The iconic Minnesota critters are the loon, the moose, the blue ox, the Hamm’s bear dancing through sky-blue waters, and of course the Schell’s peacock. When you go down to the gingerbread-fairy-tale mansion in New Ulm where they make the iconic Minnesota Schell’s beer, these stunning birds emerge fan-tailed and regal around every corner. So of course, when I got the chance to talk to the Marti family, the real-life direct descendants of brewery founder August Schell who still run the place, I had to ask about them.
“Mostly with the peacocks, you try to avoid stepping on the crap,” Kyle Marti told me, quickly taking the romance out of the fairy tale. “They’re kind of like dogs to us. They’re always on something or under something.” Kyle is the middle brother, aged 29, of the sixth generation of Martis to run the brewery. Their peacocks spend the whole winter outside. In the mornings they hang out on the ground; they sleep in the trees. Only one brother knows where they incubate their eggs. That’s Franz, 25, the youngest, who returned from Afghanistan with a Purple Heart after serving with the Army in the 10th Mountain Division and meeting with an IED. He tends the grounds now.
Being to-the-brewery-born isn’t all peacocks and gingerbread. “My dad could have closed the doors a thousand times when I was growing up,” Jace Marti, 30, the oldest and the brewer of the bunch, told me over one of his beers at New Bohemia in Northeast Minneapolis. “I remember once in ’93, a big contract moved elsewhere. We thought that was the end.” But Ted Marti, the fifth-generation president of the company and the father of Jace, Kyle, and Franz, pulled the company from the brink of extinction and bought Grain Belt. That iconic Minnesota beer has become a slow but steady cash cow and cult favorite from here to Pittsburgh, prompting a current $2 million expansion aimed at boosting brewery capacity from 150,000 to 250,000 barrels.
Today Schell’s is 153 years old, the second-oldest family-owned brewery in the United States. Yuengling, in Pennsylvania, is the oldest. There’s a younger generation of Yuenglings—all daughters. When I suggested to Jace that it would be a wonderful Technicolor American musical moment if all the Marti boys married Yuengling girls, he looked at me like a peacock had just pooped in the beer. “Come on,” I added, “you’re rarer than pandas! Who will keep the endangered American historical brewing genetics alive?” Dead silence.
Turns out the new generation of Martis has its own plan for making the next 160 years of Schell’s brewing even better than the last. They are adding very cool new stuff to the core Schell’s brand of that picturesque mansion in the woods, the peacocks, and surviving despite Prohibition, the rise of the mega-breweries, and, really, against all odds.
A perfect, very cool example: The Star of the North from the Noble Star Collection. This sour Berliner Weiss-style wheat beer is one that Jace brewed using one of the brewery’s Depression-era abandoned cypress tanks. The beer is astounding and amazing, a pale gold brew sold in champagne-like bottles. It’s as tart as lemons, as fragrant as a bouquet, and as dry as the fall wind over dry hay. It’s original and ethereal, worth the attention of the most elite beer snobs, and exquisite with oysters.
To make it, Jace spent a year in Berlin at brewing school. But that’s not all. He befriended a brewing scholar with an ancient collection of brewing yeasts and sweet-talked him out of some traditional Berlin brewing yeasts. He spent another year reconditioning a dry and unusable wax-lined cypress tank by ice-blasting out the wax and repeatedly soaking every surface until the wood swelled up to seal the gaps. He then sweet-talked his father into letting him set up a separate hand-bottling line with sole-use hoses and spigots to guarantee that those funky ancient Berlin yeasts didn’t get into the Grain Belt part of the brewery.
Another sour-beer version is coming in November; this one has been steeping with raspberries all summer. It promises to be Minnesota’s best beer in the tradition of Belgian fruit lambics. (Look for it at Surdyk’s, The Four Firkins, Elevated Beer Wine & Spirits, Northgate Liquors, and the Ale Jail.) Creating magnificent sour beer isn’t just about small releases and big buzz, though. Because of Jace’s enthusiasm for sour, Schell’s also launched a big-production version of a German gose (pronounced gose-uh) called Goosetown. It’s a part-wheat beer made with actual coriander and salt in the brew tanks, resulting in something that’s as easy to drink and refreshing as a Grain Belt, but zesty and light and surprising, too. A beer snob’s Grain Belt? Sort of, yes.
That’s not all. Schell’s now hosts very cool Sunday beer gardens and is having its own Oktoberfest on October 12, complete with a band and the peacocks. It’s when you visit that fairy-tale beer grounds in the woods that you realize that the real magic isn’t with the peacocks but with the family and its beer. ■
For more on Minnesota's booming beer scene, check out the October issue of Mpls.St.Paul Magazine, on newsstands now.