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Celebrating Craft Beer

As sales spike, festivals raise a glass to microbrews

Jul. 13, 2011
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Perhaps the most telling sign of how bad the economy got in the late 2000s is that consumers cut back on an indulgence that historically had been one of the most recession-proof: beer. Sales of beer fell by more than 2% in 2009, and by about another 1% last year. Amid the downturn, though, there was one segment of the brewing industry that didn't feel the crunch. While the big brands treaded water, craft-beer sales actually grew by double digits over the last couple of years. Increasingly, consumers are turning to heartier, more flavorful microbrews over the watery old fallbacks.

Craft breweries sprouted all over the country during the last decade, but they've particularly taken root in Wisconsin, where there are now more than 60 small breweries or brewpubs. While the major brewers like Miller, Pabst, Schlitz and Blatz have relocated out of state or dramatically scaled back their presence in Milwaukee, small breweries are keeping the city's brewing tradition alive, and it's easy to see why so many keep opening up: Since craft brews currently make up about 5% of the massive beer market, there's plenty of room for them to grow.

The major breweries, it seems, are taking notice. Last month, the Wisconsin Legislature passed a measure that will effectively curb the growth of craft breweries by prohibiting them from purchasing or starting their own wholesale distributorships. Craft brewers that produce more than 300,000 barrels per year must instead use existing beer distributors, which tend to favor and promote major brands over small ones.

MillerCoors lobbied hard for the measure, which was squeezed through in the state budget, arguing that it was necessary to prevent Anheuser-Busch from seizing market share by buying out state distributors. Craft brewers, however, contend that the measure's true purpose is to kneecap local competition before it can pose a real threat.

Jeff Hamilton, president of the Wisconsin Brewers Guild and Sprecher Brewing Co., one of the state's oldest and most successful craft breweries, described the legislation's effects on Wisconsin businesses in an open letter to Gov. Scott Walker last month.

“Several business models that have been available to us since we started our businesses, since the end of Prohibition for that matter, have been swiftly removed as options for business growth,” Hamilton wrote. “All of these options are being used successfully in various parts of the nation, adding to the explosive craft brewing growth. Why would we want to stifle Wisconsin's entrepreneurs by limiting the options available to them to grow their businesses? Why would we want to discourage others from starting a small brewery in Wisconsin?”

Despite the Brewers Guild's plea, Walker refused to veto the measure. MillerCoors executives had donated $25,000 to his campaign.

In the wake of the measure's passage, at least four bars and brewpubs across the state ceased serving MillerCoors products in protest. One in Eau Claire, The Fire House, invited the public to assist in dumping the remaining MillerCoors products it had on tap earlier this month.

City of Beer Festivals

Though Walker's budget puts Wisconsin craft brewers at a competitive disadvantage, craft brewers still enjoy a customer loyalty that the major brewers could only dream of.

That enthusiasm for quality beer is reflected locally by the proliferation of craft-beer festivals and tastings, and this year has been especially busy for beer lovers. In late April and early May, dozens of tastings took place around the city for Milwaukee Beer Week. In June, the beer-enthusiast group Beer Barons held its eighth annual World of Beer Festival and the Bayshore Town Center hosted the Wisconsin Beer Lovers Festival. Later this month Milwaukee hosts two more big events: the Milwaukee Brewfest and the Milwaukee Firkin Craft Beer Festival, both of which are in their second year.

The Milwaukee Brewfest sparked interest right off the bat, attracting thousands of attendees in its first year. Among some of the Wisconsin breweries featured at this year's Milwaukee Brewfest, which takes place July 30 on the lakefront at 1600 N. Lincoln Memorial Drive, across the road from Alterra, are Sand Creek, Potosi, Lakefront, Summit, Big Bay, St. Francis, Stonefly, Delafield Brewhaus, Minhas, Great Dane, Titletown, Buffalo Water, Central Waters, O'so, Tyranena, Rock Bottom, Fat Boy, Furthermore, West Bend Lithia and Hinterland. There will also be craft brews from out of state, including many uncommon ones that aren't available for retail purchase in Milwaukee, such as a Colorado beer made with peanut butter.

“We started the festival because we're all big beer geeks,” said Bill Hoag, one of Milwaukee Brewfest's coordinators. “The flavor of some of these beers available now, whether they're wheat beers or hoppy beers, is just astonishing. There are so many craft beers to choose from. We all have our favorites, and we've worked really hard to make sure they're all represented at the festival.”  There will be more than 180 craft beers available at the festival.

Last year the Milwaukee Brewfest put together a food drive that brought in 2.5 tons of food for the Hunger Task Force. This year the Brewfest will be helping the program One Step at a Time, which offers children impacted by cancer the chance to participate in normal childhood activities such as summer camp.

Tickets for the Milwaukee Brewfest are $40 ($45 day of) and include unlimited beer. The event also features music, home-brewing demonstrations, games and beer exhibits. Each ticket to the event is also good for entrance to German Fest. Tickets can be purchased on their website: www.milwaukeebrewfest.com.

The Milwaukee Firkin Craft Beer Festival, which is held in Cathedral Square Park on July 23, also features music and samplings of rare Wisconsin beers, but its signature draw is the firkins, cask-conditioned barrels of small-batch beer.

“A firkin is made the old-fashioned way, naturally carbonated while in the barrel and served just above room temperature, so this is a chance to sample beer much as it was served in Milwaukee 100 years ago,” explained event organizer Curt Foreman. “They're naturally carbonated while in the cask, so the texture and the taste on the palate is very different from an artificially carbonated beer.”

Tickets to the Milwaukee Firkin Craft Beer Festival are $40 and include unlimited samples of more than 80 craft beers. Beer historian Leonard Jurgensen will speak about Milwaukee's brewing roots, and there will be a large collection of beer memorabilia on display. Tickets can be purchased on their website: www.milwaukeefirkin.com.

“This is an event that celebrates Milwaukee's brewing heritage,” Foreman said. “We think it's a great way to learn something that we in the Milwaukee area take for granted. Milwaukee's brand is beer, and I think we're lucky to have a brand that's so welcoming. It may not be as serious as something high-tech, but it's quintessentially Milwaukee, and that brand really speaks to the good-natured attitude of Milwaukeeans.”


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