14 Lakes Brewing Brewmaster Interview

The town of Cross Lake is nestled into the Northwoods of Minnesota, and located on the east side of the of the Whitefish chain of lakes. The town is a water recreation enthusiast’s dream, it’s the perfect place for boating, fishing, skiing, and other water related activities. After a long day on the water, many choose to take their boat to one of the many local lake side establishments and dock for a meal or a drink. Time seems to lose its importance and the sunshine will brighten even the worst of days. Steve and Cindy Guttormson saw an opportunity to follow their dreams here, they built 14 Lakes Brewing and named it in homage to the 14 lakes that make up the Whitefish Chain.

Brew master Dan Trombley was nice enough to meet me at the brewery on brew day, a day in which the tap room is typically not open for business.  I received a warm welcome from Dan’s dog Sam and sat down to talk about the brewery.  “My cousin Mark Gjengdal got me into brewing,” Dan stated – perhaps anticipating the question.  “He used to brew small five-gallon batches from extract kits.  A couple of times, he invited me to sit in on brew dates with him.  It was a pretty simple operation; if you can make mac and cheese on your stove top, you can make beer.  When cousin Mark finished school, he decided to move out to Hawaii.  He didn’t want to pay to ship most of his things out there, so he decided to get rid of his stuff instead.  Included in the things he was getting rid of was all of his brewing equipment, his kettles, his carboys, his pony kegs, and his kegerator.  I was living with my buddy John at the time – in his house, I was paying him rent.  I told him about my cousin getting rid of all his home brew equipment, and John encouraged me to buy it up and get it going.  So, I did; I bought it all – for super cheap too.  That was five years ago now, the rest is history.  I started on my own just like I had learned from Mark, doing extract batches.  What I found was that the extract batches are very to the “T” recipe wise; there is little room for variation.  I mean you can add some stuff if you want to, but if you get the kit it’s pretty much cut and dry.  I figured out early on if I wanted more control over the final product, then I would have to move away from the extract brewing.  I started doing partial mashes – brew in a bag kind of stuff and then finally went to all grain brewing.  I think the first mash tun that we ended up having was an old Coleman cooler that we threw a false bottom into; it worked to get us by and headed in the right direction.  Most of the brews we do here originated from home brew batches.  I wanted to see how I liked the results before scaling up for the big operation.”

Dan and Sam in the tap room

Dan, like many of the other brewers I’ve had the good fortune to speak with, places high importance on attention to detail and having a clean operation. “Attention to detail means making sure that when you’re making a recipe, every single component of it meshes with the others. Every ingredient is important. You need to understand the chemical makeup of the water that you are using, what the residual alkalinity of it is, as well as how much Calcium and Magnesium it contains. You need to understand the grain bill as well. What hops will work best to achieve your preferred flavor profile? How much alpha acid do you have? What malts are you going to use? Choices differ obviously depending on the recipe you are using and what you are making. By paying attention to detail you can make sure that you get everything right on the first try. My philosophy is to stay true to a style and really try to hone my skills when it comes to the finer details of producing that style. Know what makes a porter a porter, or a stout a stout, or a brown ale a brown ale. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t find opportunity to make improvements or tweaks, but it’s hard to have success until you truly understand what goes into making a good beer good. Once you have done your due diligence and given justice to the style, then you can go outside the norms and do some crazy stuff. I feel like I’m my own worst critic. If it doesn’t meet my standards, I don’t want to put it out there. If I don’t want to drink it, how can I expect anybody else to drink it? When I brew something new, there is a certain part of me that worries whether the public is going to like it or not. However, I try to focus on the things I can control; did I do the style right? Does it taste right? Is it good? When it comes to cleaning, if your tanks aren’t clean or if your brew house isn’t clean, you might as well stop there; you’re not going to make a good beer. There are way too many free radicals that can get in there and corrupt the beer. Cleaning is definitely key.”

Dan holds other brewers to the same standards he holds himself to.  “When drinking a beer that is new to me, most of the time I’m looking to see if brewers are true to the style of a given beer.  The first thing I look at when I walk into somewhere new is the tap list.  At a brewery I usually try to get a flight because I like to try all kinds of different beers.  I am a hop head though, so I definitely make sure to try the IPA.  I’m personally not too keen on the Milkshake IPAs yet, but I love the Hazy IPAs and the double IPAs especially.  When I order an IPA, I look at the color expecting to see a nice golden-brown hue and I expect the hop presence to be very crisp and clean.  Considering the palate, I’m looking for the floral, bitter, and fruit notes; is everything there?  I love that IPAs provide such a great opportunity to play around with these different hops.  You can create so many different flavors and other character notes within that style of beer.  You can craft it to have a neutral clean crisp bitterness, to have a variety of floral and herbal notes, to give it a specific level of fruitiness, or to just be a big juicy hop bomb.  It’s fantastic to see what brewers are doing with IPAs.”  

“I met Steve and Cindy very early in the planning phase for the brewery, thats when Steve hired me.  Steve had a good plan for what he wanted the tap room to be.  He had plans drawn up for the inclusion of the big fan over the brewing area, the soundboard, and the mural of the Whitefish Chain (of lakes).  I think his thought process with the mural was to enable everybody to see where our location is relative to the lakes themselves.  He personally made the bar and dividing wall.  When it came to the tanks and the brewhouse he chose to go through Portland Kettle Works because he wanted something made in America.  I’ve been to their manufacturing plant and had the chance to watch them in action.  They do fantastic work there; the end product might be a little more expensive than the competition but the quality is well worth the price.  When it came to the set-up of the brewing operation, Steve asked me for my opinion on how everything should be set up.  I preferred it be set up in order from process start to process finish.  We go right from hot liquor tank water, into mashing and sparging, then into the boil, after which we cool it down, throw it into the fermenter, send to cold crash, toss it in the bright tank, and finally keg.” 

While having a plan and recipe prior to brewing is vital to the process, without a last minute supply check, you may find yourself making unexpected changes on the fly.   “I had to make a last-minute change once with our Sandbar IPA.  I had planned to throw in Chinook hops at the five-minute addition but had to throw Nugget hops in instead.  The problem was that I thought we had Chinook in stock when I had started, but when I went back to look for it, there wasn’t any.  That was a particularly busy day, I was here trying to brew, but I was also pouring taps so I ended up getting swamped.  Making brew-side matters worse, I also missed the timing on the hop addition.  Once I had our customers in the tap room set up and square, I ran back to storage to grab the Chinook and ended up having to make a quick substitution for it.  Normally we try to brew when our taproom is closed, it helps to avoid some of these issues.”  Not to be deterred, Dan plans to revisit his original idea for the Sandbar IPA.  “I feel I’m pretty methodical when I make a recipe.  I do my due diligence, I know exactly what I’m putting into it, not just flying by the seat of my pants.  I put Chinook in there for a reason.  I don’t want my beers to taste the same, the last-minute adjustment to the Sandbar IPA resulted in a more similar offering to that of our Double IPA than I would have liked.  The second time around I plan to brew it for our anniversary.  I’ll make sure we have Chinook hops on hand in advance this time.”

Sometimes when things go bad on a brew, there are no amount of adjustments that can be made that will save it.  “Being a lighter beer, our Blonde Rush seems to go quickly, people really buy that up and it can make scheduling difficult.  So, I told our assistant brewer John, the same John I mentioned earlier, that we had to find different beers to substitute for it.  The intent being that not everybody will order the same beer.  I decided on doing a Pilsner and a Helles.  I set John on the task of creating the Helles recipe while I worked on a Pilsner recipe.  When we brewed his Helles recipe for the first time, it turned out fantastic.  The clarity was nice, the crispness was nice, and it was good.  So we decided to do it again a second time, but this time I decided to brew a double batch by filling up the 10-barrel fermenter which equates to about 310 gallons worth of beer.  Since it was a lager, it needed to ferment at a lower temperature, so I set the temperature to about 56 degrees.  I came in a couple of days later and the fermenter was at 97 degrees -not good.  What happened was the glycol chiller stopped passing glycol through while the fermenter continued to call for glycol at the same time.   The chiller at the time was upstairs; in the summer it can get over 100 degrees up there, so the glycol was heating up prior to being passed to the fermenter.  It was a recipe for disaster.  Warm glycol was cycling through the fermenter.  After some effort, I finally got the chiller to start chilling the glycol in attempt to cool it down, but at that point I suspected the damage was done.  I did try to see if it could be salvaged instead of immediately dumping it.  After thinking through the process ahead, I realized it wouldn’t need a diacetyl rest, so I went straight into the lagering phase and waited to see what the result would be.  After a few weeks I tasted it and realized it was not going to be any good, it was ruined.  It was astringent and bitter and sour.  We ended up having to dump the batch.  Later, we knew we still needed a lighter brew for tap room demand, so we decided to utilize the upcoming 4th of July holiday, normally an off day, to rebrew the Helles.  John suggested that we pull an all-nighter the night before the holiday to brew.  We started around 11:00 PM and got done at 9:30 in the morning.  John was used to staying up all night, but I wasn’t, I was so tired I ended up sleeping the whole 4th of July away, but it worked; 4-6 weeks later we had a nice Helles.  It tasted great and all the hard work definitely paid off.  We got it at a crucial time too, summer is a very busy season for us and light beer sells best in the summer”  

Dan credits intuition and experience for his ability to adapt to situations that pop up.  “Last brew day, I noticed I was having an issue with the boiler.  At about the halfway point, the boil seemed to be dying down.   I knew it hadn’t boiled nearly long enough so I knew there was no way I could have boiled off the alpha acids enough for the brew.  I knew I had to get the boiler back up to speed and get the mix up to a full rolling boil.  The full hour boil is a must, not just to remove the alpha acid but also to hit my target gravity for the beer.  There can be a bit of a downward spiral when something like this happens too.  For example, there are hop addition marks during the process you need to hit.  Fortunately, with a gut feel and some intuition on what I needed to do timing wise, I was able to still produce the beer and hit all my quality and flavor marks with it.  I did a good job for that one.”

The beers on 14 Lakes’ tap list change regularly. “We have only two beers that are on tap year-round, the Blonde Rush and Mango Rush beers. We generally cycle other brews in and out. In the summer we go through beers quickly, so the changeover probably happens about once a month. The tap list currently features mostly lighter bodied beers. I do get some people throughout the year that come in and ask if we have a stout on tap, but this time of year I usually don’t because it won’t sell well. For these people, I usually point them to something like our Mud Lake Brown. The Mud Lake Brown, in my opinion, is the best brew we make and the one that I love the most. As far a nut brown goes, it’s a little bit darker than most, but it’s got a nice roasted chocolate aspect as well as a hint of roasted coffee. I throw some malts called Special B in there that add a nice caramel, plum, and raisin kind of flavor to it. In addition to the flavor and character, I think it’s really sessionable, it’s not like drinking a full heavy porter or something like that where it’s like consuming a whole loaf of bread. In the winter we go to some darker stuff and do smaller batches. I start to change the tone in the fall and that carries into and through the winter. Right about January I’ll start planning for the spring, for which we do an Irish Red and stout around St. Patrick’s Day. I am currently (late July) looking over my recipe for our Octoberfest, as I need to order ingredients.”

“Our Blonde Rush, Arnie’s Amber and Mud Lake Brown are home brew recipes.  When first hired by Steve and Cindy I didn’t have any recipes for this place.  I needed to make some recipes, but I still wasn’t quite confident enough to try new stuff from just an idea in the brewhouse as I didn’t even have it yet, so I wasn’t sure how things would feel.  In the period between April and September, I decided to do homebrew batches, taste them, test them, then scale them up.  The Blonde Rush was the home brew recipe I worked on for the longest time as it was the first one I crafted.  A couple of weeks before I went to Portland (tank shopping), I got the Arnie’s Amber and Mud Lake Brown recipes developed as well.  It was a cram session to try and get the recipes together and to dial everything in prior to opening.  I still do small test homebrew batches at home, but I try to be as controlled as possible.  I’ll grab water from here – we use reverse osmosis to strip everything out of the water and start with a clean slate.  I also grab some of the salts we use here at the brewery and bring those home too.  Just so I can get the best example of what it’s like scaled up.  Plus, when I get a chance I still like to homebrew.”  

“I had an opportunity to experience the Portland brew scene when I was out there to visit the Kettle works in 2017.  What I noticed about Portland, is that not only are breweries ubiquitous throughout the city, but everyone seemed to have a unique style.  Perhaps the best thing about it was that there was a lot of experimentation going on there.  I saw a lot of sours and Saisons as well as a lot of fruit beers and ciders.  Then I came back here, we had 6 breweries in the immediate area at the time (now it’s 5), we were making good beer, but it seemed to me like we were almost 10 years behind compared to what they had out in Portland.  I think that has changed now, as we are, as a region, doing more experimentation.  Before Portage (Walker Mn) burned down, Jeff the head brewer there was just doing some fantastic experimenting, he was doing some Cinnamon sticky roll beers and that kind of stuff.  Now we’re all doing some interesting things and that kind of experimentation has finally made its way here.  I talk about the importance of being true to style, but there is always room for experimentation.”

Even on an off day, Dan loves to brew. His favorite place to brew seems to be outside. “I can think of two examples of a perfect beer day. The first would be a hot summer day brewing a beer outside in the sun. I’d be brewing something light like a pale ale or a Belgian White or something like that and enjoying a cold sessionable beer while doing it; there really is nothing better. If I were to go on the other side of it, we brewed a Russian Imperial Stout last winter outside when the temperature was in the teens. I love doing a very heavy Russian Imperial Stout outside that time of year. It’s just synonymous with Minnesota, at least it is to me. It really is great just being out there, stirring the mash up, then stirring the boil kettle up, when it’s really cold outside. There’s something about the steam rising up and drinking a Russian imperial stout at the same time.”

Crowlers and expanded distribution couldn’t have come at a better time. Over the forthcoming months, 14 lakes will introduce some brews Dan is excited about. “We brewed up a Dunkel for our second anniversary which is coming up, we also have a Barley Wine on the horizon. For the Winter, I’d like to do a Belgian Quad, and a Winter Ale spiced with either Allspice or a little bit of Nutmeg. I’m probably most excited for our upcoming Kettle Sour. It is the first one I’ve done so I can’t wait to see how it turns out.” Finally, he mentions that he intends to work on scaling up his Russian Imperial Stout homebrew recipe, “It turned out well so I’m going to do it here.”

14 Lakes has recently started distributing.  “Right now, we are in four local bars with our Blonde Rush, we have a crowler machine as well.  Cans of Blonde Rush can be found in a few liquor stores around the area, and now that we have our new labels, we will expand the variety we have out there as well.  The thing about distributing is that it isn’t just a revenue stream, it’s a fantastic way to advertise too.  For example, I was over at the Warf (a local restaurant), which was the first outside establishment to have our Blonde Rush on tap.  There were people there that saw it on tap and came over here to try it straight from the taproom after their dinner.”

Visit 14 lakes brewery at 36846 County Road 66 Crosslake, MN

Please be sure to read The Barrel Cellar’s reviews of other Minnesota Breweries Big Axe and Cuyuna

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Linda Trombley says:

    I am so proud of you Dan of all your accomplishments and how far you have come !! The Sky is the limit! I know Dad is smiling down on you! 😊😊. I love you Son!! 😊😊💕💕

    Liked by 1 person

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