Arbeiter Brewing: What can we grow here?
After overcoming numerous challenges, this brewery is helping a neighborhood grow back stronger.
“A brewery, a bar, have always been gathering spaces, have always been places where people can come together, they can talk, they can discuss. Now, more than ever, it's important to connect with people in the community,” says Juno Choi, reflecting on the challenges of 2020 and the path that brought him to open Arbeiter Brewing in early 2021.
Choi moved to the Twin Cities from Milwaukee after high school to attend the University of Minnesota, not quite sure what he wanted to become. After two years of exploring through a variety of courses, he set his sights on forestry, graduating with a BS in 2001 in what is now the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences (CFANS).
We found more focus in what we're doing as a company, as a brewery, because of what we've had to not only endure, but to be a part of—just like everybody else in Minneapolis and the nation. -Juno Choi
“Once I decided what I was going to go for, I kind of started to change as a student. I became much more focused and that led me to say, ‘Here's the path that I need to follow. All I really need to do is to focus,’” says Choi.
“So I went from somebody that didn't know what they were going to do… and then junior year I took 21 credits a semester and I became the president of the Forestry Club. The U provided some structure and a pathway to achieve. And it turns out the U of M has a really great forestry program.”
After graduating, Choi did in fact get a job in forestry, first with the Forest Service in Deschutes National Forest in Bend, OR (“A beautiful place and a great place for beer, too”), and then later in Minnesota for the Department of Natural Resources out of Watson, MN.
But it wasn’t quite right for him. After a while, he decided to move back to the Twin Cities. He took a job at Northern Brewer, a homebrew supply store that was booming as the hobby exploded among beer enthusiasts. During his 10 years there, he saw some of his customers move from being homebrewers to brewery founders.
“I am impressed by people who are willing to take a leap of faith. Maybe they don't have it figured out yet. Nobody really does. But to do something, to be an entrepreneur, to just start… that is something I have always admired.”
Through Northern Brewer, he would meet Arbeiter cofounders, Garth Blomberg and Josh Voeltz, and though Choi would eventually leave Northern Brewer to become marketing manager for Brewers Supply Group—where he still works full-time today—the seeds had been planted.
“Beer has always been a part of my life, like my interest in nature and forestry. You know, once I kind of got bitten by the bug, I dove in.”
Meeting challenges with grace
Together they hatched a plan, and Arbeiter began leasing space along Minnehaha Avenue in South Minneapolis in 2018. They expected to open within about a year. But starting a brewery—any business—is hard. There are challenges that are expected—like securing funding (in Arbeiter’s case, more than $1 million for the space, equipment, and more)—and there are challenges that are unexpected. A government shutdown in late 2018-19 prevented them from accessing loans. Steel tariffs significantly increased the cost of their equipment. Then came a pandemic. And then came May 25, 2020—the murder of George Floyd.
As mostly peaceful protests formed across the nation, some individuals took advantage. During the worst of it, in Minneapolis, the Police Department’s Third Precinct burned to the ground. It was at 3000 Minnehaha Avenue. Arbeiter is at 3038 Minnehaha Avenue. As the precinct burned, along with dozens of other businesses, some of which they’d planned to partner with on food, Choi and his cofounders sat on the rooftop of their nearly completed brewery and wondered if their building would survive. They didn’t get bitter or resentful.
“We found more focus in what we're doing as a company, as a brewery, because of what we've had to not only endure, but to be a part of—just like everybody else in Minneapolis and the nation,” says Choi. “Through George Floyd, through seeing our neighborhood go through a lot of pain, it's really directed what we do.”
Every forest starts with a tree
There is that saying, that if you get too bogged down in details, you risk missing the forest for the trees. Arbeiter is taking the big picture approach, with the neighborhood as a forest that has suffered, but which has the potential to grow back stronger than ever.
On Jan. 12, 2021, with COVID restrictions in effect, Arbeiter finally opened its doors. Since then, it has partnered to host a free bike- and auto-repair event for community members. They brewed a stout beer for the Black is Beautiful initiative, donating about $4,000 to communities in North Minneapolis. In May, Arbeiter donated a dollar of every beer sold on Wednesdays to the Coalition of Asian-American leaders. In June they hosted an Asian artisan market, partnering with local Asian artists to raise awareness of increasing racism, violence, and hate crimes against Asian-Americans and donating those proceeds to the Southeast Asian Diaspora Project. Inside the brewery, much of the artwork on the walls and even stitchwork in the bathrooms was created by local Black and Hmong artists. They have plans to launch a “Good Works” volunteer outreach campaign.
“I think we all found out in 2020 what happens when you don't do extra things… when you don't look out for people,” says Choi. “So it matters to me that we can make some changes in small ways. We can have a business, but we can do some additional things. It takes extra to actually make the world a better place.”
With summer in full swing and many COVID restrictions lifted, the brewery is beginning to hum. Choi doesn’t have much time to reflect on how he got here, but he knows the U of M helped put him on the path.
“The U gave me a very well-rounded education, but it also helped me develop a lot of the skills I still use today,” says Choi. “Whether it is from my biology classes or the chemistry related to the process of brewing, to the public speaking classes that I took for now talking to investors or speaking at events. And one of our investors is a CFANS alum. So even though it seems like that was a faraway part of my life, it's still a part of it.”
Pathways to entrepreneurship
MN Cup: Charting a course for entrepreneurs
The University of Minnesota’s MN Cup is the country’s largest statewide new-venture competition. Read about MN Cup.
Toaster Innovation Hub: A space for students to turn ideas into action
The Toaster is an imaginative space designed for sparking student creativity and collaboration. Read about the Toaster Innovation Hub.
Acara: Creating environmental and social change
The Acara program draws students interested in entrepreneurship and environmental and social change. Read about Acara.
Alumni Market: A sales platform for entrepreneurial alumni
The MN Alumni Market is one of the only such markets among universities in the nation. Read about the Alumni Market.
Technology commercialization and COVID-19 innovations
When COVID-19 hit, the U of M Twin Cities technology commercialization team quickly shifted to moving COVID-19 innovations into the marketplace. Read about Technology commercialization and COVID-19 innovations.