I love the Northwoods of Minnesota. I love the scent of pine permeating the fresh air, I love the warm demeanor of the people who live there, and I love the fantastic recreational opportunities that seem to be everywhere. After visiting Big Axe Brewing in the town of Nisswa, I’ve found something else to love, the beer. The Big Axe tap room is rustic and welcoming, I was there to meet brew master Josh Estensen and owner Chris French, so I stepped up to the bar, ordered a “Blood Warrior” blood orange IPA (an offering with nice wine-like acidity to it and reserved but adequate hops), and sat down for a chat.
Chris opened Big Axe Brewing about 4 years ago. “It started off with a vision that came from my parent’s coffee shop across the street – Stone House Coffee. I kind of watched how the business grew and how the community here has supported them. They roast their own coffee beans, make their own scones and baked goods, and place focus on providing high-quality products. Additionally, they built a strong relationship with their customers. In short, it’s a small place focused on serving the community, and that’s what my vision was for Big Axe. That’s how we got started and that’s the model now. We run the brewery and tap room with these things in mind. Obviously, new growth opportunities have presented themselves over time, for instance at the beginning we hadn’t really considered distribution which we now do. From a product perspective, our focus at the beginning was completely on how we would make a great tap room and how we would make great beer. Now that we are more comfortable with ourselves, with each passing week we try to get better in process, product, and service. We’ve also gained confidence over time, which has given us the opportunity to grow and to do different things too. For instance, we are now experimenting more and trying things that we may not have tried at the beginning. Much of our evolution has come from that; trying something new, seeing if we can do it well, and then being determined to make it succeed. People seem to appreciate us and we take pride in that. So far it has been a fantastic experience, the community has supported us just like they do my parent’s coffee shop. I am honored that people seem to love it.” Considering the drastic differences in weather by season, and the isolation of the Northwoods, I wondered what effect the seasons have on the foot traffic in the tap room. “In the summer a large percentage of our business comes from other parts of the state – or out of state. It does get a little quiet when people go away for the winter, but we’ve had great support. Whether people live up here year-round, or just spend a few months here enjoying their summer homes, they are a huge part of our community and our business, and it is great fortune that we have both a lot of tourist traffic and a great local crowd.”
“Alongside of community, history is also part of who we are,” Chris explains. “The history of both Nisswa and of the Northwoods is something we embrace. A lot of our beers are named after local legends and folklore. For instance, our Splinter Cat IPA (named after a fast-moving feline that knocks branches off trees) and Argopelter Mosaic Pale Ale (named after a mythical critter that inhabits hollow trees) both honor in reference creatures of Northwoods legend. Our cans also have stories on them that provide detail about the creatures of lore and depict a graphic representation of them. We try to tie into the North Country feel and vibe.” After looking at a variety of the cans, I became quite impressed with the artistic renderings and style that they hold. I think my favorite is the Axe Handle Hound which is a dog that chews axe handles; he is said to be the primary motivation for a lumberjack to keep working. “The artwork has been recognized nationally by a few different publications” Chris explains. “Many of the ideas and beer names have come from local artist Joe Anderson who created the artwork on the cans. We did come up with a few of the names and characters on our own. “Axe Kicker” for instance is a guy with an Axe for a foot. Overall, I love the artwork that our local artist Joe Anderson has done for us.” Chris says with pride.
Brew master Josh Estensen, like many brewers entered the trade through homebrewing. “I was 16 years old, I couldn’t buy beer, so I thought, I’m going to start brewing. I’m originally from Arizona and I went to college there. I started a brewing club at Northern Arizona University called the Northern Arizona Craft Beer Association. We were a very active club. We volunteered with all of Flagstaff’s eight breweries. It helped me to get my foot in the door as a brewer in Arizona and prepared me for later when I got a job out in Colorado. Chris later found me online and now I’m here; I’ve been around for about 6 months.” I asked Josh if he had experienced a north woods winter yet considering the drastic seasonal temperature difference between Arizona and Minnesota. ” I’ll get used to it,” he said. “I like the snow and snowboarding, besides Arizona is hot. I really can’t do that.”
Josh’s experience is impressive considering he has worked in multiple breweries across multiple brew regions. I asked him simply, what makes a good beer? “Consistency and quality,” he offered. “The ingredients we use here are of high quality. I make sure that all of our ingredients are fresh by staying on top of our inventory. Water profile is a factor too. Here in Minnesota we have a lot of hard water with high iron content, so we have to make sure we are using water softeners/purifiers. If our water quality isn’t consistent and conducive to beer making, even with the best ingredients in the world, it would be tough to get a consistently good beer.”
From a beer drinker’s perspective, Josh says he looks for flavor and balance. “Most of our beers are balanced so they are not too fruity or too hoppy. When I drink a beer, I don’t want it to taste all malt forward – depending on the style of course, nor do I want all bitterness. I want balance and to make sure it tastes good, this means when I’m brewing I make sure that I have the correct grain bill, and I make sure I know the profile of our grains and of our hops with the intent of producing a quality balanced beer. Since I’ve come in, I’ve made a few changes to the make-up of the beers, most of that so far has been adjustments to fruit or hop additions. It’s been about three months now that my beers have been in cycle, and they seem to be pretty well received. Looking ahead, I want to make sure we are using the right adjuncts to make sure the beer is balanced. I imagine that adjustments will probably be a constant, we always want to get better.”
While Josh is the Big Axe’s brew master, Chris also makes beer. “Intuition is an important aspect of what we do. Sometimes we try different things based on a hunch. Part of brewing is following a gut feeling that what you are doing should work out. You hope to be right all the time, but sometimes you are and others you’re not. I’ve never changed a plan mid brew,” Josh says, “that’s drastic, I do often adjust a recipe before or after a brew session. When an adjustment is due, I think about what kind of taste I want or what kind of hops I can change a beer up with. Actually, I just made some adjustments to the recipe for one of our flagships – the Splinter Cat IPA. Chris and I were talking about what we could do just to give it a little more oomph. We felt it needed just a little more bite, a little more flavor. We sat down, talked it out, and agreed on a plan. Sometimes just using a different type of yeast can add a little juiciness to a brew or bring out more flavor and aroma from the hops. The changes we’ve made to that IPA have been well received; it’s been selling like wildfire, we can’t keep it on tap.” The decision to make a change to one of their flagship beers isn’t made lightly. “We want our beers to be consistent,” Chris explains, “but we always want to improve on what we’ve done whether it’s a process, recipe, style, or whatever else we can improve upon.”
“If there is a story in regard to how any of our beers was developed, it would be a story of the evolution behind them. It’s always a bit of a process, but it especially was with the New England IPA; we really had trouble with that one. At first that IPA would look hazy for about a week before it would clear up. We had to do some study and make step by step adjustments to our recipe. We ended up having to tweak the recipe quite a bit to get the proper profile and to get the haze to stick around. It took us a few months to get a batch that we really felt hit the mark. Now, for the last year and a half or so it has been solid for us.” Chris and Josh acknowledge that in addition to the recent popularity of Hazy IPAs, other new or popular styles of beer have emerged. “We’ve done a sour for a couple of years now. It’s an American kettle sour type, which has been a really popular beer for us. We also have an experiment planned where we will do a barrel aged sour. We’d like to do more of that; barrel aging and utilizing a mixed fermentation process. Our sours in particular are selling to people who say they don’t like beer. It’s amazing the wine drinkers that come in asking for wine – for which we don’t have a license to sell. We show them the sour and a lot of them really like it. They say it tastes nothing like beer to them.”
After taking some time to consider what beer they would select for an introduction to a new customer, Josh says, “that’s a tough question, there are lot of good ones. We make some killer beer.” “Outside of the taproom, through distribution, our best seller would probably be one of our IPAs,” Chris added, “but here in the tap room our Blonde is king all day. People love that beer; we call it the gateway beer. There are some beer styles that I would like to brew that I know won’t move quite as fast in the tap room. For me that would be something like a Belgian style ale or maybe a Saison. I love those styles of beer and have made them in the past, but they don’t move quite as fast as others. With some beers, because the styles are so different, people aren’t used to them; if customers aren’t familiar with a style or flavor of beer, it makes it harder to sell. For a small brewery like us, we have to worry about making the most of our capacity; effective use of our tanks during the busy season is super important. We don’t want to tie up our ability to produce beers that are the most in demand. Additionally, how you brand a brew and tell people about it makes a big difference. This was evident with our Guava Milkshake IPA. We named it Guavatron, but nobody understood what that meant. We had to say Guava Milkshake IPA and mention that it has some strawberry in it too, then people were like ok I’ll try that; it’s sold pretty well. Once people try it, they fall in love with it.” “It’s too strong though for me, 7.5% (ABV) I can’t drink those,” Chris adds, with a bit of humor.
Big Axe is part of a brewing region that is definitely more isolated than others that I’ve visited. The breweries in north central Minnesota are located in small towns and villages with many miles of deep woods and country roads between each other. I wondered if there were some truly unique aspects of their brewing scene that stemmed from the isolation. “We are definitely community driven,” Josh offered. “In Denver for instance, there always seems to be new breweries popping up on every block. Here it’s more about having that community and bringing people together for a pint of good beer. Minnesota I’ve found – and I’ve only been here a short time, is really a great craft beer state.” Chris expands on the topic, “I think it’s different in the sense that we don’t have the population centers up here that some of the other regions do; the big cities and that. I don’t want to say we are more community driven than others; I know there are a lot of establishments in the (twin) cities that are very community focused. I think one thing that stands out about us as a brewing region is that the beer up here is starting to get recognized. People are realizing that there are a lot of good breweries outside of the metro area. I think a few years ago there was a sort of stigma for us upstate. I felt that the common thought was that brewers didn’t know what they were doing up here. The fact is, we now have some really good breweries winning respected awards from all over. Some examples are Jack Pine, Roundhouse, Bent Paddle, and Beaver Island. I think the quality has improved quite a bit.”
Josh says that he’s had a few bad days when brewing especially in his early years at previous breweries. “There’s a couple of mistakes that I’ve made. In the cellar one time, I took the wrong clamp off and lost 8 barrels of beer. Another time, not here at Big Axe, I was doing a coffee stout and forgot to sanitize the coffee beans. It destroyed a whole batch of beer, so I had to dump it. Dumping beer is probably the saddest thing you have to do when you are a brewer, just seeing all of that work have to go down the drain. Those mistakes are the worst. They always stick in my mind. I now try to make sure I’m paying complete attention. It’s when you work too fast and you aren’t focused that those things happen.”
Local artist Joe Anderson has played a large role in the artwork and design features that are a part of Big Axe. “The logo design was a really cool process,” Chris explains. “We went through a few designers before Joe finally nailed down that logo, which I really like a lot. It captures our idea and branding, it showcases exactly what we wanted to showcase, and it ties into the area really well with the axe, the trees, the star, and the lake. Much of the credit for the tap room design should go to two people. My wife and our carpenter, Andy. Andy provided a lot of input into it. If you look at that supporting structure it says AXE up there. It was a great idea and gets a lot of attention and acknowledgement from our customers. Our goal for the space was to have a combination of industrial and rustic style blended together, which I think we did. We have the industrial side with the brewery operation and the concrete countertop, and a rustic aspect with the reclaimed wood feature wall and the other darker wood surfaces. We did have some additional input provided by a local designer, but the bulk was from my wife and Andy.”
Still familiarizing himself with the area, Josh describes his perfect beer day as checking out Jack Pine Brewery “I love that place, I love trying new beer. I also like going down to the cities. I’m really trying to sample more of what people in Minnesota are doing. Also, pouring pints of our beer at All Pints North Festival in Duluth recently was pretty close to a perfect beer day,” he adds. “I really enjoyed serving our beer and seeing other people from the metro and Duluth areas. It was great having them try our beers, and to receive great and positive feedback.” Chris loves the annual Great American Beer Festival in Colorado. “I enjoy GABF just to try other beers, although it’s also great being part of it. It’s great to see how others operate and to get a whole new set of ideas as people are doing different things in different ways in different regions. Outside of GABF, I really like touring different locations and breweries just to see what they’re doing and to try their beer. I really like sampling new beers and seeing what people come up with, not just with their beer but also their décor and their merchandise; that’s fun to me.”
There are a few things on the horizon to look forward to from Big Axe Brewing for beer lovers. Chris is looking forward to the change that will come little by little, making improvements, tweaking process, and learning to be more efficient. “I’m driven by improving on what we do. It’s nice to get lucky once in a while but really, I just want to get better and more consistent. We also have a few new beers that we’re going to try. We’re about to do a sour IPA, this will be a brew we haven’t done anything else like yet. For the benefit of the locals, we are looking forward to having a barrel aging program in the future. We are working towards that program being an on-going thing. People will have a chance to come in and have some really special barrel aged beers. We hope that it will encourage more visits in the slow season. Additionally, we are excited about our barrel aged coffee imperial stout. For this, we barrel age the coffee beans while they are green – before they are roasted. After which, we roast them, do a cold press, and infuse it into our imperial stout. It is such a different flavor, it’s a great combination of coffee, vanilla, and roasted awesomeness.” Josh also mentioned his intent to do some collaborations with other local breweries soon.
While sitting in the taproom chatting and immersed in the local culture, I couldn’t help but appreciate Big Axe Brewing’s celebration of local folklore. Perhaps, if I had to choose a Northwoods folk hero to compare Big Axe’s beer to, it would be Paul Bunyan. Their beers are big, full of character, and as well balanced as a fine crafted hatchet. Big Axe as a brewery may not be a legend yet, however their quality brews are generating a Northwoods buzz of their own, and I assure you this is no tall tale.
Distribution of Big Axe’s beer is limited to Minnesota at this point. Personally, I recommend a visit to their taproom located at 25435 Main St. Nisswa MN.