Chippewa Falls (WQOW) - The City of Chippewa Falls is home to a brewery older than the city itself.
“We always talk about taking a lot of pride in the local name,” said fifth generation Leinenkugel, John Leinenkugel. “150 year history and legacy, being apart of the Chippewa Falls community, the oldest industry or business right here in the Chippewa Valley is the Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Company.”
Leinenkugel's is celebrating 150 years on Aug. 11 and Aug. 12. Few things stay constant in that amount of time, and Leinie's is no exception.
"This was not the Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Company,” John said. “Back in 1867, when our great-great-grandfather Jacob Leinenkugel founded the brewery, it was known as the Spring Brewery. Jacob and John Spring Brewery established 1867."
As we know, Spring Brewery would eventually become the Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Company. Change is something the brand has always dealt with because keeping a brewery going for 150 years is no walk in the hops.
"The government of course in 1919, with the passage of the 18th Amendment, made the manufacturing, sale, and production of alcoholic beverages in the United States illegal,” said current Leinenkugel Brewing Company President Dick Leinenkugel. “So, our family was actually taken out of the beer business in 1919. We were, I think, very resourceful in Chippewa Falls, that the brewery leadership made a quick change into making soda. When we were looking at some of the old advertising during prohibition for the sodas and the mixers, one of the mixer ads said, 'Mixes well with anything'. So no doubt during prohibition, people were making a little bathtub gin at home, but needed to dilute it or cut it with something. And the Leinenkugel family, I'm not going to say was doing that, but we at least provided sodas and fruit juices and other things that perhaps were used during prohibition for that."
They also made a cereal beverage known as “Leino”. It was a non-alcoholic malt tonic. According to their father, Bill Leinenkugel, it tasted awful.
You might think that making it through prohibition would be the tallest hurdle for a brewery, but in this marathon, the toughest days were down the line.
“Brewers that came out of prohibition, ended up going out of business or being consolidated,” Dick said. “Most of those stuck around until about the 50s and 60s. But, then the competitive forces of the bigger breweries, the scale advantages that they had in terms of their production, the lower cost per barrel that they were able to do, and things like refrigeration and transportation, and of course national advertising, television, allowed these bigger breweries to use those forces to go nationwide, and into the territories that were once held by the smaller family owned breweries."
Dick and John credit Bill for keeping the sud story afloat.
“We always invested in people, we invested in the brewery, we invested in equipment, and we always invested in quality and our local market,” Dick said. “We were able to keep a strong local market in the Chippewa Valley. We expanded a little bit into Minneapolis and southeast Wisconsin and Madison. In the 1970s, we bought a label called, 'Bosch in the U.P.', which got us into the U.P. of Michigan. But, he also did innovative things like advertising on television locally, starting the Leinie Lodge and the tour center.”
Since then, the Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Company has been having a barrel of fun.
"The business has grown tremendously. So, let's go back to 1992 to our 125th anniversary. The brewery was maybe selling 90,000 barrels a year,” Dick said. “We were operating in mostly three states: Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Illinois. We came out with a very special beer, our 125th Anniversary Dark Lager. We did a little script change on the packaging. We priced the beer higher, and this beer eventually became a recipe for Leinenkugel's Red Lager, which really began to put us on the map in that time of so-called specialty beers, or micro-brewed beers. So, we got into that market segment and developed a lot of other new flavors, like Leinenkugel's Honey Weiss and Berry Weiss, and most recently of course, Leinenkugel's Summer Shandy, which has expanded our business to all 50 states, and we're even looking at opportunities overseas, and perhaps in Canada next year. So, it's changed a lot."
Leinie's Red Lager, Honey Weiss, Berry Weiss, were all successful, but it was something else that has proved to be pretty special. Dick didn't invent the shandy beer, but he did introduce it millions.
"We had to come up with a new idea for summer seasonal beer,” Dick said. “So, I said, 'What do the Germans like to do in the summer?' and we found out a couple of things. They love to drink their hefeweizen, their unfiltered wheat beer with yeast. They drink a lighter weiss beer, and then mix it with lemonade. That was pretty intriguing. They call it a 'radler'. So, I said, 'Let's take a look at that', and that's what we did – that was the idea that became Leinenkugel's Summer Shandy."
Like the head on a freshly poured beer, Leinie's has found a way to stay on top, even as the micro-brew business has exploded.
"Now with something like 5,500 breweries in the United States, something like 2,500 more in planning, I think what it does is raises awareness. I think people are becoming more interested in beer. And, as we like to say, 'All beer is good beer', and we're all brewers,” Dick said. “What we would like is beer to become more of the occasion for our drinkers than spirits and wine. So that's our job, to make beer exciting, to make it refreshing, to make it well-balanced, so that people choose beer on those occasions when they want to have an alcoholic beverage."
Leinenkugel's definitely has the recipe for success.
“We're at capacity here in Chippewa Falls. At some point, we'd like to add more capacity. We need a building like this that would house tanks. So, fermentation tanks and storage tanks,” Dick said. “We have the capability here in Chippewa Falls to brew and package about 500,000 barrels a year. We can only lager, or age about 250,000 barrels a year, because the aging process takes anywhere from three to four weeks. So, we can go into the hillside, we can go up – lot of possibilities. We have land."
The Leinenkugel family is now is on their sixth generation of family employees.
"I love working here,” said fifth generation Leinenkugel, Matt Leinenkugel. “Getting to pull into here everyday, look up at the big billboard and see Leinenkugel's on there. That's my heritage, that's my last name, and I love beer."
Leinie's isn't the biggest employer in Chippewa Falls, with coincidentally 150 employees. But, the ones they have like to stick around.
"There's really not a lot of turnover here,” Matt said. “There's numerous guys that have been here for 30 to 40 years easy.”
“I think it's a testament to having pride in ultimately the beer that they're brewing and packaging,” Dick said. “It's a testament that it's a living wage, that they can be here in Chippewa Falls, and raise their family here in Chippewa Falls. I think it's a testament to those three free cases of beer that they get. But, it's also part of I think being part of the Leinenkugel family."
John recalled a lesson from his dad. “Our dad had a funny story that he would tell us, he said it to all of his children, if you want to have a lot of fun, meet a lot of great people, beer business is perfect. If you're looking to make a lot of money, you should do something else,” he said.
The Leinenkugel family is a tight knit group but also a tight lipped group. When News 18 asked about what new flavors we might see down the road, in good humor, Matt said it's top secret, and nothing he can share at this time. Same goes for brews of the past that didn't work so well, Matt said once again, it's stuff he doesn't want to talk about.
To date, there have been seven presidents of the company. The previous president, and Matt's dad, Jake is currently the Senior White House Advisor for the Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington D.C.
The Leinenkugel family asks that you join them at the Northern Wisconsin State Fair grounds for their 150th Anniversary Celebration. They have several big music acts, including Jerrod Niemann on Fri., Aug. 11 at 8 p.m.
and Collective Soul on Sat., Aug. 12 at 8 p.m. All other festivities kick-off Friday at 10:30 a.m.