Business partnerships are nothing new, but some grow more “organically” than others.
Milwaukee’s Lakefront Brewery has ratcheted up its relationship with Growing Power, the Milwaukee nonprofit devoted to sustainable urban farming, in order to raise awareness of sustainability issues and opportunities. As a result, Lakefront’s legions of fans have a new beer to savor.
Lakefront’s Growing Power, a farmhouse-style organic pale ale that’s 6.7 percent alcohol by volume, blends organic Cascade, Centennial and Calypso hops with Belgian yeast strains for unique and slightly lighter Belgian-style saison. Released in May in limited quantities, Growing Power had such strong initial sales that the brewery has had to increase its yield just to keep pace with demand, says Lakefront founder and president Russ Klisch.
“Growing Power has been selling very well, and we haven’t gotten it out like we should,” Klisch says. “Distributors didn’t know (Growing Power Inc. founder and CEO) Will Allen and initially under-ordered the beer. It’s now available again, but it takes time to get it brewed.”
Allen, a former basketball player with the University of Miami Hurricanes and recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant, founded Growing Power in 1993 to teach urban populations how to sustainably farm otherwise abandoned inner city locations. Through his work, Allen has spread his sustainability gospel throughout the United States, as well as to countries such as Kenya, Macedonia and Ukraine.
Allen has partnered with Lakefront since 2001, Klisch says, using the spent grain left over from the company’s brewing production as compost material.
“I have no idea how much we send him, but it’s a lot,” Klisch says. “We bought 850,000 pounds of barley last year and even though the sugars are taken out (during the brewing process), it’s probably over a million pounds when it’s wet.”
As part of the partnership, Lakefront purchases locally grown yellow perch from Allen’s aquaponics operation at 5500 W. Silver Spring Road to serve at its popular Friday night fish fries. Klisch also contributes beer to local Growing Power workshops and has poured beer at the conferences Allen puts on to teach sustainability to a growing population of urban farmers.
The introduction of Growing Power ale, from which the nonprofit will receive 10 percent of the profits, takes the relationship to a new level. The beer’s Belgian style is a callback to Allen’s athletic career, Klisch says.
“When Will Allen was still playing professional basketball, he played for a time in Belgium and developed a taste for their beers,” Klisch says.
Allen’s interest in sustainable agriculture dates back to Belgium as well. While there, he witnessed the yield-intensive ways Belgian farmers were able to maximize small plots of land, according to the Growing Power website.
The new beer, as well as the growing partnership between the two companies, brings together the best of both worlds, Allen says.
“The partnership serves as a strong example of how two companies that worked together over many years are able to demonstrate stewardship of a sustainable food system,” he says. “This sustainable food system will not only provide good food and drink to Milwaukee and beyond, but will also be a catalyst to create more jobs and economic development in our city and around the nation.”
That may someday include the city’s brewing industry. Lakefront’s new beer, certified organic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, adds one more entry to the brewery’s growing line of organic and gluten-free brews.
Producing organic beer is more time-consuming and expensive than non-organic beer, Klisch says, largely because certified organic ingredients, especially hops, are hard to come by. In addition, formulating organic beer requires more time and care during the brewing process.
Klisch would know. He and Lakefront introduced Organic E.S.B., the country’s first certified organic beer, in 1996. The beer has run its course and been retired, but Lakefront has since followed with several other brands, including Growing Power.
Fuel Café (6.4 percent ABV), named for the Riverwest coffee house of the same name at 818 E. Center St., uses the cafe’s coffee in a blend with its own dark roasted malts for a coffee stout of unparalleled flavor. Pouring a deep, almost black color with a creamy tan head, Fuel Café is long on coffee aromas and flavors, with a balance of organic hops and a full mouthfeel for a strong finish.
Lakefront’s Organic Belgian White (4.6 percent ABV) is the brewery’s other homage to creative Belgian beers. Brewed with all-organic malt and wheat and spiced with organic coriander and orange peel, the beer pours a hazy golden blonde with a thick pearly head. It’s a light, spritzy concoction perfect for warm summer days, according to Klisch, and he says its sales have doubled in the last year.
Beerline Organic Barley Wine Style Ale (12.5 percent ABV) is a rich, malty, multi-level seasonal favorite. Expect a smooth, malt-forward style with undertones of caramel, coffee and dried fruits on the palate. Organic Bravo hops give the beer spiciness and its alcoholic strength provides a pleasurable afterglow.
Lakefront also now produces two gluten-free beers. New Grist Pilsner (5.1 percent ABV), long a standard and one of the brewery’s best sellers, has been joined by New Grist Ginger Style Ale (4.7 percent ABV). The spicy-sweet character of the ginger strides forward in this malted sorghum-based brew, with a little green apple on the back palate. The beer is similar to its predecessor, but with a little ginger kick.
Currently, Lakefront has no immediate plans to further extend its organic lines, much as Klisch might like to do so.
“It would be nice if we could go fully organic, but there are cost factors involved,” Klisch says. “The cost of ingredients is almost double what they otherwise are, and I don’t think there’s enough organic hops out there to brew all the beer right now.”
But Klisch is still optimistic. Five years ago there were no organic hops available, but now there are enough to brew the five organic brands that Lakefront sells. Klisch knows it’s anyone’s guess what conditions will be like five years from now.