Book­ing Beer­ca­tions

Drift­less brew­ing seeks to build re­gional ap­peal

Wisconsin Gazette - - Front Page - By Julie Grace WisCon­text

Beer tourism is grow­ing in size and pop­u­lar­ity in Wis­con­sin. Some brew­eries are even build­ing ho­tels to at­tract peo­ple.

Craft beer fans seek­ing dif­fer­ent fla­vors are ac­cus­tomed to hit­ting the road to taste of­fer­ings from brew­eries both near and far from home. Spe­cial re­leases of new and lim­ited-run cre­ations are a big draw, but so too are the brew­eries.

As the craft beer in­dus­try has blos­somed over the past decade, so have op­tions for such vis­its.

The Brew­ers As­so­ci­a­tion, a na­tional trade as­so­ci­a­tion for craft beer-re­lated busi­nesses, re­ported that in 2017, craft con­sumers vis­ited three-and-a-half brew­eries near their homes and two-and-a-half brew­eries within two hours' driv­ing dis­tance on av­er­age.

“Beer tourism” is one la­bel for the phe­nom­e­non of peo­ple plan­ning get­aways around vis­it­ing craft brew­eries, as is the punchier “beer­ca­tion.”

In 2016, Trav­e­loc­ity es­tab­lished a “beer tourism in­dex,” which iden­ti­fied the top des­ti­na­tions for craft beer in the United States. Madi­son ranked ninth among large metro ar­eas.

Grow­ing in size and pop­u­lar­ity, these “des­ti­na­tion brew­eries” of­ten boast tap­rooms, res­tau­rants, out­door spa­ces and other at­trac­tions.

Some brew­eries are even build­ing ho­tels to at­tract vis­i­tors.

“We've seen peo­ple's de­sire to visit brew­eries go up a lot in re­cent years,” said Bart Wat­son, chief economist at the Brew­ers As­so­ci­a­tion. “There's been a real de­mand shift in beer. Peo­ple want fuller fla­vor and va­ri­ety, and they want to sup­port small and lo­cal brew­eries.”

Wat­son noted that this phe­nom­e­non is not unique to the beer in­dus­try, and con­sumers are also in­creas­ingly will­ing to travel to winer­ies and dis­til­leries.

While the re­cent ex­plo­sion of craft beer has found many new op­er­a­tions clus­tered in cities, sev­eral of Wis­con­sin's prom­i­nent des­ti­na­tion brew­eries are lo­cated in more ru­ral ar­eas.


Two high-pro­file craft beer des­ti­na­tions in Wis­con­sin are New Glarus Brew­ing and Cen­tral Wa­ters Brew­ing. Based in the vil­lages of New Glarus and Amherst, re­spec­tively — com­mu­ni­ties in ru­ral set­tings yet not too far a drive from larger cities — both have been draw­ing in­creas­ingly large crowds for the past cou­ple of decades.

Newer op­er­a­tions around the state are try­ing to fol­low their ex­am­ple.

Drift­less Brew­ing Com­pany is op­ti­mistic to build a rep­u­ta­tion as a craft-beer des­ti­na­tion. Es­tab­lished in 2014, it ini­tially op­er­ated a one-bar­rel brew­ing sys­tem out of a for­mer gro­cery store in Sol­diers Grove, a vil­lage in Craw­ford County. It sold beer out of a makeshift tap­room and a few lo­cal busi­nesses, but the brew­ery is set to grow con­sid­er­ably with a $1.2 mil­lion ex­pan­sion to a 15-bar­rel sys­tem and 49-seat tast­ing room in the works, funded by pri­vate in­vestors, bank and busi­ness de­vel­op­ment loans, and a grant from the Wis­con­sin Eco­nomic De­vel­op­ment Cor­po­ra­tion.

The brew­ery al­ready drew at­ten­tion from nearby res­i­dents and vis­i­tors to its corner of the state. But af­ter the ex­pan­sion, which is slated for com­ple­tion in 2019, staff hopes to spread word of the beers much wider.

“Even though we're in a town of less than 600 peo­ple, we're go­ing to suc­ceed in hav­ing a big­ger brew­ery to get us out into Wis­con­sin on a larger ba­sis,” said Cyn­thia Olm­stead, busi­ness and op­er­a­tions di­rec­tor at Drift­less Brew­ing.

“We'd like to ful­fill de­mand from La Crosse to Mil­wau­kee, and to bring peo­ple into town through the tap­room. We'll be bring­ing a huge amount of peo­ple into Sol­diers Grove, and that's re­ally ex­cit­ing,” she said.

Olm­stead noted she's al­ready seen pos­i­tive im­pacts the brew­ery has had in the com­mu­nity.

Res­i­dents are “beyond thrilled to have a small tap­room in their tiny town,” she said. And vis­i­tors are “thrilled to come and sup­port a brew­ery steeped in val­ues of good en­vi­ron­men­tal prac­tices that uses Wis­con­sin in­gre­di­ents,” she added.

Olm­stead said she's also seen mo­tor­cy­cle groups, car clubs and other groups visit Sol­diers Grove just to stop by Drift­less Brew­ing, which gets vis­i­tors from Chicago, Min­neapo­lis, Iowa City and else­where around the Mid­west.

When vis­i­tors check out the brew­ery, Olm­stead said they also may take a look at other lo­cal busi­nesses, cre­at­ing eco­nomic rip­ples through­out the small town.

That ef­fect could even­tu­ally help at­tract other en­trepreneurs to Sol­diers Grove, said Jim Bow­man, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Drift­less De­vel­op­ment Inc., a lo­cal eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment or­ga­ni­za­tion that as­sisted the brew­ery in fund­ing its ex­pan­sion. In co­or­di­na­tion with the Univer­sity of Wis­con­sin-Ex­ten­sion, Drift­less De­vel­op­ment is com­plet­ing a mar­ket study to de­ter­mine what goods and ser­vices needed in the area.

“We con­tinue to pro­mote and have a re­la­tion­ship” with Drift­less Brew­ing, said Bow­man. “Our next job is to find other com­ple­men­tary busi­nesses near them and high­light them as a busi­ness ex­pan­sion.”


The eco­nomic im­pact of des­ti­na­tion brew­eries can ex­tend well beyond their home com­mu­ni­ties.

One ef­fect is re­lated to build­ing re­gional sup­ply chains. Craft brew­eries in­creas­ingly aim to use lo­cally sourced in­gre­di­ents from around the state in their beers. Drift­less Brew­ing uses 95 per­cent lo­cal or re­gional in­gre­di­ents, sourc­ing most of their hops

and malt from in­side Wis­con­sin, as well as fruit, honey and other in­gre­di­ents for sea­sonal beers.

“Some­times we just pick the fruit our­selves,” said Olm­stead. “Be­ing lo­cal is part of our brand now.”

Brew­ers As­so­ci­a­tion economist Bart Wat­son also noted that lo­cally owned brew­eries add value to their state's econ­omy, through adding jobs, pay­ing prop­erty taxes, and buy­ing lo­cally on the sup­ply chain.

The growth of Drift­less Brew­ing re­flects na­tional trends in the craft beer in­dus­try.

Start­ing with the emer­gence of the home­brew­ing move­ment in the late 1970s, fol­lowed by a few decades of in­cre­men­tal growth by startup busi­nesses once called “mi­cro­brew­eries,” the craft beer move­ment took off across the U.S. as the 2010s opened.

As of 2017, re­ports the Brew­ers As­so­ci­a­tion, Wis­con­sin had 160 craft brew­eries — up from 73 in 2011 — which yielded over $2 bil­lion in to­tal eco­nomic im­pact in the pre­vi­ous year.

That trend of growth means more com­pe­ti­tion, but it also makes for more places craft beer fans can visit.

Along with Drift­less Brew­ing, other craft beer des­ti­na­tions in south­west­ern Wis­con­sin — busi­ness with both deep lo­cal roots and gleam­ing new fa­cil­i­ties — are at­tract­ing vis­i­tors. Po­tosi Brew­ery and the ad­join­ing Na­tional Brew­ery Mu­seum in Po­tosi, was launched in 2007 and ex­panded in 2015, though the brand goes back al­most to the state's found­ing. Mean­while, Vin­tage Brew­ing, founded as a brew­pub in Madi­son, opened a large flag­ship fa­cil­ity in Sauk City in early 2018.

“Craft brew­ing is cre­at­ing its own econ­omy,” said Olm­stead, “whether it's ren­o­vat­ing a neigh­bor­hood in an ur­ban area, or places like us that haven't had a whole lot of eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment.”

Edi­tor’s note: This re­port was orig­i­nally pub­lished on WisCon­text and was pro­duced in part­ner­ship with Wis­con­sin Pub­lic Ra­dio, Wis­con­sin Pub­lic Tele­vi­sion and the Univer­sity of Wis­con­sin Co­op­er­a­tive Ex­ten­sion. This ar­ti­cle was edited for length.

Kris­tian Knut­sen con­trib­uted to this re­port.


Out­side New Glarus Brew­ing.

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