It doesn’t take a wayward stranger in an unfamiliar city saying, “Wait… Wisconsin?.. Beer & Cheese, right?” For locals to know, Wisconsin loves beer. According to our states historical society, ” German immigrants brought a heritage of beer making to Wisconsin.” And we’ve been tipping them back ever since. You’ve heard that we hold 6 of the 10 drunkest cities in America? In Northeast Wisconsin there seems to be a beer trend re circling that we haven’t seen since the mid 1800s. The trend is “neighborhood breweries” popping up in communities all around Northeast Wisconsin.
“Neighborhood brewery” means smaller scale breweries that are mainly focused on selling their beer in their taproom and in nearby, local establishments. To get into what a neighborhood brewery is I will let Lee Reiherzer explain. Reiherzer runs the Oshkosh Beer Blog, and has spent countless hours researching beer history in Oshkosh.
[[You can hear a conversation I had with Lee on my live show "But Why Not?" by clicking this link. Lee has written two books on the subject of Oshkosh Beer, going to lengths of reading old newspapers and court document tirelessly studying beer history in the Oshkosh/Winnebago area. His explanation of the neighborhood brewery is below.]]
Reiherzer explains, “Prior to the Civil War, American beer was not a mass-produced, commoditized product. The typical brewery was small; comparable in size to the most recent wave of craft breweries that have opened. And they operated in much the same way.” The new wave of craft breweries that have opened in the past two or three years in Northeast Wisconsin have a decidedly grassroots approach. “We want to be the neighborhood brewery in this area.” Fifth Ward co-owner Ian Wenger told me last year while discussing Fifth Wards business approach. “We want to be a solid spot for people to come into the taproom and enjoy a few great beers.”
Neenah’s newest brewery, Barrel 41, had a similar sentiment. Co-owner Matt Stubing said of his brewery, “We’re a relaxed brewery where you will see one of the owners behind the bar.” You’d be hard-pressed to see the owner of Goose Island or even some of Wisconsin’s larger craft breweries in their taproom. Barrel 41 is cozy brewery with a, “northwoodsy vibe,” as Stubing describes it. They just added canning capabilities after a year in business, and are focused on, “growing with Neenah.”
Back to neighborhood brewery history, Reiherzer tells us, “Their beer was made in small batches with most of the work of brewing being done by hand. Bottled beer was rare. Their beer went into kegs and was usually served either in their brewery taprooms or in local saloons. Few of these early breweries distributed their beer much beyond their immediate vicinity.” This describes these small neighborhood breweries to a T. So what is causing us beer consumers to slowly cascade away from mass production back to our home town taprooms? Perhaps history repeats itself? Maybe the internet has brought us back to community roots through opened communication?
One thing is certain, craft beer exploded in the past decade. In 2009 there were 1,600 craft breweries in America. The number of craft breweries rose to 6,300 by 2017. Craft beer now has 24.1% of the dollar share of the US beer market. These numbers are nothing to shake a stick at. It’s almost as if the market has woken up sick after noticing that they slept on their left arm funny, and it’s been feeding them watered down, flavorless beer for decades. The desire for a novel beer flavor experience and for connection to the beer you’re drinking seems to be keeping neighborhood breweries watered and fed.
McFleshman’s is the newest brewery in Appleton. Their focus, taproom manager Layla Cowper tells me, “Well we’re a public house. That’s why the Wi-Fi password is up there on that teeny-tiny plaque up by the door.” McFleshman’s also has no TVs, and their goal is create a brewing school to be a hub for homebrewers and small breweries to learn, practice, and network. Not surprising as the principal owners, Allison and Bobby Fleshman, have both served as professors at Lawrence University in Appleton.
The phenomenon has even made it’s way to Door County, where local brands and businesses often struggle to focus on the localized community in favor of thick-wallet-wielding-tourists. Underneath Sonny’s Italian Kitchen & Pizzeria is the early stages of Bridge Up Brewing Company. Head brewer Trent Snyder told me, “We want to be a neighborhood brewery where you can come in, talk to the head brewer, and learn about what you’re drinking.” The taproom is beginning construction in 2020. Not even open yet, Snyder wants the approach to be, “ego-less.” Their website even says it’s a craft brewery, “for the people of Door County.” Their beer can currently only be found at the bar inside Sonny’s .
It seems history has come full circle. A brewery in nearly each neighborhood used to be the situation in 1870, there were 11 breweries in Winnebago County, six in Oshkosh alone. There are currently 4(ish) breweries in Oshkosh. Maybe the neighborhood breweries don’t have as many neighborhoods covered as they did 150 years ago, but the movement has the same energy. To really bring the historical comparison together, Reiherzer explains that even “growlers,” those glass bottles you thought only hipsters and your hip, beer-fanatic uncle Mike purchase, emerged as a trend at the 1800s neighborhood breweries. He says, “People who lived nearby the brewery would often come in and have “growlers” (essentially a bucket) filled with beer to take home with them.”
I guess people never change. Wisconsin still loves beer, and we can still get it by the bucket right from the people who fermented it. I recommend checking out the neighborhood breweries around Northeast Wisconsin. One thing that has changed in the past 150 years is our ability to travel to these local breweries very quickly. Where is your favorite brewery? Do you think that what we’re seeing is the same pattern of the neighborhood breweries of the mid 1800s? Let me know in the comments.