Cuyuna Brewing Brewmaster Interview

The town of Crosby Minnesota’s history can be traced back to a time when the mining industry had a heavy presence in the area.  It’s located in the Cuyuna Iron Range and was in fact named after a mining industry businessman, George Crosby.  If you weren’t previously aware of its mining origins, upon first visit you might not suspect that you are standing in the middle of what was once a large and active mining region.  Mine pits have been replaced by deep crystal-clear lakes, hills that were created from digs are now covered in beautiful trees, and the unique topography is home to a variety of wildlife.  Crosby is a great place to visit, offering great shopping opportunities, recreation areas, and food and drink options.  It’s a small vibrant town full of art, history, and beautiful scenery.  Nick Huisinga and his wife chose it to be the home of their new tap room, Cuyuna Brewing Company which opened in 2017.  They, together with others are working to create a bright future and a new economy for Crosby and the surrounding area.  

There is something on tap at Cuyuna Brewing to suit just about any palate. While their beer is excellent, if you prefer a cider or fruit infused beer you will find some of the best here. It’s not by chance that Cuyuna brewing company makes a great cider. Nick’s first foray into producing alcohol was cider. “The first fermentation I ever completed was using apples from my uncle Tim’s orchard approximately 10 years ago,” Nick explained. “The first one didn’t turn out, but then I started to learn more by reading into it. I made cider every annual harvest after that, it became kind of a tradition. From year to year the results continued to improve. I am where I am today because of an evolution that stems from my early years making cider. This cider is an evolution of the first batch I made all those years back,” Nick explains, as he hands me the first of what would be many samples that day. The aptly named “Uncle Tim’s Cider,” was dry and to my liking. I’ve personally never ventured into the hard cider realm before, preferring to imbibe in drinks with little to no sweetness, so I was initially surprised to find just how much I liked it. “I wanted it halfway in between sweet and dry,” Nick continues. “The hard part was getting the tart out of there. Sociable Cider works (of Minneapolis) helped us out when we were trying to develop it. It’s made with 75% apples and 25% grain. We age it on oak (soaked in bourbon), then I add a little Maple syrup and Vanilla for flavor after fermentation. For me, I don’t really care for ciders that haven’t been oaked, because there is such a fresh apple taste to them that they are tart. Oak really mellows it out.” I’d like to note my opinion, the presence of the tannins from the oak really elevates this cider.

Nick Huisinga

Nick explained that he really enjoyed the process of making cider and that it was natural for him to pick up homebrewing from there.  Owning and running a brewery however wasn’t always in his plans.  “I went to college 20 years ago for pastoral studies.  My wife and I were youth pastors for 8 years in Michigan and Colorado. Then after 8 years we decided we didn’t want to do that anymore.  We moved back to Wilmar (MN) where we had both grown up, and we moved into her parent’s basement with my 3 kids.  I found a job making ten dollars an hour doing R&D for a turkey company nearby.  I knew I wasn’t going to get out of my in laws’ basement making that.  So, I decided to study law enforcement while I was working, with the intention of becoming a police officer.  The turkey company I worked for was, at the time, testing vaccines for the birds.  My job was to work out in the field, care for the birds, complete experiments, and fix things like fans and water systems.  Once they had completed development on a vaccine that would be put into birds at their hatchery, they needed to create a small vaccine production lab.  They had appreciated what I had done from a managing and organizing perspective out in the field, so they gave me the role of running the new lab.  The effort was mostly logistics, the recipe and procedure were already laid out.  Since the vaccine was proven to work, it came down to making it exactly like the recipe called for.  I had to figure out things like how to go from 1,000 doses to 20,000 doses and then 100,000 to scale up.  The vaccines we were doing were bacterin vaccines, so it’s fermented bacteria grown up.  Fermenting bacteria is very similar to fermenting with yeast; so my experience home brewing made me better at my job, and my job made me better at brewing.  I liked it so much that when later offered a law enforcement job, I turned it down.  A couple of years into the vaccine production lab, I realized I was already pretty much running a brewery and that it wouldn’t be a long shot for me to open one someday.  There is no way I’d have a brewery right now if I hadn’t done the vaccine production; I wouldn’t have been as serious about it.  It was a crossroads that’s for sure, I very well might have been a cop right now,”

During our conversation, Nick generously continued to provide me with samples of beer.  Soon he handed me, as he described it, a New England style IPA crossed with an Apricot Ale called “Hazy Hopricot.”  This beer was absolutely fantastic.  It was the perfect balance of hops, flavor, and refreshment.  A pint of this alone would be worth a trip to the tap room.  “I’ve always wanted to do an Apricot ale,” Nick explains, I really like Pyramid’s and was inspired by it.  At the same time, I felt like I should do a Hazy IPA as I’d never done one and they became really popular last summer.  I thought, why don’t I do both in one beer?  I knew it would work because a lot of these New England style IPAs are marketed as having juicy aspects and Apricot seemed like it would go really well in one.  The Hazy Hopricot is made with Apricot puree as well as Amarillo, Mosaic and Citra hops.”

The decision to open Cuyuna brewing wasn’t an easy one.  Nick knew it was a risk and admitted that he did have some early reservations about the idea.  “There is a lot that went into the decision to open this place.”  He explained that the Cuyuna Iron Range is going through a bit of a renaissance and that he knew growing pains could come with that.  “There are a lot of stories that you can read that explain the details of the history here; just google search “long live Cuyuna.”  Gearjunkie.com probably did the best job of explaining how bad things got when the mining companies left in the mid-80s and how far things have come in the recent past.  The positive momentum probably started with the transition of the old mine pits to what is now a state recreation area, its beautiful.  There are a lot of beautiful crystal-clear lakes now as well as great fishing and hunting, but it’s been the addition of the bike trails, built in 2011, that seems to be the largest driver of the increasing numbers of visitors to our area.”  The current estimate of visitors drawn to this area by the 35 miles of mostly one-way mountain bike trails is 20,000 people.  

“What brought my attention to the opportunity here in Crosby was a report issued by a hired economist. The goal of the report was to document how much money the biking trails and recreation area are bringing into the community. The economist had determined that they are bringing approximately 2 million dollars annually into the local economy; that’s a lot for a town of around 2,500 people. Additionally, the report highlighted that there weren’t enough amenities such as lodging and restaurants in town to support all of these visitors. It found many people were going to Brainerd to spend their money. Next year (2020), work will begin to expand the amount of bike trails here from 35 to 75 miles. The report has estimated that by completing the planned 75 miles of area bike trails, $21 million dollars in additional revenue will flow into the local economy. It was clear to the leaders of the community, that along with the new trails, they needed to bring in amenities.”

“With all of the new trails, local and national bike groups have formed an active presence here. One of the groups, in response to the economics report, issued a survey. One question on the survey asked, what amenity would you most like to see in town? A brewery and tap room was the number one answer. With all the press and optimism a lot of people were coming up here to explore the idea of opening a brewery and tap room.” Nick thinks that even with the optimism, the small size of the town scared many of them off. “It was actually a friend of mine who had read the report and brought all of this to my attention. He was confident that a brewery would take off. I wasn’t so sure it was a great Idea. I, being from Wilmar, had never even visited the area before. Trying to encourage me, he brought me up here sometime in 2015. We camped in the recreation area and biked the trails. Once I saw it and the town, I got excited. Two weeks later, I set a meeting with the bike group’s president as well as the director of the chamber of commerce in Crosby. They had a great plan to further area development and I gained confidence that they had the resolve to see the plan through. I made the decision to open Cuyuna Brewing and decided that I needed to act quickly. I wanted to make sure I opened this place before the bike trails were fully expanded to 75 miles or I was concerned that somebody else would. Less than a year and a half later, in 2017, we were open and serving beer. So far everything is going according to plan, the town is growing, our business is growing, and lodging options in the area are becoming more plentiful too.”

After acquiring the historic building in downtown Crosby, a lot of work had to be completed to get the brewing operation and tap room open. “When we bought the building, it needed a ton of work. We did everything we could ourselves, but it ended up being a bit crazy. I had planned to keep my other job and do whatever it took to keep things running here. I even camped in the back behind the building. I worked 10-hour days Monday through Thursday in Wilmar, then I’d drive up here after work Thursday and work and camp until Sunday before starting the week over again. I did that for 8 months, right up until we opened. We put everything we had and more into this place. Fortunately, our family has been very supportive. Conveniently, my wife’s father is the manager of engineers of an electrical co-op, our tables are big spools that held electrical wire. The co-op usually just breaks the spools down, but we thought they would make great tables. The pew that is in the tap room, we bought from our grandmother’s church back in Wilmar. The panel that our logo is painted on was a table that was already in the building, I was dragging it across the floor to move it and it broke, so I had actually thrown it away when my wife realized it was perfect to paint our logo on, so we did just that and then we hung it on the wall. A friend of mine Mike Bregel, from back home in Wilmar designed the logo, although we did run it past our marketing guy who made a couple small tweaks to the hills in the background. From the beginning, we had a vision that we would be a small-town tap room that was community focused. We wanted to provide both quality beers and a quality experience. I think we have achieved what we set out to; the community supports us and we appreciate that. It’s great that we get a lot of tourists too, but we love the local group that we have here year round. We have enjoyed the opportunity to get to know our customers and we make business decisions with them in mind.”

As we continued talking, I continued to enjoy trying the different styles of beer Nick had on tap. As I took a sip of the Blueberry Mosaic, I started to notice a trend. All of his beers were unique from each other and each of them had great balance. You might expect a beer fermented with 25 pounds of blueberry puree to be sweet, but it isn’t. In fact, I found it to be tannic like a wine. It had reserved (Mosaic) hop bitterness and is quite sessionable. “As a home brewer, the whole thing is really about trying different things and creating different flavor profiles. Since I first started, I’ve made a point to not cut corners. My home brewed beer improved drastically when I started experimenting with water profiles, that really made a difference in the quality of the beer and I continue to use different water profiles for the different beers I brew today; using a water profile that will result in the best quality beer is important. Additionally, I use different yeast for almost every beer. I have four different English beers on tap right now and I use a different strain of yeast for all four. The only beers that I make that I use the same yeast and same water profile for are the Crusher IPA, the Isle of Pines IPA, and the Blueberry Mosaic, I do so because it makes sense in the context of what I’m trying to do with the beers. I’m my worst critic, I’m super picky; If there is something that I would never do as a homebrewer making beer for myself, why would I do it when selling that beer?”

“No matter the style of beer I’m drinking, I look for it to have balance,” says Nick.  “People love our Isle of Pines IPA, but it’s my least favorite.  I prefer the Ranger Strong Pale Ale, it’s hoppy like an IPA, but it also has some nice malt flavor; there is a nice balance there.  I think you should be able to taste all the flavors in a beer; flavors should complement each other, and they should be individually identifiable.  A lot of times, with a super hoppy beer all you can identify is the hops, it just takes over the beer.  Conversely in some beers you can’t taste any hops, I think having at least a little bit of hop presence is nice.  I do like English style brews and the balance that comes with them.  I gravitate towards traditional European style beers in general, those types of brews were the focus for us in the beginning.  I have branched out since then however, as there is a large demand for other styles.  I was a year and a half late on making a hazy IPA, I’m not one to jump on the newest and latest things too quickly.”

While Nick is focused and deliberate in his planning process, sometimes happy accidents occur.  “We’ve done a chocolate coffee milk stout twice, which was a result of experimenting and tweaking a recipe that didn’t pan out as expected.  The first time, I changed the grain ratio trying to adjust the Manhigh Stout a little bit, when it came out, it wasn’t really black; it was brown.  It certainly wasn’t Manhigh Stout and I couldn’t sell it as one; it didn’t just look different, it tasted a little different too.  I decided to add some coffee and cocoa nibs and called it Mocha Manhigh.  There was nothing wrong with the beer, it just wasn’t Manhigh, so I kind of thought on the fly.  As I mentioned earlier, I’ve actually done that twice, now I get people coming in and asking for it.  The thing about that is, the first beer isn’t the hardest to make, the second one is, because you have to repeat it.  Whatever changed, you have to write it in your notes so it’s there if you do want to brew it again.  It is difficult to adjust a beer after people have tasted it, because people notice it, our customers definitely pick up on that sort of thing and they will call us out on it.”

When I first entered Cuyuna Brewing to meet Nick, I entered through a side door as the tap room entrance was still closed; I had arrived before the 3PM opening hour. The door led to the brewing area where Nick was working and I had an opportunity to view the operation. “My equipment is just a two-vessel system so it’s different from what most brewers have. It requires a lot of transferring back and forth between the two vessels. I’m also pushing the head space a lot because technically it’s a 500-liter system which is 4.26 barrels. I’m always boiling at 600 or 650 liters instead of 500 and often trying to put 600 or even up to 700 liters into the fermenter. A result of that is often being a little overloaded in my lauter tun and getting a lot of stuck sparges. For example, one time when I was brewing using rice hulls, I added them into the mash. I had read somewhere that you should add them into the mash water so that they can soak up whatever they are going to soak up. After doing so, I don’t think that’s true; I would steer someone away from it. Anyway, I next had to pump all the mash including the rice hulls into the lauter tun. The grain got stuck where the connection goes down from two inches to one inch; the rice hulls just aren’t as soft as the barley. It was plugged so bad that I ended up having to dump the whole batch along with 300 pounds of grain. It took me 3 hours to get the pump cleared. Now I add the rice hulls in separately so they never have to go through the pump.”

Like most of the Northwoods breweries, Cuyuna brewing sees an uptick in tourists during the summer. “We get people that come in and are unfamiliar with our beer and sometimes unfamiliar with beer in general. They’ll ask me what beer they should pick, or what my favorite is. I really think those are the wrong questions to ask, because the answers to those questions often won’t lead to a determination of what the customer will like. My thoughts on our best beer, or which of our beers is the best-selling one doesn’t mean much in the end. I usually try to turn those questions around when I get them. I ask, what do you like? We have such a wide variety of beer in our tap room that if you say you like a specific kind of beer or flavor profile, I can probably find you something really close. If someone says they prefer lighter beers, I would bring them a couple of samples, and try to describe the differences of note in the flavor profiles. It’s great for us and for our customers if we can find the right beer for each of them. All of our employees do a great job of this.”

Having a taproom in a sparsely populated region and somewhat subject to seasonal demand serves to strengthen the bonds between the breweries in the area.  “I think the thing that comes to mind about all of us, is how we help each other.  Everybody that has a brewery has had somebody help them in some way, whether its advice, sharing experience, or helping out with a supply or technical system related issue.  We do our best to pay that forward; we are proud to help each other as well as new people to the industry.  I think it’s probably a harder thing to do in the cities because there’s so much competition there.  Unfortunately, the reality is that some of the competitors in the bigger markets don’t make it.  Up here, being more spread out, there isn’t a concern that a new brewery is going to take business from others.  For us, it’s the more th​e merrier; having more of us makes the area more of a destination.  I think we all probably feel that way – as long as someone new doesn’t plop down right next to you.  It enables things like brewery tours where people come up and visit many of us at once.  Being more concentrated with breweries like the Minneapolis brewing scene and to a smaller extent the Duluth scene, means you are really competing more ferociously for business.  Here we complement each other.”

There are few things that go together as well as beer and football.  “I really miss the fall season homebrew parties that I used to have, It’s been a while since I’ve been able to do one.  It really was the perfect beer day, I’d invite some friends over to drink some homebrew, drag a tv out to the garage so we could watch football, throw some brats on the grill, and brew a fresh batch of beer.  Right now, there are some days where I come in here and work 18 hours, I don’t have as much time as I used to, but certainly I have a lot of nostalgia for that.  We do put the game on in our tap room, which is nice.  Also, once a year we do a chili competition during a Vikings game, people really seem to like that.”  

Aside from the start of football season, there are some other exciting things coming to the tap room this fall. “There is a Nordic Farmhouse Ale that I’m doing that I’m really excited about, though I do wonder how well it will be received. I got the idea from reading about brewing in Scandinavia and Nordic brewing history. With scarce resources, they often had to brew with whatever ingredients were available. They didn’t always have hops, so Lingonberries were used for bittering. A lot of time Nordic beers are at least a little bit smoky because they were boiling it over an open flame and they even burned wood as a heat source for the malting process. I’ve been thinking about doing something like this for some time and I actually put together a recipe. I am also going to use Juniper branches. Historically, when brewing, they would use a pot that had a drain in the bottom, but of course it needed to have a false bottom to keep the drain closed. They would use Juniper branches for the false bottom, the juniper infused a piney flavor into the mix as well as a little bit of a woodiness. The plan is to use Lingonberries, hops, Juniper, and probably a little smoked barley. Additionally, I’m going to use a recently uncovered strain of Nordic yeast. It will be kind of a Nordic style barley wine.”

I was preparing to leave when Nick handed me a mini growler filled with a preview of Cuyuna’s Bootlegger Bourbon Barrel Quad which will be released in October. “We took inspiration for the name from the history of our building. There were tunnels between our building and what used to be a hotel in town back during prohibition. People would use the tunnels to move alcohol between the buildings and to go have a drink without tipping off the police.” The beer itself is fantastic. It’s full bodied, smooth, and balanced. The most impressive part is how Nick has drawn out flavor notes of vanilla and caramel from the oak without allowing sweetness to overtake the flavor (which I find all too common in barrel aged beers). I was impressed but not surprised, Nick is hitting the ball out of the park with every one of his beers. I started to wonder if his time as a pastor might be playing a larger role than he wants to admit, perhaps he is getting a little help from a higher power? Regardless I’d like to recommend a new motto… Our beer is Pastor-ized. Questionable puns aside, if you love beer, cider, or just a good chat, make Cuyuna Brewing Company a stop on your Northwoods beer tour.

Cuyuna Brewing Company is located at 1 East Main Street in Crosby Minnesota.

Please be sure to read The Barrel Cellar’s interviews with the brew master of other Minnesota Breweries Big Axe and 14 Lakes Brewing

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