Half Brothers Brewing co-founder Chad Gunderson has become part of a local, regional and national craft brewery trend. Guided by outside-the-region brewing experience, Gunderson is taking a unique approach to connect with the community.
The day Chad Gunderson demolished his first wall, he knew he was crafting something special. The second Facebook photo ever posted on the account of Gunderson’s dream company, Half Brothers Brewing, captured the moment. Standing against an exposed brick wall—demo dust and rubble spread across the floor of the downtown Grand Forks, N.D., commercial space Gunderson convinced local lenders and private investors could be ideal for a new craft brewery—he is raising a glass of beer above a crowd of people. Many in the photo are flushed and sweaty from hard work. His signature reddish-brown beard is not enough to hide his wide smile. Earlier that week Gunderson had issued a call to the company’s social media followers. “We wanted to reach out to the community from day one,” he says. “We reached out to everyone inviting them to our demo day.” In roughly an hour on the first day Gunderson had access to his new space, a company of two and its community of demo-day-participants, enthused by the vision of Half Brothers, had the large commercial space gutted and debris-free.
Less than a year after opening, the inside image of the Half Brothers’ space is radically different. Custom, green-legged benches and picnic style tables offer patrons family seating. Large art projects and paintings commissioned by local artists adorn those once-exposed brick walls. A stage lined with logoed silver kegs takes up the back corner. And of course, there is a shiny wood bar top with massive steel tanks and brewing equipment overtaking half of the entire space. The atmosphere, much like the drink and food selections, was created and will always evolve, Gunderson says, with the same philosophy that helped that demo-day become a lasting memory and telling moment of the Half Brothers success story. When you are in Half Brothers you know you are in a brewery, but it also feels like something more meaningful is happening.
Welcome To The Family
The beverage vessels used by Gunderson are telling of his team’s affinity to connect. Certain pieces of glassware feature the slogan Welcome To the Family. Others picture the outline of North Dakota. The choice for glass imagery was part of Gunderson’s larger vision to enhance the relevance of his place in the region. The craft brewing world is all about bringing newness, he says. For Gunderson, that isn’t enough. “We are creating unique brews you can’t find everywhere else. In my experience, people come in and the number one thing they are looking for is what’s new,” he says. “That’s the kind of brewery we want to be.” But, Half Brothers is an all ages place, he adds, and families are welcome. Above all, Gunderson is working to harbor a hangout that offers something for everyone.
On a perfect evening, Gunderson envisions a mix of professionals (young and old), craft brew and food seekers, local music enthusiasts and every other member of the family enjoying the essence of the facility. “We try to be on the edge with our creativity,” he says, “but we also bring comfort.” The picnic-style tables allow large groups to converse. Bar top stools pointed at stills under lit with green or blue lights gives true connoisseurs a chance to sip in serenity. For the kids or the competitors, foosball, bean bags and broomball on an outside ice rink give an outlet for an active evening. Nearly every night, Gunderson has a band lined up to take his stage. The purpose is to match the vision he created after years working at other breweries during the early days of his own young family.
Prior to Half Brothers’ opening in October last year, Gunderson had been best classified as employee No. 1. In Walker, Minnesota, he was the first employee of a start-up brewery. The pay was a growler of craft beer and the opportunity to see how professional brewers operated. After following his wife’s career to Montana, he became the first employee of another craft brewery. Then, at a second brewery in Montana, he was again the first main employee. At that point, employee No. 1 wanted to hire his own first employee. A stint as the head brewer at Rhombus Guys Brewery in Grand Forks brought his family back to North Dakota. It also reaffirmed his desire to make his own mark in the brewing and hospitality business. Although some lenders were hesitant to provide a loan for his own operation, investors eventually came around. “I honestly think they saw that I had done it before and could overcome the challenges of a startup, and, that I had a real passion for this.”
The Best Glass of Beer—Ever
Gunderson looks like a brewer—someone that takes certain details serious but doesn’t let outside variables unconnected to his passion sway his actions. Most days he’s wearing jeans and a flannel with a pair of rubber boots on. When you talk with him, you know he knows more about the beer in your hand then you may ever care to know. All he cares about, however, is your reaction after drinking or hanging out in his space. The mix of patrons to date has included beer experts, but there have been many first-time craft beer drinkers. “I enjoy when people say wow,” he says. “They might not always know how to explain the liquid, but I just love that simple reaction.”
Craft brew might be easy to enjoy, but mixing the most unique and desirable blends isn’t easy, Gunderson admits. Many of his most popular options have a single theme in common: locality. A sour brew popular this year includes chokecherries from the region. A local coffee maker and bean roaster is responsible in part for the popularity of a coffee-brew infusion. “We’ve had a lot of success trying different styles and ingredients from the region,” he says.
Although he knows locally sourced ingredients aren’t necessary to make a good brew, he also realizes that purchasing malt from Fisher, MN, or beans from Bully Brew helps enhance his vision for community connection. “Money is going back into the community from the way we create,” he says.
In less than six months, Half Brothers already employs 19, including three that are looking to learn from Gunderson’s brewing abilities. While he’s learned how to channel his passion after first working the small, warm-shelf craft brewery section at Happy Harry’s Bottle Shop, into a wide smiling master brewer, his future impact on the region can be understood from his answer to a simple question: what is the best glass of beer you’ve ever had?
His answer, given with that wide smile covered by the beard—a band drumming and singing softly in the background while employees walk back and forth from the tap bringing unique brew blends to those picnic tables—is not one he can even give yet. From his smile and head tilt, you can tell that his non-answer is a good thing. “The best glass of beer I’ve ever had,” he says, “has yet to be had.” G
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