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We Grabbed a Beer With the Guy Who Built Your Favorite Twin Cities Taprooms

With 30 breweries, cideries, and distilleries to his name, general contractor James Lee is the man the Twin Cities turns to when it needs a new place to drink.

James Figy|

This is James Lee. James Lee builds breweries. *Lots* of breweries.

One of the most valuable lessons James Lee learned about being a general contractor didn’t come from a job site, a former boss, or a trade rag. It came from playing lead guitar in a hip-hop band of “eight white kids from Montana.”

The Side Project toured the country and opened for Atmosphere multiple times, but their name referenced how they all played in country cover bands to make ends meet. “As a musician, you have the bands that you'd like to play in and then you have the bands that pay the bills,” Lee says.

While he quit the band before it achieved mild success as Eightrack Mind, Lee took away this insight: If you’re doing something you love, with people you like, and it pays well, then you’re very lucky.

Today, Lee builds breweries. Lots of breweries. But he’s more likely to attend the Craft Brewers Conference or Great American Beer Fest than any construction trade show. Terms like “phenols” and “esters” spill from Lee’s mouth as easily as “framing” or “HVAC.” 

One recent Saturday afternoon, we chatted as we sipped light lagers at Venn Brewing Company. Lee could tell stories for hours, and you’d probably let him.

He knows everyone in the scene and recounts tales from a decade spent building more than 30 breweries, cideries, and distilleries in the Twin Cities: Falling Knife Brewing, Minneapolis Cider Co., Brother Justus Whiskey Co. Those are on top of other restaurant and entertainment venue projects that he’s tackled, first on the payroll of Building Assets in Minneapolis, and then at his own construction firm, Modify.

Brother Justus presented James Lee with a bottle labeled “Builder’s Reserve” that comes with unlimited refills. Not bad!

At 43, Lee has a collection of happenstances he refers to as “Forrest Gump moments.” Moving to Germany for eight months in 2000, and doing odd jobs for the dad of a guy he randomly smoked a joint with. Working in a cabinet shop in Breckenridge, Colorado. Taking a job near San Antonio manufacturing massive timber beams like the kind you’d see in a ski chalet.

In 2012, Lee applied at Building Assets in Minneapolis, a top firm for restaurants and other industries. He knew little about beer, and not much more about construction. The company founder flipped through his portfolio, then said, “Awesome. What else have you done?” They gave him the job, with a caveat: He had a lot to learn.

Building Assets had just completed Dangerous Man Brewing Co. and brought in Lee on the next project, Insight Brewing Co. The learning curve was steep, but he quickly became friends with co-founder Eric Schmidt. When he saw how the brewing community celebrated Insight’s opening night, he knew he wanted to be a part of that world.

Working on Tattersall Distillery, Lee met architect Aaron Wittkamper, founder and design lead at WITTKAMPER Studio. They vibed, then worked on Wild Mind together, and more projects after that.

“Aaron is one of those people who is an actual genius,” Lee says. “His mind works differently from other people’s. He’s incredible to work with."

They have four projects together right now, and the admiration is mutual. “I love working with James, as he brings a client-focused mentality to the job,” says Wittkamper. “He emphasizes quality and offers a good-natured working relationship.”

Next came BlackStack, HeadFlyer Brewing, and Venn, where, approaching the taproom, I spot Lee outside, unloading boxes from a pallet. “How many contractors do you know who help their brewers load in fruit puree?” asks Kyle Sisco, Venn’s head brewer and CEO.

Looking around Venn’s south Minneapolis taproom, Lee gets caught up in memories of late nights hanging out with Sisco.

“This was the one that really showed me what [a microbrewery] can be,” he says. “If you put a lot of thought into it, you can make a really beautiful manufacturing system and a really beautiful taproom—and make them work in synergy with each other. And you can do it better if you know how it works.”

Venn has even been the site of major personal moments: Lee was married on its brewdeck by Suresh Graf of Wooden Ship Brewing Co., and had his baby shower in the taproom this year.

Sisco says that when Venn needs to fix something or is considering reinvestments, they turn to Lee to do the work or to give advice.

“When it comes to breweries and building in the Twin Cities, there isn’t really anyone that compares to James. He’s done more breweries and distilleries than anyone I’m aware of,” Sisco says. “As a result, he’s kind of the center of our social network. Many of the people I know in the industry, I know through James.”

Soon, Lee started bringing in his own clients. He ran the projects at Bricksworth Beer Co., Luce Line Brewing, and Wooden Ship, and he renovated or expanded many others, building a team of subcontractors and artisans along the way. Heavy Rotation Brewing, Broken Clock Brewing, Badger Hill Brewing, Omni, Modist, Utepils—if Lee wasn't involved in the buildout of the taproom itself, he's since been involved in ancillary work, from taproom renovations to brewhouse expansions.

Lee and his team care about their work, and they’re good at it. But they also know each other, each other’s kids’ names, and look out for the crew. That’s not typical.

“Right before I started my company, I realized construction is my medium, but I deal in relationships,” Lee says. “My gift is recognizing talent and being able to motivate that talent.”

Lee continued to hone his knowledge of brewing and beer styles from hanging out with people like Sisco and Schmidt. He drank mixed fermentation sours that Mat Waddell of BlackStack served in test tubes in his basement.

“Beer was everywhere when I was growing up. My parents homebrewed, but I still didn't have any clue as to all the different stuff that’s considered beer,” he says.

In May 2022, after roughly a decade with Building Assets, Lee struck out on his own. He was grateful for the experience and modeled his own word-of-mouth marketing off their approach. (His online presence amounts to an Instagram account with just one post, which he shared before he started Modify.) But he wanted to own his work.

I met Lee on his very first Modify project, at the new Wandering Leaf Brewing Co. in St. Paul. While I was interviewing the owners for a different article, someone behind a tower of Insight kegs yelled, “Don’t forget to mention your awesome contractor.” Then he slipped out. Lee had connected them with Schmidt, of course, to get those kegs.

At Venn, Lee shows where he signed his initials JL in the epoxy on the floor, right before covering them with one of the mash tun’s feet. James Figy

“People very highly recommended James,” says Rob Reisdorf, co-owner of Wandering Leaf. “He understands the industry really well and how to put all the parts together.”

Lee lights up talking about Wandering Leaf: “That one’s nearly perfect.” Still, it took years of effort and mistakes. He applied lessons like not to put the boiler for a steam-fired brew system all the way across the building, because steam piping is super expensive. For this reason, he’s also a preferred vendor for several brewing equipment manufacturers.

Sometimes Lee quietly marks the letters "JL" somewhere out of sight. Still, he loves when Modify stickers pop up at taprooms across the Twin Cities. Brad Randall of the former Stacked Deck Brewing Co.designed that orange logo. Seeing them in new places confirms he’s not just a vendor but part of the brewing community.

Whether he’s working with them or not, Lee loves hanging out with brewers. They’re artists, in his mind. While no one he knows is getting rich, they’re doing what they’re passionate about with people they like. And so is he.

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