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The Musical, Multitasking Microbrewers

Qiuxia and Kevin Welch have never shied away from learning to do something difficult. They're both accomplished professional musicians, having chosen the notoriously challenging French horn as their instrument. They have learned each other’s language (she learned English; he learned Chinese). They have traveled and lived in each other’s homelands. And they started a microbrewery for Belgian-style beer in Minneapolis, meeting all the challenges that come with starting a new business, including, it must be admitted, quite a lot of regulatory red tape.

To prepare for the launch of Boom Island Brewing Company, the couple conducted extensive research in Belgium and France, including a smuggling mission to a major brewery. (For the record, all that was smuggled out was a tiny bit of yeast from the bottom of a bottle, which Kevin poured into a sterilized vial and used for culture isolation and growth when he got back home.)

The research, the experiments, and even the smuggling paid off. After realizing that they couldn’t rely solely on their friends’ raves (“Of course they liked it!” Qiuxia says. “They got to drink beer for free!”) the couple entered the Upper Mississippi Mash-Out (UMMO), one of the largest homebrew contests in the country and the second-largest in the world. When their entries won medals two years in a row, they felt encouraged enough to hire local designer Tim Moran for what he describes as the “dream job” of creating labels for Silvius Pale Ale, Thoprock IPA, Brimstone Dubbel and Hoddoo Tripel. Now, all they needed was a space to brew up commercial-size batches.

The Water--and the Paperwork

After sampling the taste of water in towns as far away as Waconia, they decided that Minneapolis’ tap water was the one they wanted to use. They found an ideal location about two blocks from the Mississippi River, at the corner of 2nd Street and 22nd Avenue, in a business incubation space owned by Dennis Werneke. “It felt romantic to be so close to the river,” Qiuxia says, and Kevin, who was born in Memphis and fished in the Mississippi as a child, agrees. But the space’s other occupants, which include a mannequin designer, an Internet startup, and a coffee roaster from Africa, did not have to contend with the level of inspections and regulations that the microbrewery faced. At one point Qiuxia’s Chinese-born mother, who owned a small business back home, declared, “This is even more paperwork than in China!”

“After so many weeks of being bounced from person to person, and not having phone calls returned, we finally started joking with each other: ‘Today is the last inspection, right?’” Qiuxia says. But one inspection would usually lead to three or four more. At one point they decided to create their own mini Occupy Movement at a particularly unresponsive state agency. “We’d endured four days of having our phone calls go unreturned, so we emptied out a filing cabinet with all the paperwork we thought we might need, and just sat in the lobby until someone would talk to us,” Kevin says. Ninety minutes later, one official finally agreed to review their application, and they were able to move forward.

The Day Jobs: French Horn for Two

Even in the middle of start-up craziness, the two continue to work as professional freelance musicians, and both are members of the Twin Cities Musician’s Union, Local 30-73. Qiuxia played for the Sheldon Theatre Brass Band in Red Wing and continues to perform with many churches and at union orchestra jobs around town, including Saint Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral. Kevin often subs for the Minnesota Orchestra, the Minnesota Opera, and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra (“I’ll get a call at night saying, ‘Can you perform this piece tomorrow?’ and I’ve learned that the right answer is always ‘yes,’” he says.).

The Side Jobs: Language Lessons, Gourmet Cooking, and TIG Welding

“Teacher” is the second job title on Qiuxia’s resume, right after “Musician.” She taught Chinese in the Eden Prairie school district for four years, and then decided to switch to private tutoring; she now conducts lessons from their Southwest Minneapolis home.

But musicianship and language skills are just the tip of this couple’s multi-tasking iceberg. To find out how truly versatile they are, you’ll need to consider Chinese cooking and welding. First, the cooking. Qiuxia has lived in the United States since she was nineteen, and when her parents arrived this summer for an extended visit, she found herself struggling to reconnect with her mom. She discovered that one thing they shared was the language of cooking.

“The second day after she arrived, my mom made a batch of lushui zhi (master sauce). It was her security blanket,” Qiuxia says. Their forays together in the kitchen led to a recent mother-and-daughter cooking class at Kitchen Window, during which they led a field trip to Asian mega-market United Noodles, then prepared traditional Sichuan dishes back in class. The next class with be February 20, and will feature pairings of Chinese food with Belgian beer, considered by many foodies to be an ideal combination.

And then there’s the welding. Kevin, who received degrees from the prestigious Cleveland Institute of Music and Western Michigan University, went to a local technical school to receive his tungsten inert gas (TIG) welding certification. He called upon those skills when he and Qiuxia’s dad, a retired engineer, worked together to build equipment for the brewery. “It’s always good to have a trade,” he laughs, “and I’m pretty sure I could make more as a welder than as a musician.”

Boom Island Booming

After opening for business in late November, the first batches were brewed in mid-December, and the first retail glass was poured from the tap at The Pig and Fiddle in Minneapolis. Boom Island wares are also available, in bottles, at The Ale Jail in Saint Paul, Eli's East in Minneapolis, and The Four Firkins in Saint Louis Park. Boom Island will also take part in the Beer Dabbler brew festival during Winter Carnival on January 28th in Saint Paul. While the two feel they can relax a bit now, the memory of the effort to get the business off the ground still smarts a little.

Still, they can’t help but be excited about the new venture. “Creative people, people in the arts like us, are always asking, ‘what else can I do?’” Qiuxia says, “so this has been a great creative endeavor. It’s a lot like the French horn. I always say, ‘All you can do is take a breath and blow, and only God knows what will come out.’”

Julie Kendrick's last article for The Line was a look at the local-and-sustainable holiday gift-shopping scene, in our November 30, 2011 issue.

Photos, top to bottom:

Kevin and Qiuxia, with horns and hardware

Qiuxia (r.) and her mother, preparing Sichuan delicacies at Kitchen Window

Kevin stirs Boom Island brew.

Kevin announces the first pour of Boom Island beer at The Pig and Fiddle in Minneapolis.

Pig and Fiddle co-owner Mark Van Wie pours the first glass of Boom Island.

Second photo courtesy Qiuxia Welch; all other photos by Bill Kelley.
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