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For owners and longtime friends Sean Syverson and John Kapla, founding and opening their own brewery was written in the stars. They may not have known that fact in their college years or when other jobs took them to separate continents. Despite the extra hurdles the pair had to overcome due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they have since opened, completing a dream that was years in the making. Syverson and Kapla stared adversity in the face, but they have come out on the other side as better owners, brewers, and friends. The prime example is their beautiful brewery in downtown Moorhead.
Syverson and Kapla met in college, becoming fast friends while attending Minnesota State University Moorhead together. After graduation, Syverson left Moorhead to teach language arts in South Korea and Kapla left for Minneapolis. Despite their distance, the two kept in touch over the years and both happened to pick up brewing as a hobby at the same time.
“We had both been brewing since we parted, we both just kind of picked it up. For me, I started brewing when I went over to Korea because it was just really expensive to get a decent beer,” Syverson says. “We needed to do something different and that’s where it kind of started. We figured, why not?” says Syverson of Swing Barrel Brewing‘s inception. “If we didn’t do this and we don’t at least give it a shot, 10 years down the road we’re going to look back and wonder ‘what if.’”
Moorhead seemed like the right (and logical) place for both parties. First and foremost, Syverson needed to ensure his family was comfortable. “I told John that if I’m going to do this we have to be somewhere with a support system,” he says. “My wife is Korean, and her coming to a new culture with two new babies, jobs, [and] all of a sudden we have to pay for our own health insurance—it’s a lot of stuff, and I knew we were going to need a good support system around us.”
The idea was the easy part, but opening the doors prompted its own challenges. Swing Barrel originally targeted a March opening, but the arrival of COVID-19 changed that. For the owners, the uncertainty of the pandemic forced them to alter plans and work for a proper solution.
“As we were gearing up to open at the end of March, we had put in huge orders for grains, yeast, and hops, and as you know those items don’t hold an infinite shelf life, so that was an issue. Not only was logistics a concern, but finances were also a matter that demanded our attention. We were, and still are, running on a razor-thin budget, so figuring out how we were going to maneuver around that issue was certainly difficult,” Syverson said. “At the time, we were not planning on starting any kind of off-sale until we got the taproom rolling, but we were forced to shift gears quickly. We ended up ordering a single-can seamer, a bunch of 750-milliliter cans, and got in touch with our label designer, which allowed us to sell our beer through our newly built ‘COVID door’. It was a crazy time to open a business, for sure, but hopefully, we can keep paying rent because of the moves we were able to make given our situation.”
On top of that, Syverson and Kapla had their own personal worries regarding Swing Barrel’s opening. The owners each suffer from a pre-existing medical condition that places them in the “high risk” category for potentially contracting COVID-19. That, along with the safety of patrons played a part in Swing Barrel opting to offer off-sale and patio seating only.
“We opened our taproom for about a week around the 4th of July, and although it was great to see people in the taproom, we decided to go back to patio/door sales only because we watched case numbers spike around the country, and we knew it wouldn’t be long before it got up here, too,” Syverson says. “Beyond our personal concerns, I think our greatest worries come for all of those around us who might also be in a compromising state of health. We don’t want to be the brewery known for having a super spreader come in and infect someone who brings it home to that person’s child battling cancer or mother with a weakened immune system. Above all things, we must all work together to take care of each other in a time such as this.”
Syverson and Kapla continue to be full-time brewers on top of owning and operating Swing Barrel. The owners generally lean toward a more traditional style of brewing—that said, they do believe their tap list will also be defined by what their beer drinkers want. “It’s not that we’re shying away from being super experimental, it’s just that was never really our M.O. to start with,” Kapla says. “We want to take our strengths and make them as strong as we can and make a really good consistent beer.”
With a 10-barrel brewhouse featuring five fermentors, five brite tanks, they will have room to brew a consistently good beer. The brewhouse is in the basement of their building, with the taproom above on the main level.
Downtown Moorhead is experiencing a revitalization of sorts in recent years, and Swing Barrel wants to be at the center of the rebirth. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, Syverson and Kapla are optimistic about their unique location.
“The pandemic has likely slowed a lot of progress and development, but hopefully it hasn’t crippled the city’s plans,” Syverson says. “If nothing else, I hope that it has sparked a bit of ingenuity and creativity to help people see a clearer picture of what a revitalized downtown Moorhead can and will be. There’s nothing like a slow down to give you time to think.”
The frustrations of the pandemic can certainly rear their ugly head for businesses attempting to open. For Swing Barrel and their owners, frustration came with the territory, but it never deterred Sean Syverson and John Kapla from achieving their goal.
“Luckily, when you’re in a solid relationship, be it personal or professional, adversity can work to make a bond stronger than what you ever imagined it could be. Adversity has a way of showing one’s true colors,” Syverson said. “John and I both know that we have a very high level of commitment and care for our business, each other’s family, and our friendship that is more evident now because of the numerous obstacles we have had to overcome together.”
Brewers: Sean Syverson and John Kapla
Beers: El Luchador Mexican Lager, Honey Blonde Bombshell Ale, Squeeze Play Wheat IPA, Session One Amber Ale, Indies 4 Brown Ale, Sugarfoot Jr. Vanilla Oatmeal Stout, Sweet Lilly Belgian-Style Ale With Grapefruit.
Grand opening: May 23, 2020 (off-sale and patio seating only)
Address: 814 Center Ave. Suite 1, Moorhead, Minnesota 56560
Hours: Wednesday 4pm–9pm; Thursday–Friday 3pm–10pm; Saturday 1pm–10pm; Sunday 12pm–6pm
Maltwerks is a Midwest malt house focused on genuine relationships in offering quality, locally produced, traceable malt. Maltwerks maintains close relationships with local farmers so brewers know exactly what barley was used and the characteristics they can expect. Maltwerks is a partner in globally sourced commodities and carries a wide variety of spices and botanicals for diversity in craft brewing.