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First look: Falling Knife Brewing is serious about beer, service, and having fun

Two of the gents behind Falling Knife, and some of the taproom's prized pinball machines: Robbie Denaway (left) and Dan Herman (right).

Two of the gents behind Falling Knife, and some of the taproom's prized pinball machines: Robbie Denaway (left) and Dan Herman (right). Jerard Fagerberg

As I walk into Falling Knife Brewing company, a gong crashes. It's a far-off, digital clang that instantly spikes my serotonin—the telltale coo of a pinball machine.

Set up in the old NorthGate Brewing space in Mid-City Industrial Park, Falling Knife has been at work since April making the space totally their own. Gone are the tavern-esque brick and wood embellishments. From the moment you walk in, the new Northeast brewery feels distinct from the pack of taprooms already populating the neighborhood. 

“I really want people to come here and feel comfortable,” says CRO Dan Herman. “Just walk in and let the day go.”

Herman is a 20-year veteran of the restaurant industry, and his vision for Falling Knife was a service-oriented beer experience. The 100-person front room is centered around a row of cozy booths and a big, congenial bar with patron-facing taps. Customers won’t have to line up to get topped off—Falling Knife is making table service the modus operandi here.

“There are some people around town that have done table service, but nobody that’s full-on committed to it and tried to create that atmosphere,” Herman says, noting Bauhaus’s recent reformat. “Usually, there’s a line cutting down the middle of the taproom, there isn’t someone constantly there to serve you.”

Pivot around the corner, and you’ll find a custom-stocked jukebox that acts as a pivot point between the restaurant-style front room and a 49-person back bar that operates very much like an adjacent sports bar. This is where the brewery owners’ personalities manifest. 

Fellow co-owners Tom Berg and Andy Rutledge are bassists (Berg plays in Zebulon Pike and Self-Evident; Rutledge in Earthrise), making their domain the jukebox. Herman, meanwhile, is a professional-level pinball player, so he worked with local pinball hero Ben Granger to put together an all-star collection of pinball machines. Since all three are heartbroken Timberwolves fans, this is where they’ll gather ‘round a high-top to watch their local boys on the big screen.

“We’ve been friends for over a decade,” Herman says. “It started with a love for music, but then it became drinking beer, which is a passion for all over us. Conversations just started about opening a brewery, and they just kept going. Eventually, we formed an LLC and really took this on.”

It took two and a half years for that LLC to mature into a taproom, but on October 18, that will all pay off. However, the three knew they couldn’t barge into Northeast with good service and a fun-loving taproom alone. They had to be competitive with their neighbors right away.

Falling Knife hired Surly and Fair State alumnus Robbie Denaway this summer, and he’s been working with Berg on making Falling Knife’s tap list distinguished and competitive. They’ll open with 10 beers, but their goal is to serve a 16-item menu of everything from kettle sours to Belgian strong ales.

“I’m taking what I learned along the way and applying it here,” Denaway says. “I made Surly’s first hazy IPA, Galactic Dissent, and I made a hazy double IPA with Fair State, Clouding of Consciousness, but I also love lagers, so our first batch was a German pilsner, which is something most breweries don’t start off with.”

Denaway’s ace in the hole is his burly, Ridley Scott-lookin’ centrifuge. A rare sight in breweries of Falling Knife’s size, the mechanism came highly recommended by BevCraft, who were contracted to help the crew design and open Falling Knife. Using the centrifuge, Denaway can dial in clarity on his beers, going from hazy to crystal clear with only a few adjustments. Beyond that, centrifuging takes far less time and energy than filtering, allowing him to get more yield per batch.

Herman emphasizes that Falling Knife will be a “hop-forward American brewery,” but variety is a founding tenet. Their Mosaic- and Denali-hopped The Joy Fermentable hazy IPA is a crisp, easy-drinking take on the style, but Denaway’s master stroke might be Ghost Step, a chocolatey coffee stout brewed with sumatra cold press from Up Roasters. 

Set up in the old NorthGate Brewing space in Mid-City Industrial Park, Falling Knife has been at work since April making the space totally their own.

Set up in the old NorthGate Brewing space in Mid-City Industrial Park, Falling Knife has been at work since April making the space totally their own. Jerard Fagerberg

If St. Paul’s Barrel Theory has proven anything it’s that a combination of good atmosphere and a Surly-tenured brewer can spell national success, but Herman, Berg, Rutledge, and Denaway are under no illusion that the road ahead is easy. They’re opening doors in the most competitive beer neighborhood in the Twin Cities, and they’re doing it in the same space as a brewery that didn’t survive the much speculated craft beer bubble.

Their name comes from the old restaurant adage “a falling knife has no handle.” But after two decades abiding that rule, Herman is ready to reach out and grab for something, despite the risk.

“People tell us that the market is oversaturated all the time, I don’t believe that to be true,” Herman says. “We wanted to poke fun at that with the logo. We know we’re gonna take some licks along the way, but we’re gonna have fun doing it.”