At a time when overall beer sales and consumption are declining, interest in craft beer is at an all-time high, in Madison and around the nation. Wisconsin's capital city and its surrounding region can now be considered as among acclaimed brewing destination cities like Asheville, North Carolina, or Fort Collins, Colorado, with aspirations to reach into the ranks of San Diego, Denver and Portland, Oregon.
"Madison is leading the craft beer movement in Wisconsin," says Mike Frank, vice president of sales for Frank Beer Distributors. Based on numbers from his company, the proportion of craft beers being sold in Madison compared to the brands from big breweries is 27%. Even more striking is that for every 10 tap lines one will find in a Madison restaurant or tavern, seven will likely be dedicated to craft beer. "And, of those seven craft beers, five are likely to be locally made beers," Frank adds.
When Frank talks with breweries about distributing in southern Wisconsin, he explains, the desire for craft beer here is every bit as strong as in brewing havens like Portland and Seattle, both of which are among the best-known cities for their craft beer culture and a 30%-plus market share for craft products. "It's a testament to the good beer we have here," adds Frank.
The growing interest in craft beer certainly is reflected in the expansion of breweries and brewpubs around south-central Wisconsin.
Madison's thirst is supported by more than a dozen breweries and brewpubs within Dane County, and around a dozen more that operate within roughly 40 miles of the metro area. Nearly all of those breweries have been seeing double-digit increases in annual beer production over the last several years. Moreover, most are presently involved in expanding their buildings, brewing equipment capacity, distribution footprints, tasting rooms, and restaurant operations.
Approaching a 30% market share is impressive, says Julie Hertz of the Colorado-based Brewers Association. She defines states with an advanced craft beer culture as having multiple breweries in close proximity to foster an expanding market for different styles, laws friendly to brewing entrepreneurs, and a nascent tourism base for visitors seeking to experience the region's scene.
This latter element is certainly the case with the Great Taste of the Midwest, which attracts more than 6,000 beer enthusiasts to Madison's Olin-Turville Park for the largest outdoor festival of its kind in region. The annual affair has become so popular that a growing series of independent beer events has coalesced around the original celebration. There are scores of such gatherings for the 2014 edition of Great Taste Eve, as the phenomenon is known. Many out-of-state breweries travel to Madison to take part whether or not they are part of the Great Taste itself.
It's worth noting that 20 years ago, Madison's local beer scene included just a single brewery (Capital Brewery in Middleton) and one brewpub (the original downtown Great Dane). Outside the city, New Glarus Brewing was just getting started and the Joseph Huber Brewing Company of Monroe (now Minhas) was still operating as Wisconsin's oldest family-owned brewery.
Longtime brewmaster Kirby Nelson, who is now an owner of the recently opened Wisconsin Brewing Company in Verona, has been part of the local beer scene for more than 25 years. "In the 1980s, I was on the street trying to sell [Capital Brewery] beer, and I was looked at like I was out of my mind. There was a strong skepticism about microbreweries compared to today's explosive growth," he recalls.
"Madison is really not that large, but today sells a lot of beer, and a lot of that is craft beer," Nelson notes. "There is just so much awareness happening, and we've become an epicenter of it."
To put all this into some perspective, the Brewers Association reports that in the U.S., overall beer sales declined by about 2% in 2013. However that segment of beer being sold that is defined by the organization as craft beer grew over 17%, reaching a point where these products now make up 7.8% of total beer sales.
The interest in craft beer is also spurring changes among beer distributors that used to align themselves, almost exclusively, with big breweries like MillerCoors and Anheuser-Busch. Frank, a fourth-generation family member in beer distribution, dismisses recent skepticism that growth in craft beer is unsustainable.
"We don't think it's a bubble that's going to burst," Frank says. "We have been changing in response to it and investing in a separate sales force, brand management, and other resources to expand our lines of craft beers because we believe we will continue to grow."
Nelson agrees: "I think there will continue to be potential for growth as long as there is an audience that appreciates diversity in beer." That appreciation is also tied to the mainstreaming of interest in local shopping. "I see more appreciation for locally made and artisan products than I did 20 years ago, and beer is a very visible part of that because of the strong emotions that it brings out in people," he adds.
Shawn Knoche, a sales manager at Frank Beer, says the sheer number of beer styles that drinkers have to choose from helps fuel that growth and interest in craft beer. "There are new beers all the time, along with crossover styles, beers you don't get to try very often, and those that are imported from somewhere else you've never seen," he notes.
Knoche says the big breweries have noticed those trends and are responding. "They are looking for opportunities to join the party -- breweries like MillerCoors and Budweiser have their own entries into the craft beer market and are trying to capture a piece of it," he explains. Evidence of that are national brands that vie for crafty-drinkers such as Blue Moon Belgian White, which is owned by MillerCoors (SABMiller), and Shock Top Belgian White from Anheuser-Busch (In Bev). Closer to home, the Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Company that started in Chippewa Falls in 1867 is part of MillerCoors' lineup of brands.
During much of the latter 20th century, Wisconsin was known as the "beer state." From 1962-1982, Wisconsin produced more beer than any other state in the U.S., thanks to big breweries that included Miller, Pabst, Schlitz, Blatz and G. Heileman. That big brewery heritage is still a source of pride today. And because of that legacy, the renaissance of locally made craft beer that really started building in the 1990s may have been slower to take hold in the state, says Wisconsin Brewers Guild president Bo Belanger, who is also the brewmaster at South Shore Brewery in Ashland.
"I believe the craft beer segment for the state of Wisconsin is closer to 5%," says Belanger. However, he points to Madison as a bellwether for change. "If I can sell my beer in Madison, I'm not going away," he adds.
Tom Porter, owner and brewmaster of Arena-based Lake Louie Brewing, agrees with Belanger. "Madison is so many square miles of craft beer heaven, surrounded by reality," Porter laughs. All of this excitement about Madison's beer scene likely reflects a combination of factors.
"I think it's education, income and attitude," says Porter. "Just look at the local restaurants and amazing food choices in Madison -- people are willing to spend a few extra dollars to have a good beer, a good sandwich or anything local."
Brewmaster Dean Coffey makes the beer that is behind the success of Madison's Ale Asylum. The brewery launched on Madison's north side in 2006, and then in 2012 opened a new 45,000-square-foot brewery near the Dane County Regional Airport. Ale Asylum has been an important player in Madison's craft beer identity, raising the consciousness of the city's savvy beer-drinking population. There is now a generation of local beer drinkers coming of age who have defined their expectations of good beer with brands like the hop-forward Hopalicious and a suite of Belgian-style brews.
Ale Asylum has been averaging nearly 20% growth a year since opening, and it's riding the wave of craft beer enthusiasm. Coffey says that his formula for success is simple, but that it can't be violated.
"We need to keep brewing the best beer we can, keep quality as high as we can," says Coffey. "You don't get to choose; the market does what it does. We just have to prove to the consumer that we make quality beer and make it consistently, and they'll come back for more."