Sometimes, great ideas need a serious kick in the ass in order to be actualized. In the case of Wooden Ship Brewing Co., which opens Friday, May 7, in Minneapolis’ Linden Hills neighborhood, longtime homebrew buddies Alxndr Jones and Josh Oestreich provided the idea, while their third co-owner Suresh Graf provided the windup and the boot.
Suresh met Alxndr and Josh via mutual friends and a shared interest in playing music, and quickly started hearing about the homebrewing duo’s somewhat loosely formed aspirations of opening a brewery of their own. While he’s currently just 28 years old and was even younger at the time, Suresh already had a strong footing in the business world thanks to his background in medical device sales, and thought he might be able to lend some of that expertise to Alxndr and Josh—because they clearly needed it.
After voraciously consuming all of the data he could find about the local beer industry and marveling at the relative lack of cutthroat competition compared to his last gig, Suresh approached Josh and Alxndr to offer his consulting services over a few beers, and the two homebrewers quickly realized that they had found the catalyst they had been looking for.
“They told me ‘We’re pretty much the most-talked-about brewery in the industry that doesn’t exist,’ Suresh laughs, “We were sitting down and I asked ‘What do you guys have for a business plan?’ What do you have written down?’ and they said that they had made stickers and T-shirts!”
While their grasp of finance and funding might still be a work in progress, Oestreich and Jones are most definitely not hapless rubes on the brew deck. The pair were already avid homebrewers when they met circa 2012, and the two began brewing together shortly after that. As their skills developed, Alxndr and Josh began to celebrate their latest finished brew-day batches by hosting garage parties complete with a DIY bar set-up. Eventually, some of these parties swelled to include more than a hundred friends and family members clamoring to drink the duo’s beer. Based on the success of those parties, Oestreich and Jones began to get the notion that their nights-and-weekends passion could become a viable career.
To that end, both men began to break off from their respective tracks (Jones, a graphic designer and illustrator, Oestreich, a cook) to seek on-the-job training in the industry. For Jones, that opportunity came after he volunteered for dishwashing duty during an especially packed night at the Dangerous Man taproom in Northeast Minneapolis.
“I almost literally fell into a job a Dangerous Man,” Jones says, “They were busy one Wednesday night, and I jokingly said, ‘Hey you guys want some help?’”
“I jumped behind the bar and washed dishes for two hours, and then two weeks later I got an email from the assistant taproom manager and it was like ‘Hey everyone, here’s this week’s schedule.’ and I was on it!”
Jones worked his way up through just about every rung on the Dangerous Man ladder, starting as a barback and a bartender before moving on to work in DM’s Growler Shop and co-manage their Crowler program. A few years into his service, the opportunity to apply for an assistant brewer position at Dangerous Man became available, and Jones jumped at it, landing the job over a competitive pool of applicants, which Jones credits to DM owners Rob Miller and Sarah Bonavallet recognizing his desire to be a brewery owner himself one day.
“I think [Dangerous Man] is a great place to learn because Rob is such a passionate homebrewer, and loves educating people and wants people to know more,” Alxndr says, of his former boss. “I can’t think of a better place to learn. It felt like grad school.”
Jones speaks glowingly about Miller and Bonavallet’s continued help throughout Wooden Ship’s opening process. Dangerous Man’s owners were the first two people outside of Suresh, Josh, and Alxndr to review Wooden Ship’s business plan, and Rob and Sarah are usually the first people that three amigos will call if they’re in a brew-day pinch for yeast or pack-techs. Alxndr also acknowledges that having Dangerous Man’s name on his resume means that he’s a part of a fairly notable alumni club.
“It’s cool to be in the pedigree of Modist, and Oliphant, and Ramsey [Louder],” Jones says, “There are other people that have left that have started these amazing restaurants on Madeline Island.”
“It’s such a good place to grow and learn, and then move forward and still be able to come back home,” he continues, “When we made our first batch of Crowlers, I brought some to them and they were pumped.”
In contrast to Alxndr’s rosy tenure at Dangerous Man, Josh’s pre-Wooden Ship brewing career involved navigating far stormier waters. After a period spent hustling for an industry gig at beer pourings and brew days, Oestreich signed on to work as an assistant brewer at the ill-fated 12welve Eyes Brewing in St. Paul’s Lowertown neighborhood just prior to that brewery’s opening in 2017. Leaning on his kitchen-honed competency, Oestreich quickly graduated from his assistant’s role to become involved in basically every aspect of 12welve Eyes’ operations, from co-brewing and managing their barrel program to overseeing some front of house responsibilities, all while working toward his eventual goal of starting his own brewery.
“12welve Eyes definitely gave me the experience and the confidence to open my own place,” says Oestreich, “I wouldn’t say it necessarily shaped what I want to do with beer, but they eventually allowed me to basically do what I want to do out there, which was fun. I’m forever grateful to those guys for giving me the shot to learn and do what I wanted to do there.”
While 12welve Eyes may have provided Josh with the practical training that he needed to manage the day-to-day challenges of brewery ownership, he credits his time spent working in the culinary world—most recently at craft deli Kieran’s Kitchen—as the source of the innovative spark that he employs as Wooden Ship’s head of brewing operations.
“I always want to think ingredient first, rather than just beer first,” Oestreich explains, “Instead of saying, ‘We have to make a stout, what can I put into it to make it different,’ I’m always like, ‘Okay, I’m really pumped on this herb, or this pepper, or this type of mushroom. I had a curry dish last night, what can I do to bring this to beer?’”
Like many a great chef, Josh wants his beer to challenge and educate his customers’ palates, and he also displays a perfectionist streak and a restless need to ideate that’s common among culinarians. It’s a style that provides a nice compliment to Suresh’s permissive enthusiasm and contrasts equally well with Alxndr’s Dangerous Man–honed inclination towards steady consistency.
“It’s even in our brewing styles,” Oestreich says, “Dangerous Man knows how to pump out the same beers consistently, so Alxndr had that, ‘This is how we make beer consistent’ and I was like, ‘Let’s just mess around and make something crazy all the time!”
“I love traditional styles, I will never mess with a Pilsner,” he continues. “Beers that were made for fifteen hundred years, I want to make those true to style. I’m not a brewmaster, I didn’t study in Europe for like, years at a time, so I want to honor those beers and do what I can, but anything else on the board, I want to make it as weird as possible.”
To that end, Wood Ship’s three owners say that they intend to eschew flagship recipes in favor of flagship beer series across their 12 tap lines. Sporting quirky names like “Jazz Night” (Smoked beers) and “Seasonal Work” (farmhouse-style beer), these rotating series should allow for an element of consistency for customers while still satisfying Oestreich’s restless muse.
Wooden Ship managed to cram a Craft Kettle brew system sporting six 7-barrel fermentors and two 15-barrel fermentors into their modest storefront space, and the trio of co-owners are planning to use it to crank out 700–1000 barrels within their first year. Wooden Ship is already producing a small number of Crowlers for local liquor stores and intends to produce and self-distribute 4-packs of 16-ounce cans shortly after opening their taproom. Oestreich says that his goal is for Wooden Ship to brew 100 different beers during their first year, which he feels is totally achievable thanks to their Wooden Ship’s “all hands on deck” approach.
“I think that’s the beauty of having three people that know how to brew. My title is head brewer, or whatever, but that doesn’t mean I’m brewing everything,” Oestreich explains, “Alxndr wrote the ginger wheat recipe, Suresh brewed the cream ale. We’re all coming from different perspectives, and I like getting a break.”
“I want these guys to take the lead on stuff, because that just makes us better,” he continues. “If I’m brewing every single beer, chances are I’m going to fall into a bad way. If I’m the only eyes on something, it’s impossible to get outside perspectives.”
That can-do DIY spirit is readily apparent when Wooden Ship’s owners discuss the build-out process for their sun-dappled storefront taproom. While the handsome golden bartop, back bar, and ceiling panels were crafted from reclaimed ash by local pros Rovan Furniture, Wooden Ship’s crew built much of the rest of the taproom themselves, both as a cost-saving measure as well as a sign of professional pride. Earlier today before our interview, Suresh, ever the self-starting whiz kid, was neck-deep in the tap-tower teaching himself how to fix a small bug. Earlier in the buildout, he welded Wooden Ship’s patio railing, tables and chairs, and a variety of other metal fixtures around the building. Perhaps most ambitiously, Alxndr, Josh, and Suresh will be Wooden Ship’s sole employees for the time, which means they’ll be pouring your beer in the taproom in addition to all their other responsibilities.
“The three of us are going to be the only people working here off of the bat. There are multiple bets on how long we’ll be able to do that from industry friends,” Suresh jokes, “Part of that is the community aspect. I want our neighbors to come in to know us as the owners and say, ‘Oh, you’re pouring our beer right now!’”
While it’s become something of a brewery-owner cliche, “connecting with the community” is something that Wooden Ship’s team is passionate about, and the trio is willing and able to elaborate to that end when pressed. They acknowledge that their adopted neighborhood of Linden Hills skews white, middle class, and progressive, and say that they plan to be intentional about broadening their brewery’s reach beyond those communities. Alxndr says that Wooden Ship always planned to donate a portion of its profits to worthy causes but that their focus has shifted toward issues of racial equity and inclusion after the events of 2020.
“We care about our community as a whole, not just this little block on 44th,” Alxndr elaborates.
“Things changed. Daunte Wright got killed, George Floyd got killed. We have to do something, we have to be active,” Suresh adds. “We have to say something, we have to change our business plan to respect people and do right by people in an ever-changing environment and situation.”
For Oestreich, making sure that Wooden Ship’s impact is felt beyond beer is what it’s all about. While it’s been a long journey to opening for their brewery, he says that he and his co-owners have their priorities firmly locked on the grassroots, people-forward approach that got them there.
“It doesn’t matter if we make six billion dollars in the first year, if we just take the money and go home, this is not worth it,” Oestreich says, “If we have nothing to give back, nothing to share or help bring up, this wasn’t worth it for us. We obviously want to be successful, but what’s more important to us is that we made some sort of impact.”
Brewers + Co-Owners: Josh Oestreich (Director of Brewing Operations), Alxndr Jones (Creative Director, Co-Brewer), Suresh Graf (Director of Business Operations, Co-Brewer)
Beer: Black Currant Sour, Cream Ale, Ginger Wheat, Golden Ale, Milk Stout, Oak and Beechwood Smoked Porter, Pale Ale, Saison, Sai Anything Saison, Weather Report NEIPA
Address: 3300 West 44th Street, MN 55410
Opening Date: Friday, May 7, 2021
Hours: Closed Monday and Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday: 4-8pm, Friday: 4-10pm, Saturday: 12-10pm, Sunday: 12-8pm