Entrepreneurial Brew

Beer-making enthusiasts aiding city economy, taste buds

Come to Brookings for a taste of history!

A billboard? A television or radio spot perhaps? That’s what Luke Rensink, Tom Strubel, Seth Koch, Brant Mathiason, and Steve Kreeger hope transpires as up-and-coming entrepreneurs in Brookings.

Their gig—something that initially doesn’t come to mind—is making beer, or more accurately, craft beers that are not readily available at local watering holes. And, desiring to connect to Brookings, they linked their venture to the city’s past.

Rensink and Strubel, SDSU seniors graduating in May, own Heist Brewing Company—named for the 1938 robbery at First National Bank, which turned into the Ram Restaurant in 1973.

Luke Rensink (right) pours in ingredients as Tom Strubel operates the grinder at their Heist Brewing Company location in Brookings. Heist is one of only two brewery distributors in South Dakota. The company had a ribbon-cutting ceremony last November, officially becoming a member of the Brookings Chamber of Commerce.799web

SDSU graduates Koch ’07, Mathiason ’96, and West Point graduate Kreeger founded Wooden Legs Brewing Company in honor of Judge Wilmot Wood Brookings. As the story goes, the city’s namesake fell from his horse into an icy creek on his way to Yankton in 1858, and suffering from severe frostbite, he had to be fitted with a set of wooden legs.

With history in place, the brewers are set, eagerly making beer connoisseurs’ taste buds spring to life. And, so in the spirited words of Strubel, “I’m going on to do some brewing!”

City recognition

Heist Brewing Company had a ribbon-cutting ceremony November 17, officially becoming a member of the Brookings Chamber of Commerce.

Located at 611 Second St. South, Heist is one of only two brewery distributors in the state. Crow Peak Brewing in Spearfish has been in operation since 2006. Global Distributing in Sioux Falls purchases the beer and in turn sells it to respective local bar/restaurant establishments.

In Brookings, customers can savor Pilot Pale Ale, which has a pleasant hops favor to it; Sure Shot Amber Ale, which is less hops and more of a malt flavor; and an India Pale Ale that mixes a floral, piney, and fruity flavor with a strong hops aroma. In addition, winter seasonals like Black Lotus Porter and Strubel Stout are available.

“Ours have much more flavor than some of these light lagers,” says Huron native Strubel, who is majoring in civil engineering and German. “It’s a different style and a whole different experience. This is something you drink at a little warmer temperature to appreciate the great flavors.”

Class assignment to reality

It all started with Rensink, who in fall 2010 wrote a business plan for a microbrewery in an entrepreneurship class at SDSU.

“It kind of morphed from an idea to actual reality,” says the dairy manufacturing major from Freeman. “I like to cook so I figured I’d like to try and make beer.

“I was home brewing for about a year-and-a-half before I met Tom. One day when he came over I gave him some. I showed him the ropes, brewed some, and decided we wanted to do a business.”

Recalls Strubel, “I’ve always had an interest in home brewing. My uncle did it for a while, and after meeting Luke and saw what he was doing, I wanted to learn how to do it as well.”

The process has come full circle for Rensink, who created his own recipes through trial and error, mixing and matching ingredients.

“That’s the best part of home brewing. Every batch when I started, I just guessed what to put in. I experimented with different malts, hops, and how much yeast, and what flavors they give.”

The Heist duo spends thirty to thirty-five hours a week, mostly evenings, producing about thirty kegs a month with bar owners, primarily in Brookings and Sioux Falls, going through a keg within a week or two.

“The response has been really positive and that’s a good thing,” notes Rensink. “We have a very consistent product.”

The passion and commitment shown by the Heist founders, other than the consumption factor, was on display last spring when they took second place, earning $3,000 in the Governor’s Giant Vision contest.

“We want to make this brewing thing full time,” says Rensink. “We intend to make it grow bigger and better.”

A Brookings destination

The Wooden Legs Brewing Company team of (from left) Steve Kreeger, Seth Koch, and Brant Mathiason are operating from a test kitchen in Mathiason’s garage. The plan is for the company to find a home in the old Northwest Energy Building across from the Brookings Register. The structure is undergoing a total renovation with completion sometime this spring. (Photo courtesy of Sioux Falls Argus Leader).

Wooden Legs Brewing Company will be Brookings’ first brew pub, and for Koch, Mathiason, and Kreeger, they anticipate it turning into a popular social gathering spot.

“We have a really good business model that will not only allow us to introduce the flavors to the city, but actually be a large contributor to the economic base here,” says Koch. “We think there is validity in the project, and when done correctly, this can really become a destination point in Brookings.”

The plan is for Wooden Legs Brewing Company to find a home in the old Northwest Energy Building across from the Brookings Register. The structure is undergoing a total renovation with completion sometime this spring.

“Long before I met Seth, I had an interest in owning an establishment like the one we are designing,” says Mathiason. “We pretty much have the same ideas regarding what type of place we want to have.

“People will be able to sit there, have great conversation, and enjoy different types of beers. We feel that Brookings has needed this for a long time and we are in position to make it happen.”

Testing for perfection

For now, the company produces Split Rock Creek Pale Ale, 353 Stout, and Farmhouse Ale from a test kitchen in Mathiason’s garage. The beers aren’t for sale to the general public yet. However, that doesn’t mean taste-testers can’t come by for free samples.

“We let people taste our beers to see what they like and dislike,” notes Mathiason. “We play with our recipes to see how different ingredients change the flavor and to see what intrigues people’s taste buds.”

Koch and Mathiason have full-time jobs as application engineers at Daktronics. Kreeger, an officer in the U.S. Army who calls Custer and Fort Pierre home, is currently away pursuing a doctorate at Princeton.

Their beer venture has been a perfect fit, both personally and professionally, according to Koch, who earned a degree in interdisciplinary studies with engineering and business courses along the way. Mathiason was an electrical engineering graduate.

“Making beer is a really interesting mix between science and art,” points out Koch. “You have to be really deliberate, very analytical, and even pragmatic. Anybody can make a good beer once, but to do it constantly and be efficient, you need lots of science and engineering.”

Mathiason says, “When you go through a brewing process, temperatures need to be kept at a certain range. We aren’t bringing in premixed stuff, throwing water to it, and calling it good. We are actually taking the grains, grinding it, and making it to exactly what we want for those who enjoy a true craft beer taste.”

Joining common interests

Koch, a native of Custer, attended college in Chicago and Colorado before coming to SDSU in 2003. After returning to South Dakota, he often made trips to see old friends who dispersed to the East Coast, West Coast, and even England. More often than not, their conversations centered around stouts and brown ales.

“There was a smorgasbord of craft beer, but back here there wasn’t much available so that’s when the home brewing idea got going,” recalls Koch.

“My roommates and I started with a kit, and at the time, we tried to emulate the great beers of Great Britain. We made modifications, adding and mixing ingredients, and it ended up working really well. It eventually grew from a hobby to more of an obsession, and so I said I’d like give it a go here and bring this to the community.”

Mathiason, who grew up in Hartington, Nebraska, relates his enthusiasm for beer took root while living in California.

“I found an affinity for different beers,” he says. “When I came to SDSU the only place I could find Guinness was at Jim’s Tap. There were very minimal offerings, so at that point, I purchased my first beer kit and starting

messing around making my own beers from brown ales to pale ales.”

In time, Koch and Mathiason’s chatting over the cubicle wall at work eventually turned to beer.

“We both travel a lot internationally and one conversation centered on what beers we had tried and that’s where it all started,” says Koch. “One day I said, ‘Hey Brant, I have this beer to try’ and it accelerated from a common conversation to starting a company.”

Mathiason remembers the moment well. “What really got me interested in working with Seth was when he brought me a peach-flavored beer and it was awesome.

“I figured if he could make a peach beer taste good, he could make anything taste good so that really got my interest going. So, when he approached me with this idea of making it into a business, I was all for it.”

From an idea hatched with friends, to a future downtown business, their taste of history is brewing just fine.

“We’ve found a tremendous amount of fulfillment in what we’ve done so far,” says Koch. “It’s been educational, challenging, and very exciting. We’re looking forward to serving the community of Brookings.”

Kyle Johnson



1 Comment

  1. Tanya Thomsen at

    Excited for Wooden Legs to open. Been hearing comments from Minnesota of people hearing about a brewery opening in Brookings and they are looking forward to coming out to taste some good ale. This Minnesotan for sure!

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