Craft beer booms in Wisconsin

Posted at 7:46 AM, Feb 27, 2018
and last updated 2018-02-27 08:51:58-05

Tucked in the hills, just a short drive south of Madison the New Glarus Brewing Company makes beer exclusively for Wisconsinites. You can only buy its product in the Badger State. 

"Historically, beer has always been local and we subscribe to that," said Daniel Carey, New Glarus brewmaster. 

While Carey and his wife Deb have seen their cup, or more accurately their keg, overflow with success over the past 25 years, it didn't start out that way. 

"When we started our brewery, we actually found used equipment, at a foreclosure auction in Appleton and it was probably some of the most primitive brewing equipment that you would see," said Daniel Carey. 

Much of the equipment was second-hand from dairy farm operations. In its infancy, it probably looked a lot like how the Thumb Knuckle Brewing Company looks right now. 

"Wisconsin kind of looks likes a hand and we're in Kewaunee County, so that's the knuckle of the thumb," said Edward Thiry, Thumb Knuckle brewmaster. 

Thiry is also using dairy equipment as it grows its business, but his career mirrors Carey's in another way. Both got their start brewing in Germany. Thiry even got married overseas before deciding it was time to come home to Northeast Wisconsin. 

"Oh man, it was just something that I thought was really interesting. I started home brewing about 10 years ago one summer away from college and really liked it, so I stuck with it," said Thiry. 

New Glarus’s rise runs parallel to the bubbling up of craft breweries across the state, like Thumb Knuckle.

Just seven years ago, there were only 73 craft breweries in the state according to the Brewers Association.  

Now, there is about double the amount, making it a $2 billion-per-year industry and still growing. 

"It’s just a hot business. Everybody's trying to get in and make their money, and they just enjoy beer," said Matthew Broomhall.  

In 1993, New Glarus Brewing Company brewed only 199 barrels all year, making them one of the smallest in the state. Now, it brews more than 226,000 barrels. In fact, this mash tine can make 100 barrels of beer alone. 

"We've tried to be conservative in how we grow, not grow too fast so we wouldn't have to be bought out by somebody. Every year we just keep trying to do better and better," said Carey.  

Thiry's operation, almost a year old, is very similar in production to how Carey described the early New Glarus, pumping out several hundred barrels a year. 

"We did pretty much everything that we could ourselves, lots of help from friends and family, and just put a lot of work into it," said Thiry.

But when Thiry took that first sip of his own beer, he says there was nothing like it. 

"That was a great feeling, just to know all that hard work really paid off," said Thiry. 

Now, Thiry gets to watch customers enjoy his beer in a taproom attached to the brewery. 

"The beer is great! Cheers!" said Broomhall. 

While Thiry says massive success would be nice, he's enjoying the moment.

"Pretty awesome how it is now. I really enjoy it. It's a great thing brewing beer. I loved it as a hobby and I love how it is now," said Thiry.  

Meanwhile, down in New Glarus, Carey says at this point, the biggest smile on his face comes from the success of his employees, who are all part-owners of the company.

"When they buy homes for the first time, when they buy nice cars, when people bring their brand new babies by, honestly, that's what brings me the most pride," said Carey. 

These two breweries are miles apart in production, but close in tradition, roots and pride in delivering a frosty beverage to Wisconsin customers. 

The Brewers Association says craft beer makes up about 20 percent of the country's beer sales. That same group also says Wisconsin craft brewers rank 10th in the country for beer production.