While we’ve heard a lot of interesting brewery origin stories over the years with Now Open or Damn Close, we’re pretty sure that Rivers & Rails Brewing Company is the first brewery we’ve ever covered that got its start thanks to a playdate between two four-year-old girls.
Those two girls were the oldest daughters of Melora Bergee and Nellie Artmann, two moms who were relatively new to the Northwestern Minnesota town of Thief River Falls and seeking a bit of companionship.
“Our oldest daughters are the same age, and they were in the same preschool class together,” explains Melora. “By random happenstance, I ran into Nellie at the grocery store, and out of my normal character, I was like ‘Hey, our kids are friends at school, do you want to have a playdate?’”
As Melora and Nellie grew closer during successive playdates, they began to chat about their husbands, and their shared love of craft beer. Nellie’s husband Jonny Artmann had been an avid homebrewer for several years with goals to open his own brewery. After Nellie explained that Jonny had been having difficulties finding partners or investors for his nascent business, Melora offered to introduce them to her husband Anton Bergee, a Northland College employee with a great knack for developing business plans. Jonny and Anton met and immediately hit it off, and that’s when the pace really started to pick up.
“All of a sudden, plans started happening. Instead of my husband, Anton, reviewing the business plan, he was helping to draft it.” Melora jokes. “He was like, ‘Yeah, we’re going to open a brewery together.’”
The Artmanns and the Bergees began to seriously develop their business plan for what would come to be Rivers & Rails brewing in early 2019, and found the perfect space for their brewery in a former water treatment facility-turned office in October of that year. The founders closed on the building in December of 2019, and began demolition in January of 2020. They hired their architect in February, and then two weeks later, the pandemic hit.
“We got kind of railroaded there, but in some ways, it was an ideal time for us because we got to really slow down and develop what we all wanted,” says Melora, of the pandemic’s effect on their business. “It provided us a unique time to collaborate and truly define what it was that we were all looking for so we could honor everyone’s wishes.”
Other delays stemmed from red tape surrounding their building’s zoning, difficulties with their architect, and a lack of contractors in the Thief River Falls area. The four founders had their hands in a lot of the hard labor for the buildout despite all working full-time jobs, helping with flooring, painting, building bars and tables. Melora says that the the city of Thief River Falls, who had previously owned their brewery’s building, have been a great help in working through delays.
“The city has been so supportive and encouraging of us that without their help, I don’t know that we could have opened,” she continues.
Head Brewer Jonny Artmann says that Rivers & Rails’ are currently brewing with a 2-barrel nano system manufactured by Stout Tanks and Kettles. The system was purchased from the now-defunct Kilstone Brewing in Fargo, North Dakota, and Artmann is excited that the system features two additional pairs of 6-barrel fermentation tanks and brite tanks, which will allow Rivers & Rails to ramp up their capacity as they get their feet under them. Jonny predicts a capacity of between 400–500 barrels per year, and says that he’ll focus exclusively on taproom sales for the foreseeable future. Stylistically, Rivers & Rails’ head brewer has created a balanced menu that he hopes will be well suited to local palates that may not be as experienced with craft beer.
“I’m focusing on variety. We’re in Northwestern Minnesota, about two hours away from the Canadian border, so the craft brewing scene is pretty mild,” explains Jonny. “I wanted to present a light palate, so all the beers are lighter. Even the Juicy IPA, it’s all late addition hops so it’s more flavorful and fruity than it is bitter.”
While he’s aiming to please his community, Artmann also points to Rivers & Rails’ Wild Rice Ale as a quirkier recipe that showcase his creative side as a brewer. In addition to their current tap menu, Jonny is kegging an amber and a saison right now for a taproom debut soon and also shared plans to tap a porter later this summer. The brewery also just tapped a collaboration sour with fellow Deep-Northwest Minnesota brewery Revelation Ale Works based in Hallock.
Speaking of later this summer, Rivers & Rails are finalizing plans for a grand opening party, so keep an eye for that on their website and social media pages. Melora says that their soft opening on June 15 was an overwhelming success, and that they’ve already developed a loyal crew of regular customers. All four founders are proud to have opened Thief River Falls’ first brewery, and are excited to provide another destination for curious drinkers in a more remote part of Minnesota.
“We hope that being another stopping in point [in Northwestern Minnesota] makes people want to go up to Revelation, because now there’s not just one place that’s seven hours north,” says Melora. “There’s going to be stopping points along the way to kind of make a night of it.”
Brewer: Jonny Artmann
Beer: Brass Collar Gluten Reduced Cream Ale, Stack Train Juicy IPA, Boogie Blonde, Trap Door Tripel, Eddy RyePA, Sperry Car Witbier, Zombie Loco Sour, Wild Rice Wetland Ale.
Address: 324 2nd St E Thief River Falls, MN
Hours: Wednesday–Friday, 3 PM – 11 PM, Saturday, 11 AM – 11 PM, Sunday, 11 AM – 9 PM