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Tap Talk: Big Axe Brewing Company

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 breweries have opened just since 2010. So, we decided to help you – and your livers – keep up with the taproom trend by stopping by some of these Twin Cities brewhouses. For the next brewery, Tap Talk is taking a trip up north the Brainerd Lakes area to chat with Big Axe Brewing Company.

As more and more breweries continue to pop up across the state of Minnesota, many are concerned about the bubble popping.

Some question how long the craft beer trend will last. Others, wonder when the demand will run out.

But, while it's hard to go more than a few blocks in Minneapolis or St. Paul without finding a new neighborhood taproom, several Minnesota towns remain untouched by this trend.

And some, are just beginning to grow their community.

Big Axe Brewing Company Tap Room
(credit: Big Axe Brewing Company Facebook)

"The idea for Big Axe started, like many great ideas, over a few pints," owner Chris French said.

Also, like many brewery owners, French began his career as a homebrewer. While French tinkered with hop varieties and tampered with recipes over the years, he absent mindedly dreamed of owning his own place.

"I dreamed about it for several years before I really got serious and started down the road of actually doing it," French said.

But once he got started, he never looked back.

As a native of the Brainerd Lakes area, he knew he wanted to open his spot in the central Minnesota tourist destination. He was familiar with not only with the personal community, but the business community as well. His parents own the popular coffee spot Stonehouse Coffee in Nisswa.

"I always admired the community support they received, and thought a brewery and taproom would not only add to the community but would be supported by the loyal area residents and tourists," French said.

Things came together for Big Axe when French's parents purchased a building; it would become home to the taproom.

Located in downtown Nisswa, it joined the ranks along with Jack Pine Brewery and Gull Dam Brewing and help begin to form a craft beer community.

Now, Big Axe Brewing Co. has become such a part of the community, that WCCO's own Mike Augustyniak and Natalie Nyhus visited it on their Goin' To The Lake trip to Brainerd Lakes Area.

The three, along with Roundhouse Brewing that opened earlier this year, the central Minnesota community is expanding and educating a whole new set of Minnesota drinkers.

Goin' To The Lake: Brainerd Lakes Area
(credit: CBS)

Big Axe Brewing Company

Follow them: on Twitter at @BigAxeBrewCoMN, on Facebook at Big Axe Brewing Company, or visit their website online.
Owners: Chris French
Brewer: Chris French
Location:  350 Main St. #2, Somerset
Hours: Sunday through Thursday – 12 to 9 p.m., Friday: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday: 11 a.m. – 10 p.m.
Contact: 218-961-2337

Growlers At Big Axe Brewing Company
(credit: Big Axe Brewing Company)

So, what is the story behind the name Big Axe?

French: Big Axe is a tip of the cap to the North Country; to Paul Bunyan land. We moved to Brainerd when I was a kid and I loved the notion of the area being a special place. The Paul Bunyan folklore resonated with me; it has always seemed like a unique place, with all the lakes and pine trees. I guess it seemed natural to make the tie in.

I think that is a very natural tie in! Tell me, aside from the Paul Bunyan folklore, why should people come explore the brewing scene up in the Brainerd Lakes area as opposed to the Twin Cities?

French: I think we have a pretty cool opportunity for beer enthusiasts up here now. We have four great breweries in the area to try…we are [all] making some great beer and offer a nice variety for people to choose from. People used to come up here to get a break from the city, to relax and enjoy the lakes and trees. Now, they can have all that, their craft brew and drink it too!

It must be so fun to be in the area as the brewing community begins to grow and take shape. Tell me, in your time in the Brainerd Lakes area, how have you seen the craft beer community change?

French: It really has evolved. It mirrors what happened with coffee a few years ago. My parents started StoneHouse Coffee in Nisswa. They roast their own beans and sell them at the peak of freshness and taste. People have really supported that and now they demand the quality and freshness that comes with it. I feel like similar things are happening with beer. People are expanding their horizons. They've discovered that fresh is better and are willing to try new things. I remember when Summit's EPA had become pretty popular and widely available in the Twin Cities before it could hardly be found in Brainerd Lakes. When I first discovered it being served at a local bowling alley in Baxter I was ecstatic. Now, you find it everywhere, along with a host of other craft brews and many of them locally made. Even the liquor stores in the area have caught on and expanded their offerings. You can spend 30 minutes in the craft beer sections deciding what to get, there are so many to choose from!  When Jack Pine Brewery in Baxter opened up a few years ago it really put the spotlight on brewing fresh, local, creative beers and captivated the area.

It must be a very fun time to be a brewer in this area, as there is still a lot of growth potential. How do you want the brewing scene to change in the future?

French: I just hope that people continue enjoying craft beer and the enthusiasm for beer continues like it is now. We need to keep working as brewers to ensure that we are producing the highest quality we can and creativity will play a big role. People are always looking for the next best thing.

That is very true. It seems like the newest flavor or hop is always the most sought out. So, with that in mind, tell me a bit about your brewing philosophy.

French: Work hard [and] have fun!  And as much as I'm a "if it ain't broke don't fix it" kind of guy, I do try and improve things and tweak things constantly.

Let's shift gears and talk a bit about the beer! Tell me what you currently have on tap.

French: Our latest hit is the Mosaic Pale Ale. It's really flavorful beer made with only Mosaic hops, which are very popular because they have so much aroma and multiple different layers of flavor.

We also have a Double IPA which we've dubbed that is loaded with Citra and Amarillo hops. That's been popular.

Besides that we have the following on (descriptions can be found online.)

  • Blonde Ale
  • American Wheat
  • Red Ale
  • Oatmeal Chocolate Stout
  • Amber Ale
  • IPA
  • Rye Pale Ale

What are some of the beers you are working on, or will be introduced soon?

French: We're about to release our Saison, which is a nice summer beer made with a Belgian Saison yeast. It's a lighter beer with a nice banana aroma and pretty easy to drink. We're also going to age some of it in an old red wine barrel, and we're going to dry hop some of it too just to try something new. We have a cherry wheat will be doing shortly and some Citra dry hopped wheat [as well.] Then, we'll be doing an Oktoberfest for fall, but hope to have one-to-two more beers that have yet to be created before summer's end.

Tell me a bit about the reception of the different beers. Is there a top seller?

French: Our IPA and Blonde would be our flagships in terms of tops sellers, but the Stout, Red, and now, Mosaic are really appreciated by the beer critics. We have six main beers that tend to stay on all year - Wheat, Blonde, Amber, Red, IPA and Stout. Those are the beers we launched with and they all have gone over pretty well.

So, despite the prevalence of craft beer in Minnesota, there still are some people who aren't beer drinkers. What would you serve a novice beer drinker?

French: The most frequent question we get is "What is your lightest beer?" Our answer is the Blonde Ale. It's an easy drinking beer that you can consume year round. I actually really enjoy this one right now.

How about for someone who is very knowledgeable in craft beer? What beer would you give them to impress them?

French: I think right now the Mosaic Pale Ale is our critical favorite. The Red Ale or Stout are also really popular with the beer connoisseurs.

Sounds like there is something for everyone on your tap line! So, what is one piece of advice you would have wanted to hear when you were beginning this process of opening a brewer?

French: I know that nothing beats real world experience so if you have a chance to learn on the job somewhere, or work with a brewer, there's no substitute for it. On the other hand, many people are fine going it alone. I'd say, make friends with someone who's had real commercial brewing experience so you can bounce ideas off them. I know I had a couple people that provided invaluable input to me as I got started. There is so much to learn for brewing, it's a combination of art and science. On the science end, I really enjoyed studying in the Siebel Brewer's Academy program and reading books on brewing.

I think that science part is very important and a good thing to impress upon aspiring brewery owners. Finally, I like to ask this of all the breweries I chat with, how would you describe Big Axe in one word?

French: Inviting.


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