What started out as an underground poker group turned into one of the biggest breweries in Minnesota.
When Brad Glynn, co-owner of Lift Bridge Brewing in Stillwater, sits down for our interview, I am immediately put at ease with the amount of chill this successful entrepreneur carries. Like if the entire brewery caught on fire at that moment, he would calmly find a solution without even raising his voice. As he recounts how far he and his team have come with a pint of his favorite beer in hand, the Juice-Z NE IPA, I quickly learn two things about Brad: 1. He loves beer 2. He loves his community. And after talking with him for over an hour, it’s a toss-up of which one he loves more.
I fell in love with the craft brew scene at an almost inappropriate young age. Growing up in Arizona, I saw everything from California, Colorado, and East Coast breweries coming into the state in the late 90s. My first sip of beer was New Belgium’s Fat Tire (I will not state the age as I don’t want to retroactively get in trouble with my Mom). I felt I was a beer connoisseur by 25, drinking everything from Avery’s White Rascal to Weihenstephaner Hefeweissbier Dunkel to Dogfish Head’s 90-minute IPA to Stone Brewing’s Arrogant Bastard to Breckenridge’s Vanilla Porter. If you brewed it back in the day, I probably drank it. And when you drink enough finely-tuned craft beer, you start to appreciate every delicious hop. An then idea dabbles in your slightly buzzed mind that whispers, how cool would it be to have your own brewery?! However, when you see the amount of work in making just one batch of home-brewed beer, the fantasy quickly fades, and reality sets in; let’s just leave brewing to the pros.
Reality never set in for home-brewers Brad Glynn and Dan Schwarz when they and two other buddies decided to start their own brewery.
“We had an underground poker group,” Brad remembers. “All of us had kids around the same age, and all moved to Stillwater around the same time–the early 2000s. We learned a few of us had the same interest in beer during those long nights of playing poker.”
By the early 2000s, the craft brew scene was exploding on the east and west coast but hadn’t yet hit the Minnesota market. The only prominent breweries in the Twin Cities were Surly, Flat Earth, and Summit. Minnesota didn’t even have a beer festival until 2000. And the laws in Minnesota didn’t help breweries either. Breweries making under 3,500 barrels could not legally sell growlers for off-site consumption. This draconian law hindered many small breweries that needed those in-house sales to make a profit. Thanks to the Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild, that law changed in 2003.
When Brad and company envisioned a brewery, its home was always in Stillwater. Stillwater had not seen a single brewery since the days before prohibition in 1920. “We thought Stillwater would be a really cool place to start a brewery,” states Brad. “We started doing a lot of late-night brewing and many late-night discussions. We didn’t know what it would look like; we just wanted to brew some cool beer and bring it to people. In 2007 we really started planning, and in 2008 we sold our first keg of Farm Girl.” Lift Bridge Brewing was the 12th brewery in Minnesota to open.
Brad and his team started brewing out of Flat Earth Brewing Company in St. Paul and had a small warehouse in Stillwater. Their first beers were Farm Girl (a now staple tap handle in almost any Minnesota bar), Crosscut Pale Ale, and Chestnut Hill Brown Ale.
“We would self-distribute and drive around in our mini-vans…pulling the kid’s car seats out to make room for the beer and drive around the Twin Cities. We would call different restaurants to see if they would place us,” states Brad.
Another state law was setting brewers back; a brewery could not have a taproom in Minnesota. If you owned a brewery, you could not legally sell your beer out of your establishment for on-site consumption unless you had a brewpub license (brewpubs could sell beer in their restaurants but couldn’t distribute and must adhere to the 3,500 barrel cap). Many breweries, including Lift Bridge, handed out “free samples” of their beer until the customer decided which one to take home in a growler. Finally, in 2011 after much debate at the state Senate level, breweries were allowed to have a taproom. The law was dubbed the “Surly Bill.” Lift Bridge opened its taproom in 2011, making it the oldest taproom in Minnesota.
We will not ever brew anything
Over the years, as more breweries open, new hops come out, and ideas collide, there becomes an almost cult-like following around various trends. There is the super hazy, the fruit-infused, the double-hopped, the barrel-aged, the low-cal, the super-high ABV, the candy-flavored, the chocolate infused, the extra sour…the list goes on and on. And the competition is real. There are approximately 180 breweries on any given day in Minnesota, and unfortunately, not all prevail. Even some bigger breweries have had to shut their doors (RIP Tin Whiskers).
With the amount of competition, how has Lift Bridge maintained its mojo? Glynn explains, “It is tricky. You want to stay relevant; you want to try new things. Now instead of making just IPAs, we are doing hazies, etc. We need to stay ahead of the curve and see what is coming–what new varieties of hops are out there. We have started an innovation team at the brewery and have come out with some new cool beers in the past year. If our customers like it, we will do it. It has taken a while, but I have learned to say we will not ever brew anything.”
It helps that Lift Bridge has been in the industry for some time now, and Brad agrees, “One good thing about being in the market for as long as we have is we have been able to have a lot of diversification of products. And quality products. We have flagship beers, new stuff, and hard seltzers and sodas. We have been able to read the industry and be honest with ourselves about what we can or cannot do. I respect taking chances, but you need to make intelligent choices and not step off a cliff.”
When life gives you supply chain problems, you make beer
The current supply chain problem has affected almost every industry, including craft beer production. Getting cans are a huge problem, and to purchase already labeled cans, you need to buy, at the minimum, a 5-ton truckload. That is a massive amount of cans. If you are a craft brewer wanting to make small-batch beers, it can cause a huge issue.
Instead of wallowing, Lift Bridge decided to make the best of it. They collaborated with BlackStack Brewing and made a double dry-hooped double IPA (DDH • DIPA) dubbed “Supply Chain Issues.” The label is a sticker around one of their flagship cans and is hilariously designed with planes, trains, automobiles, and various comedic ramblings. And at 8.2%, you will quickly forget your own supply chain issues. As Brad says it best, “Through necessity comes innovation and cool stuff. We can do really cool things with small batches of beer now.”
#Freethegrowler and the Alliance of Minnesota Craft Breweries
There are over 8,000 breweries in the United States. Out of those 8,000 breweries, only 5 cannot sell a growler or a crowler of their own beer. All 5 are located in Minnesota. Minnesota is the only state that limits off-sale for craft breweries based on the number of production of barrels. If a brewery makes more than 20,000 barrels in Minnesota, that said brewery is no longer allowed to sell their beer to-go.
“There have been a lot of law issues in Minnesota, and we [Lift Bridge] are getting close to that number of 20,000 barrels,” states Brad. “Minnesota doesn’t like blurring lines; they want the makers separate from the consumers, but these laws were created almost a century ago after prohibition.”
As a result of this law, Lift Bridge, Surly, Castle Danger, Fulton, Schell’s, and Indeed created the Alliance of Minnesota Craft Breweries and starting the #Freethegrowler movement to remove the outdated growler cap laws.
So what is the big deal if a brewery can’t sell its own beer from a growler or crowler? According to the Alliance, it’s a huge deal as it suppresses innovation, hurts small businesses, and stifles the taproom experience. “No other industry in Minnesota is penalized for being successful like the craft beer industry”, states the Alliance.
Brad says laws such as this and the fact Minnesota only allows breweries to have one taproom is why Lift Bridge opened up a second taproom in New Richmond, Wisconsin. “It would be great if Minnesota would let us have another taproom. We are currently pursuing a couple of properties in Wisconsin for a third taproom.” Minnesota lost two taprooms to outdated laws; taprooms that would have provided jobs, paid taxes, and cultivated innovation and creativity within their walls. And this is only one brewery in Minnesota.
Yes, Lift Bridge and other craft breweries might be frustrated by Minnesota laws of yore, but that doesn’t mean they don’t love giving back to their community–in numerous ways. Stop by the Lift Bridge taproom in Stillwater on almost any given Tuesday, and you will find it packed with locals. Around here, they call it Townie Tuesday. Non-profits, schools, local sports teams, and community ventures rally here to raise money and bring awareness to their organization. Lift Bridge donates $1 of every pint sold to the non-profit that is being supported that night.
The love of community and beer started early with Glynn. I am convinced if he wasn’t running one of the biggest breweries in the state, he would be the mayor of Stillwater (watch out, Teddy).
Brad grew up in what can be argued as THE beer community: Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where his father worked at Schlitz Brewery for a time. For him and his team, it’s always about the community.
“I wanted to connect with people in the community…make this all a win-win. We are a family place, a family community; we all have kids too,” says Brad.
Along with Townie Tuesday, Lift Bridge hosts annual events like their Big Carve, a fun and messy giant pumpkin carving event, and Cheers with Santa at Christmastime. Both events support non-profits. Lift Bridge is a sponsor of Stillwater’s fall festival, “Harvest Fest,” the “World Snow Sculpting Championship” held in Lowell Park, and Stillwater’s annual weekly summer event, “Summer Tuesdays.”
Brad is also part of “The Locals,” the Stillwaterites who brought back Lumberjack Days, a quintessential Stillwater extravaganza. It’s a four-day event held in July with live music, downhill derby racing, beer tents, a parade, lumberjack shows, 5k and 10k races, and boat cruises. “We realized we need to bring back Lumberjack Days when it wasn’t happening,” explains Brad. “We wanted to support the history and culture of the St. Croix Valley. It’s always important to Lift Bridge and myself to push the culture of fun and beer.”
Never stop growing
Brad and Dan have no intentions of slowing down anytime soon. Lift Bridge will open its third taproom in Wisconsin (there are whispers about a River Falls location, date TBD). In 2020 Brad and Dan bought out their other two partners to focus on growth at the brewery. “Jim and Trevor were at different stages in life. Being a non-producing owner for them worked just fine when we managed modest growth, but then we really started looking at making more investments in growing. They just weren’t at that stage.”
Lift Bridge has expanded to private labels, including the 93X Half-Assed IPA dedicated to veterans’ mental health and the Watermelon Kolsch, brewed exclusively for Cub Foods and Liquor. They do beer pairings at local restaurants like Manger in Bayport and Lolo in Stillwater. “We love collaborating with different local restaurants,” says Brad, “And it helps that our beer works well with food. It’s why our motto is ‘Celebrating life moments with the perfect pairing.'”
After over two decades of drinking craft beer, I never tire of it. I am forever grateful to craft brewers who know how to make irresistible pints like Brad and his team at Lift Bridge. “I love creating different tastes and experiences and enjoy making sodas as much as making beers,” Brad states. “A lot has changed for us since 2008, going from delivering kegs out of my mini-van to now: having awesome dedicated employees and killer people at every position, making world-class beers, and having that community outreach. I want to keep doing this forever.”
Lift Bridge Brewing is open at the Stillwater taproom Monday-Thursday from 2:00-9:00 pm, Friday and Saturday from 12-10 pm and Sunday from 12 – 6 pm. Their New Richmond Location is open Wednesday and Thursday from 3-9pm, Friday and Saturday from 12-9 pm, and Sunday 12-6pm.
*as of this writing, both legislative chambers of Minnesota approved the “Free the Growler” bill to allow breweries that produce over 20,000 barrels to sell to-go beer. The limit is now set at 150,000 barrels. The bill still needs final approval from the governor.