Wisconsin Brewing Co. ready to boost state’s bustling beer market

If there’s one word that exemplifies former Capital Brewery CEO Carl Nolen’s outlook as he begins his new venture, Wisconsin Brewing Co., it’s “collaboration.” If there’s a close runner-up, it would have to be “fun.”

Nolen, who attempted to purchase Capital with a group of investors last year before turning his attention toward his own brewery, is poised to dive into a craft-brewing sector that he describes as “smoking” hot, but he has no illusions about cornering the market. That’s just not practical when you’re trying to appeal to the kind of discriminating consumer – ascendant in today’s marketplace – who views the beer-drinking experience as more of an exhilarating adventure than a comforting ritual.

“Back in the olden days, if I would have seen a competitor on the side of the road changing a tire, I probably would have swerved and taken him out,” joked Nolen, whose beer-biz experience stretches back to his days as a delivery driver in Madison during the ’70s. “That was the mentality of then. Today, though, we have to be smart enough to know that consumers are not that loyal and faithful to just one entity, and that they need to try products from your competitors.

“So I really look at it today that we’re in a collaboration environment. And it’s important for all our competitors to succeed. Are we going to compete with Capital Brewery and Ale Asylum? Arguably, yes. But in the bigger picture, no, because when that consumer opens the refrigerator at home, it’s more likely that there’s several beers in there from a wide spectrum of local craft beers, and where Wisconsin is moving is that consumers are finally starting to see that it’s cool to support the local team.”

Indeed, collaboration is part of Wisconsin Brewing Co.’s core business strategy. The company has already forged partnerships with Madison’s Great Dane Pub & Brewing Co. and Milwaukee’s Sprecher Brewing.

In its first three years, it plans to use Sprecher to help package its products, and it will develop its beers at The Great Dane’s Hilldale brewpub, allowing the company’s products to receive instant feedback in a bar and restaurant setting before they’re deemed ready for prime time.

“It’s our way to make sure we’ve vetted these brands and asked consumers for their thoughts before we take it into the marketplace,” said Nolen. “So consumers are going to have a unique opportunity to be at the Dane and try to get a new product from Kirby Nelson, Wisconsin Brewing Co., made with Rob LoBreglio of the Great Dane in a collaboration environment, and once we’re spot on, we take them out of the Great Dane forever and then they’re only made by our company, and then we start over again. Nobody’s doing anything like that.”

Big things brewing?

If beer aficionados recognize those names, it’s no surprise. LoBreglio’s guiding hand has been instrumental in The Great Dane’s success, which included recognition as brewpub of the year at the 2012 Great American Beer Festival. Nelson, of course, was Capital Brewery’s longtime brewmaster and its creative life force for the past 25 years.

Naturally, any close observer of the local craft beer scene should be expecting big things from this partnership, which also includes Carl’s brother Mark, Wisconsin Brewing’s CFO.

So can Nolen offer a taste of the product offerings we eager beer fanatics can expect from Wisconsin Brewing?

“Not really,” said Nolen, laughing. “Somebody asked Kirby yesterday if he had the formula for his first beer, and he snapped back, ‘no.’ Now, does he have a long list of about 30 or 40 different product styles that he’s been dreaming about making? Absolutely. But he hasn’t dialed in on them in our mind from a technical standpoint of really working out the production sheets of what these things are going to look like.”

 

That said, Nolen knows he doesn’t want Wisconsin Brewing Co. to get pigeonholed or to become overly identified with one particular style of beer.

“I think it’s going to be very important for us to have a very diverse portfolio to allow consumers to see our wide range of ability,” said Nolen. “So what you won’t see us do is launch with five brands that are all the same product style. We’d be really slicing and dicing a narrow segment of the market, and not everybody drinks that.”

Nolen says it’s “highly likely” that Wisconsin Brewing Co. will have its first product out this summer. In the meantime, the brewery will be under construction in Verona, and the company will “be working on brands like crazy” in the late winter or early spring. The final phase of construction, projected to be completed in 2016, would bring the facility to a gaudy 125,000 square feet.

Ironically, in part because the craft brewing sector is growing so rapidly (its total market share hovers around 6% statewide, but it’s surging everywhere), building the facility itself has proven easier than filling it with equipment.

“We approached a well-known brewhouse manufacturer that we first started with,” said Nolen. “They said they could do our project but they weren’t delivering anything until 2014. So picture that. You’re in a high-growth category, you can’t buy equipment right now. So the interesting part of our thing is that we can build the building faster than we can get all the equipment manufactured. So right now we’re bringing all that together so everything happens in the right format, so we’re looking right now to late summer that we’re fully ramped up, commissioned, and in operation. But before that we’ll be trialing our brands and starting to prepare.”

While Nolen says he “had a blast” at Capital, he feels fortunate to be able to strike out on his own and create something new from scratch. The craft category, he says, is a lot of fun right now, and that has everything to do with today’s more discerning consumer.

“The fun part about today, I guess, is that people truly enjoy talking about the beer,” said Nolen. “The marketing 101 that took place back in the ’70s and ’80s when the breweries got big was that the funniest commercial that made it on Super Bowl Sunday sold beer. And it was never about the product. …

“Now, the consumers today, what’s fun about it is they like talking about the product, they like talking about the values of the company, they like talking about the materials that are going in it, they know an awful lot about it. It’s phenomenal, and today it’s just as likely you can meet a server at a craft-centered bar and ask what would you recommend tonight, and they’ll spend five or 10 minutes talking to you about all kinds of stuff. Before they just knew how to take your change. It really is a skill. It’s really cool, and it’s happening in such a great way right now, and that’s fun. That makes beer fun.”

The Six-Pack: Frothy queries for Carl Nolen

Do you have a favorite place to drink a beer?
Not really. I enjoy drinking beer at home with my girlfriend and talking about beer. I enjoy drinking beer here [in my office] with Kirby. I think it’s really more to me about people I’m with than a place, per se, because beer becomes the center of the conversation.

Do you have a favorite occasion for a beer?
Everything. I’m a professional.

If you could sit down and have a beer with anyone, living or dead, who would it be?
I would have liked to have had a beer again with my dad, when he was probably my age today. I lost my dad to Alzheimer’s a few years ago, and he had a tough end of his life, and I would really enjoy sitting down and talking to him right now about what we’re doing and sharing the story of this new brewery. He was an entrepreneur his whole life. I think he would have found it fascinating that we were doing this.

If you had to pick one last beer to drink before you died – sort of like your last meal – what would it be?
It would be a 40-ounce, because I’d want a damn big one.

If an eccentric billionaire approached you and said he wanted to pay for the production and airing of a Super Bowl Commercial for Wisconsin Brewing Co. but you had to appear in it dressed as a Vikings fan, would you do it?
No way. Not a chance. I might have when Favre was there, but now I’m back to hating those guys.

What’s in your refrigerator right now?
You know what, I have the vanilla porter from Leinenkugel’s. I was fascinated to try it, and I saw it in the can package, and I thought that was probably the neatest-designed can I’ve ever seen. I also have the Sierra Nevada pale ale in my cooler, and a variety pack of Leinenkugel’s different winter seasonals. And I also have, believe it or not, four cans of MGD that made it back from deer hunting. And then I have a couple different brands from Capital Brewery. I have Supper Club in there. I’m very proud of Supper Club. It was one of the last brands I got the chance to participate in with Kirby and make there. That beer is fun to drink.

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