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This week we meet Eric Harper, head brewer of Utepils Brewing, Minneapolis. In addition to a degree in German, Eric has an impressive brewing resume. The Sheboygan native is living the dream.
Q. What triggered your interest in beer and brewing? Did you begin as a homebrewer?
Eric Harper: I had a high school friend whose parents introduced us to homebrewing, so when I was still in high school, I brewed my first batch of homebrew. I grew up in Sheboygan, and the brew shop was a shed next to the bar. You had to go into the bar to pay for the grain and hops and malt extract, so that’s what we did. That was in 2000.
“I went to school in Madison, the University of Wisconsin. For a while I was pursuing a degree in food science, with the intent of working for a brewery. But I ended up getting a degree in German because it was faster. At some point, I don’t know if it was an adviser or dean, because I had changed majors several times, said it would be faster, and I had been studying German all along. I studied abroad for a year, graduated with a degree in German. Then I went to UC-Davis and their master brewers program, because I still wanted to do the beer thing.
“From there, I went to New Glarus. I was there about four years. It’s funny, I was working for Dan and Deb Carey at New Glarus and now I’m working for Dan and Deb [Justesen] here at Utepils.
“I worked at Summit after [New Glarus]. I was there for about seven years before I got connected with Dan Justesen and started Utepils. That was the end of 2015.”
Q: Since Utepils specializes in brewing Euro-style beers, has your German background helped in your chosen career?
Eric: “I think it’s maybe inspired me, helped me understand the styles. There are some language aspects of brewing. Almost all of our equipment is from Germany or Austria and a great deal of our materials are from Germany, so that’s sometimes helpful. But it’s also fun.
“We do focus on European styles, but we do have the one American IPA (Tall Tales IPA). But our lineup is really the inverse of most breweries, where everyone else is doing a lot of IPAs and hazies, maybe here and there a lager or a kolsch. That’s where we like to focus.”
Q: What is your go-to beer? (It doesn’t have to be one of your own).
Eric: I love our hefeweizen, Ewald the gold. We make it year-round. I really believe it’s a year-round beer. I really like that. Lots of times I’m not drinking my own beer. I like the Paulane Munich lager. Even Bitburger in a can. It’s an easy beer to pick up if l’m at the store. I try a variety of different helles-styles. Right now in my fridge I’ve got Bad Weather [St. Paul] Munich Helles, which is an excellent local version.”
Q: How was the pandemic affected your brewing?
Eric: “When the taproom and bars were closed, there were no draft sales. Draft sales
really haven’t come back to where they were yet. We stopped brewing and we had to furlough our production staff for about a month. We packaged in cans what we could and just waited until the orders started coming back in. We’ve been able to bring our staff back and production is back again. We’re definitely canning more than kegging. It used to be even, but it’s heavy now on the cans.”
Q: For someone so intent on becoming a brewer, has it been everything you expected?
Eric: “And more, I guess. There’s definitely surprises. I always knew I wanted to be a brewer, but I never set out to be an entrepreneur or small business owner. So finding people who are a good at the other part of the business, that was just luck, I guess. And to have a similar vision for beer styles and the environment we wanted to create, that was just being lucky.”
Q: Any advice for those who looking to get into the industry?
Eric: “Definitely look at attending brewing school or get a formal education. That gets you a leg up when interviewing or looking to get a foot in the door of the craft brewing industry. Science is everything. A little science, a little art. Everybody’s got different tastes, of course, but the science is the backbone.”
Q: Parting thoughts?
Eric: Our taproom and beer garden are open. It’s a really large space. It’s easy to social distance. We’ll provide masks for people who need them. There’s a lot of outdoor seating and we’re right along a creek. It’s a beautiful spot to have a beer.”