Feature Story

A Hobby Brews Into a Business


A multi-year beer brewing hobby has evolved into a full-fledged operation for Caleb Fenske. His passion project, Lost Sanity Brewing, is located on Main Street right in the heart of Madelia, Minn. Fenske co-owns the brewery with his father, Doug Fenske.

The Madelia native embarked on his beer brewing journey in 2004 when he happened upon a home brew kit at Don’s Hobby Shop in Mankato, Minn. A tried and true light lager drinker, Fenske wanted to see what the growing interest in craft beers was all about.

“I thought it would be cool to learn about different beers, so I bought a kit,” Fenske said.

And the rest, they say, is history.

“The first beer I made with my kit was an Amber Ale because I discovered that you couldn’t just buy a Miller Light beer kit,” he said with a laugh. “My brother, Nathan, had an idea that we should buy a six-pack of beer that we knew we liked and a six-pack of beer we knew nothing about to learn the differences. That way, if we didn’t like it, we were only out four beers. That’s how we determined what type of beer kits to buy.”

Eventually, the Fenskes got to a point where they were making decent beer from scratch versus from a kit using an all-grain system.

“You take your raw ingredients and make your own malt sugar or wort, which is unfermented beer,” Fenske said. “Then, you add your yeast and let it do its work, and in a few weeks, you have beer.”

Experimenting with different beer types resulted in different beer flavors, some of which, Fenske admits, were awful when he first began home brewing. A researcher by trade (Fenske works full-time for MNDOT researching roadway materials for future structures), he dove headfirst into learning why some of his beers tasted different than others.

“The pale ale we first made was fantastic, but a couple of batches tasted off,” he said. “We knew we needed to figure out why so we started to look at different reasons and possibilities.”

A self-taught brewer, Fenske said he began “nerding out” on water chemistry. He took a deep dive into various podcasts and books on the science behind brewing. Eventually, he figured out that the issue was his water source. Like much of the water within 50 miles of the town, Madelia’s water is hard, making it difficult to brew and negatively impacting the beer’s taste, Fenske said.

“It has to do with the aquifers in the water,” Fenske said. “We learned how to mitigate that issue and started to blend city water with distilled water to enhance the flavor. Beer is 90 percent water, so using good flavored water and adjusting its flavor can change the beer’s taste dramatically.”

In 2011, Fenske purchased equipment for his home brewing operation. It included various parts, cabinets and a drill press so he and Nathan could automate their beer-making process. Using programmable logic control, he soft-coded his garage equipment to send him an email when it was time for the next step in the batch.

“This programmable logic control system was made for brewers, and a lot of home brewers were buying the system at the time,” Fenske said. “I was trying to get to a point where we could … take the human element out of it. If the difference was me turning a lever to make the beer better, I wanted to do that so I could focus on the recipe and other parameters. It really improved things so we could focus on the details that mattered the most.”

Home brewing opened Fenske’s eyes to the multitude of existing beers, and he began to entertain the idea of moving his brewery operation outside his home. At the time, he was working on an expansion idea with a friend. But, unfortunately, his friend died from cancer before they could make it a reality, and Fenske moved his vision to the back burner.

Fenske eventually revisited the idea with his father, who has a business background. He knew his dad’s experience would help with the day-to-day tasks, and he wanted to be business partners. Doug agreed, and Lost Sanity officially opened its doors in 2018.

“My Dad works full time, too,” Fenske said. “When I was thinking about opening the business, people kept saying, ‘You’re going to run a business and keep your regular job? That’s crazy!’ And that’s where the name Lost Sanity came from. It’s funny how a hobby can turn into a business.”

As the brewery started taking shape, the father/son duo looked for a building to purchase in Mankato, but they had difficulty finding the perfect location due to price. Both felt it was essential to self-fund their brewery venture to the greatest extent possible.

“We didn’t want to have to rely on a lot of investors,” he said. “I’ve heard a lot of horror stories about brewers that can’t make a decision because there are just too many people that have a say in how things go. My dad and I wanted to avoid that. So it started out with just him and me. He operated the front room and the books, and I would operate the back room making beers, and we didn’t tell each other what to do or how to work.”

Today, other than a few employees, the brewery is entirely family-run. Fenske’s brother and his brother’s wife both work in the business, helping with beer sales and deliveries. His wife schedules the company’s employees. Fenske jokes that his youngest son, Timothy, is the assistant brewer because he can do nearly as much work as his father.

“He can clean the tanks exactly how they need to be done and set them up for the next batch,” Fenske said. “He can do just about everything except make the beer.”

With a set budget in mind, the Fenskes set their sights on Madelia, where they toured two spaces. The space they are currently in wasn’t available at the time, but they knew it was empty. Using his small-town connections, Fenske reached out to the owner. Within three weeks, they were closing on the building.

“We’re right on Main Street, and we love that,” Fenske said. “Nothing will take us away from Main Street. It would be a big decision, and a difficult decision, to move it away.”

However, the 129-year-old former pharmacy building turned brewery isn’t without its quirks.

“There’s not a ton of space behind the building,” Fenske said. “All of the grain, which is extremely heavy, has to be hauled in and out through a single door. It’s a funny thing. When we started …I thought about all of the cool equipment I would get to start using. Five years later, all I want is a garage door.”

The brewery business is going well, Fenske said. In fact, it’s going better than expected.

“We didn’t plan on sizing up the amount of beer I could make because I also have a full-time job. But I didn’t want to be at the brewery constantly brewing either,” Fenske said. “I reached out to an acquaintance at Montgomery Brewing, and they suggested I go bigger on my equipment.”

Fenske took their advice and opted for bigger tanks, which have worked in his favor.

“I thought, if we’re going to the well, let’s take a big drink,” he said. “We’ve now expanded to two additional tanks that are twice as big as the ones we originally bought.”

Looking back, Fenske thought he would have at least five years before he needed to buy more equipment. However, just three years later, he’s already purchased new tanks, and he’s currently waiting for a new semi-automatic canner to be delivered.

Lost Sanity currently offers patrons 13 taps — 12 beers and one seltzer option. The seltzer is unique in that it doesn’t have flavor when brewed. Instead, customers can choose their flavor via a pump, similar to a French soda stream.

“We decided to go with a blank slate for a seltzer option because if someone comes to our brewery and doesn’t like beer, we likely have a flavor pump that fits their pallet,” Fenske said. “We have a bunch of different flavor options behind the bar and can turn one tap into a flavor to fit people’s different tastes.”

Having brewed more than 80 different kinds of beer, when it comes to deciding what type of beer to offer, Fenske said it’s a process of trial and error.

“We really have to pay attention to what other breweries are brewing, and I also peruse the beer aisle in liquor stores to see what new trends are going on,” explained Fenske. “It’s a little bit of what we like as a brewery and a lot of what our customers like.”

When he started down the brewery path, Fenske received some sage advice that has stuck with him to this day.

“I was told, ‘The second you go from a home brewer to a brewery owner, you’ve stopped making beer and started selling beer,'” he said. “It’s not about what I want, what my brother wants, or what my dad wants; it’s about what the customers want. That’s how we pick what to brew.”

If choosing which beers to brew is hard, Fenske found naming them even more challenging.

“We didn’t have a clue how to name our beers at first,” he admitted. “Picking names is difficult for so many breweries.”

As Fenske came up with a name, he’d pop it into Google, only to often find another beer already using that name.

“In 2019-2020, if the name was being used across the pond in a different country, I would still use it,” he said. “In 2021 and 2022, if the name was used across the coast in the United States, I would still use it. There are so many names out there that you really don’t have a choice. If it doesn’t cross distribution lines, I’ll use it. If I’m getting that big that I’m selling beer in California, that’s a good problem to have.”

Lost Sanity’s beer names don’t typically have a theme, but Fenske said he does like to have fun with them.

“I have a friend who said he would start drinking responsibly if someone makes a beer named ‘Responsibly,'” Fenske said. “So, I made a beer and named it ‘Responsibly,’ and I made another beer and named it ‘Occasionally,’ so you can drink both responsibly and occasionally.”

The most rewarding part of owning Lost Sanity is seeing the brewery’s customers come in and enjoy something he created.

“That’s what really keeps me going; talking to all of our patrons and people that are stopping by as a one-off visit when they’re just passing through town,” he said. “It’s awesome to watch people enjoy your product while making the best product you can.”

However, Fenske said that operating his own brewery doesn’t come without its surprises.

“That’s the hardest part,” he said. “It’s like finding out how the sausage is made. It’s the background, the rules, regulations and paperwork you have to do. A lot of the paperwork is intended for larger facilities, but it’s a necessary evil. If we want to succeed, we have to do it, so we do. It’s all about being flexible and having an open mind about things.”

Lost Sanity’s owners make it a point to incorporate locally sourced ingredients whenever possible. Fenske purchases honey from Moody Bees Honey out of Madelia. He buys hops from Tonne Century Farms out of Fairmont, Minn. Even though the local hop producer can’t provide as much of the ingredient as they need, Fenske can make two to three batches of beer with each purchase.

“These people live in our communities,” he said. “If I get to choose who to give my money to, I’d rather choose someone in my community. Someone whose hand I can physically shake and can potentially collaborate with later. These are the people that you build connections with, and then you find out other unique things that they do.”

Lost Sanity beers are sold at the brewery, as well as at area bars and restaurants. It is also available at Cork & Key Wine and Bottle Shop in Mankato. Expanding to more liquor stores is on the horizon for Fenske, who has been spending a lot of his time learning about his partially-automated canner.

“I’m still hand canning right now,” he said. “I’m hoping to get more liquor store accounts soon, and that will be a whole new adventure. Most of my free time last month was spent learning more about canning, packaging, selling and labeling. …There’s a lot more to this than people realize, and you don’t realize it until you start jumping in. But there’s only one way to eat an elephant, and that’s to take a bite.”

Fenske encourages people to stop at Lost Sanity and experience what the town and brewery have to offer.

“Come and see what we’re all about,” he said. “Aside from big box stores, there’s not a lot that we don’t have. We have a pool, park right off the river, museum, movie theater, great restaurants and a bowling alley. We have a lot. We truly do. So come on and out and enjoy us.”

Sidebar: Giving back

In addition to his full-time job and co-owning Lost Sanity, Fenske is also a volunteer firefighter for the City of Madelia. He decided to join as a result of being more involved in the community through the brewery.

“Firefighting is always something I wanted to do, but I was working out of town and couldn’t make enough of the calls that came through,” he said. “With COVID-19, with all the negatives came some positives, like the proof of concept of working from home. Because I can work from home more, I can make the required number of calls per year needed to volunteer for the fire department.”

Now that Fenske has, as he called it, the volunteer bug in his blood, he is also starting EMS training. He said the additional training would be beneficial when the fire department receives calls for help.

“When someone dials 9-1-1, and we have to roll out of town, it means someone is having a really bad day,” he said. “As a firefighter, you hope that when we get there, we can stop them from having a bad day. The best days for a fire department are the days they don’t have to take the trucks out because it means they didn’t get a call that help was needed.”

Fenske enjoys the camaraderie that comes with being a volunteer firefighter and encourages others to do the same if possible.

“If you’re thinking about it, raise your hand to volunteer,” he said. “You won’t regret it.”


The Essentials:

Lost Sanity Brewing Company

Address: 12 W Main Street, Madelia, MN 56062

Phone: 507-642-2337

Web: lostsanitybrewing.com

Anna Vangsness

A freelance writer from New Ulm.