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Bemidji brewers raise funds, aim for next step crafting beer

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A labor of love is what Justin "Bud" Kaney expects brewing craft beer will be like.

After he and his friends, Tom Hill and Tina Hanke, successful raised $17,500 through kickstarter.com, plans are now in the works to turn their up-and-coming Bemidji Brewing Company into a reality.

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Because starting a microbrewery comes with a hefty price tag, rather than asking for a loan through a bank, the three friends started an online campaign, hoping it would allow them to brew their beer sooner.

They asked the public to donate a total of $15,000 to cover the costs of purchasing a 30-gallon kettle used for boiling, a fermentation vessel and to cover the costs of licenses and insurance fees. Now that their goal has been reached, Hanke said "it feels great."

"I think it was really nice to see how many people donated to the cause," she said. "It wasn't just our family and friends. It was people from the community who were excited about craft beer and wanted to support a brewery in Bemidji."

Now, Hanke said, the group's first priority is to make sure those who donated a certain amount of money will receive their pledge gifts of T-shirts and pint glasses.

At the same time, she added, the group is working toward finalizing plans to rent space at a community kitchen located inside Harmony Foods Co-op, which is expected to be available to local food producers March 15.

Community kitchens offer food producers a place to license food processing activities.

The three friends have also been working to apply for the local, state and federal licenses they will need.

In order to legally sell beer, the group needs to be certified by the state, which requires their equipment to be licensed. So far, the group has yet to purchase their equipment, which Hanke said will likely be purchased new.

At the federal level, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau will need to inspect the brewer's equipment and test their knowledge of brewing, Hanke said. After they fill out a brewer's notice, the TTB then has 95 days to conduct an inspection of the brewing kitchen, equipment and staffing, Hanke added.

"We are trying to get the paperwork filled out as soon as possible and have everything ready so when we get the green light, we can brew," Hanke said.

The group will also need to pay a brewer's bond, which will require them to pay a certain percentage of taxes on the amount of beer they expect to produce.

Locally, because the group will not be selling beer onsite, the group does not need to hold a liquor license, Hanke said.

"It's a relatively new model in Bemidji," she said. "There used to be a brew pub here, which is different than a brewery."

However, in order to use Harmony's community kitchen, the facility needs to be compliant under the city's commercial zoning rules, which Hanke said it is.

"The kitchen is set up for our things, so there shouldn't be anything we would need to change which would require special permits," she said.

When it comes to selling their beer, Kaney said the group will not be selling beer in bottles at first. Instead, he said they plan to sell draft beer in barrels.

"This makes it easier so we don't have to do any kind of bottling," Kaney said. "There's more licensing and inspections to worry about with bottles and proper labeling."

Kaney said they plan to start out small, producing enough beer to support two establishments in Bemidji.

With the basic equipment the group plans to purchase, the group's beer production will depend on how much can be fermented at one time.

Kaney said the group plans to purchase one fermenter, which can hold up to 25 gallons and theoretically support one establishment with enough beer for one month.

It may only be a small amount of beer, but Kaney said this is intentional.

"It's really a labor of love at this scale," he said. "There's no clean margins we'll be going to the bank with. We will literally be getting enough money to make the next batch and to consecutively continue the expansion of this."

Having beer available to consumers this summer is the group's ultimate goal, Kaney said. In the future, he added, the group hopes to see their small brewery become a full facility able to produce larger volumes of beer that could reach establishments across the state.

"For now, we just want to get some beer out there, have people try it and get some feedback," Kaney said.

As for who will inspect the beer once it's sold, Kaney said, this will be up to the customers.

"Not only do we want people in Bemidji to have beer, but it will also benefit people who come to Bemidji from other places in the summer who are used to having local, craft beer," Hanke said.

Hill, originally from Hibbing, Minn., works for Northern Brewer in St. Paul. He is an alumnus of Bemidji State University, which is where he met and became friends with Kaney.

Hill took classes at the Siebel Institute of Technology & World Brewing Academy in Chicago. He is also a Cicerone, which means he has proven expertise in selecting, acquiring and serving a wide range of beers.

Kaney, originally from Wittenberg, a small town in central Wisconsin, moved back to Bemidji last summer. He currently works as a project estimator at Northwest Cabinets and said he first became interested in craft beers after he met Hill when they were students at BSU.

Hanke, also originally from Wittenberg, moved to Bemidji at the same time as Kaney. She currently holds two part-time jobs in Bemidji.

"We all have jobs outside of this and this is our primary goal," Kaney said. "It's a classic scenario of burning the candle at both ends, and despite that we haven't experienced any burnout. We consistently get more enthusiastic and excited the closer we get through fruition."

The Bemidji Brewing Company is seeking public comments about their initiative to start a brewery in Bemidji.

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