The crazy things local craft brewers do

Tiger’s Eye. Pudgy Possum. The Fox and the Grapes. Juicy Cobra. River Hog. Headless Heron.

These aren’t the names of animals at a zoo. These are just a few of the wacky names that craft breweries in Central Wisconsin have given to their products.

Craft brewing is still a relatively small industry that owns just 12% of the beer marketplace, but saw a rapid expansion in the last decade. The number of breweries in the U.S. climbed from 1,500 ten years ago (when it had 4% marketshare) to more than 5,300 today.

It’s a very competitive, increasingly crowded market, so craft brewers across the U.S. and in Wisconsin are resorting to innovative ways to win over customers and/or get them into their tasting rooms or pubs.

Luckily, craft brewers tend to be the type of business owners who have a creative, let’s-do-something-different mindset.

The nearly dozen craft breweries in this region have honed in on three specific ways to build a customer base and keep people coming back: 1) having many different and tasty options for beer; 2) providing a unique atmosphere; and 3) becoming community hubs by holding special events and foods.


Sawmill Brewing Company

“You have to do something to pull the non-craft beer drinkers in,” says Zach Kubichek, co-owner and brewer at Sawmill Brewing Company in Merrill, who turned an old, vacant stone building into a fabulous taproom and brewing operation. “What’s really cool is seeing those people branch out and try the other beers we’re doing. We’re just trying to suck them in and show them what craft beer is all about.”

The beer

Most craft brewers specialize in something—India Pale Ales, barrel aged stouts and porters, German lagers, sour beers or a little bit of everything.

The breweries in North Central Wisconsin are no different, and many of the craziest beers have completely broken the mold for what the Miller Lite, Busch Light and Bud Light drinkers think of when they hear the word beer.

“There is nothing worse than when a brewer hears, ‘Oh, I don’t like beer,'” says Ron Hulka, head brewer at Blue Heron Brewpub in Marshfield. “That usually mean someone hasn’t had a beer they like yet.”

Like many of the local brewers, Hulka says it can be hard to break customers out of their comfort zone. The most popular beers at Blue Heron are often their Kolsch or golden ale.

But when customers come through the door and keep coming back, they often take a stab at a beer they might not have tried before, like the barleywine Blue Heron put out earlier this year. It was brewed in May 2016 and then aged in kegs for nearly a year.

Despite the fact not many breweries are brewing barleywines in the state, Hulka says that’s not the craziest beer Blue Heron has released. That honor belongs to Rauch Em’ Sock Em’ Smoked Ale, a German-style beer with a distinctive smoky taste.

“In a place like Wisconsin that’s known for its cheese and brats, a smoky beer would fit right in. We’ve had very good feedback from people who have tried it,” Hulka says. “There are some who find it a little too wild and crazy for them. But there are others that find it just right.”

Speaking of beers with a distinctive taste, Red Eye Brewing Company in Wausau has produced


Lavender, along with lavender, elderflowers, and chamomile, went into one of Red Eye Brewing’s craziest beer, La Saison de Fleurs

one of the coolest beers out of any brewery in the area. A few years ago, Red Eye made a La Saison de Fleurs brew infused with three different flowers: lavender, elderflowers, and chamomile.

Red Eye owner and brewmaster Kevin Eichelberger says he loves brewing saisons so much (saisons are fruity and spicy pale ales), he might bring La Saison de Fleurs back soon.

“The aroma from that beer was stunning,” Eichelberger says. “Saison by itself is a weird beer. It can have a full range of tastes. We decided to do something different.”

Barrel aging

You think that beer is wild? Look at some of the barrel aging breweries in this region are doing.

The process involves aging beer in barrels that already have aged or fermented wine, bourbon, tequila, or any other spirit. As the beer sits in those barrels, the beer is infused with the residual flavor of the previous tenant.

It could mean brewing a stout (a darker, chocolate-flavored ale), putting it into a used bourbon whiskey barrel from a distillery, and letting that beer sit in those barrels for 12 months. That process helped make Central Waters Brewing Company in Amherst a statewide favorite and one of the top-rated breweries in the U.S. on many insiders’ lists.

Central Waters just released one of its most original beers in April, Maple Barrel Stout. Co-owner Anello Mollica says Maple Barrel Stout was two years in the making.


Eric Weninger of B&E’s Trees and Anello Mollica of Central Waters, with a shipment of bourbon barrels that B&E used to age maple syrup, and that was repurposed again to age the brewery’s Maple Barrel Stout.

Whenever Central Waters receives shipments of whiskey barrels, it gives some of them to B&E’s Trees, a maple syrup producing company in Cashton, 30 minutes southwest of La Crosse. B&E’s Trees produces a maple syrup that’s aged for 12 months in bourbon whiskey barrels. After aging a batch of maple syrup last year, B&E’s gave the used barrels back to Central Waters, which brewed an imperial stout and aged that in the used maple syrup bourbon barrels for 12 months.

“It’s an awesome partnership we have with (B&E’s),” Mollica says.

Or, when it comes to barrel aging, you could get as wacky as O’so Brewing Company in Plover. The 10-year-old brewery began a sour barrel aging program a little more than five years ago. Now, you might ask, what is a sour? Remember having sour candy, as a kid? Think sour candy, but with a fruity, and sometimes, bitter twist.

The process behind making sours can be intense, for lack of a better word. O’so has produced some sours that were aged in oak wine barrels for 18-24 months, and when that process is done, it re-ferments them on fruit for another three months before bottling or kegging those beers.

“We really like doing them. They’re refreshing. We like them because there’s a lot of blending involved,” says Marc Buttera, co-owner of O’so. “I’ve had some really awful sours and some really good ones. Figuring out how to make them is interesting.”

Out of all the breweries in North Central Wisconsin, Bull Falls is bucking the trends in the craft beer industry by producing traditional, German-style lagers. While Bull Falls has done some of the modern staples of brewing, such as making IPAs and bourbon barrel aged beers, Bull Falls owner Mike Zamzow says he’s committed to making the cleanest German lagers you can buy.

The one beer Zamzow looks forward to the most every year is the Oktoberfest, a harmonious balance of malt and hops that has won multiple awards over the years.

“We really love to analyze lagers. It’s not as though we aren’t going to experiment with other beers, because we don’t want to be stuck in the mud,” Zamzow says.


O’so Brewery: Aging sour beers in used, repurposed red wine barrels

The cooler the building, the better the experience

When investors approached Kubichek and Sawmill co-owner Stan Janowiak with an idea for bringing a brewery to Merrill, they settled on one of the more interesting sites in town for the location. Sawmill is housed in an old Wisconsin DNR building built in the 1940s that had been sitting vacant for a while.

Sawmill put its own personal touch to the brewery by constructing its bar and tables on the first floor with wood from a white pine tree that was felled in the 2011 tornado in Merrill. There are 13 different kinds of wood in the floor, many parts reclaimed from other businesses in Merrill.

“It’s crazy how it worked out. The building here is gorgeous,” Kubichek says. “We try to get people in the door, because the beer and the atmosphere that the building creates will keep them coming.”

Sawmill is like the majority of craft breweries in that they have repurposed old and vacant buildings to house their operations. Blue Heron is located in downtown Marshfield’s old Parkin Ice Cream Company building, and has the largest urinal in Wisconsin inside its walls. The building is also on the State and National Register of Historic Places.

Minocqua Brewing Company moved into a church that originally operated as a Masonic lodge when it was built in the early 1900s.

Bull Falls Brewery of Wausau moved into an empty building that was originally owned by Remington Oil when it was built in 1939. Red Eye’s building was constructed in the 1970s and formerly housed an HVAC supply company and the Boys and Girls Club of Wausau before Red Eye renovated it and moved in nine years ago. And when you walk inside Red Eye, you probably notice all of the old bikes hanging from the ceiling. Eichelberger is an avid biker and received those bikes from one of his friends in Minnesota.

None of the other local breweries have a building as old as Stevens Point Brewing Company, which was established in 1857. Although it’s expanded and built new facilities many times over the years, the seventh-oldest brewery in the U.S. still operates out of its original building.

Red Eye, O’so and Central Waters tout their commitment to renewable energy.

Red Eye installed a solar hot water system on the roof and solar electricity panels in the parking lot and uses every bit of energy it can get from those.

O’so will construct a new facility next year and will treat all its own water there. Central Waters generates about 60% of its own power with solar at its site in Amherst, but takes an environmental-minded approach to most everything they do. “When you think about sustainability, it’s not just about the big, sexy solar panels. There’s a lot more going on to try to be a sustainable brewery,” Mollica says.

Community social hubs

“Oktoberfest is a great event because people aren’t just coming here to have a beer, they’re coming here to drink Oktoberfest,” Zamzow says about Bull Fall’s annual event.

Bull Falls, like many other breweries, has embraced the idea of having festivals, special events


Blue Heron Brewpub’s 2016 Oktoberfest special, a cranberry cream ale, was named after the event’s headlining band

and whatever else will help customers bond with each other and with the brewery. It could be charity runs, food trucks, release parties for different beers, or musicians. In a crowded craft beer market, that’s what craft brewers need to do.

“We feel that having special events benefits the community,” Kubichek says. Sawmill brings in food trucks, musicians, hosts charity events for veterans and even holds a fish boil. “We’re still getting new people in here. Now that we’re getting brewing under our belt and understanding what we do and don’t like, we’re doing more community events.”

Maybe the most prolific of the event-holders are Central Waters and Stevens Point.

Stevens Point debuted the Bock Run in 1981, and had perhaps its most successful Bock Run this year. The event, held the first Saturday of March, sold out in one hour and 40-minutes this year. The number of runners is capped at 2,000.

Selling out in 100 minutes is fast. But there’s faster.

Central Waters’ 19th anniversary party earlier this year sold out in about 30 seconds—literally.


The 900 tickets to Central Waters’ Maple Barrel Stout release event sold out within minutes.

The 2,000 tickets at $15 apiece got fans admission to the on-site event with live music, Urban Street Bistro food truck and the first chance to buy up to six bottles of an exclusive anniversary beer.

Central Waters has held an anniversary party since 2012, and in 2014 started doing online salesfor this event and other special releases. In 2015 the event (and the anniversary beer presale) sold out in roughly a day. Last year it sold it in five minutes. This year in half a minute.

Mollica is optimistic about the future for craft breweries, but knows the older breweries need to continue to innovate in their own ways. In the craft brewing industry, “old” means 10 years. Which puts O’so, Bull Falls, Central Waters, Minocqua, Blue Heron, Great Dane and Stevens Point into that category.

“One of the dangers of being an older brewery is you have to always stay relevant. It’s hard to stay relevant as an old brewery,” Mollica said. “We feel like we and many other breweries are trying to do so, though.”