"To walk away from what I did every day, I guess I'd forgotten just how much I enjoy it," says Kirby Nelson.
A longtime brewmaster at Capital Brewery in Middleton, Nelson left the company last September after 26 years to pursue a new venture with former Capital president Carl Nolen. Together they're launching Wisconsin Brewing Company in Verona, which is currently scheduled to start offering its beers by the end of the year. Nelson is using this interim period before the new brewing equipment arrives to develop and refine his recipes.
The duo turned up at the downtown Great Dane brewpub late last week to make some beer. Nelson is no stranger to the Dane, being a longtime friend of its brewmaster Rob LoBreglio. Over the years, the two have collaborated on several beers, including Kirby's Supper Club in 2008 (the forerunner to Capital's popular Supper Club brew) and their Belgian Barleywine in 2010. They have also enjoyed friendly competition via their "Boxing of the Bocks" tasting last year.
Last week, Nelson and Nolan were working on an amber lager at the Great Dane's brewhouse. It was "a trial batch in more ways than one," says Nelson. "I'm just playing around with ideas right now, and I don't know if it will become part of our portfolio." His recipe included Willamette hops, a variety from the Pacific Northwest that has strong aromatic qualities and modest bitter flavor often found in American pale ales.
Nelson says that spending the day with Great Dane's system allowed him to try out specific malts and hops he's interested in. The trial beer is expected to be served at the Great Dane later this month, so patrons can taste for themselves what Nelson is considering for Wisconsin Brewing.
Nelson also just purchased a small pilot brewing system that he'll use to make test batches once Wisconsin Brewing is up and running. It previously belonged to the Rochester Mills Beer Company in Michigan.
The system will eventually be used by Nelson to make one-off batches that are slightly bigger than a barrel. He hopes to use it to create pilot brews (before scaling up recipes), as well as special-release beers. Nelson envisions installing it in a prominent area of the new brewery where it would be visible from the tasting room. For now, the system remains in a friend's garage in nearby Oregon.
Nelson, who describes himself as not just a beer geek but a brewery geek, ordered much of the primary equipment, (including the brew kettle) last November. The main system, being fabricated in Hudson, Wisconsin, will be able to make up to 80 barrels at a time. Nelson expects it to be delivered in August and hopes to offer draught beer by November 2013; with luck, bottled beers will be released about the same time.
The present site for the new brewery is 1079 American Way in Verona, just south of Highway 151. Site preparation has started, but major construction on the 20,000-square-foot facility won't occur until the weather improves. The brewery has been designed to allow it to grow with the demand for his beer. Eventually, the system, with some modest expansion, could produce up to 250,000 barrels per year.
While waiting on construction and the equipment to arrive, Nelson has been dreaming about what beers he'll be making. However, the usually forthcoming brewmaster isn't saying too much about what exactly he's planning to offer. At least not yet. "I have been threatened by colleagues that if I don't make something hoppy, I'll be beaten," jests Nelson.