HammerHeart’s time in Lino Lakes is at an end, but plans for a Norwegian farmhouse brewery in the Northwoods are in the works
On June 28, 2021, HammerHeart Brewing held its Viking funeral.
After 8 years in Lino Lakes, owners and brothers-in-law Nathaniel Chapman and Austin Lunn decided to shut down their heavy metal beer den off of Highway 23, and their farewell went on long into the night, with friends and regulars hanging on until the early morning. They toasted to the misfit brewery’s near-decade of success, but in the sober light of dawn, there were concerns about what comes next for HammerHeart.
But Ragnarok is not an end; it’s a cycle. Destruction, then rebirth. HammerHeart will live on, just in a different form.
A few facts about the next lifecycle have been made clear: HammerHeart will pivot to focus on production and distribution. The Lino Lakes taproom will close. Chapman and Lunn will sell the property and contract their brewing rights to another Minnesota brewery. Eventually, they’ll re-open in a far-flung location with a much smaller facility, focusing on traditional Norwegian farmhouse styles.
It might seem straightforward, but cataclysms rarely are. Chapman and Lunn agonized over their decision, and the road ahead isn’t as clear as it was back in 2013. We sat down with Chapman and Lunn to discuss the future of HammerHeart and the agony that comes with setting the world anew.
Beer Dabbler: Tell me about the contract brewing plan. Can you share who you’ll be partnering with for the production?
Nathaniel Chapman: I’m not quite ready to share that. I gotta sort some details first, but once you hear the name, you’ll be into it. When we opened, I think there was maybe some sort of stigma around contracting. There are big breweries that have done it, like Toppling Goliath, who contracted for a while when they were expanding. A lot of places start off that way, and then or they use it as a jumpstart to grow bigger. We’re actually using it as the primary way to continue making the beers that we want to make.
So you’re planning on selling and moving out?
N: We actually have two parties that are interested already. One would have a taproom, just be an expanded version of what they have now. They’re smaller. And one would actually just be an expanded production space. So they wouldn’t have a taproom.
The function of the taproom, obviously, is that you can introduce new beers to people and beta test before you’re ready to go into a full production run. Is there any concern about doing that and getting out new stuff?
N: That’s kind of where the other part of this comes into play. We’re going to open up this 5-barrel brewery. It’s gonna be basically just a shrunk-down version of this, with no taproom. [Austin’s] gonna be able to brew beers there that are new recipes or take risks, do stuff like we’ve done here in the past.
The other mystery of the story thus far has been where is HammerHeart moving to?
N: We don’t know. Probably going to be Ely. All the way up there in the woods.
Will you be selling out of the new location once you open?
N: We’re not going to have that brewery [up north] for probably another year. It’ll be 5 barrels, so a third of the size of what we’re doing now. No taproom, but we’ll have a tasting room. And we’re talking about bottles, 500-mL bottles.
When you guys opened the Lino Lakes brewery, it seemed like you were a little reluctant to even have a taproom. Was it something you just had to do?
Austin Lunn: I worked at a production brewery before this, and I liked that. I went to work, did my thing, and that was it. But when we were opening, the culture in Minnesota is kind of based on taprooms, that’s the norm. That’s what we went with.
N: When you’re starting a brewery, it’s really hard to be able to get to know you without having a taproom. Especially in this climate, when there are so many. Early days, [the revenue] was heavily skewed to the taproom, but then as time moved on that balanced out. Pre-COVID, it was probably 50-50.
Did COVID kind of help you go from the point of, “This is an idea I have” to “This is something we’re doing”?
A: It’s a miracle that we made it. The reason that we made it is entirely because of the people who came out here and bought growlers and went and bought beer from the liquor store. You know, the taproom wasn’t open, but the reason that we made it through was because people supported the beer and the brand. That kind of made me realize, like, we could do it. If it was just the two of us. We could do it and not go belly up. And also, if COVID is not over, which, I mean, we don’t know if it’s not, I want to be prepared to be able to just ride it out.
N: It just made us question, “What is going to allow us to do this?” Because we’re just two people. Though we’ve had a lot of great employees over the years.
A: But employees kind of come and go. We can’t provide a lifelong career that will be sustaining to people as they grow as people, as they buy homes, as they have families.
And your passion is really in the artistry, the craft of the beer, rather than people management.
A: 100%. I am not really a people person. I’m kind of a grouch. I smile, but I’m kind of grouchy. I just suck at it badly, but what I am good at is brewing. I wanted to be a brewer, I didn’t want to be a bar owner. But now, it sucks. It’s a double-edged sword, because we love our regulars. We love those people. They’re our friends and families. We care about them intensely. It ended up being pretty awesome, but, you know, that comes to an end. It feels like a selfish decision to take that away from them.
But at the same time, we had to make a decision to preserve what we’re doing. I don’t think we could survive through another shutdown. HammerHeart is a niche brewery. We’re not making beer that everybody wants, right? You don’t want to pander just to survive. And we did do some of that. We did do hazy IPAs and that kind of shit, because that’s what people wanted.
N: I’m pretty pumped that we stuck to our guns. We never really totally deviated for market reasons or anything. And we will continue to stick to our guns.
A: What we’re attempting to do is to continue to make the beers that we love, but not in the capacity that we’ve done it before.
What kinds of things are you hoping that you can do in this new production space that you can’t do here?
A: Take risks. I’ll be doing smaller batches, so now I’ll be able to do ridiculous stuff like, like raw ale, like Kornøl. Or making imperial lagers, things like that.
N: More fun stuff. More ingredients. Or different processes.
A: Crazy smoked pepper beers. That’s the shit we love doing. This is just giving us a chance to go farther down the rabbit hole without it being something that could bury us.
What was the last night in the taproom like for you?
A: There were tears, there was laughter. A bunch of regulars stayed after we shut down and we blasted Bathory’s Hammerheart record, and we all got really, really drunk and just went start to finish and headbanged through the whole thing.
It was bittersweet. This place is for all of us to convene and share beers and stories. But all that can happen outside of this place. This doesn’t have to be Viking Cheers. We can all still be friends. But there’s not a lot of other places that we can go that look like this and play the music we play. It was awesome. It’s sad to see that go.
N: I think there was really a reality check. There are so many people who have met other people here and developed lifelong friendships because they met here. That kind of gave this place my weight.
It must feel pretty surreal that you’re closed to the public. And now, it’s on to the next thing.
N: We’ve already started piecing together a lot of the stuff for the future. We’re starting to look at equipment and continuing to discuss with the brewery in the Cities, doing the contract thing. It’s not going to be a hands-off experience. I plan to be there pretty often, maybe even every brew. And we’re checking with the state on how we self-distribute, because that’s one thing that I would love to continue, self-distribution. I really enjoy the relationships I have with liquor stores and the restaurants. I still want labor, I still want effort.
This feels like a really natural conclusion. You got into something that maybe you didn’t anticipate, and it turned out to be a really good thing. Now, you’re at a point where you need to change something in order to keep doing what you’re doing.
A: There’s a lot of people whose feelings were kind of hurt. They were confused. They were like, “Why would they do that?” But the truth of the matter is, it was just as hard of a decision for us. We had to do it for ourselves.
N: It’s always a tough thing. You produce more beer for cans and bottles and distribution, you have less beer for the taproom. We always wanted variety in the taproom, and sometimes that suffered because of volume going out for distribution. And vice versa. You start making more beers that are intended for the taproom, and you don’t package as much. Our intent is to actually have more beer available.
A: We want to do things more the way that we intended to do them.