This is a story about brewing beer. It is October after all.
No, wait, it’s a story about hockey. The start of the season is right around the corner.
Or maybe, this is a story about friendship. Who doesn’t like a heartwarming tale of old friends and new?
Actually, it’s a story about all three.
Having done a bit of research on the subject of beer over the years, I thought that it would be easy to spend a little time at a couple of breweries, snap some photos, and write up a story my editor asked for – Breweries. I get to write about beer – fun!
But it didn’t go as I thought it would, and my story starts and ends at Eagle River’s own, Odd Man Rush.
I should let you know; the ECHO has some history with OMR. We like them. We think they’re good people and fully support their efforts to provide Eagle River with a hockey league. We covered every single hockey game last season, and hope to do the same this year.
That said, I thought I’d start my research at OMR, have a beer, interview some people, snap those photos, and move on to the next brewery.
But, while visiting OMR, talking with the owners, employees, and customers, it became apparent that this is a story about hockey, friends, and beer.
Ross Johnson and Reid McDonald met when their kids were on the same hockey team, and they were the coaches. They had more in common than coaching kids hockey. They had both played competitively and still had a passion for the sport. Brian Swanson, Reid’s brother-in-law, another player with a passion was the spark that started the fire.
Reid recalled with a laugh, “Swanny is the one who kinda started this whole thing. He was already brewing beer, and I watched him one time, and I told Ross about it since we were coaching together. Toward the end of the season that year, I told the guys I already have all the stuff, I have a new house with a huge garage. I was like, let’s do it, let’s start brewin.”
Passion for hockey, friendship, and brewing beer.
It was in about 2009, Reid recalled with a laugh, “It didn’t taste horrible, it was pretty good actually, and our brew sessions became a party.”
After the first few batches of homebrew in Reid’s kitchen, the boys got kicked out of the house and into the garage.
The brewing took off from there. “We were brewing 10 gallons and drinking and sharing ten gallons,” Reid said with a grin. It didn’t take long before the trio realized they needed a bigger system to keep up with demand.
Reid continued,” We built a one-barrel system which was a 55-gallon stainless steel drum. I bought the drum off eBay.” With a hardy laugh, he added, “I also learned to weld, and welded up this contraption. We now were brewing not 10 gallons but 40 gallons. At least we could sustain the party.”
Now, with the garage one-barrel system up and running, the brewers decided to participate in a beer festival at Lyons Park.
“We brought our beer to a beer fest up at Lyons Park. We ran out before Moose’s Tooth and some other brews. It was really well received, and people were lovin’ it, it was awesome.”
The trio had some logo shirts made up, and requests for their beer were becoming more frequent. More positive feedback came after attending a few weddings and donating the beer. The guests gave positive reviews further convincing the home brewers they may be onto something.
“The guests were asking, where are you guys from, this beer is awesome. We just told them we’re brew nerds with cool shirts,” was Reid’s reply.
As with many small businesses, taking the leap from hobby to full-time business is one that has to be taken seriously.
After doing the homework, the guys attended a craft brewers association conference and trade show in the lower 48 to do some research.
Reid reflected on that trip, “The common theme there was, and this was in 2014, everyone was like, we’re going from 20 to 30 barrels, we’re going from 30 to 60 barrels, from 60 to 100 barrels it was boom-da boom-da-boom.”
The conference reinforced their belief that there was a growing demand for craft beer and they should go for it and start a real brewery.
When they returned, they met with Dave Fletcher, a local brewer to get advice. When Dave learned they planned to use a three-barrel system, his response was, “Hmmmm, do like your family? Because if your beer is any good you’ll be brewing 24/7 and won’t see them much.” It was then decided to go with a 300-gallon system which at the time felt very overwhelming and daunting.
After the location was selected, the equipment ordered the guys went to work to decorate the tap room. Once inside, it doesn’t take long to get the feel of the hockey theme complete with an old scoreboard from the Harry J. McDonald Memorial Center. As Ross described, it took long hours of work to decorate and construct the tap room and the installation of the brewing equipment. The hard work paid off as the brewery officially opened September 25th, 2015, and business has steadily been growing ever since.
With strong support from the Eagle River community, there are plans to expand into the space adjacent to the current location to house more brewing equipment and increase production.
Reid explained, “That’s why we’re expanding, it’s hard enough to keep up with our current demand for our flagship beers and brew new ones. This expansion will hopefully allow us to spread our wings for new ideas.”
Ross and Reid both agreed that they have received huge support from the Eagle River Community.
“It was a constant push from our friends telling us our beer is good, it’s great, you guys gotta do it. Then we went all in. About a month before we opened up, I was terrified. What if the beer sucks, what if they say it’s good and it’s really isn’t, what if this, what if that, by this time it was too late…. Everything was on the line; it was a stressful time.”
Ross emphasized how important the community support was before they even opened. “Before we even opened we were kinda in a hole and needed some money to get some stuff done. Before we opened, we did a kick starter. In a month we raised enough money to pay our plumber, enough money to buy our sign and enough money for our furnishings and that was all because the community came together and said, we want this to happen. It was amazing, literally amazing to see the community help us and basically say, make this work. It’s so nice to have the community backing all the time.”
Reid added, “The community thing is huge. Cuz we all three grew up in this community. For me, you take a night like tonight and you look around and see some people you know and some you don’t. People are talkin’ and chattin’ it up, that’s what this place is for. A meeting place a gathering place to talk about sports, politics you name it.”
My visit to OMR was on a Thursday evening, the after-work crowd filled the tap room, and the place was buzzing. Customers and servers all visiting, laughing and enjoying the beer and conversation.
A regular, Frank Perez, comes to OMR because, “Number one, it’s a great tasting beer and a phenomenal atmosphere. So, you know you can come in, enjoy a good beer, enjoy some good company with your neighbors and friends.” Adding why he enjoys craft beer, “Domestic beer is a mass produced product. Here at OMR, like most craft breweries, they are hard workin’ people putting their love into it and doing something they love to do. It’s a great product, and they stand behind it.”
Not everyone comes for the beer.
Charles Swallow for instance, “I come to OMR for the atmosphere, meet friends, hang out, something to do, it’s a fun place.” Adding, “It’s kinda loud ya know, it’s just cool. I met a lot of new friends here. I drink the root beer, raspberry or cream soda. Root beer is my favorite; the raspberry is a little too sweet for my likin’, I just don’t drink beer.”
It doesn’t take long after you arrive to feel the friendliness of OMR. The servers appear to genuinely enjoy their jobs, and many of them are hockey players or hockey supporters.
This busy Thursday night, standing at the end of the bar chatting with a friend sipping on a brew was Jess Wanamaker. I asked her what she thought of the beer. “I do like craft beer. Ya know, there’s a lot of different flavors and things you can do with craft beer. It’s fun to see and taste the creativity that goes into it.” Jess added with a big smile, “I love coming to OMR, I work here. I come in usually on my day off to have a beer. It’s a good atmosphere, the people are really friendly and it’s all about beer and hockey, ya know. This is a good community, the hockey community especially. In Eagle River we didn’t have any brewery like this, it’s about the beer, just come hang out, have a brew and talk to people.”
Behind the bar, pulling the tap handle on Enforcer IPA filling a glass, server Sam Kirk was ribbing co-worker Kenny Hood. I asked them if they enjoyed working at OMR. Sam looked over his shoulder with a smile and said, “I really wouldn’t call this work” as brushed past Kenny giving him a hockey check as he set the brew down for a customer at the bar.