At Barrel Theory Beer Company, Lowertown St. Paul’s new brewery, it’s all about the wood. Hardwood floors, a long, woodburned bench seat stretching along the wall, weathered wooden tap handles, and exposed wooden ceiling joists dominate the taproom, located next door to Dark Horse Bar & Eatery. Perhaps it’s fitting that the long wood bar is being sanded as Brett Splinter talks about the brewery that he’s co-founded along with Timmy Johnson and Todd Tibesar.
The L-shaped bar looks into their 10-barrel brewhouse sitting behind the taps. The brewery design is a product of the owners’ personal preferences and their experience in the beer industry. Splinter is the former director of technology at Surly, where he worked with brewer Johnson. Tibesar is a friend with a longtime interest in beer himself.
“You can buy good beer anywhere,” Splinter says. “But there’s more to beer than the product itself. It’s that experience, it’s what brings you together.”
The mission at Barrel Theory is to brew great beer that creates a bond with the drinkers on the other side of the bar.
“In a taproom environment I like to be connected to the production space,” he explains of Barrel Theory’s layout. “We’ve built this out the way we would want to drink a beer.”
“My time at Surly was great and every day further instilled that I want to evangelize my own place,” Splinter recalls. “My best times at Surly were giving tours in Brooklyn Center and being able to tell a fun story to a group of 120 strangers and watching them connect,” he says.
The brewhouse behind the 25-seat bar is a manual two-vessel system with an automated fermentation cellar. “We had to do some cool technology,” says Splinter, referencing his previous job as Surly’s director of technology. At Barrel Theory, the idea is to make small batch beers with a manual touch. Yet, he says, “We wanted to schedule cold crashes and to keep good track over a graph of where our fermentation is at.”
While the taproom radiates in Lowertown’s historic charm, it’s what out of sight in the downstairs cellar that excites Splinter.
“This is our sexy piece,” he says, gesturing at the now-empty room that will eventually house up to 150 barrels to age beer. The room is filled with support beams that were added to hold the weight of the brewhouse above them, about 40 in total. Using original wood from the building, they blend into the aesthetic perfectly. Though the cellar looks rustic, Barrel Theory took careful measure to have it ready for production. They outfitted a lift to move kegs and barrels between levels, and high voltage plugs are plentiful to power transfer pumps to move their beer upstairs.
“I was lucky enough to be part of the design and build of Surly at MSP,” he says. “Why can’t we take the sweet stuff of a big $35 million brewery and scale it into a small taproom environment? Let’s do it once, let’s do it right.”
Investing in every aspect of the brewery is a philosophy that’s embedded in the foundations of the brand. The name Barrel Theory refers to Liebig’s Law of the Minimum, which uses the image of an oak barrel with staves of uneven length to show that the growth of a system is determined by its most limited resource.
Beyond the investments they made in the technical aspects of the brewery, the growth of the company will also be determined by the quality of each and every beer they develop. In the long run, he envisions beers aged in bourbon, wine, virgin and other barrels. Some will be high gravity bourbon stouts; others will be mixed-fermentation sours. “There’s a lot of room for growth, in our market particularly,” Splinter says of barreled beers, and he wants to push limits and experiment with different styles. In a 10-barrel brewhouse, he feels they have the right flexibility to experiment.
But with barrel-aged beers, the key is time and patience. “It’s ready when it’s ready,” he stresses. “You can make impressions once. We’re not going to rush any beers. […] If the barrel’s not right, it’s sad but it goes down the drain.”
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Photos by Kevin Kramer
Since the barrel-aging program is still in its infancy, the brewery will open with a variety of unaged beer styles on tap. “We love hops, so we’ll open with a couple IPAs, probably a double IPA, maybe a Berliner weisse,” Splinter says.
All the beers will be sold in the taproom and in very limited distribution. “If I could sell the majority of our beer out of the taproom, cool. That being said, we have some really good friends in the industry and I’d be happy to pour my beer there.”
Barrel Theory hopes to open the taproom by the end of June and will be pouring their beer at the Beer Dabbler at Twin Cities Pride on June 23 in Loring Park.
Brewer: Tim Johnson
Beer: Rain Drops NEIPA, Batch 1 West Coast–style IPA, Raining 3s Double IPA, Key Sublime Fruited Berliner Weiss, and Java Oats Coffee Oatmeal Stout
Address: 248 7th Street East, St Paul, MN 55101
Hours: Thu & Fri 3-10pm; Sat 12–10pm; Sun 12–8pm; Barrel Theory will also be open for the two hours before Saints home games