At 155 years old, August Schell Brewing Company is the country’s second oldest family-owned brewery (Yuengling, founded in 1829, is the oldest). Based 100 miles from Minneapolis in New Ulm, MN (population 13,522), the company has survived The Dakota War of 1862, Prohibition, and the 1970s. Distributed through the upper Midwest in six states, the brewery ranks as the 27th largest craft brewery in the country and specializes in German influenced beers, honoring tradition as the torch is passed from one generation to the next.
Sitting down with brewmaster Jace Marti, the sixth generation descendent of founder August Schell, over a cold hefeweizen, Paste discussed the fine line between tradition and exploration, and how a century and half into the game, Schell’s maintains their loyalty to lagers and German ales while new styles flood the craft market, including Americanized versions of the classic lager. New Ulm, Marti notes, is isolated from the country’s brewing hotspots, which also helps to keep Schell’s focused on their own craft instead of looking outward.
: As a German-influenced brewery that makes primarily lagers, are you ever tempted to follow the trends?
Marti: I was at a beer festival last weekend. You get people in front of you and start to feel good about yourself, then you look at your neighbor and their line is three times as long. Lagers definitely don’t have the hype factor, at least nothing that we’re making. The temptation is definitely there—let’s just make an IPA or a Russian Imperial Stout—but we try to look at the bigger picture. What do you do to stand out when there are 3,500 breweries in the country, and that number is going to double in the next couple of years? It’s our history, our heritage. It’s what we do, and we’re going to stick to it. German heritage and being 155 years old, we think that’s a point of difference.
I think there’s a lot of parallels with lagers and traditional ales. Traditional lagers went through a tough time, options got limited and breweries had problems and maybe weren’t putting out the best products. It takes a renaissance to get people to try them again.
I think lagers are starting to get to that point. One of my classmates from brewing school is opening Wimpy Brewing Company. He’s going to do nothing but traditional German lager styles in Longmont, CO. I’m really looking forward to it.
: What do you look for in a lager?
Marti: I compare everything to the German style beers. They’re all about balance and subtle complexity. Beer is a social element, a part of their culture where you sit down with your family in beer gardens. The beer isn’t the focus, it’s part of the whole and I think that’s what makes a good German lager really special. It’s so delicately elegant and sessionable.
They have the best helles in the world. That, to me, is the perfect beer style because you can sit and drink them all day long. They’re wonderfully refreshing styles that have just enough hop character, enough bitterness to keep them interesting and you wanting more.
: Is it a marketing challenge to brew traditional beers?
Marti: We’re big believers in authenticity and telling our story, seeing that as adding value to our customer. There’s a story in Noble Star. It’s not like we just woke up and said, “Let’s make sours.” We had these beautiful wooden tanks that we used for 60 years: How can we use them in a way that’s unique but also fits in our umbrella of German-style beers?
I studied brewing in Berlin and the Berliner Weisse was an obscure style that I was intrigued by. I knew that was what I wanted to make with those wooden tanks because of the size and shape and the micro-oxidation that you get from those tanks.
: With the current craft beer drinker, true-to-style beers often are not the go-to choice. Is it harder to reach an audience when you aren’t making beers that focus on IBU counts or high ABV infusions or whatever?
Marti: The whole craft beer market was the antithesis of what was available at the time: pale, mild American lagers. All the sudden, here are British or Belgian beers with crazy yeast or hop character. I think it’s more of an exploration than not wanting traditional styles.
: They’re looking for Ruination or something.
Marti: Exactly. I love those beers too, it’s just not who we are. I think that’s what helps us stand out from other breweries.
: What do you think of the trends you see in American lagers? Is it good to see the interest or is it a weird hybrid?
Marti: It’s a bit of both. It’s good that it’s drawing attention to lagers. Lager is bringing craft full circle again and people are coming back to appreciate what started the whole craft beer movement in the first place, and maturing as well. But then there are breweries that are just trying to replicate an ale with a lager yeast—not to say they can’t be excellent—but they can be a little gimmicky, and sometimes it doesn’t work quite as well. If you’re doing your homework and are really putting time and effort in to do it right, then they’re wonderful.
: Do you think some of the growth of lagers is relative to the growth of craft beer? Start-ups typically don’t have capacity to start with lagers but then they add tanks with time.
Marti: It’s definitely a natural progression, but it also takes adding tanks and designating twice the time to make them. Lagers, there’s no substitute for time to make them.