When you ask the founders of Drekker Brewing Company, the Viking-inspired brewery in Fargo, North Dakota, about their origin, they offer an aloof shrug. It could be modesty, or it could be that they don’t want to bore someone with a story that’s been told countless times about friends who loved homebrewing, who had an entrepreneurial streak, and who decided to jump into the craft-beer waters. Maybe it’s the Midwest politeness. More likely it’s because, while they are proud of where they came from, they are focused on the future and the path waiting to be forged.
The brewery opened in 2014, but Cofounders Mark Bjornstad, Darin Montplaisir, Jesse Feigum, and Mason Montplaisir had brewed together for almost 7 years before the first professional tanks were filled. During those years of homebrewing, they developed and wrote the business plan, dialed in recipes, and discussed names and branding.
Opening in downtown Fargo and making a splashy entrance at the time, the brewery offered fairly traditional beers at first, with a few “of the moment” styles mixed in. Think porter, pale ale, and black IPA.
But it was the brewery’s red ale, known as Broken Rudder, that proved to be the runaway success and very quickly became Drekker’s flagship. The 5 percent ABV, 25 IBU beer brewed with more than fifteen pounds of honey per batch is downed by the pint with gusto at the taproom and everywhere else in 16-ounce cans. In fact, the brewery faced such a demand for the beer that it needed to explore contract options just to keep up.
Bjornstad said they looked at several options but landed on Brew Hub in Lakeland, Florida, 1,800 miles away. That might sound a little crazy, but it actually makes sense economically.
“There are a lot of trucks, a lot of goods, going into Florida,” says Bjornstad. “There’s not a lot coming out. Freight can be expensive, but you can get cheap shipping if the containers leaving the state would be otherwise empty.” Plus, given Brew Hub’s reputation and commitment, the Drekker team knew the beer that would emerge from Florida would be top quality.
“It’s a beer that we loved and still love. It’s balanced and sweet, the perfect pub ale, and we sell of ton of it. Partnering with Brew Hub has really allowed us to experiment, try other styles of beers, and make tweaks to our other beers here in house.”
Playing with the Newer Styles
The success of Broken Rudder and the contract relationship have allowed the brewers to break into new styles.
“We’ve been able to invest in the infrastructure of the brewery and are making hazy IPAs and sours and working on all kinds of flavor infusions,” says Bjornstad. “When we were making all the red ale in-house, it was pulling us in a different direction. Now we have the kind of control that we want.”
Now, the brewery is cranking on its 4-vessel 15-barrel brewhouse, brewing twice a day, 5 days a week. There’s a good mix of 30-barrel and 15-barrel tanks, the smaller typically housing the taphouse-exclusive recipes.
“We really love IPAs and the hazy style. It wasn’t really an option when we started, so we didn’t focus on IPAs at the start. Now, it has our attention.”
With centuries of beer-drinking history behind us, filled with cultural styles, mannerisms, sayings, and phrases, you might be wondering what Drekker means. It’s such a common question that the brewery decided to paint the definition on the brewery walls.
Drekker. Noun. “A completely made-up word based on a combination of the Old Norse words a) ‘drekka,’ which means to drink, b) ‘drekkyr,’ which means draught drink, and c) ‘drakkar,’ the French name for the feared dragon-headed longships that ruled the rivers and seas of Europe during the Viking age; hand-crafted beer made in small batches here in downtown Fargo by the very people who made up this word. Skål!”
In that Viking spirit, nothing is done small, even the flights. Visitors can order the “two-pint flight” for which (most) beers on draft will be poured in 8-ounce glasses.
The taproom is an often-raucous yet welcoming spot—Valhalla for the local artists, artisans, and those looking to experience something different. It is, in many ways, the extension of the founders, welcoming and accepting but not looking to hit you over the head with anything obvious—a place that feels personal to each customer. They have their own food available, such as charcuterie and grilled cheeses, but aren’t offended if you bring in food from the outside or even have something delivered from a local restaurant.
The walls are rotating art galleries, with new for-sale exhibits going up every few weeks, allowing artists to get their work in front of new and appreciative audiences.
They are also working to reverse the Viking image through their Unpillage program, which seeks to work with nonprofit groups to do good in the world rather than, you know, harm it. For example, their recent Unpillage Pint Project provided pint glasses to local artists who turned them into pieces of art that were auctioned off to support the Lend a Hand UP! program, which provides help and hope to families facing medical crises.
In a place where craft beer is still well outside the mainstream, the brewery continues to do all it can to foster local ties and grow a community.
Opening New Markets
When it comes to distribution, one thing Drekker doesn’t do is brand itself as Fargo-specific. It’s not that they aren’t proud of where they are from, but they want the beer itself to speak to new and out-of-state customers.
“The name Drekker doesn’t explain where we are from, so all we have is the product itself,” says Bjornstad. “We’re confident that the beer will speak for itself and that the passion behind it will be noticeable. We also draw people in with the artwork on our cans. We love our design work and feel like we’re making art on the outside and inside.”
In addition to distributing in their home state, the brewery has been distributing into Minnesota, focusing on the Twin Cities, for the past few years. They are the closest major metropolitan market to the brewery, and distribution there has helped cement the brewery reputation and grow the overall business. Earlier this spring, they expanded into Wisconsin, following a great reception from locals after they released a collaboration beer (a raspberry guava sour IPA) with Untitled Art, a craft brewery in Waunakee.
Now, they have their sights set on several East Coast states.
“We’re not trying to be the next big brewery or a fifty-state brewery,” Bjornstad says. “For us, it’s about opening markets where the beer will resonate with people, having a good distributor and retail relationship, and also having some fun.” He says the plan is to continue to serve the home markets but find targeted places—“top-notch Mom and Pop bars and bottle shops”—that would get monthly deliveries. This would be new beers, he notes, not just the same ones over and over again.
Fun is a word that Bjornstad says a lot. “Our internal mantra is ‘Beer is fun. Act accordingly.’ That’s what keeps us going. We need to remember that this is fun. Beer doesn’t need to have rules, and you can make it up as you go. Sometimes, sure, it’s hard work and stressful. But in the end, it needs to be fun.”
He says they threw their business plan out 2 months into being open. Now they evaluate on a quarterly basis to see where things are and where they are going but have made a very conscious decision not to base any future plans on a specific metric, such as barrel or sales numbers, regional presence, or opening new markets. “We set goals that help us be the brewery that we want to be,” he says.
The goal of Drekker is that with any beer they make, they want the consumer to feel something.
“That includes the whole package. From what the can art looks like to how our place makes you feel to all the weird and strange beer styles, we’re making and pushing the perception of what a beer can be and how all the flavors come together.” The whole team is involved in the discussions so that when they arrive at their goal, everyone is still on board. It’s building the brewery, the culture, and the brand all at the same time.
Bjornstad says that by making and releasing beer that is personal to them, they are able to find the fans that want to be in their tent.
“They are excited to be challenged and to see what we’re going to do next,” he says. “So are we.”