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While the pandemic has hit a lot of businesses hard, some have found themselves able to roll with the punches, sometimes in unexpected ways.
Over at Milwaukee Brewing Company, 1127 N. 9th St., before the pandemic hit, the brewery ran a single daily shift, producing about 15,000 barrels of beer annually, supplying bars, restaurants and its taproom (one of the nicest in town) and packaging beer for retail.
But a pivot to contract brewing during COVID has been such a boon that CEO Dave Hock says the brewery has added a second shift, leading to the hiring of more staff and the expansion of its fermentation capacity.
Now, thanks to new contract customers are a boost in orders from existing ones, along with growth in its own packaged beer, Milwaukee Brewing is on pace to produce as much as 100,000 barrels of beer, hard seltzer and other products.
“With COVID,” says Hock, “where most of our on-premise customers were closed or dramatically reduced, it really hurt our business. We have a lot of business in the bars, in our taproom and the Ale House.
“There's no doubt those bars took a big hit. We were up double digits in the off-premise (sales), but the bars are (still in) a difficult, challenging environment.”
At the same time, because Milwaukee Brewing Company is certified organic and also has a flash pasteurizer (pictured above) – as well as excess capacity – it was well-positioned to increase production for clients seeking those assets.
These clients typically have confidentiality agreements that prevent them being named, and though I saw numerous such products in the brewery when I visited, I’m prohibited from identifying them here.
Locally, Milwaukee Brewing Company has long brewed house-label beers for Sendik's.
“We had an organically certified brewery making products for several other large companies in the seltzer world and they really liked what we'd done for them,” says Hock. “They've expanded their product lines with us, but a lot of other companies are coming to us to help them with beverage innovation in seltzer, beverage innovation with spirits.
“We're about 60 days out from having our spirits license and doing ready-to-drink cocktails and all those things.”
Hock says that Milwaukee Brewing is also considering adding a distillery to its facility, though not immediately.
“A couple (clients) were here already and we've added several other big ones that also need capacity,” says Hock. “They need a place to make it and we help them with product development. We have the scientists and flavor development, we have the connections with flavor houses.
“We have picked up a beer contract during COVID, too, and we'll be making a lot. Beer innovation is still a big part of us. Instead of just being a brewery, we want to compete in the total alcoholic beverage (sector), both with our own products and helping other customers get to market.”
The story is similar to one that has played out in Waunakee, just north of Madison, where Octopi Brewing went from being a craft brewer to a major player in packaged beverages of all kinds.
While the Milwaukee Brewing Co. taproom (connected to Glass+Griddle restaurant) is again open with limited capacity from Thursday through Sunday, and tours are back up and running at 50 percent capacity, Milwaukee Brewing has been moving full steam ahead on packaged products.
It has a line of seltzers called Tierra Buena, which the company says is the first certified climate-neutral alcohol product, offsetting a full 100 percent of its emissions by funding reforestation projects in Latin America.
A new low-calorie hazy IPA called Local Haze is launching in 12-ounce six-pack cans, and a series of favorites, like Outboard Cream Ale, Louie's Demise and MKE IPA are being released in 12-packs at the same time via Beechwood Sales and Service liquor distributors.
“Everything is fully automated, from soup to nuts,” says Hock, as we walk through the production facility, built inside a hulking former Pabst distribution center. “We have high-speed canning lines, bottling lines. The packaging line can do six-packs, 12-packs, 18-packs. Downstream is the palletizer, so we can automatically put all the cases on a pallet.
“We've purchased a really high-end labeler that will allow us to make smaller batches and label these cans. This will allow us to be more nimble.”
The brewery, which once was crammed into a tiny space in Walker’s Point, is now a sprawling one that appeared spacious when it opened two-and-a-half years ago but has rapidly filled with equipment, pallets of empty cans awaiting beer and seltzer, roughly 120 barrels in which special brews are aging, a laboratory and more.
“(Founder) Jim McCabe was very smart about designing the brewery to scale and so we’ve had room to grow,” says Hock. “We have a substantial, $1.5 million fermentation expansion that's happening in two weeks.
"We run in two shifts now, full bore; everything is fully taxed. So we're excited to get the new fermentors in to finish out the rest of the year, but we did have extra capacity when we were only at 15,000 barrels. The only thing we really needed to do to get to the 100,000 barrels is (add) fermentors.”
Hock says that in addition to Local Haze and the Tierra Buena seltzers, Milwaukee Brewing will be doing other interesting things this year.
“With Milwaukee Brewing beers, we have exciting lineup,” he says. “We have a German series coming up, including a really dynamite hefeweizen. It's got the true, authentic banana clove, but ours is going to be super fresh, made locally, and we really feel good about that.
“We're calling it part of our German series but another is going to be a Belgian tripel-style but it's going to be a little bit more fruit-forward.”
He says the series will also include a refreshed Oktoberfest recipe and a radler.
“We've got an awesome radler coming out this summer,” Hock says. “A little lower in alcohol, a little easier-drinking. We get a lot of people telling us that they need beers that don't make them so full. ‘We need products with which we can still watch our calorie count.’
“That's not something new this year. That's been going on. No one is talking about the calories that come with those (big beers).”
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.