hen 612Brew opened its taproom in February 2013, the excitement was palpable. The mayor and city council members celebrated the opening by hopping behind the bar and pouring beer; a sea of people filled every inch of the taproom and a line stretched out the door.
The moment was a long time in the making for co-founder Robert Kasak and his business partners Aditya Kalra and Jamey Rossbach, who had leveraged their homes, 401k’s, and every dollar they had to build the brewery. But Kasak recalls feeling a twinge of dread looking out at the unrelenting crowds from behind the bar, where he was furiously washing glassware in a futile effort to keep up with the orders.
“It was like, ‘What did we just do here?’” Kasak says, wondering if they were truly ready.
Business didn’t let up. The taproom was packed with patrons most nights and the business was gaining retail accounts each month. At the same time, a cloud of negative feedback was steadily growing and beginning to engulf the brewery, filled with comments from customers who found inconsistencies from batch to batch and off-flavors plaguing 612Brew’s flagship offerings.
The beer’s spotty reputation solidified as customers continued to find flaws and inconsistencies a year-and-a-half after the company’s launch. Believing they had given the brewery time to turn things around, some beer drinkers wrote the brewery off then and there, and have not tried the beer since; others were deterred from ever trying the beer at all based on online reviews and word-of-mouth.
It became so bad, say the owners, that no matter what they did to course-correct, including investing in all new brewing equipment, hiring new brewers (Austin Myhran and Mike Willaford, now the head brewer at Tin Whiskers), reformulating some recipes and ditching others entirely, and making more consistent beer, the company couldn’t shake their reputation in online beer circles.
“I think that part of the reason we’re even talking is because we all understand that there’s a stigma attached to 612,” says JP Awad, owner of Chimera Mpls. Awad is a longtime beer industry veteran who worked for Excelsior Brewing and Insight Brewing and is now working for 612Brew as a marketing consultant. “A lot of people look at it as, for lack of better words, their ‘scapegoat brewery’ when they want to talk about a brewery that’s shitty in Minneapolis or Minnesota as a whole. They go, ‘Oh, 612 sucks!’ without having tried the beer in maybe three or four years. Over that timespan the ideology behind [the brewery and the beer] has changed and I’ve watched that happen.”
Now, on the eve of their six-year anniversary party on February 16, the owners are reflecting back on their company’s rocky beginnings and looking forward to a brighter vision for its future. We sat down with Robert Kasak, Aditya Kalra, and head brewer Austin Myhran for a candid interview on what went wrong in the first few years, what they’ve done to correct those problems, and what they’re doing to reinvent themselves in 2019.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Growler: Things were really great at the very start of 612Brew—when did you guys start getting negative feedback?
Robert Kasak: It was within the first couple months. We knew that people were having issues with the beer. Under-attenuation, general off-flavors. The problem with that is—I’ll never forget the adage: Don’t let the bank ruin your brand. And that’s ultimately what we were doing. It was like, ‘Oh shit, the beer in the tank needs to be put out because we have bills to pay. We have rent, we have to pay back the loans.’
Aditya Kalra: Not only that, but we were so busy in the taproom that it was kind of like, okay, if we dump this batch down the drain we literally have to close the doors. We were so busy that you kind of wonder: Should we dump it and close our doors and wait a couple weeks for another batch that we hope is going to be better? But the problem was that we were so busy right off the bat that we were like, all right, just push it out, push it out. We’ll figure it out later.
Robert: That’s absolutely right. For how busy we were and how fast we were ripping through beer, it was like, we could probably burn through this batch real quick; people are going to drink it so fast and forget about it. The problem is, they drank it so fast but didn’t forget about it.
I remember sitting at the bar with Nate [Berndt] and Tom [Whisenand] from Indeed, and I said, ‘What do you guys think of this [beer]?’ And they tasted it and said, ‘Well, we wouldn’t release this.’ And they’re drinking it at [our] bar. When you know in your heart that it sucks, and other brewers will tell you that maybe you shouldn’t do this, but we did it anyway—shame on us. Shame on us.
What adjustments have you made along the way to correct those mistakes?
Austin Myhran: I think one of the big things that Robert was getting at was there was an insular environment here. There wasn’t somebody going, ‘Hey guys, seriously, there’s a real problem here.’ I don’t think that necessarily back in those days [anybody] was taking a real honest look at it, because you have all those financial factors. And frankly, if you have a busy taproom, you take in those criticisms and say, ‘Yeah, but everyone’s still here drinking the beer. How bad can it really be?’ I think that was part of the issue.
I kind of had a little bit of experience with that environment [as a brewer at Flossmoor Station outside of Chicago] and it was the same sort of insular environment, where it had been the same people managing it for a really long time and maybe had some blinders on as to what their problems were. Also they had the same financial restrictions, where it was literally a husband and wife that owned the place and every dollar that went into the place came out of their pocket, which is tough. Breweries are expensive things to run.
“It’s a war on a lot of fronts. And frankly we’re a small team and that can get exhausting. Sometimes it’s hard to not just say ‘fuck it.’ … That’s obviously not a mentality you can have.”
– Austin Myhran, 612Brew’s head brewer, on the process of changing course
So when I showed up, Adam [Schill, 612Brew’s original head brewer] was still here and we were still working through a lot of those same problems, but I also tried to chip away at saying, ‘You know, maybe we should take a look at this process. I know this is the way we’ve always done it, but is this the best way to do it?’ And pointing out the fact that, like, hey man, these recipes are frankly not to scale. These don’t make sense. We need to take a look at these.’ And Adam was really good at hearing me and really good at saying, ‘Okay man, that’s a really good idea, let’s try that.’
I think we slowly started to build some momentum there, but once I ended up stepping into his role, [the owners] really trusted me and kind of gave me more and more leash and said, ‘Okay, let’s try it your way, and change this flagship beer.’ By the time I was getting those opportunities, these beers had been around for three or four years, so there was hesitation. And by that time, too, we were signed on to a distributor, so you also get the pushback from them saying, ‘We have to worry about sales, we have to worry about getting this message to customers. A manager will send a keg back because this beer’s a different color.’ Well, yeah, it is a different color, because it was the wrong color to begin with.
Those are a lot of small battles you have to fight, and so I think that’s a part of why it’s taken so long, because it’s a war on a lot of fronts. And frankly we’re a small team and that can get exhausting. Sometimes it’s hard to not just say ‘fuck it.’ Like, I just gotta get through today and we’ll deal with this tomorrow. And that’s obviously not a mentality you can have. In an increasingly competitive environment, you can’t have that attitude. You need to take care of it now, not later, because every day you have someone coming through the door. Especially if it’s someone that’s like, ‘Okay, I’ll give them another chance,’ and they’re not blown away, they’re never coming back.
Do you feel like you guys have burned that second chance with a lot of people?
Austin: I think that yeah, we did, because it was a year-and-a-half, two years in and the beer had not changed. It was still the same.
In those first couple years, when you were getting feedback even from industry people saying, ‘I wouldn’t have put this out,’ what were you guys doing that was holding you back from hitting the mark where you wanted to be?
Robert: I would say the biggest struggle was inconsistency. We were putting out bangers, our beer would bang, but then the next batch would be under-attenuated or it wouldn’t be the same color. Something happened; maybe we subbed a bag of ‘this’ for ‘that,’ because we didn’t have ‘that.’ The inconsistencies ruin the perception from a consumer when they’re drinking this beer and this beer, and it’s supposed to be the same beer but it looks totally different or smells totally different or it tastes totally different.
“The bottom line is we screwed up in the beginning. We just didn’t put out really consistent product. It’s taken time to learn and fix and make the efforts to correct all of that.”
– Aditya Kalra, 612Brew co-founder
Aditya: The bottom line is we screwed up in the beginning. We just didn’t put out really consistent product. It’s taken time to learn and fix and make the efforts to correct all of that.
I think we’ve done a lot of really inventive things within the craft beer industry. If people understand what it’s like to run your own small business, if they understand and give us a chance, they’ll see this is a new 612Brew; it’s new beer, we’re going to completely remodel the taproom and give them something no one else has done. We’re reinventing ourselves and we want people to know that. We want people to try it. If you hate our beer, guess what? I’ll buy you a beer. Come down and check it out, try it, and I’ll guarantee you’re going to like it because it’s not the same product as five years ago when we started.
It seems that the ethos of 612Brew has always been brewing traditional styles. The scene has changed so much in the last two years with experimental beers, but you guys haven’t gone down that route. Do you feel like you’re getting left behind in terms of not having the milkshake IPAs and following other trends to bring people—people who have written 612 off in the past—back to the taproom to try something new?
Austin: Yeah, and that’s where my stubbornness that kind of helped us turn the ship as far as beer quality goes comes into play, because if I was king of the beer world, those beers wouldn’t exist. But I’m not the consumer, and there are great examples of these beers being made, even in our neighborhood. Going into this year, we’re going to be doing a lot more stuff like that, particularly in the taproom. We just released a double-dry-hopped double IPA; it’s not a big haze bomb but it has got the Nelson and Citra and crystal and stuff in it, low bitterness, soft malt body, that whole thing. So we are moving in that direction for our distribution beer, but you’re going to see it a lot more in the taproom, too: barrel-fermented stuff, fruited IPAs, adjunct stouts—all that stuff.
Robert: We made significant investments financially back into the brewery a couple years ago. We replaced our brewhouse, upgraded it to a brand-new, more state-of-the-art one. We we also bought a centrifuge.
So to Austin’s point, if you look at our double IPA, Don’t Call It a Comeback, or if you look at Soft Skills, which is our taproom beer, those beers are already on that spectrum of those juicy haze bombs that the consumer is looking for, but they’re just spun through [the centrifuge] so they don’t look like orange juice. It doesn’t have that look, but it has all the hallmarks—it’s got the aroma, the flavor, the softness on the palate. So these guys are making those beers, [and] we’re just representing it in the 612 style rather than just jumping on the train and following what everyone else is doing. We still have to let these guys innovate and these guys have to have that creative ability, too. We want to make sure that this [beer] is a representation of these guys as much as it is the brewery.
How do you combat the dwindling brand loyalty issue affecting the beer industry as a whole? What is your strategy for this year? Is it getting those customers back who you lost or is it finding new customers?
Robert: I think first and foremost you need to look at our 2019 brand calendar. You look at our 2019 brand calendar and you’ll see Unrated is in there and you’ll see Oktoberfest is in there and you’ll see IPA is in there. But aside from those beers, everything else has changed. Our flagship pale ale we dumped in 2018. Our flagship lager we just dumped this [January] in favor of new brands, because we understand those were six-year-old brands. It’s time to move on.
Maybe we never will get that one customer back we lost six years ago. Maybe there are a lot of customers who have never drank our beer before. If we can’t get that one customer back, maybe we can get a new customer. We do believe that we’re putting out the best beers possible right now. I firmly believe that. When I drink our beer, I know that the product in the can is top notch. It’s amazing, and I’d put it up against any beer in the Twin Cities, or nationally for that matter, because I know how good these guys are at making beer. But it is about turning a new leaf and saying, ‘Alright guys, those beers you don’t like? Don’t worry, we don’t make them anymore. This is what we’ve got coming out.’
“Maybe we never will get that one customer back we lost six years ago. Maybe there are a lot of customers who have never drank our beer before. … We do believe that we’re putting out the best beers possible right now. I firmly believe that.”
– Robert Kasak, 612Brew co-founder
Aditya: I think that people have forgotten a lot of the good things we have done, going back to loyalty and changing people’s minds. And it’s not just our industry—it’s every industry where people are hopping to the next great thing. But people forget we were one of the first taprooms in Minneapolis. A lot of people mimicked what a taproom should look like after what we did. We were one of the people that fought [alongside] Surly to pass the taproom law. We were one of those pioneers who paved the way for a lot of the breweries that exist today. Without us, without Indeed, without Dangerous Man—we were all doing it together—we really paved the way for 90 percent of the breweries that are out there.
In year one of Art-a-Whirl, when we started, we were the biggest venue to throw that party. That was all Robert who came up with the idea and booked the bands. Now every fucking brewery is doing it. These are things that we did, these are our milestones that people have mimicked and done what we’ve done, but we don’t get the credit; people seem to forget. I mean, having an NFL player on a beer can—never been done before, ever.
It kind of sucks that people forget about it because we put so much effort into it. We weren’t just trying to make beer, we were trying to make a vibe, trying to create a persona of what a brewery is. I think that may be a part of why the beer got lost in the mix in terms of quality because we weren’t just focusing on beer, we were focusing on multiple other things. And being a small company, wearing multiple hats, shit gets lost in the shuffle.
Part of turning a new leaf in 2019 includes revamping the taproom. What’s behind the redesign?
Aditya: The point of revamping is that we’re really trying to strive to make a change to our brand. We’re putting out really amazing beer; I don’t think that people realize it. And when we built our taproom, we did it on pennies to the dollar—we were strapped for cash. We all, even myself who is always in a suit all the time, were hammering nails and sitting in the trench drains. We built that thing with our own blood. Now is the time to reinvent ourselves, and I want to build something that no other brewery’s got. I don’t want to reveal too much, because I don’t want people to get the same idea, but it’s going to be something completely different that nobody’s ever seen.
Robert: One thing that I’m going to jump on real quick is our newest LTL beer, Don’t Call It a Comeback. JP [Awad] actually helped name that beer, and it was from his vision of what we are doing here in the brewery. When he threw it out there, it all kind of resonated with us, because what it is is a new can, a different design than you’ve ever seen from 612, the liquid in there is just banging, but at the same time this is coming from 612.
So the point is: Don’t call it comeback—we’ve been here for years. That’s the opening line, right? That’s what it’s about. People forget: This isn’t a comeback. We’ve been here for years and unfortunately people have just been sleeping on it. They’ve been sleeping on the progress we’ve been making and the beers we’ve been putting out because they harken back to an experience they had five years ago which, again, we all fall victim to. But don’t call it a comeback. We’ve already been doing this, we’ve already been making the strides to do it. It’s time that people start noticing.
Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Austin Myhran’s name.