Sunday, April 27, 2014

Interview with Dave Grandmaison: CEO & Co-Founder of The Duluth Experience

The Duluth Experience is the organization behind the North Shore Craft Beer Roundtable, which I have been writing extensively about recently. However, the main focus of The Duluth Experience is offering tours of the many breweries and brewpubs in that dot the Duluth-Superior/NE Minnesota area.

Last week, I had a chance to sit down with Dave Grandmaison, CEO & Co-Founder of The Duluth Experience to share his thoughts about the origins of The Duluth Experience & it's role in promoting North Shore-based beer, as well as what the future holds for the Duluth craft beer scene.

So Dave, tell me a bit about yourself. What is your background?

Well first and foremost, I'm a Duluthian; Born and raised. I'm actually a 4th generation Duluthian as far as I can tell. I've not lived in Duluth my whole life but I recently returned to Duluth about 2 years ago. Luckily found a job up here that brought me back to Duluth and shortly there after, I got together with my cousin and started The Duluth Experience with a couple other guys.

My education is in Biology. I'm a trained wildlife biologist, so that's currently my day job. I work for the agency doing wildlife monitoring and wildlife analysis and I moonlight on the side running a brewery tour business.

What inspired you to start The Duluth Experience? What gave you that spark that made you say "We should start this business?"

Actually, my cousin sort of came up with the idea and it happened probably about a year before I returned to Minnesota at the end of 2012. He had been kind of watching these breweries open up around Duluth then was thinking "Wow, why isn't someone connecting the brewery scene and taking these beer consumers and craft beer appreciators to the different breweries?" He was tied up in some other side businesses while bartending at Fitger's Brewhouse and really didn't have a chance to do it. When I moved back to Duluth, he told me about the idea and we got together with two other guys that had been involved with discussions and we just decided that there was no reason why we shouldn't give it a try.

You look around the United States and there are brewery tour companies springing up all over the place and kind of following the wave of expansion of the craft beer scene. I was actually kind of surprised there wasn't anybody in Duluth running brewery tours. There's a couple breweries in town that actually do their own tours but nobody was really tying them all together, no one was telling the stories about Duluth with it's brewing history and the history of Duluth in general; It's a very interesting place. So we bought a bus and decided that we would be the guys to tell that story.

What was it like at the beginning when you first started The Duluth Experience? 

Well it was chaos because we had a really good idea from our prospective. We had four, very enthusiastic team members and we didn't really know how to get started so we started doing a lot of research on other brewery tour companies, on the tour industry of Duluth and we started gathering information & compiling information. We really got serious after our first meeting, we started having specific agendas for our weekly meetings every Sunday. We'd have an agenda, we'd take up minutes and write down what we discussed, we'd walk away with action items that we had to accomplish by the next meeting so we had a flurry of "Here are our big action items, let's get them all done." So we were working really hard to sort of pull a lot of information together to write a business plan.

Simple things that really not that simple: Insurance, getting loans, and figuring out the legal framework for driving a bus with passengers and there are all these things we had to learn on the fly. We asked alot of questions and met with alot of people to get that information but it was chaotic at first and then we started to get into our groove and we kind of got into our stride and things started to come together. So we did our first business meeting in February of 2013 and we incorporated in the beginning of March as The Duluth Experience LLC and then in May we bought our bus. By the middle of June, we were doing practice tours and then in Mid-July we launched our first brewery tours.

And were there any other challenges associated with running The Duluth Experience once it was up and running?

Oh yeah, there's always challenges with continuously looking to refine and improve your systems. I mean, we're a very new company, we've been around for around a year and a half and only been operating tours for not even a year yet so we are learning as we go and of course we do as much as planning ahead of time and try to anticipate things that we are going to need to do but there's always the "Unknown" unknown that you don't see coming. We are always trying to improve our system and improve our efficiency and improve the tour content and improve our delivery of the information to our guests. We're looking at developing a whole new line of tour products so there is alot of challenges associated with that; There's definitely no lack of challenges to attack and to hopefully, at the end of the day, overcome.

Since starting The Duluth Experience, what changes have you seen in the Duluth Beer Scene in general? 

That's a good question. You know, one of the big striking changes that I've seen in our short history so far is that there's been substantial expansion of the craft beer scene in the Twin Ports and on the North Shore. Even within the last year, we've seen Bent Paddle open their doors; They've gone through 2 expansions already...Or they've gone through one expansion at least and are looking to for a second expansion. You've got Thirsty Pagan that has expanded to a 7 barrel system, which is a substantial increase in their production capacity. Canal Park Brewing open their doors just before we incorporated and got started. Well then of course you know that Castle Danger Brewing is building a huge brewery right now in Two Harbors so it's a very exciting time to be a beer drinker.

There's alot of really good beer and you can tell that the industry is doing well because there is this expansion in the brewing capacity; I hope to see that continue. Some of the other breweries are going to expand and invest in their systems....but yeah, I think that is probably the biggest thing I have noticed is that it's rapidly expanding and that's really exciting. I think that is probably the biggest thing that comes to mind right now....and it's a great time to be a beer drinker; that's for sure.

Do you see The Duluth Experience playing a bigger role in sort of the....expansion of the craft beer scene here in Duluth? Or a bigger role overall one day?

I would like to see us do as much as we can to promote the craft beer scene in this region. Certainly we love craft beer. We have personal relationships with the local breweries; We want to see them be successful. We want to really be....right now I really see us a cheerleaders and promoters of the excitement surrounding craft beer and we recently launched this Craft Beer Roundtable series which you've been to both of the events we've had so far and those have been really fun, they focus on different aspects of the North Shore Craft Beer Scene and we're releasing video so that hopefully people outside of Duluth will be able to see the content that was developed in those conversations and really it has been extremely exciting for me.

I remember walking into the first craft beer roundtable after being out in the hallway selling tickets and getting people beers. I walked about 10 minutes into the event and I could not believe my ears and my eyes; It was amazing that we had helped facilitate this really interesting conversation between these brewery owners and then last weekend we had a group of master brewers that got together and talked about new trends in brewing and the challenges of working in the craft beer scene and the opportunities. I see us continuing to promote the craft beer scene.

I see us adding additional aspects to our brewery tours. We will be including some stops in our tours that aren't necessarily breweries but are.....we're working with Harbor Hops to going to the hop farm on one of our tours and that's really exciting. We goto the Vikre Distillery, so we're sort of....we're into the brewery tours but we're also....diversifying but looking at related businesses that are tourist attractions in terms of people wanting to learn more. You know for us, a tourist is somebody who appreciates craft beer and wants to learn more about it and why there is so much excitement going on. So I like to call them "Brewery Tourists." I think we'll expand the diversity of where we go and I'm sure we'll come up with other crazy ideas that will revolve around beer because we like beer so much.

On the topic of the North Shore Craft Beer Roundtable, did you anticipate that it would get as much coverage as it has been getting? 

Every time that I see people arriving to go and sit down and to listen to these conversations, I get really, really excited. I thought initially that when we came up with the idea, it would be pretty popular. I figured that there was enough excitement in the Twin Ports among locals because I think it's primarily locals that are attending the events and I felt pretty strongly that it would be a great turnout for the events...but yeah, I get super excited; Like at the time it happened, I can't believe what's happening. The first time I saw the TV press show up from the local television stations, I just couldn't believe was awesome! It also takes alot of hard work to do that.

I spend alot of time before each one of those events contacting the press and spreading the word and working with folks like yourself and other bloggers and people on Twitter, Facebook, our affiliates, the breweries. Trying to get the word out to as broad an audience as possible, sending press releases to the newspaper and to the newspapers down in the Twin Cities and The Growler. So it takes alot of work but it's really exciting. It's a long answer to your question but initially yes, the reason we did this is because we were like "There is going to be alot of people interested in this." Even though we kind of anticipated, it's really exciting to see that. It's really encouraging and it's's super fun!

Where do you see the Twin Ports brewing scene 5-10 years down the road?

I see Duluth as a bright shining beacon of the best beer in the Midwest. We're got Lake Superior which is a huge resource of very clean, beautiful, delicious water. As long as we continue to take advantage of that resource in the beer-making, you're going to see a quality of beer coming out of Duluth increasing and it's kind of setting the bar for brewing. I don't know of anywhere that has the water that we have. I mean, I'm sure there are places that have great water but Duluth's is an amazing water resource! Just on that alone, you know water is 95% of beer and you can't get around the fact you need good water.

I think the Twin Ports/ North Shore craft beer scene will expand, I think there will be more breweries. I think there will be more production breweries and then exporting beer from this area. I really don't have a whole lot to base it off of other than the fact that the water resource is hugely important for the beer making and that alone should support the foundation for major brewing industry in this town.

....And would you say the water is what makes Duluth unique for brewing?

Yeah, I think so. The quality of our water is the big driver but then you got all these really interesting people that are crafting the beer and we've got some great brewers that are winning awards. That's the main thing too, we're lucky to have the caliber of brewers that we do in this town and having good brewers helps to spur some friendly competition to make better and better beer and I think it's great for the consumer.

What is your favorite style of beer?

Right now, I'm drinking a lot of rye-based beers and I like a nice proportion of rye in the grain bill. There's not a whole lot of Duluth breweries that make ryes so to the brewers out there: Let's make some rye beers. So yeah, Ryes and I like...I sort of gotten more into session beers whereas I used to be a bit into the bigger body, heavier alcohol beers. In fact, I brewed this winter a couple of Russian Imperial Stouts that turned out pretty good for an amatuer but they were warm. Hopefully if spring here arrives sometime soon and then more of the lighter, session beers. I love rye beers, I like sipping on sours when I can. I've never made a sour but there are some breweries in town that have some good sours or happen to be making some good sours.

You know, my favorite style of beer is local to be quite honest. Most of the time when I go into a place unless I know there's going to be something with rye, which nobody is brewing yet. Normally, I just usually order what catches my fancy that's local to be honest. Like right now, I'm having the Oatmeal Stout from Lake Superior (Brewing) and it's delicious. And that't the fun part about living in Duluth right now, you don't even need to drink imported beer, you can just drink local beer and there is a lot of different styles.

I think Minnesota is lucky to have such great beers!

You know, I lived in Arizona for 8 years and I've been a craft beer lover for a long time since '97 when I first started homebrewing and down in Arizona, you have Four Peaks Brewing Company and they make pretty good beer but it's just not the same as up here. I really believe it's the water, I really do. I believe the water is so much better.

One final question, let's just say I'm beer tourist and I want to come to Duluth. What is one thing that I should know before coming to Duluth when I'm coming to try out beer? Why should I come?

Duluth is a very welcoming city. It's very, very easy to visit a number of craft breweries on-foot, using a cab, using The Duluth Experience tour bus. I mean you can get around Duluth very easily. You can park your car and not have to get back in it what I'm saying. You can go and have a good time: Canal Park, Downtown Duluth, even the breweries that are on the west side of town, I mean it's not that big of a stretch to get out there and hit the taprooms, so it's pretty convenient. The actual answer is that Duluth is a very convenient city to drink in for craft beer and it's good beer! People should come here and drink more beer.


A big Thank You to Dave Grandmaison for braving the weather to sit down with me at Sir Benedict's to talk with me about the his business and the North Shore Craft Beer Scene.

For more information about The Duluth Experience, you can visit their website at 

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