Dick Leinenkugel is one of the fifth generation of his family to have guided, brewed, packaged, delivered and taste-tested in the Chippewa Falls brewery.
In the midst of a culinary landscape that honors local ingredients and an increasingly vocal cadre of craft- and micro-brew fans, one might think Leinenkugel has cause to worry.
After all, he is president of a beer company that will celebrate its 150th anniversary in August and has enjoyed extensive commercial success for many of those years. When many millennials are clamoring for specialty, small-batch beers brewed in one-room kitchens, Leinenkugel’s produces thousands of barrels per year, with an ever-changing flavor roster and hundreds, if not thousands, of vendors.
Leinenkugel, however, would probably ask the naysayers to first sip a freshly-poured Summer Shandy or a creamy Honey Weiss, then make an informed decision.
“All beer is good beer,” Leinenkugel says. “We have the highest quality equipment, a terrific lab. We’re checking the specs throughout the brewing process. I speak so highly of our beer.” He leans back in his chair and shrugs. “At that point, it’s a matter of choice.”
Six generations of the family business
Leinenkugel’s is not a microbrewery any longer, but visitors to Leinie Lodge in Chippewa Falls might have a hard time reconciling the expansive brewery, its ice-cold taps in hundreds of Midwestern bars, with its humble past.
The Leinenkugel’s beer tradition was born in 1845, several hundred miles south of the Chippewa Valley, along the banks of the Wisconsin River in Sauk City. “Way before the media or brewery associations started to define microbrewing or craft brewing, there were guys that started making beer for their local communities,” Leinenkugel said.
The brewery certainly was local. Sauk City dropped the ingredients for beer into the brewers’ laps: fresh water, hops and malted barley. The only thing missing? A local population of beer drinkers.
Twenty-two years later, Jacob Leinenkugel moved his brewing operations, then known as Spring Brewery, to Chippewa Falls to cater to the enthusiastic tastes of local sawmill employees. Jacob and his business partner and boyhood friend John Miller had first attempted brewing in Eau Claire – but, as Dick Leinenkugel dryly puts it, “You could only take beer as far as a horse could take it in a day.”
The thirsty Germans, Scandinavians and Irish of Chippewa Falls welcomed the brewing duo with open arms. Leinenkugel brewed the beer, Miller sold it, and Spring Brewery produced 400 barrels in 1867.
Each year saw broader commercial success. In 1884, Miller sold his share of the company to Leinenkugel, who built a brewhouse six years later that is still in use today.
Tastings and tours
The product of a proud brewing family, president Dick Leinenkugel spent his childhood immersed in the family business. He describes his father traveling around the state selling beer, bringing home different beers from all four corners of the state. “We were trained to taste beer,” he remembers. “We would sample it blindfolded, smell it and guess which one was Leinie’s.”
The brewery culture followed him into his adolescence. In high school and throughout college he gave tours to guests; delivered beer to Bloomer, Cornell and North Auburn; stapled returnable beer cases and racked kegs.
After opening a Leinenkugel’s presence in the Chicago market, a stint in Wisconsin politics and a turn as the brewery’s marketing director, he’s at home in his office as brewery president, a chair he’s occupied since 2014. “I love being a brewer. I love being in this industry,” he says.
Bringing German heritage to the forefront
This August, Leinenkugel’s will remember its past 150 years, honor its past and present employees, and thank the figures in the beer world who made their journey possible.
But the brewery wanted to go a little deeper, Leinenkugel says.
He contacted an almost-500-year-old German brewery, Hofbräu München, proposing a collaboration celebrating Leinenkugel’s deeply German roots. The German brewers responded enthusiastically, and their alliance produced the forthrightly-named 150th Anniversary Lager. “It’s this Märzen-style, lager-style beer that’s absolutely fabulous,” Leinenkugel says.
The beer was uniquely brewed with German standards in mind – Reinheitsgebot, the ancient German purity law restricting brew ingredients to just water, barley and hops. It’s been available since March of this year, and can be found in six-pack bottles until February 2018. However, Leinenkugel admits that the beer’s popularity has driven further talk between the Chippewa Falls and German breweries about keeping the brew on tap longer.
Shandies freshen up the summer roster
One can’t talk about Leinenkugel’s recent commercial success without mentioning their shandy line. Traditionally a beer mixed with sparkling lemonade – called a radler in Germany, shandy in the U.K. – the light, fizzy beer was originally a limited-time replacement for the seasonal Berry Weiss.
Dick Leinenkugel, head of the brewery’s marketing efforts at the time, knew there was opportunity. “I gathered my team together and asked: What do the Germans do in the summer? They drink lighter beers: wheats, Kölsches, a sour beer called Berliner Weiss. But they also mix beer and lemonade,” he says. “We thought that was intriguing.”
The team experimented with several flavors – orange juice, orange soda, ginger ale, and finally natural lemon flavor added at the very end of the brewing process – before they landed on the bright, clean citrus of the eventual Summer Shandy.
“Our first [iterations] had half the alcohol content of our light beers, and we didn’t like it all that much. Alcohol adds flavor to beer,” Leinenkugel says. “We kept the alcohol content at 4.2 percent and added lemon flavor directly before the filtration step, tested it, sampled it, and our drinkers were wowed.”
The Summer Shandy launched in 2007, and sold out in mid-July – 30,000 barrels in its first year in production. Shandy sales doubled the next year, then doubled again. It now accounts for roughly 70 percent of its production volume. Leinenkugel’s has since offered grapefruit and watermelon iterations, and is planning the release of a pomegranate-flavored shandy come fall of 2017.
Seasonal beer enthusiasts can expect the return of some of Leinie’s past brews. Leinie’s Red Lager is returning in the fall of 2017, Snowdrift Vanilla Porter in the winter of 2017. “We’re always looking at what our drinker wants, via social media or here at the Leinie Lodge,” Leinenkugel says. “We’re trying to meet what they’re asking and also give them variety.”
Leinenkugel’s is celebrating its 150th anniversary Aug. 11-12. The celebration will kick off at the Northern Wisconsin State Fairgrounds in Chippewa Falls, featuring live music, entertainment, games and, of course, beer.
“It’s a great time to be brewing beer,” Leinenkugel says.