Getting laid off may be the best thing that ever happened to Jason Sowards. The chemical engineer from Linden Hills had been brewing beer in his tuck-under garage, experimenting with flavors, and unintentionally finding fans in area residents who would follow their noses from Lake Harriet to his workspace. Guided by the mouthwatering scent of brewing beer, they would arrive at his garage. The reward for their journey was a complimentary sampling (though some tried to pay Sowards for the beer). Later they would return and knock on the garage door to see if he was brewing. And when word got out that Sowards had been laid off?
“They were like, 'What are you doing, dude? Start the brewery, start the brewery!’” Sowards said.
Start the brewery he did, christening it Harriet Brewing in honor of the Lake Harriet folks who pushed him to make it happen.
Brewing his first batch of beer in October of 2008 and judging his first beer competition that same winter, it has been a quick rise from home brew to small business for Sowards, who found immediate success in home brew competitions and opened Harriet Brewing near the intersection of Lake Street and Minnehaha Avenue in South Minneapolis on Jan. 29, the day after his thirtieth birthday.
“I wanted my first day as an adult to be my first day as an entrepreneur making money,” Sowards said.
But opening Harriet Brewing in Minneapolis didn’t come without its obstacles, namely the fight to sell growlers out of the brewery–something surrounding cities allowed and Minneapolis did not. Sowards sought help from Ninth Ward city council member Gary Schiff, who authored the Brew Beer Here legislation, which ultimately made that change.
“I’ve always been envious of other cities that have strong microbrew industries. Until Jason came along and explained to me where it was in the city ordinance that stopped microbreweries from opening, I didn’t know how to help,” Schiff said.
Sowards could have set up shop in a more microbrewery friendly city such as St. Paul. But for Sowards, the reason to do the work to stay in Minneapolis was simple.
“I’m a cyclist and I like to bike to work. I wanted to be able to bike to my place of work,” he said.
The Brew Beer Here legislation for Minneapolis passed in August, and now another Minnesota brewer is in a beer-related battle on the state level. Brooklyn Center based Surly is currently fighting to build a $20 million facility and sell its own beer there–an endeavor that has garnered much support from local beer drinkers, including Mayor R.T. Rybak, and skepticism from the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association. For his part, Sowards–who names Surly among his favorite beers–supports Surly's efforts. “Even though they’re fighting for themselves, they’re fighting for us too," Sowards said. "We’re in full support of Surly. I’ve been getting petition signatures, doing everything I can on the ground level.”
Referring to the beer culture in the metro area as well-developed, Linda Haug, co-owner of Cafe Twenty Eight and spouse of Surly brewer Todd Haug, said this is a very interesting time for beer and beer drinkers in the area. She has noticed a rise in the appreciation of craft beers and a decrease in the need to educate the up and coming beer drinkers.
“That’s why you see a kid who’s just turned 21 liking [Surly] Furious,” Haug said.
Despite uncertain economic times, support for local beer seems to be growing. So what’s the secret to finding success in doing what you love today?
“It all boils down to self assurance and having the balls to put yourself out there,” Jason Sowards said.
Celebrate with Sowards on Saturday at Harriet Brewing’s grand opening at 3036 Minnehaha Avenue. Harriet Brewing will be open from 1 to 6 p.m. and will be debuting Dark Abbey, a Belgian-style Dubbel, as well as opening the art gallery/tasting room, featuring work by on staff artist Jesse Brödd. The brewery will also be selling growlers, 64 ounce containers of beer, during limited hours in the week (check their website).