Wisconsin seems as synonymous with beer as it does with cheese. Milwaukee was long touted as the "Beer Capital of the World," and then there's Bernie Brewer. The brewing industry contributed $8.6 billion to Wisconsin's economic output in 2012, according to the Beer Institute. That figure comprised a higher percent of state GDP, relative to the size of Wisconsin's economy, than all other states except for Missouri and Colorado. And let's not forget Wisconsin's reputation for drinking.
Yet for all its popular association with beer, and despite acclaimed festivals like the Great Taste of the Midwest, Wisconsin isn't usually mentioned in the same breath as craft beer meccas like Colorado and California among beer geeks looking for their next destination for a "beergrimage." But for Wisconsin's microbreweries, there may be reason to celebrate, as a new bill being circulated in the Legislature may offer a boost. Rep. Gary Tauchen (R–Bonduel) has introduced a bill, AB 856, that aims to foster beer tourism in Wisconsin. The bill would create a Wisconsin Beer Commission, a group with representation from small brewers, large brewers, distributors and retailers, all focused on marketing and promoting the state's brewing industry.
Addressing past concerns of small brewers that their voices can easily be edged out by those of large brewers in the state, the Commission would include four members representing microbreweries or brewpubs, one member for large brewers, one for wholesalers and a chairperson.
"I want the players to play together, so what I'm trying to do is get the board seats so that the majority will be for the microbrewers -- but I want them to work with distributors, large brewers, anybody interested in the industry to help tourism too," says Rep. Tauchen. "I think there's a lot of potential for that, which will create auxiliary jobs. This gives them a vehicle to work together to get some good things done to help the industry."
Tauchen says he's looking to the way Wisconsin has promoted its cheese, and even its brats, as inspiration. "I was sitting down one day thinking about the products important to the state of Wisconsin: cheese, brats, and beer," he says. "For the cheese industry we have the Milk Marketing Board that has done a good job promoting and marketing dairy products. In the area of brats, we changed the rules last session where we allowed the export of brats and other meat products out of the state for the first time."
Tauchen decided it was beer's turn. The Brewers Association trade group announced Monday that sales of craft beer reached 14.3% of the domestic market in 2013, up nearly four points from 2012 figures. Wisconsin is in the thick of this growing industry, and in 2012 ranked 11th in the nation for breweries per capita.
"I thought, beer is important to the state. The microbreweries have an increase in share of the beer market, and we want to take them to the next level," says Rep. Tauchen.
One specific power granted to the Commission would be the ability to sell Wisconsin beers in a special pavilion or booth at State Fair Park, potentially providing exposure to breweries previously unable to afford access there, and providing a funding source for the group itself.
Tauchen is currently welcoming feedback on the bill. "It came out at end of the legislative session because we did talk to a lot of the stakeholders," he explains, including the Wisconsin Brewers Guild along with grocers, distributors and the state's still powerful macrobreweries. "I want everybody to have plenty of time to look over the bill before we start the legislative process," says Tauchen.
The Legislature now has three years to actually pass the bill. "I want to make sure we get it as close to right as possible," Tauchen says, adding that he's gotten widespread support. "It's amazing how many people have sent me emails saying they want to be on the Commission."
Tauchen has said that he wants to see Wisconsin become the "Napa Valley of beer" in terms of tourism. "When it comes to beer and wine people, they like to travel," says the representative, a wine aficionado who visited Washington state wine country last summer.
It's not quite a new concept. Back in 2010, Isthmus asked if it could "even be possible for Wisconsin to become a Napa Valley-style destination" for cheese and beer tourism, offering several road trip suggestions for exploring creameries and breweries that took inspiration from the popular practice of exploring "wine country" in California.
Tauchen himself doesn't exactly hail from a part of the state brimming with craft beer, at least so far. Neither Bonduel nor Shawano County offers much in the way in breweries. Instead, a trip is required to Hinterland or Titletown in Green Bay, or Red Eye or Bull Falls in Wausau.
Perhaps nurturing "beer country" regions across the state will help connect the dots, filling in the gaps between Wisconsin's great breweries with the other trappings of an agricultural and artisan destination.