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Lehrkes plan to turn Red Rock Saloon into 'brewpub'

Cottage Grove residents and local elected officials Derrick and Autumn Lehrke plan to renovate the Red Rock Saloon into a brewery and pub called Opinion Brewing Company. (Bulletin photo by Emily Buss)

As the palette of today’s beer drinker is becoming increasingly more refined and small breweries pop up all over the Twin Cities, Cottage Grove residents and local elected officials Derrick and Autumn Lehrke are looking to capitalize on the popular trend.

The longtime home brewers, who got a knack for creating their own craft beers in their basement nearly five years ago, have a vision for the outdated Red Rock Saloon in Newport. They plan to buy it and develop a full scale brewery and pub called Opinion Brewing Company.

The “brewpub” concept combines a traditional pub setting which serves food with an on-site brewery to create a dining and social experience for patrons.

The name of the brewpub, the couple said, is a wordplay off their jobs as local politicians and the fact that the property has a bowling alley.

“We started with the idea of incorporating the word pin in it because of the bowling alley and then we liked the idea of ‘You sell us your opinions and we’ll sell you beer,’” Derrick said. “It’s the double entendre that we liked and we decided on Opinion Brewing Company.”

“Plus when you’re tasting beers you’re always asking each other your opinions,” Autumn added. “Is it too hoppy? Is it too bitter? Those kinds of questions form opinions about the beers.”

The brewpub will have 15 of the Lehrkes’ own craft beers on tap as well as a variety of other standard tap beers, liquor and wine. A minimal menu of pizza and bar fare is expected to grow over time, they said.

Earlier this spring, the couple began scouting sites for a potential brewpub.

“At first we wanted it to be in Cottage Grove because we live here,” Derrick explained. “I grew up here, I’ve lived here my whole life. But we knew we wanted to keep it local.”

They looked at property on the historic downtown strip in Hastings and land adjacent from the 61 Marine & Sports shop along Highway 61. The Lehrkes even went as far as to begin paperwork on the roughly seven acres in Cottage Grove.

In anticipation of building on the site, Derrick, a Cottage Grove City Council member, abstained from a November vote during which 61 Marine & Sports requested approval for a building expansion.

The council approved the expansion request.

The couple also thought about turning the empty, half-constructed Famous Dave’s site in Cottage Grove into a brewery.

Then, Autumn said, roughly six weeks ago the Red Rock Saloon “suddenly became available and we jumped.”

Longtime owners Kay and John Seliga, who purchased the establishment in the late 1950s, were in need of new owners after the death of a family member who was expected to take over the business.

“We literally stumbled upon the property,” Autumn said.

But shortly after deciding to purchase the establishment, concern about a potential conflict of interest arose.

As a Washington County commissioner whose district includes Newport, Autumn and other County Board members were to vote on funding for the Newport Transit Station. With the Red Rock Saloon being along the Red Rock Corridor route of planned express bus service and future bus rapid transit, Autumn said she recognized that the situation could be viewed as a potential conflict.

Autumn had expressed support for the transit project and serves on the Red Rock Corridor Commission, so her decision last month to abstain from a County Board vote on the Newport Transit Station surprised some residents. Critics, including a Bulletin letter to the editor writer, said she wasn’t serving her constituents by pursuing a personal business venture and not voting on the transit project.

She dismissed the criticism.

“I spent the last three years developing plans for a cost-effective transportation solution for this region,” she explained. “I have supported this project from the very start. The fact that some people have said that I have been unsupportive is a bald-faced lie.”

Autumn said she consulted with the Washington County Attorney’s Office prior to the vote and was given permission to vote, but said she abstained because she didn’t want to be a swing vote on the funding measure.

“I was told that because the saloon is not in (a)  future development area that I was allowed to vote,” she added. “When this came up, I contacted all the mayors, even constituents in Ramsey County. I did my due diligence.

“Contrary to belief, this wasn’t a big secret,” Autumn added. “This was a freak of nature occurrence. We didn’t know the saloon would be available.”

Pioneering the brewing process in south Washington County

In hopes of becoming the county’s first brewpub, the Lehrkes have spent the last six weeks securing building permits and conducting health inspections at the 12,000-square-foot facility.

Last week, the Newport City Council approved the transfer of the liquor license to the couple along with its unanimous support.

An extensive interior renovation is expected to begin in January, Derrick said, which will give both the bar area and eight-lane bowling alley a facelift.

The roughly 6,000-square-foot bowling area will be the brewhouse where the brewing process will take place. With two of the eight lanes unrepairable, the couple plans to remove them and install four fermenters in their place.

“We will start with four but hope to grow the process,” Derrick said.

The bowling alley is expected to remain open while the brewery begins to take shape, but will eventually be removed.

Hardwood floors will replace the existing tile flooring in the bar area and all four bathrooms will be reconstructed.

While the couple said they want to keep some of the nostalgic aspects of the establishment, a $10,000 grant from the Newport Economic Development Authority, which the couple will match, will help update the building’s exterior.

“That will help us remodel the front facade,” Derrick said, adding that they want to make the front door more visible. “There is no signage as to which is the front and (the exterior) really needs a facelift.”

The wood paneling on the interior is also expected to come down.

“We have a lot of work to do,” Autumn said.

The operation will remain open during the renovations, the couple said, and should be completed later in 2014.

“We really encourage people to keep coming back to the saloon and also come back when we’re done with the renovations,” Autumn said.

What’s on tap?

With years of home brewing under their belt and countless brewery tours attended, the Lehrkes said they want to provide a long list of beers that will appease even the snobbiest of beer snobs.

“We really want to run the gamut with our selections,” Derrick said. “From ales and stouts to blondes and lighter beers, we want to do it all.”

While the 15 have yet to be nailed down, they do have a name for Opinion Brewing Company’s first tap: Pioneer.

Another wordplay, the couple said they want the signature beer to not only be remembered as the original tap but also tie it into Newport’s history.

“There is Newport’s Pioneer Day and we really liked the tie-in,” Derrick said. “We’re not sure yet if it will be an IPA or if it will be a blonde. But that’s where the opinion comes in.”

The couple plans to enlist the help of citizens through a poll to decide what kind of beer Pioneer should be as well as what other kinds of taps the brewpub should create in the future.

“We want this place to be friendly to the beer snob but also cater to those who just want a Bud Light,” Derrick said. “And we want to be mindful that this is not a place where we are going to be talking politics. We want patrons to come in here and be themselves and enjoy good beer.”

“We’re here to serve you drinks,” Autumn echoed.

The couple, who said they are deeply rooted in their community, also plan to give back to charities in the area though the creation of a special brew or donating a percentage of their annual earnings.

“We also want this to be a place where we can hold beer festivals and other events,” Derrick said.

“We have a lot of ideas for this place,” Autumn added. “It’s not every day that you get to turn your hobby into a business.”