Recently, after more than 30 years at Sprecher, brewmaster Craig Burge moved on and veteran brewer Brian Destree came on board to lead both the brewing operations and soda making.
Destree – who, like Burge, is a graduate of the respected brewing program at UC-Davis in California – has worked for Leinie’s, Miller and Capital Brewing and brings a wealth of experience.
But he’s also eager to learn the soda side, which makes up a much larger portion of Sprecher’s business nowadays. Just recently, the company announced a major acquisition of established soda brands, including the iconic Green River.
“My job title is probably head soda jerk,” says with a laugh. “Probably more than brewmaster.”
We sat down with Destree to ask about his background, what he’s up to now at Sprecher and what the future holds there, too.
OnMilwaukee: Why don’t we start with a little bit about your background. What was your road to here?
Brian Destree: I’ve lived in Wisconsin my whole life, other than the six months I went out to Northern California to go to brewing school. I went to the master brewer program at UC Davis. 2005.
When I finished that program, I started at the (Leinenkugel’s) Tenth Street Brewery as a brewery worker. Did that for a couple years and had an opportunity to go over to the big brewery.
So, you were making Leinie’s stuff initially?
Yep. I brewed the first couple batches of Big Eddy, back in the day.
So, you're legendary. (Laughs) Some of those beers are really beloved and missed.
Those are some of the best days of my brewing career. I think the problem was they were a little ahead of their time ... before there was a lot of beers like that now. I wish they'd bring them back. They’’re some darn good beers.
Then you went to the (Miller) Valley (brewery)?
Yeah, then I went to the big brewery. I took a couple-year hiatus from Miller at the time, worked for Capital Brewery in Middleton, running the brewery. They hired me because they were looking at building a new brewery because that facility in Middleton would max out capacity.
So, it was a Friday of my first week there that (former head brewer) Kirby Nelson (now at Wisconsin Brewing Co.) gave notice that he was moving across town to open up his own brewery. So, I kind of took over all the operations there.
That was unexpected?
Definitely unexpected by me. I don't know if it was unexpected for the folks there. I did that for two and a half years. Then they decided not to move forward with the project. So, I was lucky enough at that time to have an opportunity to go back to the Milwaukee brewery as a technical brewer at the big brewery.
Did that for a couple years and then was moved back over to Tenth Street to help when they were building out the project and then to get it restarted from the big expansion project.
I handled all the brewing operations and quality there for about three years, but just looking for a change. It's a smaller company (here), you get a little more hands-on and has a little more family feel than the big corporate world.
Is it a challenge taken over from somebody like Craig who'd been here for so long?
It is, but I kind of had experience with that at Capital, right? Kirby was there for 26 years and I took over him. So, it's very similar in that regard.
What's your brief: don’t mess up the good stuff? (Laughs)
Right? Yeah, and keep the beer flowing. Ninety percent of Sprecher sales are soda. But the beer gets all the headlines. It's only 10% of our production. So, my goal is to not mess up the beer, hopefully grow it a little bit, and then, help grow the soda side of the business because that's what's really exploding right now.
You're running the soda side as well, then?
Yeah. So, my job title is probably head soda jerk ... probably more than brewmaster.
That's a new thing for you then too.
Yeah, it is. That's part of what drew me to this was that chance. In my time in the valley, I brewed a lot of beer. Dabbled in some cider at Tenth Street, but never really did anything soft drink related. So, this was an opportunity to get some experience doing something a little different.
It's got to be an exciting time for the soda side now, too, with all the acquisitions.
It is, it's cool. We're doing a lot of fun stuff, we’ve got in the works a naturally flavored line. We're going to do some naturally flavored lemonades. It's a lot of recipe design and stuff that I wouldn't have gotten a chance to do elsewhere.
Are you feeling some pressure as the world's only maker of Green River? You are now responsible for making sure the world has this legacy, right?
Luckily, it's not a hard product to make. So, it's in good hands. I’ve got some good people working for me, so it's in good hands.
Craig started to introduce things like Refresh Button IPA, that sort of thing. Are you looking to expand the line somewhat?
Yeah, the marketing team asked me if we could make a milkshake, IPA version of our Black Bavarian lager. Some of the guys here were talking, "We're a German brewery. We should stick to our German roots." So, we came up with the idea of doing a riff on a black forest dessert. We're turning it into a IPA.
That's what we're doing and this should be coming out in January, February timeframe.
Is that going to be a limited thing?
We’ve got it slated for the first half of the year, but we'll see how it goes. It's going to be a pretty interesting beer.
And the basic brew is a Black Friday release?
We're going to do a little taste sneak peek of it for Black Friday to get some feedback. And then, we tweak the recipe a little bit based on that.
Yeah, so, this is the beer at the end of fermentation before we've added any of the dry hops or the cherry. So, it's going to be like almost like a... In many ways like a milk porter base, right? So, it's got some chocolate and dark, it's got the lactose to give it like a creamy mouth feel.
But then, we're going to dry hop it with a couple of German varieties of hops, Ariana and Callista, German-grown. Instead of having the tropical fruity, they're more like a stone fruit like berries.
It'll play in with the whole black forest theme. And then, also when we dry hop it, we're going to add some sweet cherry puree to get just a little bit of cherry hint.
So, it should have all the notes of a black forest torte. You have your chocolate, you have your cream from the lactose. And then, you'll have your cherry. And then, it'll be just a little bit hoppy.
It looks almost like cold brew coffee right here. Good taste, it's got that heavy chocolate (presence). Do you see Sprecher ever kind of trying to get on the trend chain of trying to keep up with all these things that everybody's doing now?
Potentially, yeah, we'll see. Right now, we're just focusing on this (new one). But then, we'll see what comes the second half of next year. We're bringing back our old recipe Fest Bier for our summer seasonal. It's really, really good. I'm really excited about that. It's really good beer.
Is there any kind of talk of somehow finding a way to make beer versions of some of your sodas or soda versions of the beers? There's not going to be a Green River beer or anything like that, is there?
No, there's not going to be a Green River beer. Well, it'll probably be a big seller for St. Patty's Day, right? (laughs)
Now this is the real Black Friday release, right?
Yeah, this is some of the Black Bavarian and we stuck it in Heaven Hill bourbon barrels. We're going to do three little different riffs on it.
So, this is just the plain stuff that we're going to keg. It's not carbonated right now, but we get the essence of it. They're actually carbonating and kegging it today. So, this is just the rum and barley, just Black Bavarian. It will warm you up in the winter.
Then we took some of that liquid and put it on coffee from Valentine Coffee Roasters. I didn't want the coffee to overpower the beer or the bourbon. So, you'll get a lot of coffee aroma, but the taste is kind of subdued, right? The way you do that is by, instead of grinding the coffee real fine, like where you make coffee, you basically just crack the beans a little bit. So, basically leave them whole.
Then the last one, this one might not be as far along, because cocoa takes a little longer, but we're aging it on cocoa nibs right now. This one's got another week to go on coca nibs, though. It’s been on the cocoa since last week.
One thing I like about the nibs, too, is it's kind of the same concept. You get a lot of the aroma, but you don't get an overpowering flavor.
The first barrel-aged one will come out on draft in the taproom on Black Friday and the others will follow, right?
Starting Black Friday through winter, until they run out. There's not much of each. There's a total of five barrels. So, there's only about a barrel and a half of each.
Anything else in the works on the soda side you can tell us about?
Other than the acquisitions, in the early part next year, we're going to come out with a naturally flavored line – a naturally flavored cream soda, the naturally flavored lemonades I mentioned. We did a vanilla root beer, but we're tweaking the recipe and coming out with a new version of a vanilla root beer.
I assume all the new acquisitions gives you a lot of stuff to catch up on.
Yeah, especially because WBC doesn't own a production facility, so everything was contract-produced. So, we're actually starting to produce some of those brands in house here. So, for all intents and purposes from our perspective, they're new products.
Are there some that you guys bought that you're not making right away, but you might later on?
Yeah, like the Caruso’s sparkling or the Italian sodas are still contract. So, we're slowly bringing them in.
You have the capacity to do all that here?
Do you guys have room to grow in here?
We do, we do have room to grow. Hopefully by this time next year, we're maxing out everything here.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.