By: Nan McCreary
Bartley Blume may work twice as hard to produce both beers and spirits in Minnesota’s first combination brewery-distillery, but he also enjoys twice the opportunity to roll out new products that come from his ever-creative brain. They include a hoppy IPA without bitterness and a whiskey aged in American white oak and finished on toasted pimento wood to complement the spice of the grain.
“When I opened the brewstillery, I wanted to bring more diverse beverages to the market, so we were not always drinking the same old pale ales, IPAs and sours,” Blume told Beverage Master Magazine. “We wanted to get away from mass consumption to a true appreciation of craft beverages, to sip and not swill.”
As the brewstillery’s name “Bent” implies, beers and spirits are “bent” and not made strictly to style. “This sometimes comes from combining the best parts of two different styles,” Blume said, “and sometimes from just making something I think my friends and family will like.”
Judging by the brewstillery’s success, not to mention its multiple awards, innovation-on-tap has been a big hit with consumers. Clearly, this is the place to go when you want to try something distinctive.
A Way to Make Money Off a Hobby
Like many craft brewery owners, Blume started making beer as a hobby. While working as an engineer in the aerospace industry— and tiring of the corporate world — his wife gave him a Mr. Beer Kit. “This was in 2007,” he said. “I started brewing little batches of beer and quickly became addicted. I thought to myself, ‘This could be a way to make money off of a hobby,’ so I sat down and wrote a business plan for a brewery.”
During that time, another brewery opened near Blume’s home in the Twin Cities, adding to the fifth or sixth already in the market. To Blume, that was too many, so he switched his interest to distilling. After poring over distillation books—and crafting whiskey and bourbons on his back porch — he rewrote a business plan for a brewstillery. Combining a brewery and a distillery seemed logical to Blume because the processes are similar, and the skills are complementary. “At the time,” he said, “there were only six brewstilleries in the country. Mine would be the first in Minnesota, which was pretty exciting.”
Blume introduced the Twin Cities to his first product — and his innovative spirit — at the 2013 St. Paul Summer Beer Fest, wowing the crowd with an American Imperial Stout infused with ghost peppers, the world’s hottest chili pepper. At the time, he was brewing his beers under contract at Pour Decisions Brewing Company in suburban Roseville. Through working together, the two entities decided to merge under the Bent Brewstillery brand. The partnership was serendipitous for Blume. He now had a “home” when breweries and taproom locations were hard to come by. He also acquired the talents of Pour’s head brewer, Kristen England, long-time brewer and Grand Master Beer Judge from the Beer Judge Certification Program.
After renovating the taproom in Roseville, Bent Brewstillery opened a 1,700-square-foot space in 2014. The taproom seated 115 customers and offered 10 beers on tap. Within months, Blume added the distillery. From the beginning, the brewstillery’s mantra was to set itself apart by creating fresh products and staying at the forefront of innovation. “Even if the market wasn’t ready for it, we’d do it anyway,” Blume said.
As enthusiastic as Blume was initially, the business presented — and still presents — some challenges in operating as both a brewery and distillery. “Yes, there are some parallels,” he said, “but it isn’t quite as complimentary as I’d hoped it would be. You have to do all the work you need to do for a distillery and all the work you need to do for a brewery.”
Specifically, Blume explained that he has to rely on different ingredients, bottle suppliers, distributors, and even different marketing strategies for each entity because the audiences are different. “It’s really twice the amount of work, which is why most people haven’t decided to bite this off.”
According to Blume, there are currently only several dozen brewstilleries in the country. “It’s good for me because I’m a workaholic,” he said. “It’s a true family thing. My wife is the bookkeeper and CFO. Even the dog comes to work.”
Despite the work, or maybe because of it, for a brewer who started with a two-and-a-half gallon Mr. Beer Kit, Blume has seen his vision surpass expectations. Now in its eighth year, Bent Brewstillery has grown into a 20-barrel brewhouse with four 40-barrel fermenters, plus three-, five- and ten-gallon fermenters that allow for the production of small-batch brews. The distillery features a column reflux still with four plates. The still can be converted to a pot still with a restrictor plate on the bottom, designed specifically by Blume for maximum versatility. Annual production is 2,000 barrels of beer and 2,000 gallons of liquor. Beer is sold in the taproom by the glass, pint, growler and crowler. Whiskey is sold straight or in cocktails. Besides offering products in the taproom, Bent Brewstillery distributes 16-ounce cans and liquor bottles to liquor stores and kegs to bars and restaurants. The brewstillery has 450 accounts in Minnesota, the south side of North Dakota and the west side of Wisconsin.
Invent, Innovate and Inspire
With Blume at the helm as distiller and England as head brewer, Bent Brewstillery continues to invent, innovate and inspire. Since the beginning, it’s brewed over 200 beers. “When we started, we made lots of sour beers, reawakening old-style beers that no one had made until recently,” Blume told Beverage Master Magazine. “Now we have a whole line of sours, including barrel-aged sours and straight-up kettle sours.”
One of their most unique products is a Chilean Stout, made in collaboration with a local brewery in Santiago and created from ingredients that England brings back after judging an annual beer competition there. Next on the agenda is a cold-fermented IPA. “Fermenting an IPA cold as opposed to fermenting it warm is extremely rare,” Blume said. “The process makes it more crisp, clean and clear. It’s the opposite of the hazys.”
In the spirits category, Bent Brewstillery offers a traditional vodka and a nontraditional gin with 14 different botanicals. Blume prefers to use fresh botanicals when he can get them, which means the gins will vary from batch to batch. Some products are especially distinctive: Flame Bringer, a bourbon barrel sriracha-infused rum, and Tropical Whiskey, brewed and distilled like any other whiskey, but includes passion fruit, guava, coconut and citrus, added during distillation. “These are the little fun things that make us distinctive in what we create,” Blume said. “These spirits are all great by themselves, but they really compliment a cocktail. Our signature drink is the Old Fashioned created from our whiskey, and the sriracha-infused rum makes a great spicy Margarita or Bloody Mary.”
According to Blume, it took a while for the public to accept his distinctive beers and spirits. “At first,” he said, “people would say, ‘Oh, that looks weird. It’s different. I’m afraid of that,’ but now I can’t keep those products on the shelves.”
Customer preference is mixed, Blume said: 50% like the same beer all the time because they are familiar with it; the other 50 percent want something new. It’s the same split in the liquor stores and bars. Blume also sees a mixture in beer versus spirits preferences. “Having a taproom that serves both beer and cocktails is huge for us,” he told Beverage Master Magazine. “We get so many ‘mixed couples,’ where one likes beer and the other prefers spirits. Instead of drinking a beer here and then leaving to get a cocktail, they simply stay here. It’s been pivotal to our growth.”
Pandemic Problems…and Solutions
Like all breweries and distilleries, Bent Brewstillery’s growth took a big hit during the pandemic. But, again, like others, it turned lemons into lemonade by making hand sanitizer. Blume dived into this project with both feet. The brewstillery bought tankers of ethanol and produced 65,000 to 70,000 gallons of hand sanitizer. It provided supplies to a large portion of the police and fire departments in the state and to hospitals and support companies. Bent also offered raw materials to distilleries at cost so those distilleries could help their local communities. “We went all out,” Blume said, “and it’s a great feeling to know we did so much to help. We had a supply of beer and spirits in our taprooms, so at least we were able to sell products to-go. We survived just fine.”
With the pandemic waning, Blume plans to go “full-throttle” ahead, both in creating new products and staging events. Traditionally, the brewstillery has offered a winter luau, beer dinners, a St. Patrick’s Day dinner and car shows in their large parking lot. This year Blume hopes to bring back one of the brewstillery’s biggest events — a crawfish boil that attracted 2,500 people. Bent also plans to hold its annual barbecue competition on the anniversary of September 11. The competition, which draws 25 to 30 cooking teams, is a fundraiser for the Invisible Wounds Project. The local charity provides services to Minnesota’s military, first responders, front-line medical staff, corrections, dispatch and their families relating to mental health, PTSD and suicide issues.
Blume and his staff (the brewstillery has seven employees, not counting the dog) will continue to innovate, always looking for new opportunities. “We’re always looking to grow,” he told Beverage Master Magazine. “On the brewing side, we want to keep giving people something different to try. With the sheer number of breweries out there that are coming out with new beers, people can literally have a beer every day and never have the same beer twice. On the distilling side, we are playing around with different products that people will hopefully like. Growth is difficult, but it’s the challenge we signed up for.”
For more information on Bent Brewstillery, visit www.bentbrewstillery.com