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Local Tap Talk: Urban Growler -- MN's First Women-Owned Brewery

Over the last five years, the craft brewery movement has grown exponentially in Minnesota. The Associated Press says licensing records show two-thirds of Minnesota's active breweries opened in 2010 or later. So we decided to help you – and your livers – keep up with the taproom trend by stopping by some of these Twin Cities brewhouses. This week features Urban Growler, the first woman-owned and -brewed microbrewery in Minnesota.

When co-founders Deb Loch and her partner, Jill Pavlak, decided to make a major life change, they had no idea they'd be making history in Minnesota.

The truth is they just wanted to bring people together.

"(Six years ago), it was really divisive politically, and we wanted to bring people together rather than push people apart. What better way to join people than beer?" Loch, the head brewer, said. "Our mission is to bring people together through beer."

First, they had to leave the corporate world behind.

"This was about 6-and-a-half years ago now. We both worked in corporate America. Jill was a straight-commission sales person and I worked in the medical device industry, and we decided we wanted to do something different, something together … then, we figured out it was a brewery," Loch said.

They had no idea they'd be the first women-owned and -brewed microbrewery in Minnesota.

Deb & Jill
Deb & Jill in California at Deb's graduation from Brewing School (credit:

"No, it didn't really dawn on us till we got a lot closer … I'm an engineer by training and education, so I've worked in a male-dominated industry for a long, long time. So, it wasn't anything really odd to me. But as I went to brewing school and became a brewer, it became very apparent that there are not a lot of women in the industry," Loch said.

Luckily, like many successful breweries, the pair – recently married -- each had their very own separate set of skills that really helped launch the business.

"I was a long-time home brewer, scientist, and Jill was sales person, social – very social," Loch said.

After finding the perfect location and perfect name (more on those later), Urban Growler had its grand opening on Aug. 27, 2014 – assisted by Mayor Chris Coleman and Councilmember Russ Stark.

So, were there any obstacles being the first women-owned and -brewed microbrewery in this state? Why beer? How exactly was the transition going from corporate to owning your own business? All these questions are answered in my interview with Loch below! Cheers!

Urban Growler
(credit: CBS)

So, how exactly was it like making the transition from the corporate world?

Well, it was really scary at first. Yeah. (We had) good, steady jobs … regular pay checks … great benefits, so to all of a sudden say "no, I'm going to leave that and become an assistant brewer in northern Wisconsin and make $8 an hour, and I'm going to work at the home brew store on the weekends," that was very scary and quite a transition. To mortgage everything … at some point, I don't know what it was or when it was, but it was like, "it's only money." Security is just an illusion anyways.

I went for a walk the other morning and I saw a lot of people going into work. I like what I'm doing now and I don't know if I could ever go back to that anymore. It's totally different.

Were there any hurdles, in your opinion, with being two women starting a brewery?

You know, brewing is very physical, but that's OK. Sometimes, instead of making one trip, I make two. Doesn't matter. That's not the obstacle. What we found was the greatest obstacle in this whole process – and probably the only time I felt discriminated against in my whole professional career – was when we were trying to get a bank loan. That was the biggest challenge. You gotta believe if the names on the business plan weren't Deb and Jill, but Larry and Moe, it would have been a little different.

How'd you come to choosing this location?

Actually, we were working on a deal in northeast Minneapolis and it ended up not working out, and we were kind of dejected. We were working on that for quite a while and for various reasons, it didn't work out. But our realtor said, "don't worry, don't worry, we'll find a place" and he sent us a list of 20 properties and this was No. 19 on the list. Interestingly, Jill and I had driven by the outside of this building several years before and thought "oh, that looks like a cool building, wouldn't that be a nice microbrewery?" Then, we saw it on the list and we were like, "hey, that's that building!" So, we contacted the landlord and when we walked in the door, we said "my God, this is it!" … and we asked, "what are the chances we can afford it?" and it was exactly what we had in our business plan to the penny.

The building, at one point, housed the city of St. Paul police horses. It's been a number of things. It's been around since the late-1800s. At one point, they made carriages here, they've made skis here, it's been a warehouse – it's been a lot of different things. For us, it had a lot of charm. It's close to our house, too. So, rather than northeast with that long commute, this is a piece of cake. I walked home from work the other night.

Urban Growler
(credit: CBS)

So I hear it took you many, many names before arriving at Urban Growler -- any funny highlights?

(Laughs) I'm not sure I should say these though… Let's see, one of the most benign was Little Brewhouse On The Prairie.

So, we'd go on these road trips and Jill was relentless with the names. It was non-stop. In the spirit of brainstorming, there were never any bad names.

We're both of Polish descent, so one was Pole Dancer Brew & We Tap … that was bad. And then there was Girl Dog Brew (Those Bitches Know Beer). Like, "No, that's not gonna work either." Those were just some of them, but there is a notebook with a couple thousand names somewhere.

So … how did you arrive at Urban Growler?

Urban Growler was one that kept sticking around. We knew that we wanted to be in the city. We knew we wanted to be a gathering spot. So, it was perfect when we found an industrial area a couple blocks from the neighborhood.

So, we wanted it to be Urban and Growler for a number of reasons: A growler is a 64-oz. jug of beer to go that breweries sell ... we like dogs … we have a kitchen, too, for growling stomachs.

So, there's a little bit of play on words there and (Urban Growler) came out early and stuck around through the thousands of names.

What "philosophy" do you have when it comes to your beer?

There's two kind of mottos:

There's a German purity law that's called Reinheitsgebot. My motto on that is "Reinheitsgebot, Schminheitsgebot." Well, (according to the law), you can have grain, barley or wheat – in some cases, rye – and yeast and hops and water. That's all that can go into beer. But here we have a "Plow to Pint Series" where we are using a bunch of local, interesting ingredients that might not show up in normal beer. In the spring, we have a Rhubarb Wit, in the summer a Blueberry Wheat, fall a Pumpkin Saison, we had a Cranberry Ale a little while ago, now we have an Apple Ale … on Halloween, we had Candy Corn Imperial Cream Ale. So, that's one philosophy.

The other philosophy is to have more balanced beers, so here in the taproom we have a variety of beers. We have about eight beers on tap. There's a breadth of flavors and usually most of them are in a very drinkable range as far as alcohol and bittering units are concerned. Yeah, occasionally we'll have a high-alcohol beer or low-alcohol beer, but in general it's very drinkable range.

I always ask this question, but which of your beers would you suggest for the novice beer drinker?

What I would suggest for the novice is to come into the taproom and order a flight … taste all whatever's on tap. It's a great way to experience a variety of flavors with just a small amount. It's actually a great thing to share, too.

I don't want to say "try our lightest beer" because if you love coffee, if you love chocolate, you'll probably be more inclined to like some of the dark beer. If you like bitterness, you'd probably be more inclined to like some of the IPAs. So, flights are a great way to find out what you like.

What's the beer you're most proud of? Your flagship?

Our Cowbell Cream Ale. I call it a transitional beer because, you know, (it's great for) people who might not be experiencing craft beers and are a little leery about it … If people say they are a Michelob Golden Light drinker, I'll start them with the cream ale, because it's lighter in color, lighter in flavor, but it still has a lot of flavor.

And the Big Boot Rye IPA is our other flagship. It's obviously made with Rye and it's a little twist on the IPA. My IPAs are usually a bit more balanced. I wouldn't consider my IPAs over-the-top hops.

How has Minnesota helped or hindered your business?

I love the taproom law. Being able to sell your own beer in your taproom is great because, as you can see, there's a lot of capital investment here. And to have a taproom, you can generate cash flow right away. I don't know how breweries did it before without a taproom, because it would be very hard. We've seen a drastic increase in taprooms because of that law.

The law that I would like to see changed is growler sales on Sunday. People can come in here and have a beer but can't take it home? It don't get it.

But we're kind of odd in our situation. We were the second brewery in the state to have a kitchen -- I think Surly was the third – so, we were like, "who inspects us?" The Department of Agriculture, that inspects breweries, or the Department of Health, that inspects restaurants. So, that was a little bit of figuring out that had to happened. Turns out, it's the Department of Agriculture that inspects us now.

What advice would you give for someone getting into the business?

Write a business plan. Get experience. There are some great resources.

What's interesting is that Jill and I took a "How To Start A Brewery" class at Siebel Institute about five years ago. In that class, we meet Dane and Thom from Burning Brothers, and Tim and Tony from Mankato Brewing. We were all taking the class at the same time. It was a great class and now, all three of us are open. We were the only three from Minnesota. That's a great resource.

So, get experience if you can. I was a home brewer … enter your beer in competitions and get some neutral feedback if you're the brewer. If you're not the brewer, hire one. There's a lot to brewing and it's a lot different than home brewing.

What are your future goals/ambitions?

Right now, we're focusing on the kitchen (upgrade), next will be tank expansion and we'll get to bottling or canning, whichever we decide. That's still up for debate.

We're already in about 20 bars and restaurants. We're self-distributing.

We're selling more beer in our taproom than we thought we would, when I forecasted in my business plan. That's a good thing.

Lastly, why beer in the first place? What excites you about beer?

I'm a home brewer. I grew up in Wisconsin. Beer has been a part of my life and culture for a long time. Like I said earlier, we want to bring people together and beer is a great way to do that. Beer is fun, it's exciting, it's something to share. Especially on the weekends, we have a lot of larger parties, a lot of groups. People just sit on the patio and will end up sitting on a picnic table with other people, and by the end of the evening they're friends and exchanging phone numbers. So, it's a great vehicle for bringing people together – and it's delicious.

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