Against the grain

How a biomedical engineer and a business sales guru became the founders of Minnesota’s first women-owned microbrewery.

Urban Growler founders Deb Loch and Jill Pavlak
Urban Growler founders Deb Loch and Jill Pavlak

Twin Cities residents Deb Loch and Jill Pavlak were on a bike ride one afternoon in the neighborhood of St. Anthony Park when they happened upon a rather old brick building, seemingly out of place among the industrial warehouses.

The 19th-century structure, though it used to be a horse stable and maintenance depot, housed a pottery studio and a vacant unit. Pavlak and Loch, who were shopping around for a space for their new brewery, immediately knew: This was the place.

Six years later, Urban Growler Brewing Company opened its doors to anyone and everyone looking for good food, good beer and a good time.

Pavlak, a Minneapolis native, studied at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities for speech communications and psychology — two unlikely, yet effective qualifications for the owner of a brewery.

Pavlak spent most of her life working in sales, but she always dreamed of opening a restaurant.

“I wanted a restaurant,” said Pavlak, who quickly noted a key difference from working in high-stakes business sales. “If you screw up an order, it takes months to repair that relationship. If someone comes in here and they order a meal they’re not in love with, I can take care of that in 30 seconds, and they’ll be happy. It’s a much shorter sales cycle.”

Loch, meanwhile, grew up working in her family restaurant in Appleton, Wisconsin.

“Of course, the last thing I wanted to do was be in the restaurant business — because that’s what my folks did,” Loch said. “So I went off to college and became a biomedical engineer.”

Working in the medical-device industry by day and crafting home brews by night, Loch discovered a passion for brewing.

“Even though I went to undergrad in Milwaukee, I never realized that brewing could be a career,” Loch said. “In fact, being a biomedical engineer is perfect training for being a professional brewer.”

Jill Pavlak and Deb Loch
Jill Pavlak and Deb Loch started canning their Urban Growler beer about a year ago.

MEETING UP

Pavlak and Loch first met on Match.com in 2006. After chatting on the phone for a while, the two decided to meet at the Happy Gnome in St. Paul, though Loch wasn’t sure how well the date would go.

“She was a little uptight sounding, so I had a friend call me an hour into the meeting,” said Loch, who told her friend to pretend to be ill so she could escape the date, if needed.

After meeting Pavlak, however, Loch decided she didn’t want the date to end early. Just as Loch was realizing this, her phone rang.

“Oh, there’s your ‘out’ call,’” Pavlak said.

Loch was mortified: “She knew. She totally knew.”

The two married on Friday the 13th in 2013 — “My lucky number,” Pavlak said — despite the fact that they were in the middle of building the brewery, suffering from bad colds and enduring another brutal Minnesota winter.

“We just had 50 people at our house,” Loch said. “It was a lot of fun in the middle of a whole lot of hell. Truly, the best day of my life.”

Jill Pavlak and Deb Loch

THE BEGINNING

Rewind back to just two years into their relationship — Pavlak and Loch were sitting at home, dissatisfied with their careers, brainstorming what their next move would be.

“We would be sitting there, drinking Deb’s homebrew and thinking, ‘What should we do?’” Pavlak said.

With Loch’s talent for brewing and Pavlak’s desire to open a restaurant, the idea for Urban Growler Brewing Company was born.

“I like making people happy. That’s my part of this. She likes to make beer that people love,” Pavlak said. “So we decided we would do both.”

The two moved to California for Loch’s Master Brewers Program at UC-Davis, then returned to Minnesota for Loch to apprentice at Summit Brewing Company, while Pavlak gained restaurant management experience with Blue Plate Restaurant Company in Minneapolis.

“We kind of immersed ourselves in the industry,” Loch said. “We went to conferences, met people, talked to people and traveled to different taprooms and breweries to help formulate our idea.”

Pavlak and Loch visited Mountain Sun Pub & Brewery in Boulder, Colorado, to talk with experienced brewers about their goals for Urban Growler.

“We told them we wanted to open a brewery in Minnesota and they treated us like VIPs,” Loch said. “We thought we were something special.”

Pavlak and Loch sat in the pub for two hours taking notes, observing the interactions between patrons and staff members when they noticed something pleasantly surprising.

“We realized they treated everybody like that,” Pavlak said. “Everybody was treated like they were something special.”

Their visit was so influential that elements of the Mountain Sun logo were incorporated into the Urban Growler logo.

“It’s to remind us of our experience at Mountain Sun,” Pavlak said. “It’s to remind us that we want to be that for our customers.”

Outdoor beer garden for the Urban Growler
In addition to an outdoor beer garden, the Urban Growler’s 13,000 square feet of space in St. Paul includes a brewery, a taproom and dining room, plus Barrel Room and Hayloft spaces for special events.

FACING OBSTACLES

With a clear vision and ample experience, Pavlak (who has been studying the industry since 2008) and Loch (who had been making beer since the 1990s) moved forward with Urban Growler.

But in the male-dominated field of brewing, gaining financial support for a female-owned brewery turned into an unexpected obstacle.

Two comments that stick out in Pavlak’s head — from banks who denied their loan applications — were: “What are women your age going to do working those crazy hours?” and “How are you girls going to carry those big bags of grain?”

“That was truly the hardest part,” Pavlak said. “We were going above and beyond.”

Collectively they had an enormous wealth of professional experience, an award-winning business plan and stellar credit. They had worked in their prospective industries and even managed restaurants.

“We’re just darn good women,” Pavlak said. “So why would they not even consider it?”

But even being denied loans from 12 different banks around the Twin Cities didn’t discourage Pavlak and Loch from pursuing their dream.

They became even more determined to raise the money they needed, starting with a fund-raising event in that old brick building.

“In our empty shell of a taproom, we had kind of the ‘bake sale’ version of fund-raising,” Loch said. “We gave away samples of my homebrew and pork carnitas, and just told our story over and over and over again.”

Today those who attended the fund-raiser and helped Pavlak and Loch raise enough money to get Urban Growler off the ground are commemorated on the Founders plaque, proudly displayed in the taproom.

Following the fundraiser, Pavlak and Loch were finally approved to get a loan from a farmer’s bank in Mankato — 13th time’s the charm — within two weeks of applying.

Urban Growler Brewing Company beer
Urban Growler Brewing Company beers like these are for sale at about 300 retailers in the Twin Cities.

‘BECAUSE IT’S GOOD BEER’

Preserving the exposed brick and warm natural light of the original building, Urban Growler Brewing Company opened in July 2014, making instant waves as the first women-owned brewery in the state of Minnesota — a fact that was somewhat lost on its founders at first.

“People brought it to our attention and we were like, ‘That cannot be true,’” Pavlak said. “It’s an interesting fact that we’re women-owned and Deb is the master brewer. Does that mean you should buy our beer because of that? Not necessarily. But if you’re sitting there, looking at two beers and the fact that we’re women-owned interests you, great. Don’t buy it again if you don’t like our beer. But you will — because it’s good beer.”

Though the brewery being women-owned can attract patrons, Urban Growler’s event manager Liz Foster said the quality food and drink Pavlak and Loch produce help the brewery thrive.

“The good beer itself does wonders,” she said. “That already sets you up for success.”

In addition, general manager Dave Clapp said Pavlak and Loch’s determination and commitment draw in customers and potential employees alike.

“Deb and Jill don’t just preach the principles and beliefs of Urban Growler, they live them,” Clapp said. “They are actively involved in the company daily. They are willing to jump in and bus dishes, seat tables or just chat with and get to know new patrons. They participate as part of the team, rather than just handing out orders. People are excited to work for them because you can see a common goal being shared across the company.”

Urban Growler Brewing Company beer

MESHING LEADERSHIP STYLES

Clapp, who has worked at the brewery for two years, said another one of the things that drew him into the job was Pavlak’s and Loch’s contrasting leadership styles.

“I liked how opposite they were of each other,” Clapp said. “I loved how different they were and how well they worked together as a team.”

Being a married couple has its advantages when running a business together. Pavlak and Loch, however, sometimes have to compromise when it comes to co-leading a single enterprise.

“We’re very different in our work methodologies,” Loch said. “I’ll be like, ‘I’ll get back to you when I figure it out.’”

“And I want everyone to have input,” Pavlak said.

“Both are good and both are important, but I think in the beginning we were like, ‘Your way is wrong.’ And I think now we’ve figured it out,” Loch said.

A Southern fried chicken sandwich and fresh garden salad
A Southern fried chicken sandwich and fresh garden salad are among the many food offerings at the Urban Growler, which serves both lunch and dinner.

COMMUNITY AND ACCEPTANCE

As two married women in a male-dominated industry — who almost didn’t make it because of this fact — Pavlak and Loch emphasize the pitfalls of making assumptions and discriminating.

“We want everyone to feel welcome here,” Pavlak said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re young, old, with kids, without kids, someone alone, transgender, GLBT, families. Everyone is welcome here. That is the most important thing to me. They’re greeted when they walk through the door; they’re thanked when they leave.”

That culture of acceptance, however, once put Pavlak and Loch in a difficult position when a group of regular patrons made lewd, inappropriate comments about a female server.

“These were regulars — and we liked them. They were nice guys,” Pavlak said. “Apparently they made these comments and it was brought to our attention and we 86’d them from this place. They ended up making a post on Facebook saying they had even more respect for this place. They were out of line and they owned it. They’re still not welcome back because they made her uncomfortable, but if you know these things are happening, no one should tolerate it.”

Urban Growler also supports local communities through philanthropic-minded events, such as karaoke and game nights, during which $1 of every pint of a selected beer sold goes to a local cause.

Pavlak and Loch also support Minnesota businesses and communities by buying from local farms — part of their trademarked Plow to Pint series of brews — featuring local ingredients such as rhubarb, wild rice, honey, lemongrass and Frontenac grapes.

This summer, they’re also hosting a weekly farmer’s market on site — Sundays through Oct. 14 — featuring local vendors.

Despite the enormous competition that’s emerged in the local beer scene — coming in at 150 breweries in the state at last count, according to The Growler magazine — Pavlak and Loch encourage their staff and patrons to support other microbreweries in the Twin Cities.

“The craft-beer community is very unique in that we all kind of support each other,” Foster said. “I’ve heard a couple people say, ‘Oh, it’s more competition for you guys.’ And it is not that. It is bringing more light to our neighborhood. If there are more breweries around us, it’s more of a reason for people to come and drink in our area.”

Indeed, brew fans can hit two or three spots with a trip to the Urban Growler: Right next door sits Bang Brewing Co.’s taproom, The Bin, housed in retrofitted grain silo.

And just a mile due west stands Surly Brewing Co.’s $34 million destination beerhall, which opened about six months after Pavlak and Loch poured their first few pints.

Urban Growler Brewing Company beer

A MILESTONE

Urban Growler — which was one of about two dozen taprooms in the state when it opened — celebrates its fourth anniversary this month, and Pavlak and Loch couldn’t be more thrilled.

“We have no idea how this happened,” Loch said. “It’s surreal.”

Their beer is on tap at nearly 100 restaurants around town and for sale in cans at 300 retailers, including their signature Cowbell Cream Ale, De-Lovely Porter and Midwest IPA, plus one rotating seasonal Plow to Pint brew with custom artwork by Brian McCashin of Red Leaf Design of Minneapolis.

Canning — which was always part of the business plan — started about a year ago.

“I often joke that this place is much cooler than Deb and I — that we’re a couple of squares — because this place is pretty freaking amazing thanks to the people that are in it and around it,” Pavlak said. “This is exactly what we pictured.”

In the end, the couple created something that’s fairly rare in the enormous Twin Cities taproom scene — a brewery with a full restaurant that’s open for lunch and dinner six days a week.

Of the many breweries in Minnesota, few offer more than light snacks or food truck options when it comes to taproom food.

Urban Growler, meanwhile, offers a wide assortment of burgers, sandwiches, salads, desserts and even a kids’ menu, complete with table service and their signature and seasonal brews.

And it’s all happening here at an old horse stable in St. Anthony Park, complete with a lush beer garden, covered in colorful flower pots and dotted with red fabric umbrellas, which have become the iconic symbols of this local beer hall.

It is — as one patron described it — “an oasis in the middle of an industrial park.”

Urban Growler


CELEBRATE!

What: Urban Growler Brewing Company will mark four years of business with an anniversary party, featuring live music and special events.

When: 11 a.m.–10 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 22, with live music starting at 5 p.m.

Where: 2325 Endicott St., St. Paul. Though it calls itself a taproom, it boasts an in-house kitchen that opens at 11 a.m. daily (closed Mondays), which makes it one of the few breweries in town where you can grab a full meal with table service.

Bonus: There’s also a weekly farmer’s market on site — 11 a.m.–5 p.m. Sundays through Oct. 14 — featuring local vendors.

Info: urbangrowlerbrewing.com


Olivia Volkman-Johnson is a freelance writer who lives in Minneapolis and works as an ice cream maker and cake decorator.