“I’m a big fan of the late bloomer strategy.”
These hardly sound like the words of a startup trailblazer, but Finnegans Brew Co. CEO and co-founder Jacquie Berglund is used to being an outlier. The outspoken beer extrovert founded the first brewery to distribute 100 percent of its profits to charity, and her company has been turning bar sales into food for the hungry for nearly a generation. They’ve done it all without a place of their own.
For the first three years, Finnegans Irish Ale (now Finnegans Irish Amber) was contract brewed at James Page Brewing Company in Stevens Point, Wisconsin. In 2003, Summit took over the contract, with head brewer Damian McConn developing the recipe for their third beer, Dead Irish Poet, in 2014. Berglund has operated the brewery-slash-community fund out of a tiny office in Elliott Park, but this Saturday, five years of planning will culminate in the St. Paddy’s Day opening of Finnegans House.
Finnegans House is a lot of things. It’s an oaken social club. It’s a social business incubator. It’s an anchor for the soon-to-open Marriott Autograph hotel next door. But more importantly than anything, it’s a brewery all Finnegans’ own.
“We see this as a spark,” Berglund says, with her signature unflappable optimism. “We want this to be a destination location. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Finnegans House is a triple-decker of investment for the recently re-designated “East Town” neighborhood. On the first floor is a 185-person taproom and 20-barrel production space for Finnegans. Berglund, with her infinite branding prowess, refers to the space as an “un-taproom” for its plush leather seating and conversational atmosphere. At the back, garage doors open onto a patio that’s sheltered from the noise of the street by a new-construction condo and the hotel. Though Finnegans’s canning and distribution will still be carried out in Shakopee alongside Badger Hill, everything served in the well-attenuated taproom will be made on the other side of the two-floor glass windows separating the bar from the production floor.
Above the main drinking space is a 195-person members-only social club called the Brewer’s Den. This pub-style sitting room is meant to serve as a cross-pollinator, where members can drink and trade ideas. Memberships to the Brewer’s Den start at $424 annually, and 75 percent of proceeds fund operations for the third floor: the Finnovation Lab.
The Finnovation Lab represents the heart and soul of Berglund’s mission to do better with beer. The space serves as a startup office for social businesses -- businesses that seek charity over profit -- to share with the Finnegans staff. The point is for the Irish beer stalwart to get vision and energy from the businesses they take in. Anyone can wind up in a rut -- even Finnegans, which, after 17 years of selling one main product, was in need of a kick.
That kick came when Berglund hired Ryan Mihm from Insight Brewing. Mihm is a nine-year brewing veteran, having worked at Allagash Brewing (Maine) and New Belgium (Colorado) before coming home to run Insight’s barrel program. Getting someone of Mihm’s caliber is a huge coup for Finnegans, whose offerings have stagnated. Mihm brough on former Sociable Cider Werks assistant brewer Logan McLean to help run the brewhouse, and the two have set about filling Finnegan House’s 16 taplines with an array of boundary-pushing beers.
Gone are Freckled Rooster, Hoppy Shepherd, and even the former flagship Blonde Ale. Mihm wanted to push Finnegans away from Irish beer toward a more globalized roster. He’s since introduced East Town Pils, a crackery Czech pilsner with generous additions of Saaz hops; Cluster Truck, a crisp IPA that leans on poisonous Comet hops; and Beer de Mars, a funky, wheaty Belgian that’s Finnegans’ first barrel-aged offering. Finnegans will close from March 18-29 after that St. Paddy’s debut, but by the time the brewery opens permanently on March 30, all 16 taplines will be running unique, on-site-produced beers.
Mihm’s even gone so far as to adjust the Irish Amber recipe. Now that they’re brewing in-house, he’s using his own yeast strain, and he’s balanced the esters with a new run of hops. The change is undoubtedly an upgrade, and Finnegans finally feels ready to stand on par with the breweries like Summit who have helped them get this far.
Standing in the space, it’s hard to believe Berglund’s $1 bartop deal with Kieran Folliard for the recipe to Irish Amber has developed into such an enterprise. Standing among oak harps and leather recliners of her fantasy beer business, she grins to her fillings. None of this was ever supposed to work, and yet it has flourished.
The question is: What happens if the luck of the Irish wears off? Is Finnegans’ wherewithal enough to compete in a beer scene that has long since outpaced them?
For his part, Mihm seems undeterred. He’s frothing for the challenge to evolve Finnegans’ perception in the local scene, and he’s proud to do it for a better cause than the bottom line. Berglund is characteristically enthusiastic, but when she talks about the new venture to a crowd of friends and media, she can’t help but get overwhelmed.
“This deal has fallen apart a thousand times,” she says, near tears as she toasts to the space. “Send goodness and good energy, because we need it.”
817 Fifth Ave. S., Minneapolis