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River Falls entrepreneurs continue to brew success

October 18, 2007

The sound of progress has been echoing through Rush River Brewing Co., as freshly brewed beer steadily fills bottles on the brewery’s new bottling line.

The bottling line itself is not all that large—only about 40 feet long and 15 feet wide—but the output is relatively remarkable. Oct. 10 for instance, just short of 15,000 beers were bottled and packaged for distribution in five hours; that is a total of 604 cases.

Dan Chang and Nick Anderson, brewers and owners of Rush River, have spent years establishing their business and watching it grow. But it was not until this August that the company began bottling their beer.

New beer, rapid progression

The first Rush River brewery started in a pole barn on a farm in Maiden Rock, Wis. Anderson was living in an apartment above “Mud Pie,” a vegetarian restaurant in Minneapolis, owned by a man named Robbie Stair. Stair was interested in serving beer at his restaurant, so the men began talking and things quickly progressed from there.

The combination of Chang and Anderson’s knowledge with Stair’s pole barn gave way to a fully-functioning brewery, and demand from their distributors quickly exceeded their supply capabilities. At this point they were only producing beer in kegs. The men wanted to expand, but they knew the only way to do it was by producing bottles.

Will Hohenstein is a warehouse manager at Hohenstein’s, one of Rush River’s distributors. He was at the brewery last Thursday to pick up the newest load of beer to deliver to the thirsting masses.

“It’s almost unheard of to start [a brewery] with kegs,” Hohenstein said. “What these guys have done is a neat thing.”

Go to any liquor store or bar and it will not take long to see that the vast majority of beer being sold is in bottles or cans.

“90 percent of beer in America comes from bottles or cans,” according to the Brewers Association Web site.

Stair’s pole barn was not suitable for a bottling line, so the search began for a new home for the brewery.

Brewery flows into River Falls

Ground was broken for a new Rush River brewery in River Falls at Whitetail Ridge Corporate Park Oct. 2006, after the River Falls Economic Development Committee gave Chang and Anderson an offer they could not turn down.

“This is a deal that we could’ve never afforded on our own,” Chang said. “We got this place, this size, basically custom for the bottling line.”

The facility was paid for and built by the City of River Falls for Chang and Anderson to their specifications—so far they have only had to pay the lease. They have the option to purchase the facility for the original cost of construction in two years, and that is exactly what they intend to do, Chang said.

“It was an amazingly fast process, so we got lucky with this town,” Chang said.

Chang and Anderson own Rush River, while Stair remains the third “silent” partner in the company. Chang and Anderson have only one person working for them full-time—Brewery Representative Scott Kutcher.

Some students from UW-River Falls assist by packaging bottles, but they are not actually employed by the company.

UWRF student Samantha Bruley does not assist in operations at the brewery, but she does assist in creating business for the brewery. “I like the variety and it tastes good,” Bruley said.

Chang and Anderson said they want to maintain direct control of the brewery for at least a year before they decide to take any other help. They might consider offering an internship through the University, Anderson said.

Anderson stressed that the brewing process is technical, and there is not any room for mistakes when it comes to their beer. Chang said they have not had a failed batch of beer yet.

“We really love running this place by ourselves,” Chang said. “We’re more than happy to burn the candle at both ends.”

In an article run by the Student Voice last year, River Falls City Administrator Bernie Van Osdale said the brewery was a “good start-up business with a great deal of potential.” A report issued by the Brewers Association in 2006 gives testament to Osdale’s statement. “Growth of the craft beer industry was 12 percent by volume for 2006,” according to the Brewers Association Web site. “Craft beer industry sales have grown 31.5 percent over the last 3 years.”

Look inside the brewing process

Rush River brews five different beers: Lost Arrow Porter, Unforgiven Amber Ale, BubbleJack India Pale Ale, Small Axe Golden Ale and Winter Warmer. The Small Axe and Winter Warmer are their specialty seasonal brews. Each beer contains mostly barley, while the specialty beers use special grains.

A giant silo outside of the brewery is filled with grain that is pumped into the facility through a long tube. Hot water is then added which “sucks” the sugar out of the grain. The grain remains in the first tank and the sugar water is pumped into a second tank, where it boils for approximately an hour and a half.

At this point hops are added, which act as a bittering agent and a preservative, Chang said. After the mixture is boiled, it is spun around in the tank until a large column is formed and all of the “mush” falls to the bottom. The 212 degree liquid is then extracted and run through a heat exchanger, which brings the liquid down to approximately 72-75 degrees so that yeast can be added; yeast is only active at certain temperatures.

“There are two major classes of yeast, ale and lager,” according to the Brewers Association Web site. “Ale yeast is a top fermenting yeast that ferments at warmer temperatures, generally between 55 and 75 degrees.”

Rush River only brews English style ales, so keeping the temperature at the proper level is critical in the process. After taking on oxygen, the yeast then eats the sugar, which creates alcohol and carbon dioxide. Chang or Anderson then monitor the beer by frequently measuring the alcohol content with a hydrometer. When they decide the beer is done fermenting, they then activate “cooling jackets” in the tank, which regulate the temperature of the tank.

“That puts all of the yeast to sleep and the yeast drops out to the bottom,” Chang said.

The beer is then transferred to one of two tanks—one is used to fill bottles, while the other is used to fill kegs.

Looking to the future

The land that Rush River occupies has the capacity for another building. Chang and Anderson said they hope to one day expand to the point where another building will be necessary.

“Pretty much everything we make is sold,” Chang said. “Our output has doubled and cost has gone way down.”

Chang and Anderson said that the community reaction has been positive.

“People in this town have really latched on to what we’re doing,” Anderson said.

Several liquor stores and bars sell Rush River beer in River Falls, including the Mainstreeter Bar and Grill, located at 212 S. Main St.

“I think it’s more of a tap beer than a bottled beer,” bartender Tiffany Joy said.

However, the people who drink Rush River do so “religiously,” she said.

On a cloudy afternoon, a man named Sam Salter sat alone at the Mainstreeter, casually sipping on a Summit Extra Pale Ale, a beer brewed in St. Paul. Salter said he considers himself somewhat of a “beer snob,” meaning that he is very particular about the beer he drinks. He said he has heard of the name Rush River somewhere, but he was not sure if he had tasted it before. Joy gave him a free sample of Rush River’s amber ale, The Unforgiven.

“It’s a nice clean taste,” Salter said. “If I see it on tap I’ll check it out because I’m always into supporting local brewers.”

Rush River Brewing Co. has come a long way and the momentum appears to be building, but Chang and Anderson said they have no intention of becoming a national brewery, and they intend to “keep it local.”

“We’re purely focusing on producing good beer,” Anderson said. “We’ll let the product speak for itself.”