In 1996, a young man named Mike Frohlich was serving tables in Dickinson, North Dakota. Dickinson is a small city in the southwest of the state with a population of just over 25,000. It was about half the size at the turn of the millennium, making it one of the state’s fastest-growing areas while still retaining its midwestern charm and comfort.
The restaurant where Frohlich was working had an in-house brewer. According to Mike, the brewer asked him one day if he’d be interested in learning how to brew small batches of beer, and Frohlich’s response was that of most college students: absolutely.
Slowly, Mike worked his way up from waiting tables to bartending while envisioning exactly where he wanted to land later in life – brewing beer.
Over the years, his dedication to crafting beer went beyond the beverages themselves. Mike was instrumental in passing a statute for both brewing and taprooms in North Dakota, making it easier and more appealing for small, local breweries to pop up.
By 2012, Frohlich had put the pieces of his longtime dream together and opened his brewery in Bismarck, North Dakota. The state’s capital, Bismarck, sits roughly one hundred miles due east of Dickinson. Despite having almost triple the population of Dickinson, it was missing a brewery.
It is called Laughing Sun. In German, Frohlich translates to happy or joyous. To Mike, laughing perfectly captures that energy. While not rooted in his name, the sun is far from randomly chosen. “The sun doesn’t question, doesn’t judge,” Frohlich told a local news outlet. The sun “doesn’t ask for anything in return, it just gives its energy.” Despite opening the brewery itself, Mike’s next goal was to create a different kind of brewery focused on giving back to the community in several ways, one of which being authentic connection.
As Frohlich puts it, “It’s more than selling you a glass of beer over the bar.” It boils down to community, something Laughing Sun has been able to foster, but not without the example Mike sets. “If I’m behind the bar, there’s a likely chance I’m going to know your name or that I’ve seen you before…that sense of community makes people feel like they are a part of something.”
The ethos extends into Laughing Sun’s product offerings, sourcing 95% of their malt from North Dakota. This may seem like a no-brainer, and a high margin on local ingredient sourcing is rare in the brewing industry, particularly if brewers want to maximize their profits.
The brewmaster says it pays off in the long run by avoiding a purely profit-margin-focused approach. His focus is on small, local businesses supporting each other, which creates prosperity in the region. What better way to make people feel welcome than brewing with ingredients from their home state?
Laughing Sun also donates spent grain – a massive byproduct of brewing – to local co-ops for chicken feed. For background, when hops, barley, and malt are fermented, processed, and their liquid extracted, what’s left behind is an oatmeal-like substance that is typically disposed. It doesn’t contain alcohol content, though, and is still nutritious enough for mixing into livestock feed. So, donating this substance limits waste and furthers a circular economy.
Mike’s efforts hardly stop at the beer and conversation. Laughing Sun strives to run entirely on wind energy, sourcing certified wind power from just above Baldwin, ND, a short drive on state Route 83. Suppose that wasn’t enough local flavor to convince customers that this could be the country’s most hospitable. Even the building’s walls are a tribute to Bismarck. Local artists can showcase their art to patrons as they sip their freshly brewed craft beer.
Frohlick says it’s a collaborative effort. He provides the space and the opportunity to build something special, but in his words, “It’s all about the people who come in here and give it energy…so, kudos to them.”