Microbreweries flourish across the state

Wisconsin State Roundup

Published January 1, 1996  | January 1996 issue

Wisconsin, long known as a center of beer brewing, is becoming home to a host of microbreweries that are changing the face of the industry.

In 1986 there were nine total breweries in the state, now there are 25, including large and small breweries, according to state beer production figures. Microbreweries, which produce 15,000 or fewer barrels annually, are contributing to that growth: A new microbrewery opened in Green Bay in early December, and several others are expected to begin operations over the next few months.

"Micros are giving the industry a shot in the arm," says Tom Sheforgen, Wisconsin Wholesale Beer Distributors Association executive vice president. The beer industry overall is flat, partially due to the aging of the baby boomers, says Sheforgen, adding that the biggest market is 24- to 35-year-olds. "[Micros] offer people a variety," Sheforgen adds, noting that the large breweries are adding to the market by reviving or creating specialty brews of their own.

Kelly McDowell, legislative counsel to the Wisconsin State Brewers Association, agrees. "Microbreweries attract a new kind of customer. And while brewing over the years has become more corporate in nature," McDowell says, "microbreweries have reversed that trend and bring a local flavor to the industry."

Viking Brewery, which plans to begin distributing its products next spring, is moving into an old creamery in Dallas, a town of 450 about 30 miles north of Menomonie in northwestern Wisconsin. Randy Lee, Viking president, says he's been a home brewer for 11 or 12 years and is an engineer by trade. Brewing is "a hobby gone astray," he says. Lee chose Dallas largely because of the quality of its water. "The big breweries don't need to worry about that; they can simply recreate it," says Lee, but for a small brewer the chemical makeup of the water is important.

Viking plans to market its products in a 50-mile radius of Dallas, including Hayward, which is the center of a tourist region. Future expansion might extend to River Falls and Hudson, on the edge of the Twin Cities metro area, Lee says. "The market isn't huge, but it's there," Lee says, adding that microbrews only make up about 2 percent of the market.

But the growth of microbreweries is not just a Wisconsin phenomenon. "If you go to Seattle, you can hardly walk a block without tripping over a brew pub," Lee says. He believes growth will continue and that small breweries are here to stay. While overall beer market growth has been a fraction of 1 percent, Lee says, micros are growing about 30 percent annually.

Kathy Cobb