MSUM Grads Launch Craft Brewery in Moorhead
Tattooed on the right forearm of one of the brewers at Swing Barrel Brewing, one of downtown Moorhead’s newest taverns, is just about everything you need to know about the place:
While the artwork is a total coincidence, it is entirely in line with the Swing Barrel vibe. It could easily be the marketing tagline for the brewery and taproom, co-founded and -operated by two longtime friends, former bandmates and Minnesota State University Moorhead (MSUM) graduates.
So c’mon in. Stop at the bar and order a pint of your favorite craft style or, better yet, try something new. Pull up a tall stool next to the counter that surrounds a cutout in the wood floor so you can check out the row of sizeable silver brewing tanks in the basement. Text friends and invite them to join you in the refurbished brick building on the north side of Center Avenue.
Most importantly to the owners, relax and have some laughs over a coupla beers.
Hey... wanna meet ’em?
Getting (part of) the Band Back Together
Sean Syverson earned bachelor’s degrees in English literature and English education from MSUM in 2003, and John Kapla completed his film and media degree in 2005. They first met through a common friend who was putting a band together when they were all MSUM classmates. Kapla was on drums, Syverson was a vocalist and played the harmonica and mutual friends rounded out the band called Sour Mash.
They’ve been friends ever since.
“I don't know, man,” says Kapla of their enduring friendship. “I mean, you’re in your early 20s, you party together, you have fun, you’re going through a lot of craziness that life throws at you, you talk about lots of things. We found those common interests and loves, starting with music because we were already playing together, so talking and hanging out was easy.”
Syverson taught and coached the baseball team at Dilworth Glyndon Felton High in Glyndon, Minn., after finishing up at MSUM, then in 2008 headed for Korea to teach English. Kapla hit the road after graduating, touring North America with several bands for several years before jumping into more traditional jobs.
Though they’ve often been separated by oceans of time and distance, not to mention a literal ocean, the friends have always stayed in touch. In one video chat they realized they’d both taken up craft brewing. At the time it was just another point of commonality, something more to share and talk over.
Two MSUM Grads Walk Into a Bar...
So how do an English education and a film and media major wind up launching a craft beer brewery and taproom together?
“Desperation,” Kapla and Syverson say nearly in unison, laughing easily together at the joke they’ve obviously shared before. Seriously, though, Syverson continues, many conversations ended with them asking each other – “Why not us? Right? Other people are doing this, so why couldn't we?”
After many conversations ended with those same questions, the home brewers agreed: Why not us, indeed.
They figured their best shot at a foundation for a successful business was in a welcoming community that many of their MSUM classmates still call home.
“We have a lot of family here and still have a lot of friends around the area to support us,” Syverson said. “Fargo-Moorhead continues to grow and, as far as we were concerned, there was definitely room for another craft brewery. Besides, there's always room for good beer within the brewing community and the Fargo-Moorhead communities."
It took many long hours and hard work, but by March 2020, the partners were ready to open their figuratively swinging saloon doors.
A Hole-in-the-Door Place
Where were you in March 2020? If you’re like the majority of folks, probably at home trying to avoid COVID-19.
Almost overnight the Swing Barrel taproom opening seemed like a party magic trick: Poof! Gone.
But after a few months, the weather got nice, and the Swing Barrel beer, which they kept brewing despite the pandemic, was flavorful and refreshing. People started stopping by, hoping for a cold one to accompany a quick look at the place. Kapla and Syverson couldn’t let anyone in, but in the knocking they heard opportunity.
The partners bought an inexpensive door, cut a small opening, and installed a makeshift plexiglass portal to take money in and hand out crowlers of beer out without contact. Their first sale was a Honey Blonde Bombshell, a blonde ale, followed by Session One, an amber ale, and Indies 4, a brown ale.
The guys wouldn’t lie – portal sales helped a bit, but when the weather turned cold again even that modest trade froze up. Day to day, the survival of Swing Barrel was in question.
Somehow they made it and finally, in May 2021, they opened with no restrictions.
There’s a lot of story in between, but Kapla and Syverson prefer to focus on the positive. Always.
BE A SWINGER!
On sunny afternoons light flows through Swing Barrel’s bank of south-facing, floor-to-ceiling, nearly wall-to-wall windows. It glimmers off the polished floor and tall stools that line the floor cutout in the spacious taproom, and a bar dominates the north wall. Tables and chairs populate the area between, and the east end features a relatively small but ample stage for live music.
The daily beer selection varies based on the season and whims of the owners and their master brewer, Nic Bordwell, he of the forearm tattoo. Bordwell and an assistant brewer, Cole Field, are former Dragons, too.
“We lean toward more traditional beer that tastes like, well, beer,” Syverson said. “I mean, we're not afraid to go into uncharted territory, but we focus on beer that centers on the social aspect of bringing people together in a place where you can have more than one and enjoy yourself.”
Don’t-take-it-too-seriously fills the place from top to bottom. Consider the names of the brews, like the aforementioned Bombshell, Keymaster Gose Ale (think “Ghostbusters”) and a winter lager homage to a boy and the BB gun he coveted in the holiday cult-classic “A Christmas Story.” Then there’s the loyalty program – “BE A SWINGER!” beckons Swing Barrel’s website and table coasters, inviting patrons to join The Swinger’s Club.
“Yeah, it’s tongue-in-cheek,” says Syverson, the word guy. “It’s provocative, sure, but it’s a pretty harmless joke. And you know, people who like what we're doing get a chuckle out of it. The others, well....”
Kapla jumps in: “It’s beer. I mean... it’s beer. Have some fun with it.”
The same can be said for everything about the Swing Barrel Brewing experience. Have some fun with it. Or, to put it another way –
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