, Freckled Rooster, Hoppy Shepherd, Blonde Ale, and Dead Irish Poet, with the Badger Hill partnership allowing both brands to ramp up production in two locations while cutting overhead costs. The downtown location will serve as a research and development brewery, of sorts, where small batches can be tried out with the public before they go into larger-scale production and canning in Shakopee.
“We’ve never had a brewery for people to visit. We’ve never had the opportunity to make small batches before so people could try out new beers from FINNEGANS,” says Mihm. His first priority will be maintaining the quality and consistency that Summit provided for the last 15 years. His second? To expand the brand’s reputation and reach through new, interesting beers. There’s a big-brewery-meets-small-brewery-meets-philanthropy marriage going on, so Mihm gets to bring together elements of his past, with the best of all worlds moving forward. “It’s going to be really cool for people to come see us, to know us as a real, bona fide brewery. We’re taking a brand that’s already 8,000 barrels and giving it new life—giving it new legs.”
“We’re taking a brand that’s already 8,000 barrels and giving it new life — giving it new legs.”
– Ryan Mihm
Dig deeper into Mihm’s past, and you’ll find out about his film degree from MCAD, which explains his creativity and somewhat nomadic, avant-garde approach to life. Then you’ll hear about his stint as a bartender and resident beer aficionado in funky Austin, Texas—that’s where he expanded his understanding of people’s tastes in beer and the swings that go along with the seasons in different geographic areas. As the city grew at breakneck speed year over year, he fell out of love with Austin and even more in love with beer. He began to see his lifelong “drink of choice” as a potential career path, and Mihm faced a crossroads.
For his next move, he wanted to find the farthest city from Austin with proximity to an ocean. He ruled out Seattle because of its size, and whittled the list down to “Portland one and Portland two,” Mihm recalls. While visiting his brother, Maine’s laid-back vibe and cheap seafood won him over.
At the end of his trip, Mihm hung a coat in his brother’s closet, saying earnestly, “I’m coming back for this in August.” He convinced his then-girlfriend to make a cross-country move, and scored one of three open jobs at Allagash. With nary a batch of homebrew under his belt, Mihm jumped onto the small team and slowly gained an understanding of brewing. After working on the bottling line for two years, he eventually began doing rotations in the brewhouse, kegging beer, and working overnights.
“I started homebrewing to understand the craft a bit more, and eventually threw a pilot batch idea at them,” Mihm says. It was an amber-colored saison with fresh lemongrass and juniper berries, dry-hopped with Amarillo and Glacier hops. “I love saisons. That’s my ‘desert island’ beer. I think of beer like a chef thinks of food, asking, ‘what characteristics go together?’ You have some hops that taste like oranges and certain ones that taste like grapefruits. You just have to ask yourself ‘in what amounts do you want your beer to taste that way?’”
The saison was a hit, and Mihm’s widening experience with the Belgian-style beers Allagash is known for, gave him an in at New Belgium when his now-wife got into grad school in Colorado. There he learned to produce on a much larger scale and developed his skills with yeast handling and Belgian-style brewing, which became his passion. A move to Minnesota, where he spent a year-and-a-half as head brewer at Insight, gave him the opportunity to build a barrel program and iron out processes for a growing brand. Now he’s bringing his experience, creativity, and social conscience together at FINNEGANS, spending the winter building the brand from the studs. Literally—as a liaison for contractors on two construction sites—and figuratively, dreaming up and naming beers that’ll usher in a new era for FINNEGANS.
On the list? Maybe a saison in honor of his four-year-old daughter, Rose. He will most certainly be diving into barrel aging, producing six different beers for release in 2018. He also recognizes that here in Minnesota, he’ll need to prove his chops at hoppy beers. “And as much as craft beer drinkers don’t drink High Life and Budweiser, a craft-brewed Pilsner is delicious. We all wish Firestone was available in Minnesota, because I’d drink Pivo all day long!” says Mihm.
Mihm throws out a slogan his father-in-law suggested, tongue-in-cheek: “FINNEGANS—not just Irish anymore!” Though it’s clearly a joke, there’s an element of truth behind it. “We don’t really have a style. We can kind of do whatever we want to do, and that’s exciting. It’s kind of like starting over,” says Mihm.
But no matter what he brews, he’ll do it all with an eye on the community, incorporating local ingredients wherever possible, and fighting hunger with every pour.
His mood changes a bit, to one that’s a little more thoughtful, sincere. He brings up a recent interview where someone told Anthony Bourdain that chefs need to stop being so political.
“He said, ‘F that. The most political thing in the whole world is food.’ He’s totally right,” Mihm says. “Things have been turning politically in the past few years, and if our government isn’t going to do it for us, people realize they might need to be more responsible themselves, socially, on a smaller scale. People might be more excited to come to our brewery because of that. If more like-minded people are thinking that way, then great. The reason we’re doing this taproom downtown is to make more revenue to go back into that community, to farmers, so we can make even more of a difference.”