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TDG Offseason, Off-topic: Getting to know Back Channel Brewing Collective

The people behind this community and how it came to be.

It is that time of year again. That time of year when there is very little going on with college sports and those of us who write at TDG are out of things to talk about (and really could use a mental break).

In years past I have done brewery rankings, I have talked about the dumbest things in college sports, my top TDG moments (I should update this), and my top cocktail bars in the Twin Cities (this one may need to be revisited too). It is my chance to write about whatever I feel like.

This year I wanted to take the time to chat with people who had a passion and took the risk and pursue it. Many times I have visited a new brewery and happened to get into a conversation with the owner and/or head brewer. I absolutely love these opportunities to hear what inspired them to take this leap of faith to open their own place.

I admire how they put their craft and a bit of themselves out there for our consumption.

So I decided to see if I could find someone to sit down and talk with me, to share their story and allow me to share it here. Fortunately, Josh & Melissa, the owners and founders of Back Channel Brewing Collective were kind enough to take me up on this.

I have always been drawn to Back Channel, not just because of the beer, but the community and the vibe that has been created there. It always felt intentional. A brewery that wasn’t just about churning out pints and good music & lighting. This place felt like a community. This is what I wanted to dive into.

What transpired was a 2-hour evening of hearing stories about the start of this crazy idea and how it all transpired. It felt like this experience was just as much fun for them as it was for me. A time to walk down memory lane, look back at old pictures and reminisce about how they came to create this community brewery (or is it a brewery community). A passion for community, a network of the right people, coming together at the right time, and a desire to make a great product all aligned for Back Chanel.

So how did a couple of admitted “non-beer drinkers” end up opening their own brewery?

Well, it started with an afternoon decision to get out of the house and check out this new brewery in Excelsior. For a couple who previously would have preferred Coors Light and Labatt, what they experienced was something new. Not just a beer with more flavor, but a whole different experience.

“We tried a blonde beer and we were like, oh, this is kind of like Coors Light, but it has like a little flavor and it’s really good and the vibe was so cool. Everyone was just having a good time. There was a musician and it kind of felt like a house party and so we were just drawn to that environment.”

Up next was a trip to Fulton and soon after they were making the rounds of the Twin Cities brewery scene. At the time the local brewery landscape was a fraction of what it is today, but it was a gateway for Josh and Melissa. Months later, for Josh’s birthday, this “non-beer drinker” was doing a brewery tour of Minneapolis breweries (Lake Harriet, 612, Dangerous Man, Fulton). Then the next step in this beer evolution was to start to include local breweries when traveling to other places. Which then naturally shifts to simply planning vacations around breweries.

“I went to a music festival with a buddy in Atlanta and we drove down and I knew that Asheville was on the way back. So we drove through Asheville and stayed there and that was like mind blowing experience.”

When you get bit by this bug, it is inevitable. A journey that certainly is familiar to me, and likely not for other beer nerds as well.

Then came the big trip.

A trip down The One, along the west coast, was a bucket-list trip for Melissa. They rented a car in Seattle, drove to San Diego along the coast and hit 50 breweries along the way. What started as an enviable beer trip turned into the inspiration that solidified their desire to open their own place.

A couple of breweries in Seattle starting with Freemont, 12 breweries in Portland (in 1 day), Russian River, Firestone Walker, ending up in some familiar breweries in San Diego and so many others along the way. But throughout this journey, they were taking notes. They were impressed with the customer experience at Russian River, amazed by the barrel program at Firestone Walker, they loved the vibe of many tiny/local breweries, and it was a small (relatively unknown) brewery that was partially an inspiration for their eventual taproom.

Now, being adequately inspired, there were still some pretty important steps to opening a brewery: primarily, can they brew a beer?

At this point, Josh had never brewed a beer. Most breweries open after one of the principals has been a home brewer for years, or they partner with someone who’s been brewing in the industry. Not in this case. So Josh made 2 very important decisions to ensure his future in the industry.

One, he decided to grow a beard. Clearly a prerequisite for brewing or even working in a brewery. He was going to grow out his beard until he was able to brew a beer.

“I want to grow a beard like this guy. I’m going to grow a big beard until I can brew a beer. But not just any beer, like a beer worthy of chugging.”

He made this important decision while sitting in a San Diego taproom and admiring the facial hair of the man behind the counter.

Two, he partnered with a friend who was interested in being a part of this and learning to brew together. Enter “Olie.” A friend, colleague and now an owner/brewer for Back Channel. Olie never hesitated. He was immediately in and the two of them began brewing.

Next was researching and planning and acquiring the necessary equipment. The garage of their house was thoroughly cleaned, a little electrical renovation and it quickly became a “Brewage.” After some homebrewing equipment was procured from a neighbor, they started their first brew. It was brewed in February of 2016, it was ready in mid-March, coincidentally on the day of ice out on Lake Minnetonka. And so Ice Out IPA was their firstborn beer and apparently it was “actually pretty good,” according to Melissa.

After that some batches were hits and some were misses as they were trying different styles, understanding the nuances of the process and taking advice was all a part of the learning curve.

Enter Marc (figuratively and we are talking about this story in the back of the brewery, Marc physically walks into the conversation), another friend, but this friend has a bit more brewing experience. While sitting in a hotel in Ft. Collins, Josh saw a post on Facebook that this old friend had just won a home brewing competition at the State Fair. So Josh makes a phone call and the two begin talking. Olie and Josh eventually went out to watch Marc brew, learn a few things and tried to take this knowledge back with them.

Which they did. And over the course of the next several months, the three of them consulted and stayed in touch while Josh and Olie continued to hone their skills. In the meantime, Melissa was working on getting the word out.

Besides just learning how to brew elite beer, getting the word out and becoming more a part of the community was also important. This is where Melissa would take to social media and began to build a following. She would post that there was free beer at the Brewage and people would come from miles to drink some original Back Channel beer.

“There were people that would drive from St. Paul and St. Cloud that would see this on Facebook who were happy to show up and drink free beer on Lake Minnetonka.”

This is also around the time that Joe became the 4th partner in this endeavor. Joe brought experience to the team after helping a couple of other local breweries get their space up and running. Like Olie, Joe was quick to be a part of this and it was these four names that you see on one of the very first Facebook posts for Back Channel Brewing, preceded and followed by social media invitations to come and drink their beer.

At this point the beer is evolving, the people are drinking but there was still more that needed to come together. A space larger than their Brewage was necessary and the brewing needed more help.

A small, multi-use space was available that was technically on Lake Minnetonka. The thought was that maybe they could lease a third of that space. This would eventually become their building and what you know of Back Channel today.

But back to the beer.

Josh, Olie and Marc were still collaborating and staying in touch, but they were still not exactly working together. That was, until Josh decided to enter their beer to be served at a local brew fest. And he asked Marc if he’d help them.

So these guys “brewed up a f*cking storm.” They brewed 8 batches in 3 days. It was a grind working during day, brewing all evening and unsurprisingly they had a blast doing it. Then when they were done Josh says to Marc, “so...there’s another brew fest coming up in 2 weeks. Want to do this again?”

We had a blast doing it. We were listening to f*cking dope music together and just rolling and then we got it done and then he’s like, “so here’s the thing, there’s also another two weeks after this, do you think we can do this again?” And Marc also didn’t hesitate, “I was like, yeah, let’s do it.”

And then, once again, the timing was right for all parties involved. After those back-to-back brewing extravaganzas, Josh asked Marc to also join the team.

“I was like, dude, you should just stop brewing and like, be our brewer, you know? Stop home brewing and be our brewer because, you know, we’re just trying to build like the ultimate team and he knew more knowledge than professional brewers that I was trying to talk to about getting knowledge.”

It made perfect sense.

Now, this is the part of the story where I feel a little like Seinfeld when I go from forming the core team, brewing their beer, hosting parties in their Brewage, yada, yada, yada, and finally they were able to open their brewery. Certainly months of construction, brewing, setbacks, permitting, city council meetings, etc, were all part of the grind to be able to open their doors and sell beer to the public. After roughly three years of planning and working to make it happen, the taproom opened to the public on September 22, 2017.

A former Country Kitchen restaurant, with hideous teal trim paint, that had been vacant for several years turned out to be an ideal location. Dock access to Lake Minnetonka, directly along a nice back path and the only brewery in a community that would embrace one.

And more importantly, a brewery that embraced being a part of the community. We talked quite a bit about this. How they love being a part of the community, how the community has embraced them and more specifically the little Back Channel community that has developed.

Right around the time of this interview, Back Channel released a beer called “Back Draught.” This lager was done in collaboration with the Mound Fire Depart to celebrate their 100th anniversary. But it doesn’t stop with just creating a beer and marketing it with the neat story. The Mound Fire Department was there, hand-labeling the cans so they could be part of the experience.

“It was just so cool. These are my friend’s dads that I grew up with in this town.”

Anecdotally, you will see the same faces frequently at this brewery. It sort of has a Cheers vibe of your neighborhood gathering place where everybody knows your name. But also, more than any other brewery I’ve frequented, the staff hangs out here too. Half of their current staff has been with them since day 1, and many of them are there when not working as well.

It is very clear that connection, relationships and community matter to these people and that comes through in this brewery experience. It starts with the original 5 owners, it’s apparent with the staff and extends to their customers. This is certainly intentional and comes through in so many details.

A lot of people don’t know that we are Back Channel Brewing Collective and we call ourselves in fact, co right? But the “co” doesn’t mean company, it means collective because we are a collective of individuals working together for a greater goal. And we have all now have really settled into our own strengths and we know what our strengths are.

But then we have also the opportunity to take those strengths and combine them with each other. And that’s when like superpower manage happens.

So what’s next for Back Channel Brewing?

Well, the interesting thing here is that after a couple of years just trying to get their feet under them, only to then be faced with a complete pivot due to a global pandemic, it is now a time when they feel like they are poised to make that next “right, best decision.”

So I guess now we’re like at a point where we feel like this, I feel like this is the best summer for Back Channel because we’re so prepared. We know all what we need to do.

We’re not recovering from something we’re not necessarily like planning for something immediate and it’s like here we go and we’re gonna be able to go through the summer, we’re gonna be able to take a deep breath and we’re gonna be able to figure out our next best move, you know.

Whatever comes next for Back Channel, I’m certain of 2 things. One, the beer will be great. And two, the sense of community (the “collective”) will drive the vibe here. People matter, beer is great at bringing people together and Back Channel Brewing Collective has tapped into this in an elite way.

You should be sure to make the journey out west to visit, especially on a lovely summer, weekend afternoon. You’ll catch the vibe, I’m certain of it.