"I kind of knew we'd made it when I was driving and noticed that someone had thrown a couple of our empty bottles in the ditch," chuckles Capital Brewery's Kirby Nelson, as he thinks back over the past 25 years. To him it was a sign that his beer was actually competing with other, better-known brands.
The Middleton brewery celebrates its silver anniversary this year, and Nelson has been on the job since even before the first batch was brewed - at 6:30 p.m. on April 17, 1986. "Our company was bankrupt from day one, so it was a struggle. We've certainly had our ups and downs," Nelson says.
Capital Brewery was incorporated as a business in 1984, but it took about two years to get it off the ground and beer flowing from the taps. (That's why the 25th anniversary is marked in 2011.)
The brewery was the dream of local businessman Ed Janus, at that time owner of the Madison Muskies baseball team. Janus wanted to serve his own beer at the ballpark. After encountering trouble with financing, he invited friends to buy stock in the fledging brewery. Some 1,500 shares were eventually sold.
"In 1986 we were begging for accounts," says Nelson. "We also had creditors at our door, and I remember discussions about how much money we needed just to pay people."
That's a long way from where Capital Brewery is today. In 1986, it produced fewer than 1,000 barrels of beer; in 2010 it made 24,000 barrels, which places it among the 10 largest breweries in Wisconsin.
When Capital came onto the scene, the national beer industry was in a consolidation phase. In 1982, Wisconsin yielded its 20-year run as number one in total beer production to Missouri. By 1984, Wisconsin could boast only eight commercial breweries, all biggies with wide distribution. Today, there are nearly 70 craft brewers making beer in Wisconsin.
Capital Brewery could have easily been lost in the shuffle. The late 1990s saw many beer companies fail; while their beer may have been good, they lacked business sense.
In 2004, Capital hired Carl Nolen as brewery president; he had previously worked for Coors and Miller Brewing. With Nolen's leadership and Nelson's brewing skills, Capital has diversified its portfolio of beers and nearly doubled its production.
Nolen says the customer base has changed dramatically in the past 25 years. "Overall, there is less beer being consumed, but beer drinkers are more informed and looking for locally made choices," he says. "They expect innovation and are not satisfied with the days of just drinking one brand for life."
So what's ahead as Capital Brewery celebrates this year? On Saturday, Feb. 26, it hosts the 13th annual frenzy called Bockfest. The event marks the yearly release of the brewery's Blonde Doppelbock, a rich, deep, golden amber beer. Nelson stands on the roof of the brewery and throws frozen chubs to the 2,500-plus visitors in the biergarten who are hoping to catch an intact fish head, which can be exchanged for a prize. Bockfest and its frozen chub toss were originally created, somewhat jokingly, as an alternative to ice fishing.
The Blonde Doppelbock is part of a signature line of German lagers upon which Capital hangs its hat. When the brewery started, the goal was to reflect Wisconsin's deep history with the German brewmasters who immigrated here. The Blonde Doppelbock sets the standard for the style. Wisconsin Amber (a Vienna-style red) and the seasonal Maibock and Oktoberfest are among Capital's other great German lagers.
Capital fans will also await the fall release of Autumnal Fire, a Doppelbock with an Oktoberfest personality. This year Nelson is planning a special version of Autumnal Fire that he's calling Eternal Flame. To make it, he'll hold back about 50 barrels from the 2011 batch and add them to the next year's vintage. He'll repeat the process year after year He will also brew a maltier version of Autumnal Fire, called Imperial Fire.
Nelson says he's not sure how such "vertical" brewing will affect the flavor of his popular limited-release beer, known for its bold malty flavor and high alcohol. Few others have tried commercial brewing in this way.
Nelson is looking forward to the next 25 years. "When this place turns 50, I'll still be brewing. I'm not going to retire. They'll have to drag me out of here because I really enjoy what I do."