It has been 150 years since the son of a Sauk City brewer who had emigrated from Germany in the 1840s found his way north and set up shop on the banks of Duncan Creek in Chippewa Falls. Teaming up with John Miller, he launched what was first known as Spring Brewery in May 1867.

That brewery is now known far and wide as the Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Co.

The oldest business in Chippewa Falls has launched a year-long celebration marking those 150 years, culminating in a birthday bash for the ages this August at the Northern Wisconsin State Fairgrounds. Leinenkugel's truly has plenty to celebrate.

The path from its humble beginnings to a national brewery that is owned by a global company hasn't been without its serious challenges. Leinenkugel's was among only a few hundred breweries in the U.S. to survive 14 years of Prohibition, and one of only 89 to weather the industry's four-decade downturn that claimed 90 percent of the 857 breweries that existed prior to World War II.

When the sale of the family-owned business to Miller Brewing Co. was completed in 1988, the fear locally was that Leinenkugel's would be swallowed up and get lost in the megabrewer's operations, fading into obscurity. The future of Chippewa Falls' continued role in the brewery was called into question.

Turns out those fears were totally unfounded, and today Leinenkugel's is enjoying the highest profile in its long history, selling more beer than ever (roughly a million barrels a year) and since 2012 doing so from coast to coast. The small regional brewery that it was through its formative years is now the seventh-oldest continuously-operating brewery in the United States.

That could not have happened without a combination of innovation and perseverance, says Scott Whitley, president of Tenth and Blake Beer Company, the craft and imports division of MillerCoors. "If you think about what’s transpired over the last 150 years, from the Great Depression to Prohibition, the family had to battle through a wide variety of challenges to keep the doors open and reach a sixth generation," Whitley said.

Dick Leinenkugel, president of Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Co., cites numerous reasons why the brewery has thrived through a century and a half, and they all have played integral roles. However, staying true to the vision of its family leadership through the years and concentrating on the basics have allowed it to adapt to changes in the industry.

"It always goes back to the quality of your beers. When I look back at our history, one of the things that was always consistent with my dad and the generations that came before him was the quality of the product. They always invested in people, and we continue to invest to improve quality," Leinenkugel said.

Leinenkugel's brews a couple dozen beers and is understandably proud of them all. However, the unveiling of Summer Shandy 10 years ago was a huge game-changer, launching several spinoffs and forcing the U.S. beer industry to take notice. It became the best-selling craft seasonal beer nationwide, and with the rest of its shandy portfolio now results in more than half of all the beer Leinenkugel's produces.

The brewery that Jacob Leinenkugel and John Miller gave birth to 150 years ago had grown beyond anything they — or the generations of the family that followed — could have comprehended.

The beginning

Jacob Leinenkugel learned the art of brewing beer in Wisconsin from his father, who had learned it in Germany from his father. Jacob's four brothers also became brewers, but their fortunes did not pan out so well. The only one of the breweries to survive Prohibition was Jacob's, proof that there has always been something special about Leinenkugel's beer and the location of its brewery.

The source of its water then and now, the Big Eddy Springs, was proclaimed as the purest water in the world. That's crucial since beer amounts to more than 90 percent water. At first, Jacob did all of the brewing, and his friend, Miller, delivered the beer in this logging town full of lumberjacks. It was a two-man operation, with no employees. Today, Leinenkugel's employs 141 workers.

Leinenkugel bought out Miller after 17 years and renamed it the Jacob Leinenkugel Spring Brewery. The brewery continued to flourish after Jacob's death in 1899 until the U.S. instituted Prohibition in October 1919. Unlike most breweries, Leinenkugel's chose to find a way to remain in business. It tried its hand at a near-beer called Leino, but stayed alive until Prohibition was finally repealed on March 22, 1933 by becoming the largest bottler of soda water in the area.

Leinenkugel's return to brewing beer — then known as Chippewa's Pride, with the addition of the Indian maiden on the label — was only assured when Katherine Leinenkugel and Rose Leinenkugel Casper mortgaged their homes, providing the injection of cash needed to restore the brewery to accommodate the pent-up demand.

"The family leadership through the years was key to our survival," Dick Leinenkugel said, noting it carries with it a sense of pride and obligation. Another key he said was a conservative financial management that sought to avoid debt and helped them survive through the lean years and plow any profits they did make back into the business.

The people in charge of this small-town brewery never took its success for granted. For years, anyone who took a brewery tour and signed the guest book received a Christmas letter from then president, Bill Casper. Bill Leinenkugel, who went on to become brewery president, sold Leinie's all over northwestern Wisconsin for four decades. He did whatever it took to convert people, to the point of keeping a cold case of beer in the trunk of his car so he could offer, say, a farmer in a field a cold Leinie's. All of these actions engendered tremendous loyalty, one beer drinker at a time.

In the mid-'80s, Bill's son Jake joined the company and went to work doing the same thing his father had done, this time in the largely untapped Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area. Its original and bock beer were warmly received there, too. In 1987, Bill's son Dick came on board and went to work on increasing the beer's presence in the Chicago market, before turning his attention to creative brand marketing.

"It just comes down to hard work," Dick Leinenkugel said. "I think of all the miles that (brothers) Jake, John and I put on, meeting our distributors, meeting key retailers, doing the promotions at night, sampling beer, giving up weekends to do special events, being visible in the marketplace as Leinenkugels. That has allowed us to make new friends, meet new people. My dad always said the more people you meet, the more beer you’ll sell."

Getting noticed

The second-largest beer company in the nation, Milwaukee-based Miller, was impressed with the enthusiasm Leinenkugel's beers were generating and made an offer that was accepted. In a departure from most deals where the acquired company was simply folded into the national one, Leinenkugel's received guarantees that its beer would continue to be brewed in Chippewa Falls.

"Miller Brewing Company gave us access to things that we would not have had on our own," Dick Leinenkugel said, offering four prime examples. Being part of Miller's wide distribution network gave Leinie's added clout, especially in the Upper Midwest. It also gave the brewery access to top-notch engineering expertise, leading to major renovations and greatly improving brewing capabilities, and access to innovative teams that have worked with homegrown master brewer John Buhrow to develop new beers. And it gave Leinenkugel's access to people like Dave Kuhn, Pete Dawson, Jean McPhail and Dan McCabe. "That’s a big advantage, to have access to those people as well."

Within a year of the sale, Jake Leinenkugel took over as president, a post he held for the next 25 years. He, and later his brothers Dick and John, became the focal point of ingenious advertising campaigns that played on the brewery's strengths.

"First and foremost you have to be authentic. I think that’s the role we as family play in that story, the fifth generation and now the sixth," Dick Leinenkugel said. They set out to emphasize three things: that descendants of Jacob Leinenkugel are still guiding the business; that it's still done in Chippewa Falls where it all began; and its unique history. "So if you think about just telling that story, it becomes your marketing."

"Leinenkugel’s storied history resonates with today’s consumers," Whitley said.

The original lager that sustained the brewery through most of its history had been supplemented by a springtime ritual, Bock beer, and in 1977 with a light beer. In 1986, an award-winning premium beer, Leinenkugel's Limited, offered a preview of what the future held. The first wave of microbrewing took hold several years later, and the brewery took to the craft beer movement, rolling out numerous brands. It was a natural progression for a brewery that had emphasized taste.

"We’ve always been about flavor," Dick Leinenkugel said. "Even when we just had Leinenkugel’s original, my dad said it’s different than what the other big breweries are making. It’s got a little more of the hop character to it."

Red Lager made a big splash in 1993, as did Honey Weiss, Berry Weiss and Creamy Dark in later years. Some beers came and went, others had more staying power, but all developed a following to various degrees. Sunset Wheat pushed Leinie's out to more states in 2006, but that paled in comparison to what was to follow the next year.

Just the right note

Dick Leinenkugel, who had worked with a development team on Sunset Wheat, set to work that same year with marketing and brewing teams to devise a new summer seasonal beer. When they combined Leinie's Weiss beer with an injection of natural lemonade flavor at the end of the brewing process, what emerged was a lighter-style, lower-alcohol beer with a refreshing taste. It was a variation on what had been done in Germany for decades, but in the United States the move was revolutionary, and was the catalyst to welcome non-beer drinkers into the fold.

Summer Shandy launched in April 2007 and sold out quickly. The same thing happened the following year despite doubling production, and in 2010 with a national advertising campaign. A decade in it shows no evidence of slowing down.

Succeeding on a national level takes having a high-quality product that differentiates itself from the pack, and this time they clearly had one. Other breweries have attempted to compete with Summer Shandy but found little success, and a decade in, 9.3 of every 10 shandies sold in the U.S. are brewed by Leinenkugel’s.

More shandies have followed. Grapefruit Shandy was the No. 1 new craft beer brand introduced in 2015 and is sold all year long, with variations sold as limited-release or seasonal beers. On the other end of the craft beer spectrum is Leinenkugel's IPL, its twist on the ever-popular IPAs made with lager yeast rather than ale. That beer received larger distribution in 2016, while another recent addition, Wisconsin Red Pale Ale, proudly is sold only in the Badger state.

For its 150th anniversary, Leinenkugel's is doing something extraordinary. It is teaming up with another legendary brewer, Hofbräu München, to brew a collaboration beer that will be sold in Germany and the United States. Draught beer will be released in April and 6-pack bottles will be available in June, and remain in distribution through 2017. As Dick Leinenkugel points out, it will be the first time that Leinenkugel’s beer will be brewed in Germany since prior to 1845.

The Lodge effect

Miller had flirted with taking Leinenkugel's national before, stretching its reach into a majority of states before pulling back and concentrating on building a stronger regional presence. That turned out to be a wise move, and led to further defining the brewery's image, a strategy that continues to pay dividends. By concentrating on nearby states, Leinenkugel's emphasized its roots in Chippewa Falls and turned it into something quite tangible: the Leinie Lodge.

In 1979 it had opened a hospitality center with a museum component, a bar to sample beer and a place to purchase limited Leinenkugel's memorabilia. It quickly outgrew the space, and in June 2003, an impressive 15,000-square-foot building just across Duncan Creek from the brewery came to epitomize the northwoods lodge Leinie's drinkers had been envisioning for so long. It quickly became the Chippewa Falls' No. 1 tourist attraction. More than 100,000 people make a pilgrimage to the Leinie Lodge annually, and thousands more each June for the Leinie Family Reunion.

"Despite its growth and success over the years, the family has never forgotten its roots and remains focused on playing a positive role in the Chippewa community," Whitley said. Dick Leinenkugel said that inherent family philosophy has always been part of Leinenkugel's.

"Never forget who you are or what you stand for — I think that’s something my brother Jake taught me and our father certainly taught us. Don’t forget who brought you here, and that was our local market," he said. That means giving back to the area where brewery employees live, work and play. It has led to creating the Little Lake Wissota Stewardship Project, and supporting Irvine Park and the campaign for the new riverfront park, and in countless other ways. That community connection could also lead to more business opportunities.

"One of the trends that’s happening in the hospitality business is people are willing to pay for experiences. They want an experience, so let’s give them an experience," Dick Leinenkugel said. The brewery has already branched out in this area, putting its name on restaurants in Kansas City and Baltimore.

"We have an historic brewery, a beautiful town, a great lake, parks; we’re at the gateway to resort country in northern Wisconsin, 100 miles away from a major metro area. That’s the challenge to my team: to invest in providing people with an experience of the Leinenkugel brand, however that becomes defined. And it might be defined outside of beer, but beer will always be part of it."

He even has a name for it: Project Allen, a reference to Hiram Allen, the lumber baron who sold Jacob Leinenkugel the original land for the brewery 150 years ago. It's yet another nod to the brewery's history, playing into one of the pillars of its success. As for what the future holds, its president reverted to another pillar: "We’re going to continue to brew and sell great beers."

Ross Evavold is editor of the Chippewa Herald and the Chippewa Valley Business Report. Contact him at ross.evavold@lee.net

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