In what may seem like something of a surprise move in a craft brewing scene that’s still built on hoppy IPAs, New Barons Brewing Coop has announced that as of Friday, April 14 it will become a lager-focused brewery.
This, of course, is not unheard of, as there are a number of successful and popular lager-focused craft brewers around the country, including Chicago’s Dovetail and Kansas City’s KC Bier Co., among others.
“It all started with our (Knappstor) Czech-Style Premium Pilsner, which was originally intended to be an early summer seasonal,” says New Barons’ founder and brewmaster John Degroote. “I had lightly dabbled in some other lagers seasonally and wanted to give a pilsner a try. When it went on tap the first time two summers ago, it had modest success, but I was still learning.
“Fast forward to the next summer of 2022, a few recipe tweaks and a bunch of experience later, my second release of the pils called ‘Knappstor Premium’ set a volume turnover record in the taproom. It barely survived a week.”
Although the spotlight will now be on lagers, Degroote says that New Barons will still offer ales, including its beloved Hoppy by Ziggy Juicy IPA and Witches Bit Belgian Witbier, on a seasonal basis.
“I’d be bummed to completely remove some of the beers that have gotten us to where we are today,” he says. “I’ll be happy to brew ‘Season-ales’ that throw it back to the old portfolio and we’ll never stop experimenting.
“But in this market, the best breweries are intentional with what they want to be known for. Some brewers focus on barrel aging, others on wild fermentation, or the ever-evolving IPA, etc. We want to be known as the premier craft lager brand in Milwaukee.”
“At the end of the day craft beer is still solidly an IPA centric arena,” he says, “so mastering a good hoppy lager was crucial to developing a portfolio dedicated to this method of brewing.”
Degroote says that the New Barons production teams has been, “focused on studying and learning the use of a species of yeast that redefined the world of brewing in the 19th century and also shaped Milwaukee: Saccharomyces pastorianus AKA lager yeast.
“Over that time we developed a number of lager recipes that saw unexpected success in the taproom.”
One of them is The Fugitive, which grew out of New Barons’ experimental series.
“We recently found the right aroma and flavor profile and now it’s just a matter of bringing it up to speed in production,” he says.
Another is Knappstor premium pils, the beer that kickstarted the shift to lagers.
“Knappstor is named after the intersection of Knapp and Astor on the East Side of Milwaukee, two streets where me of my friends lived out our 20s and drank our fair share of lagers and old school Milwaukee pilsners to respect the process of early adulthood,” Degroote says.
“That beer’s success of Knappstor prompted our production to produce more lagers seasonally, doing our best to always keep at least one lager on tap. It quickly became a challenge to keep pace with demand. We knew a shift in our production, with a focus on lagers, was coming.”
Another is Black Bier, a Schwarzbier whose name and logo were inspired by L.A. hardcore pioneers Black Flag.
It was the second big lager release last winter for the brewery.
“In honor of local craft beer punk, Eric Gutbrod, the beer is a play on the band Black Flag,” says Degroote. “A dark, yet light-drinking lager started winning over our customers. It has just the right amount flavor without being too filling. It, too, began to sell above other core brands.
“Sometimes you don’t find the niche, but the niche finds you. We’ve always been good at making clean and crisp beers at New Barons, but never had a particular focus until now. Once we started making lagers, it became clear that our style of brewing, emphasis on quality and attention to detail lent itself naturally to those styles.”
Degroote says that the switch has taken some time to strategize and put into place, in part due to learning to work with lager yeast and in part because lagers simply take time.
Unlike ales, which can be released soon after brewing, lagers – the word means "storehouse" or "warehouse" in German – require time in tanks.
“Lagers are a different species of yeast than their ale counterparts and demand a somewhat different process to keep them happy,” the brewer says. “Among many things, fermentation and cellaring time were the biggest hurdles we had to sort out, since they take much longer to process – tying up valuable tank space.
“Once we figured out how to make our lager brands in the shortest amount of time without compromising quality, we could map out our production to keep these new cores in place all year.”
As has been the case for some time, New Barons will continue to contract brew some of its beers at MobCraft in Walker’s Point, where bigger batches can be made than on New Barons’ own 3.5-barrel system.
“Scaling these lagers was the final part of the puzzle to making this happen,” says Degroote. “With our 3.5-BBL brewery, keeping all our tanks tied up with lagers just wouldn’t work. We had to work intensely with our contracting partner to make sure we could scale these recipes appropriately.
“Lagers demand a lot and have little room for error. Brewing larger batches at MobCraft has been instrumental to our production over the years and when we started scaling some of our lager recipes, we made sure to take our time in those discussions so we could match what was being produced at our facility. We sent samples off to a lab to make sure bitterness levels were matching between the two facilities, did some color adjusting and a few pilot batches to get it all right.”
Degroote says they’ll need that capacity because they plan to soon double their output to match demand for the lagers. More of the brewery’s beers will be sent out for distribution to retail in cans and on draft, too.
“This is the year of the craft lager,” says Degroote. “I think Milwaukee has never lost touch with its roots and those types of beers. You’re starting to see more lagers from other breweries as well and it feels right.
“I’m just happy to be making the beer that put Milwaukee on the map to begin with and would love to continue working with other brewers on lagers and keep innovating to make the lagers of the future.”
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 has be heard on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories, in that station's most popular podcast.