Phil Farrell's picture

A Tale of Two Wisconsins

Every beer lover should make a pilgrimage to visit New Glarus Brewing Co.
New Glarus Brewery

There are two large cities on the western shore of Lake Michigan that formed my previous impression of Wisconsin. One has a famous NFL team whose fans wear yellow triangular hats, and the other one is as important to the history of American brewing as the chapter containing World War II would be to any history book. There is, however, another Wisconsin that beckons less than two hours from that historic shoreline.

My drive started south of Chicago that day last summer. After donating a hubcap to the Illinois Tollway, I exited the fast lane of urban sprawl and downshifted to a more relaxing journey. The towns give way to farmland very quickly near the state line. Each farm reflects the family that owns it, and there is a degree of care apparent in the maintenance of the buildings and equipment as well as the stewardship of the animals and crops. The grass is extremely green on this June day and the cows are casually grazing randomly across the countryside. There is still the fresh smell of spring in air, and I roll down a window to enjoy it.

New Glarus, Wis., is a small American town with a rich Swiss heritage. Evidence of the Swiss founders is everywhere. There are flowers boxes on balconies and simple decorations painted on the stucco walls reminiscent of Swiss chalets. This village also has numerous small town America trappings. There is one major highway that runs through New Glarus, with all the local streets eventually connecting with it. The town center consists of quaint shops and businesses that cater to locals, although there are many places that would make this a tourist destination, including several museums, antique shops and a delicious Swiss bakery. You can even go on a hunt for the painted “art cow” statues strategically placed around town.

That weekend was the Polka Fest, and as I parked my RV alongside many othersin town for the event. I walked to a large beer tent on the main street downtown that featured New Glarus brews, tables a dance area and bandstand. We were very close to the local high school, and from our lawn chairs we watched a double header that lasted into the warm summer night. While sipping a Spotted Cow, I spied on a hilltop across the highway with a large, red farm building and an attached home. Had I not known better, I would have thought the “farm” had been there for decades.

This was a busy June for the Carey family, the owners of New Glarus Brewing Company. A daughter was married, and their newest “baby”, the aptly named Hilltop Brewery, had its first birthday. It was such a beautiful day I walked to the brewery to take in the sights. There is a simple sign on the highway that leads to a dirt and gravel road you would see leading to any farm. After you enter the property, there is a water treatment building disguised as a red utility barn on the right side of the road.

While there is still a roof line visible from the access, there are few clues that this is anything other than a working farm. It has Old World charm mixed with large farm estate and even abbey elements, reminding me of a farm manor that was converted to a working brewery later in life. It does this all without having any single feature that seems borrowed or recycled from some other place. A stone walkway and stairs are flanked by landscaping and a rock waterfall that suggests a mill is nearby. Deb Carey was there at the top of the steps waiting for me, ably assisted by her granddaughter and Murphy, the family dog. She had suggested we meet at her home since she thought babysitting duties may interfere with chatting about the brewery.

The entrance contains an arched walkway that takes the visitor to the outdoor patio beer garden, the gift shop, or the tasting room. The tasting room is large enough to double as a beer hall and is open for special events and on the weekend. The outdoor patio is sheltered on one side by the main building with the gift shop/brewery and on another side by the tasting room/hall. Over the gift shop is a second floor balcony that leads to another meeting room that could be used for smaller, more intimate events. There is a 270° view of farmland, a state park and the approach to town. The corner of the patio closest to the buildings has a beautiful fountain holding a bronze sculpture.

We entered the beautiful gift shop, which has a collection of wares that should appeal to every visitor, whether they are looking for simple souvenirs of the trip or truly unique gifts for special friends. Among the hats, jackets, shirts, pub towels and pullovers are glassware, mugs, steins and books. In keeping with Dan’s connection to Germany, there is a Bavarian “puzzle stein” I’ve only seen in Europe, with multiple holes that will cause a spill if the user doesn’t cover the holes in a very clever way before they drink.

My heart skipped a beat when I noticed an absence of bottled beer, but I was relieved to learn that there is farmhouse “cellar” one floor lower that carries every bottle the brewery has for purchase. The prices are the same as you will find at a retail store for a very logical reason. As part of being a good corporate citizen, New Glarus does not want to put any of their retailers at a price disadvantage. This type of consideration at all levels is one part of their success. The second part may be found at taps set up by the register for tasting samples. Samples are modestly priced and include a tasting glass as a memento. That day the beer menu included Spotted Cow, Moon Man, Wisconsin Belgian Red, Totally Naked, Fat Squirrel, and Stone Soup. The gift shop is the primary tasting room on weekdays. In the gift shop Deb introduced me to one of their daughters on summer break from studying to become an architect. She is engaged in several activities at the brewery this day, so she leaves us to talk and tour. The brewery “starts” as soon as a guest walks down the hall.

The lab is around the corner from the gift shop. The lab is closed to the public as expected but everything is visible from large windows in the hall. Dan uses seven yeasts routinely and may scare up a few part-time yeasts on occasion. The hallway opens to a large area with the four large shiny copper brewing vessels on display. They contrast beautifully with the slate tile that I start to notice has unified all the spaces I’ve seen so far.

The fermenting area is large and well lit. There is even a closed room where a Weizen is openly fermenting and the foam from the kraüsen was spilling over the top onto a specially designed chute 15 feet above my head that goes to a collection vessel. Open fermentation is the traditional way German wheat ales were made and is still seen in Bavaria today. Many breweries don’t have the room or want to differentiate their equipment to this degree, so they simply use the same closed conical fermenters for all their beer styles.

In a connecting space by the fermenting area and stairs near the Weizen Room, the electrics and plumbing are being put in place for a quarter barrel (7 U.S. gallon) pilot brewery on the main floor. While it is only half the output of my cobbled together homebrew set-up, I’m sure Dan and his team will create big things from this small package. There are a few offices and employee break rooms that are not open to the public, however I realized as I passed other visitors that virtually every step of the brewing process at New Glarus Hilltop Brewery may be seen on a self-guided tour. “Of course”, said Deb, “Dan designed it that way.”

Deb remembers the moment she first met Dan in Montana over 30 years ago. He was on the floor rolling stainless into the shapeof a brewing vessel and welding it into place at a brewery that no longer exists. It was the expression on his face and the look in his eyes as he flipped up the welder’s mask that captured her. They have been together ever since. Deb had moved with her family many times during her childhood and ironically we were both at the same base attending different schools in Colorado Springs one year. While the “old west” was where Dan and Deb first met, rural Wisconsin was one area she remembered fondly as a place she wanted to hopefully settle.

After working at every possible level and doing most every job in the brewing industry, Dan decided to take it to the next level. Dan is a brewer’s brewer. While classically trained and educated at institutions such as U.C. Davis and Seibel, he is always seeking even greater knowledge. You would be hard pressed to find a task in a brewery either large or small that Dan hasn’t done over his 32 years in the industry. He even installed brewing equipment around the country and worked with the largest brewers.

Dan is a Diploma Master Brewer, a tragically generic title for such an intensive degree. It is based on the ancient guild and apprentice model that combines formal education, internships, long exams and lots of work in the profession. Passing this course is the brewing equivalent of going to medical school and then passing the medical board. To put it in perspective, more Americans have walked on the moon in my lifetime than have passed this exam, and like Gene Cernan, Dan was the last American to do so. I hope that one day before I die I will know half as much about brewing as Dan has already forgotten.

Deb describes herself as an artist. She downplays her business expertise even as she gave me more insight into the beer industry in an hour than I ever learned from stacks of business texts. After talking to her, it was obvious to me that the decision to start New Glarus Brewing was totally rooted in doing what was best for her family rather than being among the first women to start a brewery in the United States. “I had the best brewer in the world available, how could I possibly fail?” They decided they would look for a place in Wisconsin. While Deb worked on the business plan and raised capital, Dan looked for the proper facility and equipment. He eventually found a used 20 barrel system that would suit his purposes.

Things came together quickly at the end, with New Glarus, Wis., chosen from several possibie locations and a building by the river becoming the place where the flag was to be planted. They were both 33 then, and in poker terms were “all in.” They sold their house in Colorado and moved the entire family. Seeing what they have created makes the years since 1993 seem too short an interval. Deb said, “It was the right time. We were young. If we didn’t do it then, we may have never made the move.” On some level she probably considered that it might not work out, but it is obvious these are two people who would never let life’s obstacles keep them down for long before they bounced back.

The new Hilltop Brewery was built to be the new home for their now larger, extended family. Deb wanted to build something that would be lasting and could be passed on to the next generation. Dan designed the brewing facility portion and chose equipment that would ease the labor intensity without disconnecting the brewer’s from the creative process. The ability to work smarter and more efficiently rather than harder is the operating principle I picked up. During business hours, visitors are welcome to go on a self-guided tour at any time. This level of built-in public access is rare for a brewpub-sized operation, let alone a larger brewery.

Deb painted beautiful alpine murals on the walls of the original Riverside Brewery but was limited by what had already been built before her and Dan moved to New Glarus. With a larger, blank canvas to work with this time, she did the hardest part. After an architect had only produced an initial plan for a tasting room after a long interval, she went old school on him. Deb meticulously drew up all of the outside elevations herself. The scale floor plans, material choices, and landscape treatments are all hers. The result speaks for itself. Beauty, form and function are all well represented in a very unique combination.

This quote is featured prominently at the brewery, on the Web site, and in the philosophy of the company:

"He who works with his hands is a laborer. He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman. He who works with his hands, his head and his heart is an artist."
-- Saint Francis of Assisi

As I noted before, Deb describes herself as an artist. She is also an entrepreneur and a powerful marketing force. While she “doesn’t brew the beer,” she would give most people I know a run for their money in any brewhouse. Dan is the brewer. Saying it that way minimizes his ability much the same as saying Michelangelo painted ceilings. He is an artist in every sense of the word, and just like Deb, he would probably run the business seamlessly if she went on holiday.

Deb’s large murals, attention to detail and artistic accents are seen at both breweries. Dan’s art comes in a bottle or a keg. His body of work today covers many areas of the beer world. He has brewed over 100 different beers here, and while there are year-round standards and seasonal offerings, Dan will mix it up with projects he wants to do and beer styles that satisfy their customer’s appetite for the unique. The Unplugged series, Moon Man, and Two Women Lager are just a few examples of this. Dan was proud to tell me New Glarus has more lab technicians than sales and marketing people. They have been customer driven since Day One.

You can visit the Hilltop Brewery between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. every day except holidays and during posted special events. Self-guided tours are available during the same hours, however, when time permits one of the owners or brewers may lead a tour. The Riverside Brewery not far away is still operational. This was too good a brewery to simply shut down, and the Careys are a sensible clan. Many of the smaller projects are still done there. Just like everything else at New Glarus, it is logically staffed only on an as-needed basis. The exception to this is when Hard Hat tours are given. Each Friday at 1 p.m., 15 guests are treated to a visit to remember, starting at the old tasting room at the original brewery. I won’t spoil the joy of discovery. Let’s just say it is a nicer tour than you could ever expect with cheese and beer on the menu. The only requirement is that you sign up online and pay a small fee. This is as much to discourage no-shows as anything else.

The new brewery gives New Glarus many more options. I sense they will concentrate on quality over quantity for years to come. As much as I would like to be able to buy their beer in my town, there are currently no plans to change course and distribute outside of Wisconsin. “The Plan” is to stick with “the Plan.” This is the brewery that they wished they could have built 17 years ago and hope is going strong 100 years from now. They don’t want to become so large that they don’t have time to take someone on a tour and hear what they have to say about their beer.

If Dan and Deb ever decide to change plans it will be for a good reason. Until then I would suggest you plan a trip and make a lot of friends in the great state of Wisconsin. More than anything else I drew one conclusion from this visit: If you don’t love New Glarus, you don’t love America or beer. I’m sure many have listed New Glarus Brewing as a place to see before you die. After this experience I would add that you should go there as soon as you can so that you will find several dozen more reasons to live a long and happy life.

Comments

mrmitch59's picture
My friends and I have visited New Glarus many times for Octoberfest. We've always enjoyed ourselves, both at the brewery on the hill, and under the tent in town. The driveway to the brewery is now paved, and they've added landscape features designed to look like castle ruins, which are interesting and accessible.

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Comments

mrmitch59's picture
My friends and I have visited New Glarus many times for Octoberfest. We've always enjoyed ourselves, both at the brewery on the hill, and under the tent in town. The driveway to the brewery is now paved, and they've added landscape features designed to look like castle ruins, which are interesting and accessible.

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