Edwinton Brewing to Break 50-year Dry Spell in Bismarck-Mandan

Written by Shawn McKenna for greatplainsobserver.com

(Photo by Matt Bunk) Devon Waldron and David Nelson work on the brewery vats in preparation for the launch of Edwinton Brewing Company's first beer.
As the owner of Downtown Bismarck’s Peacock Alley, Dale Zimmerman hears many requests for new menu items. Unfortunately, the one item request he hears most often is something he hasn’t been able to offer: beer brewed in North Dakota.

“Local beer is our number one requested item, next to Sunday brunch.” Zimmerman says.

The problem is simple, yet it belies a long-held stereotype: There are no fully operational breweries in North Dakota, which is a bit odd considering North Dakotans reportedly drink more beer than their counterparts in 47 other states.

But at least one company is ready to test the theory that North Dakotans will embrace a small-label, hometown beer.

The Edwinton Brewing Company is planning to launch its first beer this month at the Peacock Alley. The Mandan-based company will start small with the expectation of producing only a few hundred barrels of beer during the first year. But the long-term vision behind Edwinton is to create a full spectrum of beers and establish a tradition of local brewing in central North Dakota.

Edwinton is a joint venture owned and operated by the Nelson family. One of the owners, David Paul Nelson, says Bismarck-Mandan was the logical place to start a brewery because most of the family lives in the area. His brother and sister, Brent Nelson and Kirsten Wald, also work for Edwinton. Their father, Dave Nelson, owns an architectural firm in Bismarck.

The name of the brewery was equally fitting: Edwinton was the original name of Bismarck.

“The family was raised in Bismarck,” he says. “The local connection made it the obvious choice. The complete lack of craft breweries in the state had a bit to do with it as well.”

The first batch of Edwinton beer will be a Saison variety called “Daesy.” Once it’s ready, it will be routed through McQuade Distributing and sold on tap at the Peacock Alley. The beer will be launched during an event at the restaurant Sept. 17.

While Zimmerman has no financial stake in the brewing company, he’s betting the product will at least get off to a successful start.

“We’re going to be buying all of their production,” he says. “I’m projecting that the initial launch is going to be so big that we’re going to take all of their production for three to four months. After that I think it will taper off and the product will have to stand on its own two legs whether it’s good or not.”

Nelson says Edwinton delayed launching their beer until they felt it was ready. He says making beer isn’t an exact science but he’s confident they can maintain a consistent product. “This really is the core of a brewery. Making great beer is amazingly simple, but making the same great beer two times in a row is amazingly difficult.”

Startup breweries in North Dakota have learned that lesson the hard way. The Dakota Malting and Brewing Company operated in Bismarck during the early 1960s, but suffered from poor sales due to bad batches of beer. After that, two breweries tried and failed in Fargo, and another one in Dickinson called the Rattlesnake Creek Brewery and Grill stopped brewing beer a few years ago.

The closest thing to a brewery in North Dakota is the Granite City Food and Brewery, which receives shipments of partially brewed beer from out of state and completes the fermentation process in Fargo.

Beer brewing experts say North Dakota laws make it difficult for breweries to make money. The licensing process is cumbersome and restrictive, and brewers must go through a beverage distributor instead of selling their product directly to stores and bars. North Dakota is one of 12 states that ban beer manufacturers from the wholesale market.

The state allows breweries that produce fewer than 10,000 barrels of beer per year to sell the product at an on-site pub. Bismarck and Mandan have passed ordinances to allow beer-pubs, but both cities established yearly production limits that were lower than state law.

Bismarck resident Mike Frohlich, who plans to open a local brew-pub early next year, says restrictions on self-distribution and limits on how much beer can be brewed and sold directly by manufacturers have kept the microbrewery industry from expanding into North Dakota. He points to two neighboring states that allow self-distribution and are home to thriving microbrewery industries. Montana has 27 breweries, and Minnesota has 22.

“If North Dakota opened up self-distribution, we’d have breweries here,” Frohlich says. “There’s a reason microbreweries are opening all over Montana and Minnesota.”

Despite its beer-guzzling reputation, North Dakota has a long history of creating laws that discourage beer brewing. In the 1880s, as many as 10 breweries were operating the in geographic area that later became North Dakota. But in 1890, a year after statehood, the Legislature passed a prohibition on alcoholic drinks that lasted until 1933 when the federal prohibition law was repealed.

Breweries took root in the Midwest after prohibition ended, but North Dakota beer-distribution laws have remained more restrictive than the laws in neighboring states.

But now, the rapidly expanding microbrew market is generating enough interest among beer entrepreneurs to consider breaking into the market. And it appears Frohlich and the Edwinton Brewing Company aren’t the only ones planning to introduce North Dakota beers.

Randi Philleo, a co-founder of the Muddy River Mashers Homebrew Club, says at least four others out there looking to start up across the state. She says she’s heard about two operations in the works in Fargo and one each in Grand Forks and Minot.

“Craft beer growth in North Dakota, no matter what it is, it’s going to be good to see more,” Philleo says. “We’ve watched in liquor stores, more and more beers are coming in.”

Nelson says the Peacock Alley will be the only place to find Edwinton beer during the next few months, but he’s optimistic about what the future holds. He says Edwinton is working a second beer called “Lou” and is trying to secure a spot for both labels at local liquor stores.

“We are working on labels right now for 22 oz. ‘bomber’ format bottles,” he says. “Ideally, Daesy and Lou will be on shelves this year just before Thanksgiving, but we’ll see what happens.”

For Zimmerman and the Peacock Alley it will also be a matter of waiting and seeing what sort of product Nelson and Edwinton can produce.

“I’m excited for everyone to try this beer,” Zimmerman says. “Whether it’s good or not, that’s going to be a personal choice. There’s a reason why I have 23 handles; nobody agrees on what beer they like. We have dark beer to light beer to hoppy beer to sweet beer, and this beer is definitely going to be a smaller niche beer. But that’s what they’re going after, and I have faith that these guys know what they’re doing.”

Frohlich say he’s excited to hear all the talk about new breweries. He says there’s enough demand for specialty beer to support several local brewers. At the same time, he’s not expecting this to turn into the next big beer explosion.

“There are always people with grand illusions,” he says. “A lot of guys like to drink beer and talk beer, and some of them like to think they’re going to open a brewery someday. But there are so many steps along the way and it’s such a long process to get started that I wonder if most of them have thought it all through.”

-Shawn McKenna is a freelance writer for the Great Plains Examiner.

-Matt Bunk is publisher of the Great Plains Examiner.