This October, VinePair is celebrating our second annual American Beer Month. From beer style basics to unexpected trends (pickle beer, anyone?), to historical deep dives and new developments in package design, expect an exploration of all that’s happening in breweries and taprooms across the United States all month long.
Wisconsin’s New Glarus Brewing Company is, by any estimation, one of the most successful craft breweries in American history. It is one of the oldest (born in 1993) and one of the biggest (the 12th largest craft brewer in 2020 and 21st overall brewery, per the Brewers Association).
These figures are all the more astonishing when one considers the brewery’s famously ironclad commitment to sell no beer outside the boundaries of Wisconsin.
Think about that: Duvel Moortgat and Canarchy amalgamated their way into the Top 10. Boston Beer Co. floats on pontoons of seltzer and hard tea. Breweries like Bells, Stone, and Sierra Nevada earn their way in with nearly nationwide sales. New Glarus does that with beer alone, in the confines of the nation’s 20th most populous state.
New Glarus is no less than a brewing unicorn, one perfect specimen of a brewery that opened at the right time, in the right place, for the right people, in the right beer-drinking culture, with the right beers. Still, somehow, beyond the borders of America’s Dairyland, it’s barely a blip on the radar. It is a hype vacuum, with a ’90s-era website and no major social media footprint (it only just joined Twitter last year when a gift shop worker asked if it could start one) for simply being the best damn brewery in Wisconsin.
And yet, there isn’t just the one New Glarus Brewing Company. Philosophically, there are actually two.
One is the New Glarus every Wisconsin resident knows; the brewery that makes the wonderfully fluffy farmhouse ale Spotted Cow and picture-perfect pale ale Moon Man. The brewery that makes the beers that are available at every pizza tavern and gas station beer cave and convenience store cooler in Wisconsin.
This second, smaller but still powerful New Glarus is the one that exists in the minds of the residents of bordering states like Illinois, Iowa, and Minnesota. The New Glarus that’s just out of reach for the day-to-day drinker, the brewery that makes thousands of barrels of beer per year just for the people across an invisible line on the ground. On that side, they get all they want. It’s explicitly just for them. Over here on the other side? We beg for them to branch out beyond Wisconsin, and co-owner Deb Carey looks back and whispers, “No.”
Ubiquitous though it may be to the residents within the Cheddar Curtain, this version of New Glarus is adored, desired, and mythologized well beyond the boundaries of a normal brewery. Tell a beer drinker from Chicago that you’re driving to Indiana or Michigan and they’ll say, “Have a nice time.” Tell someone from Chicago that you’re going to be in Wisconsin for 15 minutes that afternoon and they’ll say, “Can you pick me up some Staghorn? And a 12-pack of Two Women? And some Totally Naked if you have room?”
Name another brewery with that kind of power. If you think any beer’s scarcity hype is unjustified in 2021, know that some of America’s original hype beers call the rolling hills of Southwest Wisconsin their home.
How do I know this? Because I, a born-and-raised Chicagoland-ian (western suburbs through my early 20s and 15 years in the city proper) am an admitted, avowed New Glarus acolyte. I have made trips to the Woodman’s grocery store in Kenosha, Wis., for the express purpose of purchasing New Glarus beer and I have dragged my wife to the New Glarus beer garden on my birthday as though it were a pilgrimage. I have raved as much about their simply perfect Zwickelbier and Fat Squirrel as I have about their richly complex Oud Bruin and their Scream IIPA, which somehow tastes magically like an Orange Crush in beer form.
So when I tell you that New Glarus is, to some beer drinkers around the Great Lakes states, just a bit akin to a cult, know that I tell you from a place of relative confidence.
Am I the outlier? Is my taste for inaccessible beer skewing my impressions of what the brewery means to people beyond the Wisconsin state line?
Infinitely more of an authority on New Glarus itself is Dan Carey, co-owner, brewmaster, and creator of the hundreds of beers that the brewery has produced over the decades. “Of course we’re flattered,” he says of drinkers like me. “It’s nice when people choose our beer and we’re flattered wherever they’re from.”
That said, their beer beyond their borders isn’t a huge concern to him and his wife and co-owner, Deb Carey.
“We’ve never really done a study on that, although certainly we know how much beer is sold in every account that we have around the state,” Dan says. “Places like Mars Cheese Castle or some of the places outside of Minneapolis do very well for us. But frankly, my instinct is that it’s not a large part of our business.”
When I ask whether the decision to turn to a Wisconsin-only footprint (following some infamous initial attempts at Chicago distribution in the early 2000s) had, in fact, contributed to a New Glarus mythology among drinkers, I do get a bit of affirmation. “Well, certainly there’s some bit of human nature to that,” Carey says.
“I think I would be fibbing if I did not say that. Certainly there’s merit to that but … if it is the key to success then everybody would be doing it. It’s like the tail wagging the dog. Success is not tied to the scarcity of the beer, but the scarcity of the beer is an outcome. And I think I know of no other brewers that are doing this, at least in the United States.”
Scarcity and Ubiquity
This much is true: In terms of a large-scale operation, only Short’s Brewing in Michigan comes to mind when thinking of an avowed state-specific footprint, being all in on Michigan Only, Michigan Forever — until they weren’t, citing the increased competition in the beer market.
“I see it in Germany, which we sort of identify with more than the American craft brewers. Most of our competitors, I see their beer in 50 states. I see it in [places like] Temple Bar in Dublin,” Dan says. “Of course, the human mind is such that it’s accepted that that’s how business is done. But … my God, that’s crazy when you think about it. If we sold in 50 states and six countries, that’s a different business. We become a different company.”
But what about the accounts that make the orders from that company, and watch the beer go out their front door and across the state lines? Tyrrell Gaffer has been the owner and manager of the Historic Casanova Liquor Store in Hudson, Wis. — just steps from the Mississippi River across from Minnesota — since purchasing the store in 2002. According to Gaffer, roughly half of its New Glarus sales are going right across the state line.
“It’s funny because it’s not just Minnesota, it’s regionally — we get a ton of travel from all over,” Gaffer says. “We get a lot of snowbirds up here that bring it back down so it’s going all over the place, but it’s at least half, 50 percent moving out of Wisconsin … if not more.”
In part, the ubiquity of New Glarus in Wisconsin contributes to that, Gaffer says. “Our [Wisconsin] regulars, they know the brand, it’s at every gas station, on tap at every bar. It’s just always around.”
Not only is New Glarus a major draw for out-of-state drinkers, but no other out-of-state brand has the same hold. “I probably have 10, 15 brands that aren’t available in Minnesota,” Gaffer says, “but no one’s buying cases to bring back. But New Glarus is always … Jesus, of our 22 [cooler] doors, two full doors are New Glarus and one of them’s just 24-packs of cans and bottles.”
Justin Ludeman is in a similar role as the liquor manager for Woodman’s Food Market in Kenosha, whose department is so large it makes up its own wing of the building. There’s plenty of Chicago traffic coming in for New Glarus beers (which it keeps smartly stacked in tall piles near the front of the building), says Ludeman.
“We do quite a good chunk,” he says. “Maybe like 10, 15 percent. The scarcity of it definitely drives demand, so that’s a huge pull. I mean it’s a nice solid brewery, though. It wouldn’t be so big if they didn’t do a good job.”
Other factors are admittedly at play. Taxes on beer in Wisconsin are about one-fourth of those in Illinois, so folks on the border naturally gravitate north due to that as well. But the lure of the Spotted Cow is still strong: “A lot of times people just grab a couple cases, but we’ve seen people come through and load up three shopping carts sometimes,” Ludeman says. “It’s a really good beer, so yeah, it’s going to be sought out. And the scarcity only drives it a little bit more.”
To Gaffer, scarcity is one aspect of the Careys’ success, but it’s also the role that New Glarus has come to play for a large generation of drinkers coming up around Wisconsin. “It’s always been our gateway to craft beer. Spotted Cow is the gateway into it, and then their seasonals fit the next level, so they can work from Spotted Cow up into a pale ale or a bock or something, a nut brown. Something that’s still craft but it’s not a double-hazy-IPA kind of thing.” Gaffer says. “And then they do their high-end fruit beers and double IPAs in 4-packs, which is another tier for them. So it’s kind of a gateway into craft.”
Beyond the unimpeachable quality of the beer, I asked Dan Carey if he attributed their intra-Wisconsin success to any other right-state, right-time factor. “Wisconsin has always been beer-centric, not necessarily craft-beer-centric but beer-centric in a kind of a Germanic way,” he says, “[but] I would argue the contrary: that our ability to succeed was simply due to our tenaciousness.”
He adds: “We have a saying that is painted around the top of our brew house that says, ‘Let me tell you the secret that has led me to my goals: my strength lies solely in my tenacity,’ which comes from Louis Pasteur. I would argue that it wasn’t so much luck, being in the right place at the right time, but just that … we’re fighters. We don’t give up. We never stop. I don’t know how else to describe it but it’s not been easy. We both have our scars.”
Near the end of our conversation, I wanted to know if there was ever a point at which the Careys started to see the needle tick upward in their Wisconsin takeover, or if there was a moment they could look at as being able to say, “This thing might work out.”
“What we were desperately trying to do was get back to the amount of money Dan had made at Anheuser-Busch [where he previously worked as a production supervisor] and that took us a solid 10 years, I think,” Deb says, “with both of us working to replace his income with insurance. So that is probably about the time that we started to say, ‘Hmm, I think we’re going to be OK.’”
Deb Carey insists that “market dominance [has] never, ever, ever, ever, and will never be a goal. I cannot explain it, no one’s gonna believe it, but I do not care about money. It’s not how I run the business.”
The John Galt of Breweries? Or the Anti-Galt?
Which is, in fact, a hard thing to believe, living in a hyper-capitalistic society where, as the last decade progressed, more and more breweries seemed to be opening for money first, craft second.
And yet, there’s something Randian about moving to a remote valley in the countryside, setting up shop, doing the one thing you love and doing better than nearly anyone else in the world, then letting everyone else beat their way to your door. (In fact, that’s pretty much the end of “Atlas Shrugged.”) Lest I imply that New Glarus has anything in common with Paul Ryan, there’s thankfully a bit more acknowledgement of other people’s humanity in the Careys story.
“For me, it’s about taking care of the people: checking in with my wholesalers, making sure retailers are happy, [and if they’re] having a problem in those areas, I walk around in my brain trying to think, “How can I solve this problem for them,” Deb says. “It’s me and others trying to be a servant leader. If I can make this wholesaler successful, if I can make this retailer in this area, if I can help the bar owners … then I’m going to help myself.”
Part of that caretaking has led to conflict: A lawsuit was recently filed by three of New Glarus’s original investors, claiming that the Careys (per WPR) were “keeping annual profits from them” and “used the company’s profits to invest in outside projects that only the Carey family financially benefits from, including the formation of Sugar River Distillery.”
In response, Deb Carey filed a defamation suit against the law firm representing the investors, plus 50 other unnamed individuals and media outlets in order to (according to the AP) push back on the “exaggerations that were sent out in the press release.”
As Carey tells VinePair, the original conflict was over lost profits and other finances during the Covid shutdown; the brewery is only now working toward reopening its beer garden after closing in early 2020. In order to keep employees working, Carey says, they moved the hospitality team over to production roles — a necessary pivot for many craft breweries during the pandemic.
“We kept everybody at their 40 hours so that no one lost any pay or benefits, and really that is exactly the fight that happened at the investor meeting,” Deb Carey says, explaining that arguments over PPP funding and layoffs also came into play.
“I’m not trying to work over the employees or the wholesalers, but I’m also not going to let them work us over. And that’s a weird balance,” she says. “And I mean, frankly, that is the crux of the whole lawsuit that’s happening right now. It’s really fascinating. So I just think, ‘Well, OK, whatever. I’m right. I will win this one, too, but whatever. Bring it.’”
New Glarus also operates under an ESOP (Employee Stock Ownership Plan) and has since 2015, which the original investors allege (according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel) “is a mechanism to support artificially low share valuation.”
In a followup email to VinePair, Deb Carey passes along one final very interesting detail, which she discovered due to the pandemic. According to Carey, “During Covid tourism was at a standstill and border stores reflected their losses. We estimate out-of-state sales count for 1.5 to 2 percent of our overall sales.” With that, let’s run the numbers!
New Glarus produces 250,000 barrels of beer per year, which means as much as 5,000 barrels of New Glarus beer is being muled out of state. At roughly 1.6 million individual beers, that means the equivalent one full case of beer leaves the state every 7 minutes, or a single 12-ounce bottle every 19 seconds. Every hour, every day, of every year. Not an inconsiderate amount of beer.
In fact, according to an estimate provided by Bart Watson, economist at the Brewers Association, fewer than 5 percent of breweries in America make over 5,000 barrels of beer each year. Which means that if the New Glarus beer that travels across the Wisconsin border represented its own brewery, that alone would be bigger than 95 percent of American craft breweries.
If you’ve made it this far down the page, you’ve probably spent nearly as much time as I have trying to figure out what the magic pixie dust is that made New Glarus what it is. It turns out, it’s really not much of a secret at all.
“Decisions are very, very easy for us because they’re not about … the bottom dollar, they’re about what’s best for the taste of the beer, and what’s best for our employees and the community,” Dan Carey says. “What Debbie says is that ‘Most people don’t see good luck because it arrives dressed in coveralls.’ We’ve worked 30 years, 60 hours a week, fist-fighting our way through this to be an ‘overnight success,’ and I’m sure a lot of brewers have done that. But the difference is, we stayed laser focused; never changed our direction. So when you march forward for 30 years you go pretty far if you keep going in the same direction.”
Show up, do the work, try to take care of people first, don’t chase the money, and sometimes it works out that you make a product that resonates with people. And sometimes, that product is a fluffy, fruity farmhouse ale with a dancing cow on the label.