There are more than 125 Minnesota craft brewers.
But only one, Boom Island, is based in north Minneapolis, founded to make Belgian beer in 2011 by two now-married former professional musicians who met in China in 2000 at a French horn symposium.
Qiuxia Welch, a native of Beijing, was a graduate music student from Augsburg University, when she met now-husband Kevin Welch, a native of Tennessee, also a graduate student, at the horn conference in China.
The Welches, who married in 2001 and are now in their early 40s, settled in Minneapolis to teach music and work temporary appointments with the Duluth Symphony, Minnesota Orchestra, St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and Minnesota Opera.
In 2003-04, Kevin Welch sampled home-brewed beer made by musicians in Duluth. A fan of Belgian beers, Kevin started home-brewing his own varieties. Kevin and Qiuxia’s father, an engineer, bonded over beer-making when the Welchs moved to China in 2005 for a year.
During the 2008-09 recession, music gigs dried up, followed by the Minnesota Orchestra lockout. More musicians, less work.
“Our freelancing world was shattered,” recalled Qiuxia Welch. “Kevin was getting passionate about brewing and we started to think maybe we could build a little brewery.”
The couple raised about $70,000 from family members, friends and their own savings to open a tiny brewery in 2011 in 500 square feet of warehouse space near W. Broadway and N. Washington avenues. Qiuxia’s parents visited to help for a year.
“We didn’t have all the proper equipment, but we pieced together a brewery,” Qiuxia said. “We started brewing Belgian-style beer in north Minneapolis, where the four of us spoke Chinese. And we still taught and played some to keep cash coming in.”
Kevin Welch once delivered kegs to a festival in St. Paul in a tuxedo en route to a performance with the Minnesota Opera.
The Welches also traveled to Belgium, when funds permitted, to hone their craft, brewing side-by-side with generations-old family brewers. Kevin brought home “the ultimate souvenir, nine strains of yeast from their source breweries.”
The beer was well received in the Twin Cities. But the business struggled early on with too little capital and capacity. There was growing demand from liquor stores and consumers. An acquaintance introduced the Welchs to Marshall Jones, a retired entrepreneur who volunteers with SCORE, the volunteer-run organization sponsored by the Small Business Administration.
Jones helped Boom Island develop a business plan that envisioned profitable expansion. They sold the plan to a banker, then at Signature Bank who once had banked Summit Brewing in its salad days. Boom Island raised $250,000 that allowed the owners to expand in 2013 into a 3,700-square-foot abandoned building they renovated into a compact brewhouse and taproom with a patio.
Musicians held regular gigs for growing crowds of patrons.
Jones said he liked the Welches’ passion, tenacity and creativity. “Kevin produces good, consistent beers and not all small brewers can do that,” Jones said. “Qiuxia is very creative and [good with the books]. It was fun watching them.”
And Boom Island is recording a business variation on sweet music.
Boom Island, named for the nearby island on the Mississippi River, is growing volume by nearly 10 percent annually. The Welches expect revenue to top $500,000 this year. Boom Island will produce about 1,000 barrels of beer this year.
By contrast, Minnesota-based Schells and Summit, similarly tiny 30 years ago, produce 100,000-plus barrels.
Brewing is their craft
Still, Boom Island this year should rank among the Big 50 of Minnesota small brewers. It employs eight full- and part-time employees, including the Welchs, who said they are able to pay themselves modest salaries approaching $50,000 a year.
“We don’t teach music anymore,” Kevin Welch said. “Brewing has become our performance.”
Boom Island has become the local Belgian beer specialist that also promotes local musicians and supports local nonprofits. Jazz and other musicians often play at taproom happy hours inside or on an outdoor patio.
“To play French horn with the Minnesota Orchestra or St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, you’ve got to know the work and be prepared,” Kevin Welch said. “To brew Belgian-style beers you have to have the same work ethic.”
Kevin said Boom Island beers are naturally carbonated. Live yeast is added just before the beer is bottled, resulting in a fresher, sometimes fruity or sour tasting beer with flavors that evolve over time.
This year’s “Breaking Boundaries” series of beers features names such as Dry Hopped Belgian Golden Strong, Oak Aged Belgian Double Pale Ale, Quadrupel Hopped Belgian Quad and the just-released Black Currant Imperial Wheat Wine, brewed with “a heaping helping of wheat malt that achieves a full-bodied malty sweetness” that, with black currant, “adds a touch of tartness, adding to the complexity of the beer’s finish.”
This is exotic stuff for a Grain Belt Nordeast drinker.
Regardless, these musicians have composed a nice business in a frayed-edge end of town that’s hitting high notes. “The business side is the discipline,” Qiuxia Welch said. “Making beer is creative. And I like sharing. The same as music. I find this rewarding.”