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How The Beer Dabbler Became the Biggest Beer Festival in Minnesota

What began as an excuse to drink beer has become the definitive source for craft brew appreciation.

Beer festivals are a lot of work, and when things are done right it’s hard to notice the planning, coordination, and quantity that goes into it. Since 2008 The Beer Dabbler has reinvented the beer game in Minnesota, nearly stealing the vernacular while mirroring the growth of the local brew scene.

My local brewery was Miller Brewing Company. My neighbors worked there. That was the beer to drink.

When Matt Kenevan, founder of The Beer Dabbler, put on his first festival with the Madison Mallards, Miller Brewing Company was a key player and he wasn’t that big a fan of craft beer himself. "The truth of the matter," he explains, "is my wife is the reason I drink craft beer." Credit Jeannie Kenevan, a run of circumstances that combined his passion for print with his love of craft beer, and the drive to run his own business for the defining beer festivals of Minnesota today.

Bent Paddle from Duluth is just one of craft breweries featured at The Beer Dabbler. Photo by Joy Summers

Bent Paddle is one of the craft breweries featured at The Beer Dabbler.

Kenevan moved to the state nine years ago to help launch The Onion in the Twin Cities. "Along the way I met a lady who is my wife now, and she was working for Summit Brewing Company at the time," he says. By attending her work functions Kenevan was exposed and converted to the craft world. "I started my life in Wisconsin and went to college in Milwaukee," he says. "My local brewery was Miller Brewing Company. My neighbors worked there. That was the beer to drink."

Kenevan’s transition to pumpkin peach ale was gradual.

"It was a different time and a different place," he continues, as craft beer today takes over more and more of the beer coolers. In Milwaukee and Madison, Miller is still a local product and supports the industry. "I’m not embarrassed to say it was my local brewery. The Miller Brewing Company played a healthy role in my festival business being any business. They supported it when not many people did."

Kenevan’s transition to pumpkin peach ale was gradual. Jeannie was a key influence, as were the festivals he began to throw more and more often. The Mallards festival was a one-off, but when he met Jacquie Berglund of Finnegans, she encouraged The Onion-Twin Cities to do more charity work. Finnegans is a beer company that operates as a non-profit, donating 100% of its profits to help community neighbors. This spawned Brewing for the Cause, a quarterly mini-festival that took place at various bars. He began to present the festivals under his own charge, and they continued when The Onion was franchised to Pioneer Press for its final years in print here in the Twin Cities. While Kenevan had a day job, the culture was changing and his prospering festivals were alluring. As he streamlined the process and began to turn a profit, the pull became too strong to resist.

I don’t answer very well to others.

"I had been doing the beer festivals on my own a few years before I left The Onion and it was in preparation to one day leave my full-time job and be completely independent," he says. "I can wear shorts to work and bring my dog with me and be my own boss. I don’t answer very well to others."

The August issue of The Growler. Photo courtesy The Growler's Facebook page

The August issue of The Growler. Photo courtesy The Growler's Facebook page

Now, Kenevan has turned those tables, with others answering to him. The Beer Dabbler is in its eight year. Its sister property The Growlera local beer magazine that prints monthly, is in year three. The Beer Dabbler store, a craft beer enthusiast shop in St. Paul, is two years old. Growing from a non-craft beer drinker into a key player in the local industry is a humbling surprise to Kenevan.

"The truth is that when I started this business I didn’t have a business plan," he explains, despite co-conspirator Joe Alton’s pleas for one. "I put a lot of thought into things, but I liked the choose-your-own adventure books. When you come to a cross point, if you have a business plan that says this then your path is already decided. For me, I didn’t know it was going to turn into what it’s turned into. I’m a person who likes opportunities when they present themselves. I don’t necessary give long thought to things."

Poster for The Summer Beer Dabbler. Photo courtesy of The Beer Dabbler

Poster for The Summer Beer Dabbler. Photo courtesy of The Beer Dabbler

He says, "When I started I didn’t find instant success and it pushed me to be better." He recalls that breweries, distributors, and others weren’t always on his side in the early days. "That evolved in a way I’m very proud of." Now he finds the word "dabbler" used as a common noun, with competing festivals interchanging his brand with the word "festival."

Of course, he’s legally entitled to the term and he protects that right but, "it’s humbling and warming inside to know you’re being looked at as the big brother and they want to do what you’re doing." In 2015 there’s a beer festival every weekend, and they’re seemingly all taking note of Kenevan and The Beer Dabbler. "I don’t have a flawless record of perfect events, but I think now we’ve got the formula down pretty well," he says. "It’s refreshing to be at that point where you don’t lose hours of sleep—for weeks and months leading up to an event. I certainly did that before." With the upcoming seventh annual Summer Beer Dabbler this Saturday at CHS Field in St. Paul, he’s found a calling where he can feed his passion, clad in shorts with his dog at his side.

- by Loren Green