Perks: Mug clubbers get special-edition vessels from potter Bruce Johnson.
Weekend nights are usually busy in the taproom at Tyranena Brewing Co. in Lake Mills, but the first Saturday of the new year was a particularly lively scene. Dozens of people gathered around the bar, hoping they would get to join the brewery's exclusive mug club.
Founded in 1998, Tyranena launched its mug club two years later. It's become a community unto itself among the brewery's patrons, and one that's not easy to join. "It's kind of like a family," says Stacey Schraufnagel, front operations manager at Tyranena. "There's a common bond. It's not one of those things that's super easy to explain."
How the club works is a simpler matter, though.
Tyranena mug club membership is capped, last year at 132. Members pay an annual fee of $50, and in return get a 22-ounce mug, stored behind the bar in the taproom. During visits, they can get it filled for the price of a pint or snifter pour. Other benefits include a dollar off growler refills and opportunities for special tastings. Every member is assigned a number and gets to choose a mug for his or her exclusive use.
The mug itself is a prestige piece. Handcrafted individually by Bruce Johnson Clay Studio of Lake Mills, each has its own character, in the warp of its walls, the feel of its handle or the look of its glaze. "Members look for something specific when choosing it," notes Schraufnagel. All mugs have Tyranena's logo on the side and the member's name and number inked on the bottom.
"It's definitely hefty. Johnson has a rustic style to his craft," says Andrea McHenry, an orders manager and assistant brewer at Tyranena and a mug club member for three years. "We're a tight-knit group at the brewery, and for members, that's a way of providing them that feeling as well." Club members host their own potlucks and parties in the taproom.
The brewery commissions a new set of mugs every year, at which point members get to take their old ones home. (Not beforehand, though -- that gets a member's privileges revoked.) The renewal period is at the end of the year, and as not everybody retains membership, there are a handful of coveted open slots.
Which brings things back to that busy Saturday at the Tyranena taproom. Those interested in joining submitted their name into a drawing, starting at the end of November, with a limit of one entry per day. Now there's just the matter of picking the names at random, with the hopeful prospects wishing for a little luck before night's end.
Brewery mug clubs are a longstanding part of the craft beer scene, but they're becoming more common at taprooms both new and old. The growth of the industry is responsible, as breweries seek to build customer loyalty in an increasingly competitive scene.
Madison's One Barrel Brewing Co. opened on Atwood Avenue in July 2012 and launched its mug club in early 2013. It runs $75 annually, with members getting their own 20-ounce tankard poured for a discount. These mugs, too, are individually numbered, and members get to keep them after a new set is released. Other perks include early access to special tastings and first crack at memorabilia like a special One Barrel tuxedo T-shirt made for last year's Great Taste of the Midwest.
One Barrel's mug club is currently capped at 100, though it is not full yet. The annual renewal deadline arrives on June 1, with a lottery to be held if applicants exceed openings.
"We want to generate more of a community around our beer, and give regulars a bit more of an incentive to come in and thank them for their patronage," explains One Barrel owner and brewmaster Peter Gentry.
Another new regional brewery that hosts a mug club is Hydro Street Brewing Co. in Columbus, which opened in early 2012. It costs $25 and features an 18.5-ounce mug. The first beer is on the house, and as in other clubs, members get more beer for their money. Invitations to beer-release tappings are part of the deal, and the pub is also starting to host mug club parties the first Sunday of the month. In its third year, the club remains open to new members, with the roster reaching around 240 people last year. The renewal date is Nov. 2.
"We think it's a win-win," says Hydro Street co-owner and brewmaster Aaron Adams. "We're giving our customers a sense of ownership, and it's a good boost for us."
Capital Brewery, once the lone craft operation in the region, recently launched its own mug club. The brewery boasts a lively scene in its outdoor Bier Garten through the warmer months of the year, and the club was conceived by bar manager Brian Schneider as a way to build community among regulars in its much smaller, indoor Bier Stube. "We're paying them back by saying we appreciate you, you're a part of this club that has a sense of exclusivity," Schneider says.
When the club opened its rolls, committed Capital fans waited in line to get the lowest mug numbers possible. Capped in the ballpark of 80-90 members, it filled up quickly and is closed until renewals come open in October.
Stored on racks in the Stube, mugs are 20 ounces, made at Sunset Hill Stoneware in Neenah, and individualized with members' numbers and initials. Members, some of whom were already meeting regularly at Capital in an unofficial cribbage club, get discounts, first dibs on special releases, plus priority for tickets to some brewery events and club parties at the Stube.
But even better, notes Schneider, they get a chance to act as a sounding (and sampling) board for the brewery when it's experimenting with new brews and coming up with names for them. "With the craft beer movement, everyone wants to taste something that's new," he says.
Other brewery mug clubs can be found at the east-side Great Dane and the Grumpy Troll in Mount Horeb, as well as at such restaurants as the Essen Haus and Capital Tap Haus.
It's the moment of reckoning at Tyranena for prospective new mug clubbers. All attention turns to the corner where the Kristy Larson Honky Tonk Trio is set up to play. Before the music starts, Tyranena's Andrea McHenry hoists a crock-pot-sized clay bowl and brings it up to the band. Larson herself will draw the lucky new members.
There are 10 slots open: five from lapsed memberships and another five new spots, a figure decided upon by Tyranena owner and brewmaster Rob Larson.
Sam Garst and Megan Gauger of Lake Mills, drinking Three Beaches Honey Blonde, are making their first attempt at joining, having entered several times to increase their chances. "We saw the mugs and thought they were beautiful," says Garst. "We asked how to get in and learned the rules. We really like this brewery."
Kevin Bottlemy of Fort Atkinson, drinking Rocky's Revenge, is on his sixth year of trying to get in, and signed up for eight entries this go-around.
Over the course of the night, McHenry draws the winning names in four rounds between sets. Neither Garst nor Gauger is picked, but they plan to try again next year. Bottlemy, though, finds that six years is the charm, and is among the final few names selected.
"After not getting in for five years, you don't think it will happen," he says. "But when you do, it's kind of cool."