Livin’ the American Dream: Opening a Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired Brewery

Every homebrewer dreams of one day taking their hobby one step further and living the American dream: becoming a craft brewing hero. It just seems like the logical next step, you’ve been brewing for x number of years and what else is there to do next? Sell your beer, hear compliments form the masses, grow even bigger, supply the United States with your beer and your love of beer. And why not? Everyone keeps telling you it’s wonderful and they would definitely pay for it at a bar, it’s legit, so you should open your own brewery already!

But anyone who knows anything about the craft beer industry knows how hard it is to open a microbrewery, much less a tap room or figure out how to convince distributers to sell said beer.  It’s much more complicated than the simple dream of artfully crafting the best tasting beer – which many of us believe we are already doing. But everything tells us how easy it is, the sheer number of breweries opening up makes us think, “Hey, if they can do it, so can I!” but it’s hard. Really hard. Work you to the bone and cry every night because you’re not sure if you’re going to make it hard. But once you do, you’re guaranteed to be as cool as Omar, and don’t we all want to be as cool as Omar? He’s the owner of Surly, in case you’re not in the know. It’s time to stop admiring the modern art and saying, “Oh, I could do that,” when in reality we probably couldn’t, but we want to so bad. It’s time to put our money where our mouths are. Literally. Shit is expensive.

But having said all that, the dream still lives on, even in me – especially in me. We as homebrewers and craft beer lovers can’t help but think about what could be; because we constantly surround ourselves with and support other microbreweries that grew up out of the same dream, like surrogate children, we love them, and secretly or not so secretly long for one of our own.

One day, I want to open my own microbrewery, or nanobrewery, or brewpub – I’d even settle for liquor store. And if I don’t or can’t then I want to be part of one beyond what I am already doing right now – I want to help craft the beer and build the brand of a bright and shiny new brewery in Minnesota (or wherever else is in need of one, I’m looking at you Sioux City). I want to market it and pour it down people’s throats because as anyone in in marketing knows, you can market nothing better than something you love and truly believe in. And for me, it’s not better healthcare or Totino’s pizza rolls, it’s the craft beer revolution.

The dream was born for me when I was driving with my boyfriend and his parents to a family cabin up north by the boundary waters (if you’re not from Minnesota, the boundary waters is probably the most beautiful landscape I have ever seen, and I have seen a lot of landscapes. Let me rephrase: it is the most beautiful landscape that makes me proud to be from this land. It’s all majestic with eagles and shit) and in order to get there we drove through Cloquet, a small town south of Duluth that is really more of a crossroads, but less Wild West and more Iron Range. They told me about this place, but I had no idea what to expect, and then there it was, as we slowed to a stop underneath its beautiful awning: Frank Lloyd Wright’s one and only service station. It’s small, and reminiscent of the aforementioned Wild West that he sometimes alludes to with his flat roofs and Route 66 stylings, but it was different; everything about it screamed Midwest, and sadly, Struggling. Just a few pumps and a garage, it was dead. No one was fueling here, taking in the shade from the greened copper roof, but there it stood, proud of its heritage, uncertain of its future.

The gas station is part of FLW’s Broadacre City Project, a “utopian vision of a new urban landscape”: suburbs in the city, cities in the suburbs – he had plans to put skyscrapers in the middle of the plains and everything. I mean, the man was crazy, but a genius. A reaction to and embracing the push to the suburbs, somewhat socialist in theory (everyone in this city gets one acre), his vision incorporated beauty and art can still reign, all with a touch of Japan.

I don’t know why he chose to put the service station in Cloquet of all places (it actually has something to do with its namesake, R. W. Lindholm, for whom he later designed a home), but this is where my dream truly came to life. I began to daydream, transforming the mechanic’s shop into a taproom, with its glass garage doors open to the summer breeze that Minnesotan’s seek in the warmer months up north, serving elegantly hopped and perfectly heady black IPAs – the oxymoron that pairs nicely with the historical surroundings. Would there be an oatmeal stout on the menu too, you ask? Of course. Available all year round.

Since it’s a garage, the floors would be already sloped, so that would be the easy part, but the difficult part is a much larger feat: transforming a national historical site into a brewery; I’m sure it wouldn’t be allowed. But think about the delight it would bring to travelers, wanderers, passersby, and more importantly the town and Minnesota as a whole. This was FLW’s dream: to bring functional art to the people through architecture whether they wanted it or not. The pumps would stay, of course, but the gas station would be transformed into a modern fueling station of sorts, bustling with people at all times of the year, because as Minnesotans we know that even in the winter we want our beer and are willing to go out in the cold to get it.

I was further inspired when I went to Marquette, Michigan in the Upper Peninsula where I drank at undoubtedly the coolest nanobrewery I’ve ever been to, Blackrocks. It’s a similar concept, make a house into a brewery, put in a bar, and make it the ultimate hang out place for pretty much everyone in and around the town including visitors like myself, hungry for a pint of the good stuff. They hang personalized mugs from the ceiling for the regulars and provide ever-changing wonderful beers – when I went there it was IPA week—exercising that brewer’s muscle.

Apparently the FLW gas station was recently sold and I’m not sure to whom or for how much or how well it’s doing now (according to this NPR article from August of 2008, the current owner is “not sure how long it can remain privately owned”), but I want it and I want it bad. I want to make it into a destination tap room and nanobrewery. I want the American dream.

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