Four years ago this October, Tom Hill was brewing beer in a kitchen in Bemidji, Minnesota, on a 25-gallon brewing system.
This wasn’t a homebrew session though. It was the modest beginning of the town’s sole brewery—Bemidji Brewing Company. Tom and his business partners Justin “Bud” Kaney, Tina Hanke (now Kaney), and Megan Betters (now Hill) launched the nanobrewery in the community kitchen of Harmony Natural Foods Co-Op after a successful Kickstarter campaign provided them the $15,000 to get the company off the ground.
Starting in the kitchen allowed them to get beer into the market and test the viability of a brewery in the Northwoods town of 14,000. “And it worked,” says Tom, Bemidji’s head brewer. “We had one tap at Brigid’s Cross Irish Pub downtown, which at that time was, and still is, a great place for craft beer in Bemidji. They became our early friends right out of the gate. It was our first account and we’ve maintained it ever since.”
It didn’t take long before the crew was able to take the next step in their master plan. After six or seven brews in the kitchen they were able to garner the lending to build their first brewery, Tom explains. That space was a three-barrel brewery and 50-person taproom they built on Beltrami Avenue in the heart of downtown Bemidji. For the next three years, Tom doggedly worked to keep up with the growing local demand.
Today, on a sunny and windy day in early September 2016, Tom is inside Bemidji’s new 15-barrel brewery and taproom, where they started brewing this past April. He’s a slim man with a jet black beard and short cropped hair. His muscles are taut as he’s cleaning equipment, surrounded by pallets of kegs, rows of oak barrels, and stainless steel fermenters that are a far cry from the tiny brewing equipment used to brew Batch One—a dry-hopped pale ale. Though he and his partners have certainly scaled up from their days of nanobrewing, they’re closer than ever to their humble beginning. Just take a look out of the loading dock door to the building down the block.
“Yeah, full-circle,” laughs Tom. “We’re a block away from where we started.” The brewery, which looks like western saloon meets northland lodge, is located just north of the isthmus between Lake Irving and Lake Bemidji in what is the “Urban Renaissance District.”
Things coming full circle has been a recurring theme throughout Tom’s journey to becoming a brewer. The Hibbing-native arrived in Bemidji in 2003 when he enrolled at Bemidji State University (BSU) for design technology, a degree focusing on prototype development and manufacturing. During his sophomore year, his friend introduced him to a different kind of product design—homebrewing.
He and his roommate Chris were just discovering craft beer. “At that time in Bemidji, it was desolate as far as the selection—you’d go and buy a Newcastle for like $12, $13 a six-pack and it had been on the shelf for like a year,” Tom says. “We were just trying to explore whatever we could, and [my friend] Jake said, ‘Hey I started brewing. I’m doing some brown ales and stouts.’” Brewing his own beer had never really occurred to Tom, though the concept hit close to home. “My dad had been a winemaker for as long as I can remember, so home fermentation made sense, but the beer side never connected. So [Jake] gave me the book [“The Complete Joy of Home Brewing”] and that was it—I just totally dug into it and everything after, as much as I could find.”
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Photos by Brian Kaufenberg
Nearing the end of college in 2005 and 2006, Tom moved to Austin, Texas, to intern and later work full time for Reed Protoype & Machining. There he had the chance to indulge in the city’s growing beer scene. “There were some fun new breweries opening up: Independence, (512), and all these guys that were the beginning of that cusp—kind of the Surlys and Flat Earths of that wave. It was just fun to see the excitement around that and to see the town really explode around craft beer.”
After six months working full time at RPM, Tom longed for the Midwest, and specifically northern Minnesota. He decided to return to Bemidji where he enrolled in grad school at BSU and met Bud Kaney, who was enrolled in the same program. The two became fast friends, and bonding over homebrewing.
“At that point I realized I cared far more about beer than I did most other things in life and I proclaimed that I was going to become a brewer,” Tom recalls. He left Bemidji and moved to the Twin Cities to pursue a job in brewing, albeit at a challenging time. “This was the fall of 2008, so right at the crash of the economy. Not too many [breweries] were hiring,” he says, laughing at the decision. Instead Tom landed a machining job and tried to gain experience in the beer world in any way he could. “I became a Certified Cicerone, I did the Siebel Concise Course [in Brewing Technology], I started moonlighting at Northern Brewer, and really tried to immerse myself in the industry and the education of beer as much as I could,” he explains.
All the while, Tom and Bud kept in touch, throwing around the idea that every homebrewer has entertained—starting a brewery. “We kept talking about it and by 2010, at that point my girlfriend (wife now) Megan and then Bud’s girlfriend (wife now) Tina had become involved, and we were like, ‘Yeah, I think we should start planning this in a serious manner.’” In 2011, the team formalized the company and Bemidji Brewing came into being.
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