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Flat Earth’s leap of faith is paying off

When Flat Earth Brewing Co.‘s first 22-ounce bottles hit stores almost exactly one year ago, Jeff Williamson and his wife, Cathie, had little idea what to expect.

They hoped people would fall immediately for local craft brews, the way they had some six years ago. But they feared that their small St. Paul brewery was a dream better off as nothing more.

They shouldn’t have worried.

Flat Earth is now sold in about 35 restaurants (both in bottles and on tap, in some places) and in 150 liquor stores around the state. Jeff’s created a stable roster of four beers, plus seasonal varieties. And a recent visit to the brewery revealed perhaps the biggest sign that the company is succeeding: somebody other than Jeff standing in front of the small bottling machines that Flat Earth uses to fill and package each beer.

“We just hired our first employee,” Jeff explained. “That’s been huge for us.”

A taste-awakening trip
Six years ago, the Williamsons, whose beer-drinking experience was largely limited to Grain Belt Premium (which, in its defense, is a good beer and local stalwart, if not bursting with complex flavors) took a trip to Massachusetts to visit Cathie’s hometown. They happened to stop at several brewpubs (that is, restaurants that brew their own beer) along the way, and couldn’t believe the quality and taste of the beers.

Back home in Minnesota, they began frequenting local brewpubs. Cathie bought Jeff a home-brewing kit for Christmas. Jeff focused more and more on beer, and eventually quit his job as a special-education teacher and went to work as an assistant brewer at Town Hall Brewery in Minneapolis.

In 2006, after over two years at Town Hall, he decided it was time.

It was a leap of faith,” he said. “There’s never a good time to take off and start your own business.”

Bar patron inspired the name
He and Cathie bought a small warehouse in St. Paul, just down the road from the Summit Brewing Co. Jeff found a deal on brewing equipment in California. They named the brewery, a name inspired by a man they met at their neighborhood bar who once told them he was both a former NASA rocket scientist and a member of the Flat Earth Society.

They fired up the brewery for the first time in early February, and in a few weeks Jeff had found the right balance for Flat Earth’s first beer, a Belgian pale ale.

Despite Flat Earth’s popularity and the Williamsons’ ambitious 2008 goals (find retailers in Wisconsin, move from one to two brews a week), not much has changed from the first days. All beers are still bottled one at a time, and Jeff (Cathie works days as a microbiologist) takes care of everything from phone calls to promotion.

“(Success) doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of times I haven’t been here from the crack of dawn until midnight,” Jeff said.

Tours and tastings:

Flat Earth holds free brewery tours and tastings once a month. The next one will be held Saturday, March 15, in the late afternoon. Check the website for more details. 

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