I am very much a city girl. I like being able to walk or ride my bike to purchase anything I need; I like to hear the L thunder by; I like to feel like I am surrounded by people. So, it is very out of character for me to want to attend a camping trip. Me? Sleep in a tent? With bugs and rain and who knows what else? Well, I wasn’t going to be the second coming of Bear Grylls but this was a pretty tame camping experience with my homebrew club (CHAOS) that included lazily floating down a river in an inner tube while sipping an Oskar Blues Gubna Double IPA (and a Sixpoint Resin and a Tallgrass Velvet Rooster, my new obsession). And it included a tour of Central Waters Brewing which was about a half hour drive away from our campsite. I think my main motivation for wanting to go on the trip was this tour; I could definitely make the sacrifice of sleeping in a tent for two days if it meant a private tour of Central Waters. Below is my account of the hour-long tour of one of the most sustainable breweries in the United States.
Central Waters Brewing has been in business for 14 years but I just recently became familiar with them. A few members of my homebrew club introduced me to Peruvian Morning, a delicious imperial stout blended with Peruvian coffee, and the barrel aged barleywine at one of our monthly meetings and I was astounded at how good they were. I was not familiar with many of their flagship offerings, though, or the brewery as a whole so I was very much looking forward to learning what this central Wisconsin brewery was all about. We headed to the brewery at five o’clock in the evening on June 15th after we already set up camp. As with many production breweries, this one was in an industrial park and didn’t look like much from the outside. We walked into the tap room and grabbed a pint ($3!) before lining up for the tour.
To our surprise, our tour guide was Paul Graham, the owner of the brewery. He started out as a brewer but learned the business side of brewing and bought the company a few years ago. “There are a lot of great brewers out there, but not a whole lot of people that know how to run a business,” Graham explained as the reason why he does not brew much anymore but rather runs the front end of the business.
The original location of the brewery was located in Junction City, Wisconsin, about 20 miles west of the current location in Amherst. According to Graham, it was a little hell hole of a production facility but “when you’re a kid and want to brew beer, the bank doesn’t trust you so much.” It took the Central Waters team nine years to build up a really good reputation so the bank finally “let us go millions and millions of dollars into debt and build this nice place,” said Graham, gesturing to the expanse of fermentors.
I don’t think he realized that we were a group of homebrewers since he went through a pretty basic overview of the ingredients of the brewing process. Even though we knew how barley is malted and dried or roasted to become usable by brewers, it was fascinating to hear him talk about it, especially since he gets 25% of the barley for his beers from an organic farm right down the road. Typically, not a whole lot of thought goes into the process of malting; the brewery owner calls up the maltster and tells him/her what he/she wants and the next day it is at the brewery’s door. “Working directly with farmers has really changed that for us,” said Graham. He continued by saying that he uses local ingredients whenever possible, although it is not a good business plan to rely solely on local ingredients. For instance, he uses very little Wisconsin or Michigan hops, stating “There’s not enough.” It is too much of a gamble to use all local hops; all it takes is one year of bad weather in one microclimate and that crop is ruined. “We work with farms and they may have farm insurance but we got to keep brewing.” This is one of the reasons why only 25% of the barley comes from down the road. According to Graham, they could plant enough to use 100% local barley, but if that fails, “my prices spike so high because I’m not contracted with a major supplier. You do everything you can to use local ingredients, but at the end of the day, I have to pay the bank.” He does believe in using local products, though, and often will purchase local hops at $10 a pound where the same type/amount of hops would cost a mere $3 from a major producer. “But I want to see [local hop production] grow so that’s why I do it.” He’s even helped start a co-op that assists farms plant hops, although he has only seen minimal success with that.
After an overview of the brewing process and the Central Waters brewhouse, it was time to check out the packaging equipment. As we entered, Graham said “welcome to my antique collection.” He explained that he bought other people’s “junk,” refurbished it, and brought it back online. He said that all of this used equipment is high maintenance and constantly breaks down, but buying it new would cost millions of dollars. “Packaging equipment is 10 times more expensive than brewing equipment,” Graham explained. He showed us one piece of equipment and said, “This thing was the Ferrari of fillers in 1968. It’s probably a VW Jetta now.” They acquired it for $55,000 from a now defunct German brewery, and explained that they lose about $50,000 in sales per year because this piece of equipment, previously used to fill the larger bottles utilized in German breweries, overfills Central Waters’ bottles by 2%.
When asked about the current craft beer market, Graham stated that the “beer market’s crazy right now. We’re probably going to go through another 1990s where there’s a massive shakedown at some point.” As you know, I try to keep a very optimistic viewpoint with regards to new breweries and I feel that all deserve a chance to get up and running. However, I understand the cautionary attitude one must embrace from a business standpoint. According to Graham, “The big boys with two decades of experience, you’re not going to see them fail. They’ve got the track record, they’ve got the experience. They’re putting out consistent, quality products. With new boys who are trying to scale up homebrew recipes, that’s a different ball game. I was there, so I’m not criticizing. I was 21 and doing it. But I got really lucky; it was a totally different market. It’s going to be interesting over the next 15 years. But the beer market today from five years ago is a totally different beer market. It’s insane out there these days. And we’re running out of shelf space. If you walk into any liquor store, walk into any bar, how many tap lines do they have? How much cooler space do they have? So, what’s going to happen there? It’s going to be interesting. It makes us nervous, even being ‘teenagers’ right now.” While I completely understand what Graham is referring to, I also know that liquor stores and beer bars are expanding their selection of craft beer so (hopefully) it will be growth on both sides so neither feel a financial crunch.
Since I just discovered Central Waters a few months ago, I was curious about their distribution. They distribute throughout Wisconsin, and they will soon be across the state of Illinois (they are just in the Chicago market right now but recently signed some contracts with other distributors throughout the state). So, as you can see, they are still a relatively small brewery with very limited distribution. They still don’t have a single sales person on staff! They are gearing up to expand the cellar, though, so one can assume that will mean further distribution in the future. Hopefully that means they will soon be in a market by you (if they aren’t already). And if they are, be sure to seek them out, especially their barrel aged offerings. You will not be disappointed! And if you are camping at the Wolf River, Wisconsin camp grounds, be sure to check out the Central Waters brewery. One of the best, most informative (from a business perspective) brewery tours I have been on!
For more photos of our tour of Central Waters Brewing Company, check out Christopher Murphy’s photostream on flickr.