May 30, 2019
By Ivy Knight
The best stories are the ones where people are told they can’t do something and they do it anyway. Think Field of Dreams, Erin Brockovich, Rocky.
Urban Growler’s Jill Pavlak and Deb Loch had a dream. Not to do anything super out-of-reach—they didn’t want to be movie stars or beauty queens or Millennial influencers. They just wanted to get married and open a business together. Living in Minnesota in the 21st century meant they couldn’t do the former until 2013. They only had to wait for the Supreme Court to strike down laws banning same-sex marriage—no big deal.
Once that happened, they set about to realize the second, more seemingly mundane of their dreams. They wanted to open their own business. But they had no idea how hard it was going to be.
“It’s the only time I’ve ever felt blatantly discriminated against,” Loch says, recounting the conversations she and Pavlak had with bankers as they began looking for a loan to open their own craft brewery. They met with so many different banks. Each one turned them down.
There were various reasons; they were neophytes, the area of town they wanted to open in was industrial and had no restaurant scene to speak of, and, most damning of all, they were women—lesbians!—who wanted to make beer.
Pavlak adds, “We heard ridiculous things like, ‘How will you girls carry those big heavy bags of grain? How will women your age keep those late-night hours? What if you get divorced?’” She shakes her head in disbelief. “Divorced?! Would you ask that of a heterosexual couple?”
They were waiting to hear back from bank number 12, ready to celebrate. This was going to be the one. They were at a brewing conference in Washington when they took the call. The banker said, “We don’t feel comfortable.”
The women were destroyed.
“We were like, ‘What do you mean you’re not comfortable? We’ve done everything you’ve asked of us.”
“We were devastated,” says Loch.
“I always joke that we’ve never both been in the fetal position at the same time,” Pavlak laughs.
They couldn’t believe it. They had everything in place, they found a perfect location at $4 per square foot, and still the banks wouldn’t help them. Because of their anatomy.
So they tried a new tactic. Loch brewed beer and Pavlak printed T-shirts. They made carnitas (with pork marinated in Loch’s porter) and sold shares in their future brewery. They hustled and gave tours in a freezing-cold warehouse space during a Minnesota February. They talked until they couldn’t talk anymore. They raised half a million bucks.
And then they went to another bank and got shot down again.
This time they really couldn’t believe it. With $500,000 behind them and still nothing? All they wanted was to open a goddamn craft brewery and host fish fries on Friday nights. What the fuck, banks?
They cried on the shoulder of Dane Breimhorst, a friend and the owner of Burning Brothers gluten-free brewery. He sent them to his banker at Pioneer Bank in Mankato, two hours away. The gentleman there weighed their business plan, overwhelming enthusiasm, stellar credit, six years of industry experience, Loch’s schooling (she attended the Master Brewers Program at UC Davis), and the half-million smackers and said, “Why, sure, we’ll give you a loan.”
Our whole purpose was to bring people together to sit down and have a beer. We all want the same thing from life—to be loved and accepted, period.”
That was five years ago. Now, when you take a Lyft to Saint Anthony Park, past warehouses and nothing much of interest, you will come around the bend and find a patio dotted with red umbrellas and filled with people under a big blue Minnesota sky, when the crabapple trees are just coming into bloom and the air smells like fresh green grass with a hint of frost. You’ve come to Urban Growler and it is packed. It’s the first women-owned craft brewery in the state, and Loch remains one of very few female head brewers in the industry.
They didn’t tout their feminine cred at first. “We want a rep for great beer. Who cares if it’s made by a woman?” says Pavlak. In the five years they’ve been in business they’ve seen an explosion in the number of craft brewers in the state, from 19 to 170. But even with that rapid growth, their women-owned-and-operated brewery beer is still the only one in Minnesota.
They are the ultimate example of sisters doing it for themselves.
“We’re very fortunate, because we’re not rich. People believed in us and wanted to be part of the story,” Pavlak tells me as we wind our way through the space, up to the large shared office on the second floor. “Our whole purpose was to bring people together to sit down and have a beer. We all want the same thing from life—to be loved and accepted, period.”
This June they’ll release their annual Pride beer, a lavender lemon summer ale called Let’s Dance. Their most popular beer is the Cowbell Cream Ale. They also brew a blueberry wheat beer, a pumpkin saison, a wild rice brown ale, and a chocolate mint brew inspired by Girl Scout cookies. Each is offered seasonally and there are usually ten selections on tap at any given time.
All those banks that turned them down? They’ve been sniffing around lately. They come into the brewery, ready to talk business with the little ladies who just happen to have a wildly successful brewery in the middle of an industrial wasteland, oblivious to the work the women and their friends and community and hugely loyal staff have done to make it so. Pavlak just offers them a frosted mug of maibock, the spring beer that customers go wild for, or sometimes a wit, a softer brew made with local rhubarb. She hands them menus and invites them to stay and enjoy lunch.
Pavlak and Loch are courteous but there is steel in their spines—steel put there by the constant rejection they’ve faced for being women, for being lesbians who dared to get married, for being interlopers into the hairy-chested world of hops and barley. They always tell those bankers the same thing: “No, thanks. We’re loyal to Pioneer Bank. They’ve been with us since day one.”