Celebrating the beauty of beer at Wisconsin Brewing Company

Michael Muckian, Contributing writer

At the end of any given workday, Kirby Nelson can be seen occupying the same table in the northeast corner of the taproom at Wisconsin Brewing Company, his back often turned toward the customers drinking the beer he’s brewed.

Nelson, WBC’s brewmaster and vice president, is not anti-social — far from it, in fact.

After a lifetime in the business, he’s still mesmerized by the steely gleam of the brew kettles and mash tuns looming on the other side of the 19-foot windows that look into the brewhouse south of Madison.

For a 4-year-old brewery, the space is impressive, he admits: “We built large for a startup brewery, with plenty of room for expansion. Beer is a beautiful thing and, as much as possible, we wanted to make the brewery a beautiful thing.”

The buzz inside the taproom supports Nelson’s assessment. WBC’s clean, industrial lines and evident functionality provide the perfect backdrop to drink some of the state’s best craft beer.

Unlike many startup breweries that find an aging industrial plant or other cast-off commercial property to plant their roots, WBC occupies a new brewery built in the Verona Technology Park.

The $11 million facility houses an 80-barrel, fully automated brewing operation that produces about a dozen brands, including the flagship Badger Club Amber Ale. There also is plenty of room for Nelson to experiment with techniques like bourbon-barrel aging and others that make craft brewing a unique industry.

A fast start

The jump to light speed may have proved less challenging for Nelson and WBC’s CEO and president Carl Nolen than for other startup brewers. The two men previously held the same positions at Capital Brewing Company in Middleton.

Joined by Nolen’s brother Mark, a former banker, and operations director Mike McGuire, who spent more than 30 years with Alliant Energy, the team raised $8 million from outside investors to launch the facility with the aim of producing 250,000 barrels per year in relatively short order.

Equipped to meet the challenge

The Racine native, who graduated from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse with degrees in biology and chemistry, scored his first brewing job right out college in the lab of the former G. Heileman Brewing Company. The La Crosse brewery, best known for Old Style and Special Export, was in an expansion mode and, in short order, sent Nelson to run a brewery the company had purchased in Florida.

“It was total culture shock and a complete disaster,” Nelson says. “I had only a rudimentary knowledge of brewing at the time, but in a year-and-a-half got a cram course in running a brewery that I would never have gotten anywhere else.”

Nelson also made valuable business contacts, including one who invited him to run a small brewery in the Philippines, where he and his wife stayed for almost two years between 1982 and 1983.

“I started reading about the craft brewing industry and thought that Madison would be a really cool place for a craft brewery,” Nelson says. “When I heard that Ed Janus was starting Capital Brewery, I called and left a brief résumé on his voicemail, along with the offer to invest in the company. That way I knew I would get a call back.”

The ploy worked and Nelson started as Capital’s brewmaster in 1986, drawing on Wisconsin’s German heritage and his personal tastes to create a beer portfolio large on lagers. He held the post for 25 years, and followed Nolen, who left Capital in 2011 after an unsuccessful attempt to buy the company, to form WBC.

WBC released its first beer Nov. 1, 2013, which not coincidentally was Nelson’s 59th birthday. “I’m never going to retire,” Nelson still enthuses. “I love what I do.”

One and done challenge

Craft brewers temper their excitement with a sense of practicality and the realization that even among beer geeks, the wildfire spread of craft brands has its limits. Too many brands from too many brewers are creating difficulty for many to get a profitable foothold in what already may be an oversaturated industry, Nelson says.

“With the beer geek you have the tail wagging the dog,” the brewer notes. “It’s getting harder to establish a brand and yet still brew beer that fascinates consumers.”

Many bars and taphouses have established a “one and done” policy, Nelson notes. They may try a new brand and it may do very well for them, but they’re constantly in search of new and more interesting beers that will draw drinkers back to their establishments, he explains.

“I don’t like beer as a fad,” Nelson explains. “It’ been too important to civilization to be just the flavor of the week. But not everyone agrees with me, and that’s the beauty of beer.”

On tap

Wisconsin Brewing Company, 1079 American Way, Verona, offers tours and tastes. Hours are 3–9 p.m. Tuesday–Thursday, 3–10 p.m. Friday, 11 a.m.–10 p.m. Saturday and noon–7 p.m. Sunday. For more, go to wisconsinbrewingcompany.com.