There's something new brewing in the back room of Thirsty Pagan. Head brewer Kathleen Culhane, who started the job June 25, has been adding her own creative concoctions to the brew pub's signature craft beers.
"The first one I brought out was a slight variation on a beer that I call Barking Cat," she said. "It's a Belgian strong, 9.3 percent."
There's a rye IPA, a cream ale called Chaise Lounge, a posh take on Thirsty Pagan's house beer Lawnchair, and Culhane's favorite beer, A Superior Stout. An Octoberfest lager is on tap as well.
"She's awesome," kitchen manager Matt Trischler said. "She's got all of our house beers back on. She's got her own beer and she's doing it all by herself. She's a rock star, for sure."
On Tuesday, Sept. 18, she was busy making North Coast Amber in with the seven-barrel brewhouse equipment, pared down to six barrels to fit the available serving tanks. She tested the pH level, runoff gravity (or sugar level) and temperature from the huge metal drums.
"Yoo, hoo," she shouted after peering through a refractometer. "Nice. We are damn-near perfect."
Thirsty Pagan Brewing owner Steve Knauss called Culhane dynamic and very efficient.
"We love her enthusiasm and her wit," he said. "We haven't had this much excitement in the brewery for quite some time and the whole staff is affected by it."
The head brewer brings both an analytical mind and a creative streak to the Superior business, as well as decades of experience. Culhane began home brewing in the mid-1990s - about the time she earned her bachelor's degree in chemistry. She called it a "natural hobby."
"One of the reasons I started home brewing in the first place was because I wanted beer that tasted good," Culhane said. "In the '90s, if you wanted a beer that tasted good, you had to make it."
Her work history is varied. An Army National Guard veteran, she's deconstructed corn kernels into usable products for both a small startup company and 3M, worked at a beer production plant, the University of Iowa and a starch company. In 2014, she opened her own brew pub, Sidhe, in St. Paul.
Prior to that, Culhane built a small production brewery in her basement to practice, paying for the 10-gallon Brewtus with plasma and holding huge house parties to test her beers.
"I bled for my art," Culhane said.
She also found a mentor in Superior, Thirsty Pagan's former head brewer Allyson Rolph, who is now co-head brewer for Superior's Earth Rider Brewery.
"It is important to me that I uphold the standards that Allyson taught," Culhane said.
Helming a craft brewhouse allows her to tweak recipes and experiment.
"Tinkering to me is everything," Culhane said.
Brewing, she said, is a form of magic. Each of the Wiccan ritual elements is represented in the process-water, grain for earth, hops for air and yeast for fire. They combine to make spirit, or alcohol. It's a process she loves.
"There's the essence of creativity but there's also, because I document everything, I know if I make something that's really, really, really good I can create it again and again and again," Culhane said. "To me, reproducibility is a mark of high art."
She's hopes to work with Trischler to pair specially-crafted beer and food for a brewer dinner in February.
"He seems to be as passionate about food as I am about beer," Culhane said.
They make a good team, she said.
"People come here for the food and the beer, so it's got to pair out well and people are loving it," Trischler said.
Culhane and her wife have moved to Superior and look forward to exploring the nearby nature and ski trails. The city reminds the brewer of her hometown near Brookings, South Dakota.
"Superior is about the size of Brookings," Culhane said. "I like the fact that everybody knows everybody. I'm used to that kind of environment; I grew up in it."
A transgender woman, she appreciates the open reception she's received in the Twin Ports. Culhane expects it to be her home for a long time.
"I don't plan on leaving the Thirsty Pagan," she said.
That's fine with Knauss.
"Customers will truly enjoy speaking with her and drinking the pure, straight-forward beer she creates," he said. "Combined with her following from her first brewery and the fantastic, loyal customers we have, many people will be talking about her for years to come."