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New Glarus Brewery Stays Local

The Spotted Cow makers remain true to Wisconsin

Mar. 12, 2013
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New Glarus Brewery co-founder Deborah Carey still recalls coming up with the name for the farmhouse ale her husband Dan had been brainstorming in the mid-’90s: Spotted Cow. It seemed like a perfect name, since it paid homage to the brewery’s Wisconsin roots and, just as importantly, it made her chuckle. Not everybody was as amused by it, though. Her husband didn’t see its appeal at first, and some wholesalers were similarly unimpressed. “I had one wholesaler who refused to order it even after the beer had been out for a while and started selling fairly well tell me, ‘You really don’t think we’re going to put Spotted Cow next to Budweiser, do you?’” Carey recalls. “I was like, ‘Well, actually, I do.’”

here’s no doubt about who won that argument. With its crisp notes of fruit and corn, as well as its iconic label drawn by Carey herself, Spotted Cow is now Wisconsin’s best-selling craft beer, stocked at nearly every liquor store and convenience store in the state. And despite its local ubiquity, the beer retains an almost mythical reputation among Wisconsinites. It’s a beer that even non-beer drinkers enjoy, and frequently the first drink that Wisconsin expats order on trips back home.

>Part of Spotted Cow’s mystique undoubtedly stems from the fact that it’s only available in Wisconsin. Though New Glarus distributed to Illinois in the late ’90s, it pulled out of that market to concentrate on its home state when it became clear the brewery was growing too fast. “We were a small operation leading a hand-to-mouth existence, so we had the choice of either purchasing a bunch of expensive fermentation tanks to meet the demand, which seemed like a risk, or quitting distribution to Illinois,” Carey said. “It caused quite a hoopla when we pulled out of Illinois, and it angered the wholesaler, but I didn’t have a problem with it. My loyalties have always been to Wisconsin.”

More than a decade later, New Glarus still resists calls to expand distribution to other states. “These days it’s not unusual for small breweries to distribute to a multitude of states,” Carey says. “Even really small ones will distribute to seven or eight states. But what I think is weirder is that we’re one of the only ones limiting ourselves to one state. It’s true that if I were to sign one of these offers from distributors to reach other states it would be a huge amount of cash for the brewery because it would mean huge orders, but I don’t think that’s true, meaningful growth. I’m trying to build a business that’s going to be around long after I’m gone.”

While Spotted Cow is positioned to remain New Glarus’s best-seller for the foreseeable future, two of the brewery’s newer beers could catch up, Carey says: Moon Man pale ale and Two Women country lager. Like most of New Glarus’s brews, they’re crafted from fairly traditional recipes, and distinguished by their rich flavor profiles and high drinkability—traits that increasingly set New Glarus apart from new craft breweries that favor heavier, more aggressive beers.

“I’ve always believed in Dan’s talents as a brewer,” Carey says of her husband. “He has a real talent for putting together very interesting and drinkable beers. In the beer industry, when you have a beer that you can quaff and finish and drink with relish, it’s called ‘fast.’ That doesn’t mean it’s thin. It means you have an interesting, satisfying beer, and to me Two Women epitomizes that. It’s a beer that you could just swim in.”


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