ARMOUR -- Throughout much of their lifelong friendship, Chris Urquieta and Randy Wiese have bonded over a passion for beer making.
Although the Armour natives went their separate ways after high school, their love of craft beer kept them connected despite being over 500 miles apart. And now, that passion has led them back home to Armour, where they are teaming up to open a microbrewery on Main Street. The Armour Brewing Company is set open its doors in roughly a month.
“We both have been home brewing for the past 15 to 20 years, and it was always fun seeing what recipes we were working on,” Wiese said. “I always planned on moving back at some point, and when we started talking about doing a microbrewery, I felt it was time.”
Prior to heading home roughly a year ago, Wiese had been living in Lincoln, Nebraska, for roughly three decades, primarily working as a contractor. As a full-time airline pilot, Urquieta moved around the country, and ended up settling down in Chicago for a while until moving back to Armour several years ago. Rather than continuing to share their beer recipes over the phone, Wiese was ready to converge his ideas with Urquieta and share their beer flavors with the Armour community.
While Urquieta and Wiese share the same passion for beer making, their preference in beer styles are different.
For Urquieta, dark, hoppy, Belgian-style ales are his go to beers, while Wiese’s pallet is steeped in fruit-infused, smoother blond ales and lagers. The yeast fermenting process is what differentiates ales and lagers, which are typically made with different strains of yeast. Lagers are brewed with a bottom-fermenting strain of yeast at colder temperatures ranging from 40 to 50 degrees, while ales are brewed by way of a top-fermenting yeast at warmer temperatures around 50 to 70 degrees. To no surprise, ales and lagers will make up the majority of the beers they will be brewing in Armour.
“We like totally different beer styles, so it is a good match for giving customers a big pallet to choose from. I like Belgian and German types of beers, so I call myself the purest, while (Wiese) is the experimenter,” Urquieta said.
With his extensive experience as a contractor, Wiese has transformed an old Armour Main Street building that was once an old car garage into a European style brewery. Speckled along the walls are German and Belgian memorabilia items that Urquieta has collected over the years from flying around the world.
The large, wooden tables with bench seats that are commonly found in many German pubs add the final touch to the atmosphere they are striving to create.
“My love of beer came from spending time in Germany and Europe, and I always liked how the tables in many European pubs are built. They are a simpler design, but they get you to sit down next to people at the same table and actually get to know someone new over a beer,” Urquieta said.
Beer making process
At the Armour Brewing Company, Urquieta and Wiese have enough equipment to make 16 gallon barrels of beer, which takes about a month until the beer is ready to be poured. Both of them are self-taught beer makers.
The process begins with mixing the grain. On average, they will use 30 to 40 pounds of grain to make their batches of beer. Once the grain is steeped for a set amount of time in about 68 degrees, it is dumped into a large pot, which takes about an hour, Wiese said.
“What that steeping does is bring all the sugars out of the grain, because the sugar is what actually gets converted to alcohol. Without the sugar, you would just have barley and grain pop,” Wiese said.
Following the steeping process, the mixture is transferred into a boiling pot. As it boils, Urquieta and Wiese add the hops and other natural flavors that produce the taste of the beer. The final steps entail chilling the beer down through what Wiese calls a “crash chiller,” which then goes into the fermenter where the yeast is added. The climate-controlled fermentation room already has several batches of beer waiting to be tested.
“It’s a unique process, but you get the hang of it after awhile,” Wiese said. “You can really screw things up if you’re not careful and miss one step.”
Urquieta highlighted all of their brewing equipment functions manually, which he said is becoming more rare.
“I’m a manual type of guy, so we are pretty involved in the process. There are a lot of automated brewery systems, but it’s fun to be so involved with the process,” Urquieta said.
They are eager to show customers an inside look at how the brewing process works. Considering there aren't many breweries in the region, the Armour Brewing Company will be a rare site.
Bringing beer culture to rural SD
Although the two beer enthusiasts have been entrenched in the craft beer culture for decades, they are cognizant that not all Armour residents have tried such a wide variety of brews.
With the popularity of domestic beers like Bud Light and Miller Lite that’s shared among many Armour locals, Wiese said their first brewed beers that will be available on tap are going to be lighter-style, blond ales that usually have less hop and malt characteristics.
“We plan on starting out with making lighter beers that are less hoppy, even though what I call a light beer is nothing near a domestic like Bud Light,” Wiese said. “You have to know your clientele, and we didn’t want to just come in and start making all of the different styles of beer without giving everyone an opportunity to gradually acquire some of the tastes."
By easing their way into crafting more unique beers that have distinct, fruity flavors infused with stronger mixes of yeast and barley, they hope to expose the Armour area to a handful of new beers that aren’t available anywhere else near the area.
Considering Armour has one full-scale bar, Urquieta said another beer drinking spot will bring a little more life to the downtown area. Most of all, he hopes the brewery will spark more interest in craft beer culture.
“We were thinking we could make this a destination brewery,” Urquieta said. “There used to be five bars here when I was a kid, so I’m excited for the community to have another spot.”
To open the brewery, Urquieta and Wiese had to secure several permits and licenses to operate the beer business. After the city of Armour recently approved their beer and malt beverage license, they had to secure a federal license that allows them to brew their beer and sell it on tap and in growlers.
Had they looked to open the brewery roughly two years ago, it wouldn’t have been possible due to the state’s previous laws that restricted how much beer microbreweries could produce. But after former Gov. Dennis Daugaard signed a bill that increased the cap on the amount of beer that microbreweries could produce, it increased the previous production cap of 5,000 barrels to 30,000 barrels. In addition, the bill also allowed craft brewers to sell up 1,500 barrels of beer to bars, bypassing the distributors.
“South Dakota was very restrictive with its microbrewery laws until about two years ago, and Daugaard was very pro-craft brewing,” Urquieta said. “It is great to see more support for craft breweries. Back in the days of the 1800s when there weren’t mass distributors and huge breweries, breweries were the only thing keeping beer available in towns across the country.”
As the Armour Brewing Company prepares for its opening day, Urquieta and Wiese have just one small suggestion for their customers: Do not talk politics or religion. After all, Wiese said it can ruin a good beer.
“There is nothing better than a good beer, so why ruin it?” Wiese said.