Hey, you live in Milwaukee and you like beer, like lots of us do. You may even brew your own at home. But have you ever dreamed about opening your own brewery? Mike Brenner has. And for the last four years, he's been steadily building that dream.
Brenner, the former owner of Hotcakes Gallery, former OnMilwaukee.com graphic designer and former executive director of the Milwaukee Artist Resource Network (MARN) is a lot closer to opening his brewery than when he was working three full-time arts jobs and still sleeping on an air mattress in the back of his art gallery.
Brenner has since graduated from the executive MBA program at UW-Milwaukee, where he developed his business plan for the brewery, as well as becoming a brewmaster with a diploma from the Siebel Institute in Chicago, which offered a program to also study at the Doemens Akademie in Munich, Germany.
He completed the master program last summer.
"It was a super intense program. The first seven weeks were lecture, discussion, and PowerPoint presentations from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., five days a week. Then we flew over to Munich and spent three weeks brewing and working in the lab, followed by a two-week tour of breweries and equipment manufacturers in Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and Great Britain," says Brenner.
Brenner says he needs about $950,000 to get started, which he bases on hundreds of hours spent researching breweries of different sizes. He is about half-way to his goal.
People can go to KickstartBeer.com and join Brenner's fundraising efforts. He says it's been crucial, when talking to potential investors, to show that people support a new Milwaukee brewery.
"People contributing to my Kickstarter campaign are voting 'yes' with their wallets. Even a $1 contribution shows investors that somebody out there likes the idea of another brewery in Milwaukee," says Brenner.
Brenner says he felt "really weird" asking for help starting the brewery. People told him a Kickstarter campaign was a good way to get started. As of June 11, 267 people have pledged $14,370.
The campaign continues until Sunday, June 17.
"I know a ton of people who don't have $20,000 to invest, but who really wanted to help me get the business off the ground. It's been really humbling to get such an enthusiastic reaction from everyone. I tried to set it up so people can either get minimally involved and basically pre-buy a bunch of swag, or make a significant contribution to the project. Either way people get some really cool rewards for helping me get started," says Brenner, who is offering Brenner Brewing logo shirts, pint glasses and bottle openers, but also home brewing packages with feedback from a master brewer.
Brenner is pretty much a one-man brew crew at this point, which has made his start-up attractive to investors. With a fine arts degree from Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, his master brewer diploma and the new MBA, the longtime home brewer says he's able to handle all the advertising and design, product development and the business and financial planning involved in Brenner Brewing Company.
"Most of that $950,000 is being spent on equipment and cash reserves to make sure we make it through the first couple years," says Brenner.
Brenner has been a home brewer since the three semesters of college in Colorado when he tried to replicate all the beers he liked out there. Over the years, though, Brenner has developed many of his own recipes, trying them out at friends' art gallery openings.
A full list of Brenner Brewing's offerings are here on its website. He's experimented with them all, but some can't be produced year-round in his home.
"Some require low fermentation temperatures. Some age in oak barrels for 6-18 months, which can make them really expensive to produce, so I haven't done those for a while," says Brenner, who's been offering his beers for free at various tastings around the city.
Brenner Brewing has two flagship beers, an amber and an IPA, which Brenner has brewed many times. He has more experimental beers, like a smokey Rauchbier, which tastes like peppered bacon. Brenner's weiss beer is brewed with three times the hops as a traditional weiss beer.
"My process is all about taking the science and technical skills I learned in school, but using them to make something you wouldn't expect. Whether it be an art museum or a beer bar, I'm attracted to the same qualities. I always try to find things I've never seen or thought of before. I want to be blown away. The bizarre, new, and unusual excite my senses. I will definitely have a few really solid, easy drinking, session beers, but from there, I just want to brew crazy sh*t," says Brenner.
Working with a commercial real estate broker, Brenner has plans to locate his brewery in the city of Milwaukee near bus lines so employees can get there easily and, he says, "in an area where dads can roll up on weekends with a stroller and pick up a growler of beer."
Brenner sees the brewery as an extension of the work he's always been doing in the Milwaukee art scene.
Brenner's work supporting Milwaukee artists had some successes but also met with a lot of frustration over the years. MARN's incubator project didn't get any backers from Milwaukee business after consultants worked on it for three years.
"I quickly realized a job in the arts, with a salary and health insurance, was never going to happen for me in Milwaukee. I wracked my brain day and night trying to think of ways to reinvent what I was doing for artists in Milwaukee and turn it into something financially sustainable," says Brenner.
"Then one day while I was home brewing a batch of beer in front of the gallery, I had an epiphany: Every artist just wants to make art in a big warehouse, and a brewery is just a big warehouse. I should combine the two and build a brewery that also rents out studio space to artists and musicians."
Brenner envisions every bottle of Brenner Brewing Company beer as a 12-ounce ambassador for Milwaukee's arts community.
Every beer style's label will feature the work of a local artist. A soundtrack written by Milwaukee musicians will accompany each brew.
"When folks in Madison or Chicago or Portland have a bottle of my beer in their hands they'll be directly linked to all the amazing things going on in Milwaukee's arts scene. I envision someone sitting in a beer garden in Denver, scanning the QR code on a bottle of my beer with their cell phone, and it bringing up a music video of a Milwaukee band that was shot by a Milwaukee filmmaker. It's about showing the rest of the world why I love my hometown," says Brenner.
Royal has taught courses in critical pedagogy, writing, rhetoric and cultural studies at several schools in Wisconsin and Minnesota. He is currently Adjunct Associate Professor of Humanities at Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design.
Royal lives in Walker’s Point with his family and uses the light of the Polish Moon to illuminate his way home.