Interview with Borealis Fermentery

Meet Ken Thiemann – Owner of Borealis Fermentery

The post below was recently featured in the Celebrator Beer News. Written by Duluth local Lissa Maki, the piece delves into Ken’s story and provides a glimpse of the interesting fellow creating interesting beers on Lake Superior’s North Shore. If academic degrees were available for specific styles of beer, Borealis Fermentery founder, owner, and head brewer Ken Thiemann would have a Ph.D in Belgian-style beers… and his Belgian-inspired creations are a testament to the value of his rather monastic lifestyle on Lake Superior’s North Shore and his focus on the perfect pint.

Related: Meet Ken and tour Borealis Fermentery on our Saturday Duluth & Beyond Brewery Tour!

Belgian Brewing in Northern Minnesota? Borealis Fermentery Brews Superior Beer

Courtesy of Celebrator Beer News
Story & Photos by Lissa Maki

There has been a global resurgence of craft beer in recent years—and Belgian beer occupies an elevated status within that boom. Beer aficionados swoon and wax poetic over the diminutive nation’s abundance of quality brews.

With Belgian beer’s rising popularity, an increasing number of brewers from around the world are attempting to duplicate Belgian beer styles. But more often than not, these imitative brews lack a particular character or balance that is difficult to pinpoint. They typically bear a resemblance to their heirs but can usually be likened to distant cousins rather than direct progeny. But what is it that gives Belgian beer that certain je ne sais quoi?

Trappist monks in the region have been making beer for centuries, long before Belgium gained independence. In addition, small batch brewing has long been the norm, rather than the exception. Though big brewing conglomerates certainly exist, so do scores of small, family-run breweries. Villages often produced their own special beers, encouraging local pride around the beverage.

Few North American brewers are invested in producing exceptional Belgian-style beers, but Ken Thiemann may be counted among them. Thiemann would argue that, in part, it’s small batch brewing that helps produce an extraordinary product. He is the one man behind Borealis Fermentery, a tiny brewery in Minnesota on the north shore of Lake Superior that opened in 2012 and has since been steadily growing and gaining accolades.

Borealis Fermentery KenBorealis Fermentery is unique in a number of ways. It is housed in a striking, timber frame, straw bale building. The giant, exposed wooden beams and contrasting white walls give it an Old World European feel. Thiemann says monasteries in Belgium inspired the design. It’s one of few, if any, straw bale breweries in the world.

Thiemann was a homebrewer for nearly two decades before embarking on his dream to build a brewery. In his 43 years, he has had a series of surprisingly diverse ambitions. He once aspired to be a doctor. He almost played professional hockey. He has written children’s books, gigged as a musician, and worked as an engineer. But in brewing, he found his true passion. It’s a creative outlet for him like no other.

“With engineering, I could never appeal to the artist side of me. I was one of those kids that had a chemistry set growing up,” Thiemann says. “When I was young I said ‘Someday I want to be a mad scientist.’ And here I am. It’s a fun thing. I get to experiment.”

Thiemann prides himself on crafting Belgian-style beers that include his own distinctive mark. “I can brew a beer that tastes like a Belgian beer, but I wanted to brew a Belgian beer that was different,” he says. “I had to twist a few of my techniques around to develop a fingerprint for my beer that was different. And I think I’ve got it. I’m never quite satisfied with where I’m at but that was a big part of my plan.”

Thiemann brews a saison with raisins and a wit with kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass. “Mon Cherries” is one of his newest brews. It’s a decadent, Belgian-style dubbel made with chocolate malt and Minnesota cherries that is aged on toasted oak. “It’s a weird beer, it would go well with a steak,” says Thiemann.

Related: North Shore Craft Beer Infographic: What’s New with the North Shore Craft Beer Scene?

The Building of a Brewery

Borealis SaisonThiemann studied civil engineering at Michigan Tech and credits a homebrew club there as well as Charlie Papazian’s seminal book, The Complete Joy of Homebrewing, with helping him to hone his brewing skills. He also studied engineering in Amsterdam and worked as an engineer in Delft after that. Thiemann’s time in the Netherlands influenced his palate and his philosophy about beer. While there, he regularly traveled to Belgium to sample beer and visit breweries. He claims to have learned some tricks from brewers in Belgium that give his beer an edge. “I have my quirky secrets, some that I learned from small batch brewers in Belgium,” he says. “I won’t talk about those. They’re the sacred things. Let’s hope that as the brewery grows, I can keep those up.”

After moving back to States, Thiemann spent some dismal days working as a sewer engineer before determining he had to make a career change. While traveling for work one day, he noticed a parcel of property for sale. He and his wife bought the land the following week. From there, Thiemann’s dream of building a Belgian-style brewery began to take shape.

It has been a hard-won dream, fraught with hurdles. Early on, Thiemann’s plan to sell 750 ML bottles of beer was hampered by state restrictions. He had to enlist the assistance of a state senator and the craft beer community in order to change the law. This was a crucial move, according to Thiemann, because bottle conditioning is key for the types of beer he wants to produce. Although he has beer available by the keg in area restaurants, he prefers that it be served from the bottle, “For my beer, personally, I believe that kegging it takes an ‘A’ beer and turns it into ‘B’ beer. It is meant to be in bottles. The bottle is the vessel,” he says. “There is a beautiful Belgian saying: the beer is the art, the bottle is the frame.”

Thiemann sacrificed his life savings, his physical and mental health—and ultimately his marriage—to realize his dream. He literally built Borealis Fermentery from the ground up. Reluctant to take out loans, he instead invested all of his savings into the brewery. He had help from contractors during some key steps along the way, but he largely built the brewery with his own hands.

Thiemann and his then-wife lived in an uninsulated shed on the property during part of the process—which ended up being a grueling, 3-½ year saga riddled with challenges. He lost both of his parents during this time, and at one point, he fell off the roof and snapped the tendons in both of his feet.

“I’ve climbed mountains and run marathons, this was—by a long shot—the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” says Thiemann. “If you want to start a brewery. Do not do what I did. It will make you more proud than anything you’ve ever done in your life, but it took my soul out of me. It pressed me to my physical and mental limits.”

The hard work and suffering may have finally paid off for Thiemann. “I get up in the morning and I love what I do every day. I didn’t have that as an engineer,” he says.He is earning awards at local beer festivals, his distribution list is expanding, and he’s having trouble keeping up with demand.

As Borealis Fermentery grows, one of Thiemann’s primary concerns is maintaining quality and authenticity. “We live in this world where nothing is real anymore. Well, when you hear about the self-made business entrepreneur, this is as real as it gets,” he says. “From the ground up, from the word ‘go,’ this is about as real as anything can get. And it’s working. I have a waiting list of different places that want to carry my beer. The crazy thing is, at the end of the day, I sit around and look up at this and realize that I did all these beams and timber framing. I did this. It’s real. This is the American dream.”

Thanks to Lissa and the Celebrator Beer News for sharing this piece with us. Click here to view The Celebrator’s December/January issue with the Borealis story and more!

Our recommendation to you… find yourself a bottle of any of Ken’s delicious concoctions – sit back and enjoy. Better yet – get on a Duluth & Beyond Brewery Tour and let us introduce you to Ken ourselves. It would be our pleasure!

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