The way Tom Barthell and Mike Rooney remember their own humble origin story, they were just sitting around late last year, "drinking a couple of local brewskies," talking about all the recent development happening in Milwaukee, from the new Bucks arena and Northwestern Mutual Tower going up Downtown to the wave of craft breweries opening around the city.
And as a couple of area natives who, as Rooney says, "love beer and love Milwaukee," they looked around, wondering how they could contribute. Neither of them was a beer brewer or a coffee roaster, but both worked in digital marketing and had experience producing professional-quality videos, which there weren't many of, even amid all the attention and coverage of the suddenly booming beverage scene.
"The growth was undeniable, and we were just seeing an element to the growth that wasn't necessarily told in an eloquent way," Barthell says, while enjoying a Tyranena (Lake Mills) Imperial IPA at Draft & Vessel in Shorewood. "We thought the most effective way to get involved was by making videos, which we already knew how to do, and telling stories about beer, which we have always loved.
"We didn't want to sit by and just watch the growth of Milwaukee happen."
Indeed, they wanted to sip by – and to film it. Just two months later, SipMilwaukee was born, the pair’s passion project to chronicle the history and rebirth of Brew City and bring to life the stories behind its thirst-quenching contemporary brands. OnMilwaukee is partnering with SipMilwaukee on a new brewery and beveraged-based multimedia content series.
"No one in this city was doing good video content online," says Rooney, "and we wanted to be the people to do it."
In January, they filmed a trailer, documenting and gauging local interest in their idea. The response was resoundingly positive, so they set to work figuring out a format, interviewing brewmasters, shooting, editing and producing short vignettes. Their pilot videos include Third Space Brewing, Stone Creek Coffee, Eagle Park Brewery and more. The vignettes are sleek, well-composed, emotive and informative, featuring an upbeat vibe and engaging interviews.
And although the two are talented and proficient – Barthell is the executive producer, Rooney the on-screen host – the labor is time-consuming and done on the side of their regular jobs.
"The production team is me and Mike," Barthell says, adding that their crew has also included some college students, who gain hands-on experience doing a more-fun-than-your-typical-classroom project. "We don't have 12 people that we’ve got to pay the salaries of, so we're doing it for cheaper than anybody else out there, but it does take a lot of time to film and edit these videos. It comes out to we're doing it more as a charity at this point than to make money on our end. We're doing it out of a love for the city and love for the growth, not to pay bills. Hopefully, one day."
While neither has a background in journalism or storytelling, per se, Barthell, a 2013 graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Rooney, a Class of 2015 Michigan State alum, are relishing the inventive opportunity to educate and entertain their audience about the people, parts and processes involved in the local beverage brands they love. "In marketing, in general, you're always trying to craft a message to achieve some objective," Barthell says.
Adds Rooney, "Obviously, there's that creative aspect of advertising, bouncing ideas off of other people, and that’s a lot of what me and Tom do. Then it’s just coming up with the best way to convey a message for a business or, in our case, about the growth of Milwaukee."
The two speak often about the city’s proud brewing tradition and they say their aim is to educate people not only about that history, but also the industry’s recent revival in the form of craft beer.
The breweries, of course, love the idea of being featured in elaborate vignettes, though getting more people through their doors or increasing their beer sales is not SipMilwaukee’s motivation. And since most of the area companies don’t have a lot of money to spend on such marketing, at this point the videos are largely a labor of love. "The hope is to eventually be able to step up our production game by funding it in some way where we can spend more time and more resources on it to do a higher-quality job," Barthell says.
As for the aesthetics of the videos, SipMilwaukee models its style on some Netflix documentaries, as well as the "Wisconsin Foodie" television series. Ultimately, they’d like to film a longer-form feature – perhaps an in-depth, 30-minute episode – but currently the vignettes are about two or three minutes and more about local breweries than coffee companies or distilleries, which are planned for the future. Still, they’re excited about the content and its relevance in 2017, especially heading into the summer.
"Right now, we're just trying to focus on telling as many stories as we can during this crazy time in the craft beer scene," Barthell says. "I would hate to look back on this year and be like, ‘I wish we would have told that story. I wish we would have caught that brewery when they were just experiencing – I don’t know – the most energetic and emotional part of their growth."
The two say the most fulfilling part of the project has been learning about the brands and meeting the people that work for them. They enjoy asking questions, hearing little-known anecdotes, becoming quasi-experts – "If you asked Mike last September what a quad is, he'd be like, ‘a four wheeler bike?’ I definitely appreciate beer more now," Barthell says – and interacting with everyone involved. They mention the doctors who launched Waukesha’s Raised Grain Brewing Co. as particularly, amusingly memorable.
"My favorite part of the journey thus far has been discovering the network of people in the beverage scene. We've met a lot of really cool people that don't necessarily work at the breweries or the coffee roasters," Rooney says, like farmers, manufacturers and distributors.
Says Barthell, "That's what SipMilwaukee's all about is introducing the people behind the beverage to the world, and Milwaukee as a city. It's telling the story that you wouldn't necessarily know.
"Every brewer here has a different origin about how they got into brewing. I think the moral of our story is we're just two guys who love Milwaukee, and we're trying to contribute to the growth as best we can. It turns out that that is in the form of videos and beer."
Anyone interested in working for, partnering with or being covered by SipMilwaukee can email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Born in Milwaukee but a product of Shorewood High School (go ‘Hounds!) and Northwestern University (go ‘Cats!), Jimmy never knew the schoolboy bliss of cheering for a winning football, basketball or baseball team. So he ditched being a fan in order to cover sports professionally - occasionally objectively, always passionately. He's lived in Chicago, New York and Dallas, but now resides again in his beloved Brew City and is an ardent attacker of the notorious Milwaukee Inferiority Complex.
After interning at print publications like Birds and Blooms (official motto: "America's #1 backyard birding and gardening magazine!"), Sports Illustrated (unofficial motto: "Subscribe and save up to 90% off the cover price!") and The Dallas Morning News (a newspaper!), Jimmy worked for web outlets like CBSSports.com, where he was a Packers beat reporter, and FOX Sports Wisconsin, where he managed digital content. He's a proponent and frequent user of em dashes, parenthetical asides, descriptive appositives and, really, anything that makes his sentences longer and more needlessly complex.
Jimmy appreciates references to late '90s Brewers and Bucks players and is the curator of the unofficial John Jaha Hall of Fame. He also enjoys running, biking and soccer, but isn't too annoying about them. He writes about sports - both mainstream and unconventional - and non-sports, including history, music, food, art and even golf (just kidding!), and welcomes reader suggestions for off-the-beaten-path story ideas.