Coming Soon and Already Here
The worst-kept beer secret in Aberdeen is where Brodie Mueller brews Dakota Territory beer. It’s at the corner of Third Avenue and South Main, behind the sign that says “Coming Soon.” The taproom is still coming, Brodie said, but how soon depends on a lot of factors.
For a guy who learned to brew for a speech in college, beer took over much of his life. In St Louis, while staying home with his kids, he apprenticed one day a week with a microbrewer. “I was a pretty mediocre stay-at-home dad,” he joked, but he saw his future.
Some 15 years later, “I’ve worked in all three tiers of the beer business,” he said. When he first moved to Aberdeen in 2013, he worked as the local representative for Global Distributing, then as bar manager for Pounders (where he conducted Beer School), and now as a brewer for his own business.
Enter Dakota Territory. “When I had an event business, we did an event in the building at Third and Main,” Brodie remembered. Scott Peterson owns the building, and, Brodie said, “It became clear that we needed to start selling beer out of that space.” He and Scott began plans to open a brewery and taproom there, creating Dakota Territory in 2016, and Brodie started brewing in the building. “It’s taken so long to open because the building is so important, and we want to do it right,” he said. “It’s at the only stop sign downtown, a historic corner building, and now all the historical pieces are exposed. We want to preserve those things while filling it with state of the art brewing equipment.”
Bootstrapping so far, Brodie and Scott have prepared the building for the next stage of construction work, which will require debt. In addition to building the taproom and brewery, there will be structural work. Installing a 10-barrel system, with four 10-barrel and two 2-barrel tanks—accommodating roughly 10,000 pounds of beer—requires reinforcing the floor. Brodie noted that the smaller tanks allow for more experimentation, “We always want to stay new and fresh.”
“Most breweries start with a taproom and use that revenue to grow,” but Brodie wanted to do it differently by starting with brewing and distributing. “We’re telling our story, getting involved in the community and region. Our story is about regionality. We’re the Hub City, right? We want to be the brewery for that region.”
So, for now, he works with one-barrel fermenters and can produce six kegs a week. He has made about 15-20 styles over the past few years, with about six regulars. Dakota Territory beer has been on tap at local bars and restaurants and in cans at local stores.
With COVID, Brodie said, “The world changed, and we tried to change with it.” Dakota Territory had started making cold brew coffee in late 2019, and it took off, particularly during the pandemic. “We made a ton of cold brew coffee, and it worked well,” he noted. “I did 100 deliveries a week—all on one day—until May,” when the season for it waned.
Then they started making seltzers, which are easy, cost-effective, and popular. They debuted seltzer in August 2020, and it’s paying off. “Seltzer is a natural progression in trends,” he said. “All brewers kind of follow trends.” They have four core flavors plus a rotating seasonal. A local artist and production company developed art for the seltzer cans.
While he knows people wonder about the promised taproom, Brodie believes they “dodged a bullet by not being open when COVID hit. We will move forward with the taproom when it’s safe and financially feasible.” On the latter point, he noted that “every brewery has a guy who looks like Scott and a guy who looks like me”—in other words, the practical guy and the shoot from the hip guy—and that’s how they’ve avoided moving too fast for their own good.
The peripatetic Brodie isn’t satisfied with Dakota Territory, 1 Million Cups (the weekly entrepreneur event he emcees), and various other downtown activities. He and Carly Pochop of Colorful Creations have teamed up to create The Market on the Plaza, which will open in Malchow Plaza in spring 2021. On the main floor will be retail with coffee and light food. Upstairs will be a bar space selling meats and cheeses plus South Dakota-made wine and beer—and judging from the stories here, probably including several with Hub City ties.
Mmmmm! Beer and Pizza
In mid-2019, when Sean Dempsey opened Danger Von Dempsey’s at Eleventh Avenue and South Main in Aberdeen, he couldn’t have imagined his first anniversary would have been in a pandemic. COVID has brought him to Aberdeen more often than he’d planned. With staffing disruptions, he’s had to work shifts here up to three times a week. But he keeps looking forward and has plans for Aberdeen, including relating to beer.
Sean’s dad Bill opened the original Watertown Dempsey’s in 1999. While the restaurant is synonymous with pizza, the pie actually came about a decade later, but brewing was always in Bill’s plan. He came home from a restaurant auction in North Dakota with a brewing system and “surprised my mom,” Sean remembered. They still work in the original brewery. Attached to the Watertown restaurant, it’s the second-oldest brewery in South Dakota.
By the time he opened, Bill had been a homebrewer for years (so his wife should have seen it coming), and he was Dempsey’s brewmaster for about 15 years. Sean, who has worked in the restaurant since it opened and went to pizza school in California (he is the only certified Pizzaiolo in South Dakota and a member of the US Pizza Team), “dabbled” briefly in brewing too. Current brewmaster Chris Borns came from Watertown Brewing, which he helped start. Now Sean mostly focuses on the kitchen and marketing.
When it comes to beer, Sean discusses with the brewers what beers they want to bring out and what they want to do with the styles they will brew. Ultimately, he said, “It’s based on the brewers’ ideas.” They aim to have 10-12 Dempsey’s beers on tap at any time, with six regulars always available. In their brewhouse, they keep three to four beers going at a time and can brew 10 barrels at a time. They distribute canned beer to about 50 places and kegs to about 40 bars and restaurants around Aberdeen and Watertown.
Over the last several years, they have brewed at least 60 different beers, and about 15-18 have reached the stage of having their own logo. The most popular is Battle Axe, a blonde ale. “We go through a tank of it about every three weeks,” Sean said.
Dempsey’s has entered beers in a few national and international festivals over the years, including the Great American Beer Festival and the Berlin Beer Festival, but that doesn’t stop them from tweaking recipes to enhance and keep improving. That doesn’t apply to their Open Door IPA, however. “That was our current brewmaster Chris’ first beer for us after he left the old brewery,” Sean explained. “It’s sort of a one door closes and another opens idea. It’s a good beer, and he doesn’t want to change it.”
Sean has plans for beer and for Aberdeen. “Our goal is to build an independent brewery from the ground up on new property,” he said, hoping that will happen in the next five years. In addition, he envisions setting up a small pilot brewing system in Aberdeen in 2021. Visible to guests, it will do batches of beers made specifically for Aberdeen.
Aside from beer, other changes are in store for Aberdeen. A patio behind the restaurant will open in 2021. Sean had also hoped to do a façade upgrade in 2020, but COVID delayed it to 2021.
Not So Terrible Twos
Dave Welling is looking for more ways than just his beer to get people into the One-Legged Pheasant at Eighth Avenue and South Main. Aberdeen Magazine first visited OLP during its first year in business. Before his second anniversary, Dave was dealing with a pandemic.
Following city council guidelines, Dave closed his taproom for five weeks, but “We sold growlers and cans off-sale” to stay in business. COVID made him move to canning beer earlier than he’d planned. “Originally, we wanted to do just 32-ounce crowlers,” he said, “but they were hard to come by because the big boys bought them up. So we moved to 16-ounce cans, which were easier to get.” Now he sells four-packs of 16-ounce cans at the bar, and people can still buy and fill growlers and crowlers (while the cans are available). You can’t buy OLP canned beer in retail stores yet, but he’s working on that.
Aside from the pandemic, Dave has learned some lessons after being in business for two years. Knowing what he knows now, he “would have spent more time on the business plan, learned more about all the costs, and had more operating cash to start with.” Maybe the most important lesson has been, “Beer is good, and it attracts people, but you need to do more to get people into the bar.” So he’s doing add-ons, such as bingo night and “Vinyl Nites.” He also teamed up with Jimmy’s Pizza to offer beer, pizza, and pairing ideas. OLP also sells Jimmy’s pizza.
Repeating a common theme here, Dave makes connections with other brewers whenever possible. If one comes in the bar, “We’ll trade four-packs.” He’s also competed against them. In the summer of 2020, OLP participated in the Summer Classic Beer Festival in Sioux Falls, getting high marks from the judges.
Severance Brewing: Hub City South
For their first Christmas together in 2008, Melissa Martin Heckel (a 2004 Roncalli graduate) bought her husband Scott (Central 2003) a Mr. Beer home brewing kit. The beer “wasn’t that good,” Scott said, but “it opened my eyes to see I could do this.” About a decade later, Scott and Melissa and their partners, Melissa’s Roncalli classmate Jennifer Sandquist Stavenger and her husband Mark, opened Severance Brewing Co. in downtown Sioux Falls to sell craft beer.
Scott credits some industry colleagues and competitors for motivation and support. First, “The people at Strawbale Winery told me, ‘You have a passion for this, have you thought of opening a brewery?’” Later, while developing a business plan, he “sat with other breweries to pick their brains.” One of the best parts of the process has been the “camaraderie of the beer scene.” They started a five-year plan in 2017 but realized the craft beer scene in Sioux Falls was moving fast, and they needed to act.
Finding a new building in Falls Park across from the new Levitt Shell, where 50 summer concerts were planned, they signed a lease on August 3, 2018. They got into the space in April 2019 and did most of the design and build-out themselves. Scott brewed the first batch on June 26, 2019, and Severance opened on August 2, 2019.
The first seven months or so were great. They had created an attractive, family-friendly taproom, including kid packs, root beer, and dog treats. Each month, through Give Back Tap, they give a nonprofit part of the proceeds from a particular beer’s sales. By March 2020, they distributed kegs to about 15 bars and restaurants in Sioux Falls and Slackers and Pounders in Aberdeen.
A dream come true, Melissa admitted to “a few ‘pinch me’ moments when the taproom was full, and people were drinking my husband’s beer as we’re becoming part of people’s lives!” Then came COVID.
“The months of March and April were a lesson in having to constantly adapt,” Scott said. After they voluntarily reduced the taproom’s capacity, the city restricted restaurants and bars to to-go orders only. Forced to furlough part-time staff, they launched an online store within 24 hours so customers could order canned beer. Then, an aluminum shortage struck the industry, taking away their cans. Finding a source in St. Paul in April, Scott bucked 40 mph winds and blinding snow squalls with a pallet of cans in his pickup.
CARES Act funds allowed them to rehire employees when Sioux Falls lifted its restrictions. Severance had a good summer despite reduced capacity and the cancellation of the concerts across the street. Fortunately, their new patio space and outdoor seating appealed to customers.
As fall approached and fewer people ventured out, they began small runs of 16-ounce cans for retail sale in grocery and liquor stores, including, hopefully, in Aberdeen. Scott admitted, “Retail sales were not in our roadmap as there is limited shelf space in a very competitive market, but the need to diversify our sales amidst the pandemic was a necessity.” Taproom manager Mark shifted into full-time distribution sales to market product.
In a bright spot in the pandemic, Severance earned the Gold Crushie for Coolest Taproom in the 2020 Craft Beer Marketing Awards, making them one of the top four “coolest taprooms in the country!” “We were so honored to receive this award, I have always loved interior design and coming up with the overall design of the taproom was so much fun! It was awesome to see our team bring it to life,” Jennifer said.
So why “Severance?”According to its website, the name acknowledges Scott and Mark for “leaving long-held comfortable jobs (at Citibank and Augustana) and essentially creating their own severance package in the form of a brewery.” It’s not totally without a net, however; their spouses kept their day jobs. Melissa has her own graphic design firm, and Jennifer is a nurse.
“Now, yours is a board I’d like to serve on. I like your beer!” Teresa Morrow joked when she was out with Summit Brewing Company’s chief financial officer, with whom she had served on the Humane Society board. A few years later, the CFO came calling on the 1981 Roncalli grad, who runs her own communications/marketing agency in the Twin Cities.
Seeking to diversify the backgrounds of their board members, Summit sought someone “with a background in strategic marketing, branding, and communication,” Teresa said, and they added her to the board in November 2019.
The privately held company’s board has some critical roles, which include reviewing the performance of the CEO and considering succession planning.
Besides their beer, Summit’s commitment to donate two percent of pretax profits to community causes also impressed her. Compared to other businesses Teresa’s been involved with, Summit’s business model is different. The brewery has a diverse array of customers with distributors, retail partners, and the consuming public, but also, somewhat uniquely, a handful of breweries who contract with Summit to brew and package their beer. Summit’s founder had told her he is committed to that collegiality because other breweries helped him when he got started.
Within a few months of Teresa joining the board, COVID turned things upside down. Board meetings went virtual, entailing at least one disappointing change, she said, “At the in-person meetings, we shared beers together after the meeting. Now that we’re on Zoom, that perk is missing!” There were bigger business issues for the brewery with bar and restaurant shutdowns due to COVID. Outside of revenue loss, this posed other challenges. “Summit has rigorous quality standards in place to ensure fresh beer is always being sold to the public,” Teresa said. So when establishments closed, “Summit provided one of the first keg return programs to help them return expired kegs.” The brewery also shifted to retail stores and packaged beer, dramatically increasing its canning and bottling operations and making up some of the draught beer revenue loss.
Bringing her communications expertise to Summit, Teresa was immediately able to provide guidance and feedback to the brewery on varied topics during the pandemic and social unrest.