Know your bartender: Stephen Vander Wal

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We hadn’t been open very long, so it was probably late June of last year. This was my first shift with Stephen Vander Wal, whom I did not know very well (even though we would later figure out that we had recently been across-the-street neighbors). I was trying to figure out what sort of person I was working with. I knew he was an enthusiastic home brewer, and I had an inkling that he was an engineer of some sort, but that was it.

Shortly after the beginning of our shift, a man walked into the brewery wearing some very bright, almost neon-yellow shoes. Steph greeted him politely and when the man responded Steph looked at him and said, “I’m sorry, I can’t hear you. Your shoes are so loud!”

That’s when I figured it out. Stephen Vander Wal: Very smart. Great lover of beer. King of the Dad Jokes.

Need more? Ask him where he grew up.

“Ogden, Utah,” he’ll tell you. “About an hour north of Salt Lake City. If Salt Lake City is the heart, Ogden is the liver.”

As funny as he (thinks) he is, he’s also a very talented engineer who specializes in designing… wait for it…

Breweries!

He’s a contract engineer, which is a fancy way to say “freelancer.” So, if I’m an aspiring brewer, and I go to Steph and ask him to help me build a facility to make my beer, what is he going to ask me?

“I’m going to ask you where you want to put the brewery. Then I’ll ask how many competitors do you think you’re going to have? Which will lead to ‘How big are you going to go? What are you trying to do? Are you going to make regular, everyday beers, or are you going to go 10% all day everyday?’ So, the answers to those questions will stipulate how we build a system.”

Then he’ll go to work.

“I do all the manufacturing drawings and plans for the tank manufacturers. So, I tell them how much steel they need and how to put it together.”

Essentially, he’s the guy who designs the tanks, gives the manufacturers the shopping list, and writes the instructions for how to put the tanks together. It’s a pretty impressive skill, but isn’t it sort of a niche thing?

“Well, I work with several manufacturers. And breweries are just one aspect of my business. I do after market trunk bumpers. I do cast iron skillets. I’ve done disposable razors. I’ll do anything. I’m open. I’m game.”

Steph went to school in Utah, which is where he met his wife, Lisa. After they graduated, they lived in Oregon for a number of years, before deciding that they wanted to be closer to Lisa’s family in Wisconsin.

“We just sort of landed here. We got into our cars in Oregon, my wife and me and our two-year-old daughter, and said the goal was to land in the Twin Cities. If we made it there, great, and if not, we’d just set up shop where were. “

Not being able to resist the opportunity for another Dad Joke he added, “Now, if we had broken down in the middle of Wyoming we may have had to think twice about that plan.”

“But we made it,” he continued. “We got to the Cities and were staying with some of Lisa’s family. We started looking around, found a place in Northfield and thought ‘Yeah, this works.’

“Another year later we bought a house, and now we’re finally dropping some roots. This is our seventh house in eight years. We’re ready to be settled.”

He and his family have found Northfield to be the perfect spot for both work and family.

“My background, prior to doing this design work, was in medical devices and orthopedic implants. So, if this goes to hell, I’ll have some fallback in the medical device field in either the Cities or in Rochester. If I ever do need to get what my wife calls ‘a real job,’ then I would be okay.”

He’s been a home brewer since he was 21 (or as he puts it, “Let’s just say since I was 21.”) With a full time job, a part time job and a hobby all centered beer, it’s not a great jump to assume that he’s a man who enjoys a good beer.

“I’m always a sucker for a good pale ale, so I’ve got that locked down. Being out west, it was the big IPA’s, and I love those. I’ll chase after a caisson anytime, or an oatmeal stout. I really haven’t come across a beer that I would turn away.”

But make no mistake; he’s a family man first and foremost. It isn’t just the corny jokes that give that away.

“Ultimately, the reason I decided to go into this contract work is to be able to be with the kids while they’re young. Having two little girls is a party every day,” he said.

“So far, things are working out. We’re in a good spot.”