Jason Schoneman’s steel-toed Red Wing work boots were not on his size-11 feet at the brewery. It wasn’t an off day, though; he doesn’t take many of those. The founder of Steel Toe Brewery had instead opted for faded black, holey Adidas Sambas. He paused while making his latest brew and take care of some administrative duties, to sip one of his crisp Provider golden ales and share how his history as a welder and toolmaker turned into his dream job of brewing beer.
“I’ve worn steel-toe boots most of my adult working life; it’s a direct reflection of me,” says Schoneman, 39, of the name he picked for the brewery he started in St. Louis Park in 2011. “It’s something that I’m passionate about; I don’t shy away from the hard work. Some people say that it’s a blue-collar thing, but not really. It’s more of [whether] you are willing to get out there and work.”
Schoneman, an Iowa native who wears work boots half the week, has shown a willingness to sacrifice by putting in 70-hour workweeks as the brewery ramps up production. (It’s not work for the faint of heart.) In 2013, Steel Toe will produce about 1,500 barrels, up from about 800 in 2012 and 100 or so from their first four months of operation.
When Steel Toe started in August 2011, Schoneman delivered to about four liquor stores and six restaurants. “There weren’t very many; that was all I could handle,” says Schoneman, the brewery’s only original employee.
Now with four employees, Steel Toe’s beers are in about 35 restaurants and 40 liquor stores. That’s a big jump since Schoneman delivered his first beer to Four Firkins, St. Louis Park’s specialty beer store.
Four Firkins has a selection of approximately 1,000 beers, so owner and founder Jason Alvey knows quality beer and recognizes that Schoneman is producing it. “Jason’s attention to quality control is outstanding,” Alvey says. “He is who you want in a brewer, with his pride in his product.”
Alvey and his mates from Four Firkins often come down to Steel Toe’s taproom for a pint after the store closes. “His taproom is like a local, a community meeting spot, where you know half of the people in the bar,” Alvey says.
When Alvey arrives, he can see Schoneman has put in, sometimes, a 16-hour day and is still going. “You go in there and you know he is exhausted, but does what he can to make it a good experience for you,” Alvey says.
Schoneman takes satisfaction in people’s reactions as they try his beer in the taproom. The joy comes from customers sipping and giving an approving smile to whomever they’re drinking with.
“You can’t sell the feeling of somebody enjoying the product you’ve made,” he says. “It’s something that happens. When I see that, it’s what makes me feel good—that someone else is enjoying what I did and it’s making them smile. That’s cool.”
Alvey sees big things in Steel Toe’s future. “[Jason’s] potential for growth is enormous; he will be a big name in the next five years,” Alvey says. “The quality of his product and his attitude will take him very far.”
What’s In Store
But Schoneman and wife Hannah, also his co-owner, don’t have aspirations of being the next Surly or Summit.
“We don’t want to be huge,” says Hannah, who has been married to Jason for seven years. “We don’t want to grow for growing sake. I think you can lose some of the artistic touch.”
Steel Toe’s aspirations are to reach 3,500 annual barrels produced within two years, remain at that amount for the foreseeable future and only serve the Twin Cities market. (By comparison, in 2012, Surly produced about 20,000 barrels, Summit 112,000.)
“I don’t want to be everywhere,” Jason says. “I want to be in really good bars and really good restaurants and liquor stores. We will always keep it close to home. I have no desire to ever distribute beer outside of the Twin Cities. Most accountants and other people I talk to tell me that I’m crazy. But a lot of other people say that, yeah, I think that is the right way to do it. When you get to a certain point, as most people say, if you aren’t growing, you’re dying. I’m going to test that theory, I guess.”
Words of Wisdom
When Schoneman was strategizing a brewery in 2009 and 2010, he met Jerry Rudick and three other small-business consultants through SCORE, a St. Louis Park nonprofit that provides entrepreneurs with free advice and guidance from volunteers with a range of business expertise.
Rudick looked at Schoneman’s brewing experience—first at home, then at Lightning Boy in Montana in 2001, a diploma course in brewing technology from Seibel Institute of Technology in Chicago in 2005 and Pelican Pub Brewery in Oregon from 2005 to 2009. “He was intelligent and well-prepared,” says Rudick, who owned an insurance restoration business in Ohio for more than three decades. “I was very impressed with his knowledge of the business.”
As the consultants at SCORE worked to identify financing, zoning and legal issues, and possible locations, Rudick was struck by Schoneman’s attentiveness. “He was a very good listener,” Rudick says. “Sometimes you don’t get that from small-business owners.”
Overcoming setbacks is a litmus test for a small-business owner, and Schoneman has been there. Last spring, a cooling jacket on a tank holding an India pale ale failed, and the cooling liquid, a food-grade antifreeze, leaked into the batch.
The Size 7 beer did not taste as though it had been compromised, but Schoneman threw out all 40 barrels—1,240 gallons. The decision meant a $5,000 to $10,000 loss in time, production costs and sales.
“We were out of Size 7 for about two weeks,” Schoneman says. “We didn’t have our best-selling beer. That hurt.” While it was hard on the bottom line, the decision was an easy one, Schoneman says.
“We don’t cut corners here—ever,” Schoneman says. “We don’t sell the beer until it’s ready. If there is a problem, we don’t sell it.” With the number of craft breweries in Minnesota topping 50 and still growing, the decision had short-term pain as consumers opted for other beers, but could have long-term benefits as the reputation for Steel Toe solidifies, Alvey says.
“Some brewers wouldn’t think twice about putting that out there” in the marketplace, Alvey says. But whether Schoneman’s wearing steel-toed boots or worn Adidas shoes, quality is always the first step.
Steel Toe brews three beers year-round and each one tells a story. “My mother- and father-in-law described it to me this way: All of the beers that I have have a beginning, middle and an end,” Schoneman says. “They develop as we go, where a lot of other beers that I’ve had are one-dimensional. They described it as telling a story.”
This golden ale (5 percent alcohol) has a lot of flavor and aromas for a beer that is so light in color, Schoneman says. “It has a floral, spicy hop aroma and it’s basically a pilsner recipe that is fermented with an ale strain of yeast,” Schoneman says. “It has this fruity component to it, too.”
This traditional India pale ale (7 percent) has a “big, sweet citrus,” flavor with “a hint of piney hop flavor,” Schoneman says. “It’s by far our bestseller,” he says. “People thought hops were going to be a fad; no.” Provider and Size 7 are Schoneman’s favorites. “It’s a tossup for me; it depends on the day,” he says.
This double red ale (6.5 percent has a “big hop presence, but it’s more of an herbal hop character,” Schoneman says.
“It’s a beautiful red hue,” he says. “It’s an incredible beer to look at and then to get into and drink a whole glass and see how that changes and all those different flavors.”