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Our church is all made out of shipwrecks
From every hull these rocks have claimed
But we pick ourselves up
And try and grow better through this change
When Wooden Ship Brewing opened in May of this year, these were the words that founder Josh Oestreich, Suresh Graf, and Alxndr Jones set sail to. Taken from the 2010 song “Wooden Heart” by Arkansas band Listener, the words would prove prophetic—7 months and 73 batches in, it’s been just as much progress as wreckage.
“I don't think any of us anticipated COVID lasting as long as it has,” says co-owner Josh Oestreich. “We were a little bit naive, and dumb, but it worked out really well.”
Wooden Ship opened as the first brewery in Linden Hills, one of the last brewery deserts left in the Twin Cities. The nearest breweries were Steel Toe in St. Louis Park and Wooden Hill in Edina, when Oestreich, Graf, and Jones set up their 7-barrel brewhouse in an old corner store on Zenith and 44th. In normal times, it’d be a formula for rampant success. But with the COVID-19 pandemic 15 months into its hammerlock on public gatherings, opening a taproom was a precarious ambition.
But the team had already put in too much work to look back. Their journey had started in 2012, when Oestreich and Jones met through church. The two bonded over music, and when Oestreich, a lifelong restaurant worker who’d been homebrewing since 2009, started daydreaming about opening his own brewery, he reached out to Jones. Oestreich taught Jones how to brew, and before long, they were cutting their teeth in the industry. In 2017, Oestreich joined St. Paul’s 12welve Eyes as a co-brewer. At the same time, Jones caught on at Dangerous Man brewing, first as a dishwasher, and later as assistant brewer.
The pair met Graf in 2018, connecting through the music scene. Graf had built a career in medical device sales, and he brought the business acumen the more creatively-minded Oestreich and Jones lacked. They had the business plan ready in 2020, and when the taproom space came together, they had no option but to act.
“It was almost like, ‘We can't not do this,’” Oestreich says. “Restrictions got lifted right after, and it was really nice out. It was definitely a lot of luck as well. I mean, how could you predict it?”
FLEET WITH NO FLAGSHIP
A casual look at Wooden Ship’s taplist yields no clear logic. That is the logic.
Oestreich, who runs the brewhouse, has eschewed any real signature beers. Their Pilsner and Weather Report Hazy IPA are mainstays, but that’s out of necessity. The other 10 lines are in constant rotation. Instead, Wooden Ship opts for running series, like the Jazz Night line of smoked beers and Seasonal Work, an experimental array of saisons.
Oestreich digs into his cooking background for every brew. Soup SZN, a golden ale made with ginger, lemongrass, coconut, turmeric, curry, and thai basil, is bittered partly with scallions, taking on the flavor of a massaman curry. Right About Now, a lemon sour made in collaboration with Unmapped Brewing, contains no actual lemon—instead, they emulate the citrus with lemonbalm, lemon verbena, and sour leaf. The Honey Brown seems like an average amber ale, but it’s made with sugar from root vegetables.
“My approach is always ingredient first,” Oestreich says. He admits that some beers haven’t resonated, but having a culinary twist to seemingly ordinary beers helps him maintain his creative energy without isolating the Linden Hills crowd. “If it can't be crazy flavors that people are scared of, I can at least make an approachable beer that’s done differently.”
Wooden Ship has done the majority of their business in the taproom, and Oestreich says many of their customers are still first-timers. If he had his way, he’d run all his beer on premise. But without the bicyclists or the Cedar Lake beachgoers that spurred their successful summer, and with COVID hitting its highest numbers yet, they’re pivoting to keep the voyage going through winter.
For the first time since they opened, Wooden Ship will fire up the Wild Goose canning machine in their basement and package beer in 16 oz. cans for distribution in the Twin Cities metro. Though he’d like to lead with the Braggot or IPA bittered with arugula or the Porter made with ancho and medjool dates, it's the Pilsner and Hazy IPA that’ll hit the liquor stores first.
“This is kind of our backup plan,” Oestreich says. “If we can stay afloat this winter and also spread our popularity a little bit around the Cities, perfect.”
Wooden Ship opened a month before Oestreich’s son turned a year old. He still has to negotiate when he can be on premise and when he needs to be at home. Still, he claims to barely miss a day, and you can see him most mornings at 6 a.m. through the window on Zenith, elbow-deep in the mash tun.
Graf has started brewing batches, and the brewery hired Mai Jakubowski to manage the taproom in August. But things fundamentally changed for Wooden Ship when Jones left in July. Oestreich is tight-lipped and deferential when talking about the situation, saying only that it was a “painful growing process.” Jones had designed Wooden Ship’s entire visual identity, and without him, and the half-decade of collaboration he’d put into the brewery, it felt like starting over.
Oestreich credits Graf, who he lauds as being “great at doing everything,” for helping the brewery maintain during the turmoil, and the staff that’s sprung up around the two of them. Jakubowski’s role is crucial, even as the taproom slows, they’ll be counted on to help with packaging. The goal is to keep them and the 9 other taproom staff busy rowing the boat away from shore.
“I don't ever want to have to lay someone off,” Oestreich says. “Most of our staff has been here since the first month.”
Aside from the crew, the other thing keeping Wooden Ship steaming along is their collaborative approach. They are constantly reaching outside of the brewery, whether it be a collaboration with Tin Whiskers, Venn Brewing, or former Badger Hill head brewer Tim Johnson, or a multi-brewery project like Things We Don’t Say or Brave Noise.
Oestreich’s goal is to never act like he knows everything, and bringing in new partners keeps the brewery’s ego in check. Like the song says, “better through this change.”
“I'm constantly telling myself, ‘Stay humble, stay humble, stay humble,’” says Oestreich. “We had good success this summer. That doesn't mean shit.”
Wooden Ship Brewing Company, 3300 W 44th St, Minneapolis, 612.354.3300, WED-THU 4-9pm, FRI 3-10pm, SAT 12-10pm, SUN 12-8pm, MON-TUE CLOSED