At the start of 2019, something extremely rare happened in Wisconsin: For the first time in nearly a quarter-century, Leinenkugel's got a new Chippewa Falls brewmaster.
Illinois native John Hensley, 42, became just the 11th person to hold that title in the brewery's then 152-year history.
Like his select few predecessors – including the most recent, John Buhrow – Hensley is tasked with crafting recipes, overseeing the brewing process, brewery scheduling, safety and quality, and maintaining relationships with suppliers at the 250,000-barrel brewery.
We recently caught up with Hensley, who was in Milwaukee in December to announce the new Leinie's Barrel Yard brewpub at American Family Insurance Field.
Here's what he had to say...
OnMilwaukee: Tell us a bit about yourself.
John Hensley: I’m originally from downstate Illinois, Belleville, just outside of St. Louis. My parents still live in my childhood home and my youngest sister still lives in the area. I’ve also got a brother in Chicagoland and another sister in Canada. I did my undergraduate degree in biology and chemistry at Carthage College in Kenosha.
How did your path lead you to what is surely a coveted brewing gig: as master brewer at Leinie’s?
My dad is a retired senior chief in the Navy and worked on nuclear reactors, which is where I think I get my passion for science. He also started homebrewing back in the early '90s during the very early stage of craft brewing.
I didn’t really think of brewing as a career all through school. When I graduated from Carthage I did have the idea of going on to further education like medical school, but wanted to take a year off to make sure that was the path I wanted. I then needed a job, so signed up with a lab temp agency and the first couple of options were for a meat-packing facility or Miller Brewing Company.
At this point, the choice was easy for a recent 22-year-old college grad in Wisconsin. I was also lucky enough that the job was within the Miller Technical Center in the Process and Product innovation group.
Not only was I working for the second largest brewing company in the U.S., but in their development lab helping to create new products. I spent four years working in the Technical Center as a temp, learning the brewing process eventually landing a full-time position as a pilot brewer at the Miller Valley Brewery's Pilot Brewery.
There, I had the opportunity to develop new beers for Miller and Leinenkugel's. My first big project was the creation of Leinie's Sunset Wheat, which I’m pretty proud of. Also, as a 20-something I got to be the younger guy who brought pilot brews out to various beer festivals around the area. This really helped me to explore various styles and learn how to talk and connect about beers and brewing.
In 2012, I was appointed to the open assistant master brewer position here at Leinenkugel's that I couldn’t pass up. At the time, my wife Jen, our oldest son and I were living on the East Side near Brady and Water.
We saw it as a good time to get out of the city, but we loved our time living in Milwaukee, near the lake. Once in Chippewa Falls, I spent seven years learning the ins and outs of the roughly 150-year-old brewery.
Then, upon the retirement of Brewmaster John Buhrow in 2018 I stepped the position as the 11th brewmaster for Leinenkugel's in Chippewa Falls.
What does the brewmaster at Leinenkugel’s do on a day-to-day basis?
I’m responsible for all that goes into creating our great beers, from managing brewing materials, setting brewing schedules and oversight of our quality program, including tasting.
My typical day varies quite a bit due to the many hats I get to wear but there are a few things I like to keep standard, that includes reviewing the previous day’s brews and production, checking in around the brewery, a morning taste panel, an afternoon taste panel and (visiting the Leinie's) Lodge for a beer after work at least once a week.
Leinie’s has some beloved and long-lived beers but also does a lot of seasonals and new stuff, too. How much of the job is working on new ideas and recipes and how much is making sure the classics stay consistent?
I typically spend 75 percent on ensuring our regular production stays on track. The other 25 percent is looking at process improvements and new beers.
Now, with the installation of our pilot system at the Leinie Lodge last year I’m starting to do more on the new beer side.
How big is the brewing team up there?
At the main brewery we have 45 hourly operators throughout the plant, 14 in brewing/cellaring operations. The rest are in packaging (cans/bottles/kegs).
Are you also involved in the 10th Street Brewery in Milwaukee? Are you involved in the brewing of Leinie’s beers at Miller/Molson facilities, too, or is that not really required since they’re doing big runs of established beers?
All of the Miller/MolsonCoors breweries are a big team. After my time spent in Milwaukee I’ve got a pretty good network of other brewers throughout the (company).
We also work especially close with breweries that are co-producing our beers like 10th Street, and Milwaukee (Miller Valley). We like to taste our beers made at those breweries on our sensory panel to ensure consistency.
Let’s talk a bit about the (relatively) new pilot brewhouse in the Leinie Lodge. What is it used for, etc.?
The Pilot Brewery at the Leinie Lodge is a seven-barrel brewhouse installed early last year. The idea is to brew new beers and hibernated recipes to get feedback directly from our Lodge guests. If something turns out to be a hit we can then scale up to the big brewery
Did Leinie’s have any kind of pilot system before that? Does it have a dedicated brewer in charge or does everyone on the brew team get a shot at it?
Historically, there was not one on site. Since the Miller joint venture in 1988, development work was done in Milwaukee, which was my former role.
We are currently in the process of hiring a full-time pilot brewer in Chippewa, but for now its me. As a team, we collectively work on new ideas.
Can you speak at all about the innovation process? Are you and your team free to tinker with ideas, etc. or is the process a little more formal than that?
Innovation comes from different directions. We do work closely with our marketing team to create beers to fill a particular space in the market.
However, we do have leeway to make brews that our team wants to see at the Lodge or to celebrate various events. One brew we are currently planning is a gose for International Women’s Day in March.
Is there ever talk of bringing back the Big Eddy series? Folks still talk about it pretty often.
Yes, its probably the No. 2 or 3 thing I get asked about. We did actually brew the Uber Oktoberfest recipe late last year, which you can still get on tap at the Leinie Lodge. I’m hoping to have the Big Eddy brews make a regular appearance at least through our pilot brewery.
By the time craft really exploded, the series had wound down or was winding down. Was it ahead of its time?
The Big Eddy series did what it intended to do. That was to solidify our credentials as a craft brewer. Although they were all great, the market for high-alcohol craft beers at the time just could not support those beers and Leinenkugel's had to shift focus.
Tastes and consumer preferences continue to evolve so I think the series could make a comeback.
We have to talk about the Barrel Yard at American Family Field. Can you tell us a bit about the philosophy you’ll be taking in terms of the three-barrel system there and what you’ll brew on it, how often it’ll be running, etc.?
The new brewery will give Leinie’s another point of innovation, just like the pilot brewery in Chippewa Falls. We will share recipes between the two breweries, but will also try different things at each.
The starting plan is to have at least two unique beers – new or hibernated recipes – on tap at any time. Fans will ultimately dictate how fast things turn and new brews get put on tap.
Any leads on a brewer for that facility yet? Any idea when it will be fired up for the first time and what the first beers will be to come off it?
We are in the early stages of searching for a brewer at the Barrel Yard. It’s a tight timeline, but we are looking to have our first brews just as the season starts.
As a brand new brewery we’ll have to do some shakedown brews just to make sure everything is working properly but to also see how things translate between the Barrel Yard and the pilot brewery in Chippewa.
Tell us a bit about the two new beers that were previewed at the announcement.
These brews were created at our pilot brewery in Chippewa to showcase what fans can expect out of the new Barrel Yard Brewery. Brew City Pale Lager is a great German lager showing off our roots and Hot Stove Rye is a bit craftier, with bold rye flavor and generous hops.
Are they entirely new recipes, adaptations of previous Leinie’s beers?
They were both new, unique recipes.
I have to ask: What’s your favorite Leinie’s beer?
Nothing beats the smell of Oktoberfest brewing, so I always look forward to it. But really I celebrate them all, Leinie’s has a beer for any occasion, unwinding after work with a Leinie's Original at the Lodge, sipping on a Summer Shandy out on the boat, or that Oktoberfest when the weather gets crisp we’ve got all the bases covered.
Despite being owned by Molson Coors for a long time now, Leinie’s still really has a feel of a family brewery, with lots of Leinenkugel family members working there and in leadership. But I know it’s also something of a Hensley family place, too, right?
That’s one of the things that drew me to Leinenkugel’s. With Tony Bugher (Dick Leinenkugel's nephew) starting this year as company president, we’re now on sixth generation of Leinenkugel family leadership.
There are also a lot of other family connections throughout operations at the brewery. There are many generational employees who have had fathers, brothers, cousins, even spouses working together to brew our beers.
In fact, my wife Jennifer also works in the Leinie Lodge as retail supervisor, managing all of the great Leinie’s merch. Working here together makes us feel like extended Leinenkugel family members.
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.