Ballpark area attracts more brewers

It’s been five years since Fulton moved into the North Loop. At that time they planned to brew their own beer in a small brewhouse and then sell growlers onsite. The Surly Bill passed before doors had opened and they shifted both plans and brew tanks. Now, the brewery sits among Minnesota’s largest and even oldest brewers in the state as new breweries start-up almost daily.

The Freehouse brewpub has been open since 2013, and both Modist Brewing Company and Inbound Brewco plan to move into the neighborhood by year’s end. With Rock Bottom nearby, that makes five breweries within a long Miguel Sano homerun or a short walk from the baseball field. As the North Loop has been revitalized as a food and beverage center in in Target Field’s shadow, has that changed Fulton’s point of focus as a brewery?

Craft beer is all about community and teamwork and breweries often collaborating with other brands to make unique one-time creations or to throw block parties and other special events. As the scene grows, the question is whether that changes the companies as well. “The industry is growing so rapidly,” said Ryan Petz, one of four owners at Fulton. As more breweries open every day, it reshapes the playing field, but the primary emphasis remains on growing the craft beer consumer base, not taking customers from one another.

“The size of the pie is not fixed with the pieces getting smaller,” Petz said. “But at the same time there are more and more pieces trying to be cut out of it.”

Craft beer drinkers made up 5 percent of all beer drinkers a few years ago, hitting the 11 percent mark last year. To Fulton and other breweries, the goal is to raise that percentage, taking customers from mass producers such as Anheuser-Busch, MillerCoors, or wine and other spirits. Eventually, it will change.

“There are only so many tap handles but there are more and more breweries clamoring for them,” he acknowledged, but the level of competition in the craft beer circle is less intense than other industries.

Craft beer drinkers are known for their interest in trying something new. It’s a culture where a consumer will no longer stick to a brand for life, but is often after the latest and greatest new creation. Customer loyalty is defined differently and the way to succeed as the pool gets larger, Petz stressed, is quality. That’s important on a national scale, but in the neighborhood too.

“Whether it’s the bar/restaurant side or with brewing, we want to see quality places open up,” Petz said of the North Loop. “It’s good for the entire scene. There’s room for people doing things well and we don’t feel threatened by that. If there are places opening up that aren’t so good that would be detrimental.”

With Modist and Inbound coming into the neighborhood, putting three breweries directly in Target Field’s zone, it technically creates competition — a customer at Modist will not be sitting at Fulton enjoying a beer at that same time — but Petz sees opportunity.

Brewery tours are commonplace in the city, namely in Northeast where breweries such as 612, Bauhaus, and Sociable Cider Werks are a quick hike apart. In tune with trying different beers, proximity gives craft beer fans a chance to sample more in less time. At present, Fulton gets occasional groups early in the day, en route to Northeast or elsewhere, but he imagines that will increase with more options nearby. “There’s only 2 or 1 of us,” Petz says. “I think you’ll start to see some more tours. It will be more business.” The addition of the Green Line has already fostered some of that spirit.

Fulton isn’t worried about the increased beer scene on their front steps, they’re happy to see it doing well. “I like to see the revitalization of a neighborhood that was kind of run down when we moved in,” Petz said. Back in 2010 they knew Target Field would have an impact but the specifics were unknown. A previously industrial area has transitioned with condos, drinks, and dining and he’s happy about the change. The Freehouse is their closest competitor in terms of brewing beer, but they’re also friends and a key part of Fulton’s history. Blue Plate Restaurant Company, which owns The Freehouse, played a key role in Fulton’s success. “We opened in seven bars in 2009,” Petz said. “Edina Grille and 3 Squares were 2 of them.” Similarly, their new neighbors at Modist include former employees of Dangerous Man and Lucid and Inbound will be a taproom offshoot of Lucid, who brew in Minnetonka. These aren’t corporate behemoths, but their peers.

With unprecedented growth in the industry, there will surely be more breweries still to come. As long as they contribute to the neighborhood and make good products, Fulton isn’t worried. Petz remembers a 2011 meeting of the Minnesota Craft Brewer’s Guild when Surly’s Omar Ansari jokingly introduced Fulton as industry veterans because it was growing so rapidly. There were 15-20 members at that time, Petz recalls. The Guild featured 92 breweries at the recent State Fair exhibit “The Land of 10,000 Beers.”

“In that sense, we are some of the old guard,” he said.