Monday, August 23, 2010

On Our Neighbors To The South

As I think about the upcoming weekend in Chicago(or the past weekend, since you're reading this on Monday), my mind is drawn to the "problem" of Illinois and Chicago specifically.

Wisconsin has a love hate relationship with the State of Chicago, and also the State of Illinois. But make no bones about it - Chicago is its own state - if you were to look at Illinois' statutes and laws, it is littered with clauses like "In counties with a population in excess of 1 million people, then X, otherwise, Y." There is only one county in all of Illinois with a population in excess of 1 million people. Chicago, literally, has its own rules separate from the rest of the state.

But, really, when Wisconsin-ites talk about FIBs, what they are really talking about is people from Chicago-land (as an aside: I love that people really call the Greater-Chicago area "Chicagoland"; it sounds like an amusement park) - Chicago, and the outlying suburban areas (often, especially the outlying suburban areas). We are infrequently concerned about people from Peoria, or Matoon, or East St. Louis; it's the fucking bastards from Chicagoland that we flip off and swear at - behind their backs of course. We would never turn down the tourism dollars.

Which brings us back to the point of this post (you were beginning to doubt there was one, weren't you?): Wisconsin has always had its beer to lord over our wonderful southern neighbors. Heck, even the Wrigley faithful celebrate a Wisconsin beer - Old Style. Not to mention the suckers buying cases of Leinie's while they blow their cash in the Northwoods.

Even ignorning for the moment the fact that Miller's world headquarters have abandoned Milwaukee for Chicago, if the Great Taste is any indication, Wisconsin is in for some serious competition. Just a small list of breweries in Chicago-area producing amazing beer: Three Floyds, Goose Island, Metropolitan, Revolution, Flossmoor Station, Half Acre, Two Brothers, DeStihl, and Piece. Beer there is exploding and the market is practically insatiable.

Think about the consequences of that for a moment. Put it in perspective with the perceived "brain drain" that our state wrings its hands over. What's the central problem of "brain drain"? After school, our most talented students are leaving for (let's be honest) Chicago (also New York and Atlanta). What are students drinking in college? Swill? Probably. Yeah, Spotted Cow is in its rotation, and every now and then students will pick up a Capital or Furthermore or Ale Asylum or Lakefront or Pearl Street. But, for the most part, students are drinking Milwaukee's Best, High Life, Bud Light, Bud Light Lime, and pretty much anything they can get for $40 a keg.

After school, when these students have jobs and discretionary income, they become the beer geeks, the people that enjoy and are willing and able to pay a premium for good beer. But, if they are leaving Wisconsin and buying beer in Chicago, what do you think they are drinking? New Glarus? Nope. Tyranena? Probably not. Capital? Maybe, but probably not. See the above amazing list of breweries and brewpubs that litter the Chicago landscape.

When these people come back to Wisconsin to raise families, (because no one wants their kids in the Chicago School District, right?) what will they drink? Goose Island? Pretty good bet. It's only a matter of time before the other breweries are here (oh, and those brewpubs? they can distribute here, too).

Goose Island has upped its game considerably in the past few years. When I lived in Chicago, I refused to drink, or even acknowledge the existence of, Goose Island - I had some shockingly awful service at the brewpubs and had sworn off of them. But even I have to admit that Sofie, Bourbon County Stout, Pere Jacques, Matilda, and Demolition are all amazing beers. It's only a matter of time before Half Acre (brewed at Sand Creek, by the way [ed note: it was pointed out that Half Acre recently installed their brewery and only a portion of their product is still at Sand Creek with the rest now being brewed in Chicago at the Half Acre complex]) or Metropolitan or Flossmoor are here. The only thing that keeps Three Floyds from selling better than it already does is price and lack of non-year-round brands.

I don't think that I am atypical of the "New" Madison-ian, or even "New" Wisconsin-ite. I'm not from here, but came here (via Chicago) and brought with me my own tastes and preferences. I drink a lot of Wisconsin beer, but I also have a sweet spot in my heart for Great Lakes Brewing Company. As more and more people make their way here (young, professional, high-tech) they bring with them their preferences. And as our own "brain drain" folks come back, they too are bringing preferences with them.

So, I'm sure you're asking, what's the point? The point is we, Wisconsin breweries, need to be competing with these breweries that have, in the past, not really presented much of a threat. More brands, more creativity, better execution. Bigger regional and national presence. It is no longer feasible to ignore markets outside of Wisconsin. Our market is a great beer market, but it's getting crowded with folks from Chicago (see the list above), Colorado (see all of the great Colorado breweries), California, and the East Coast, not to mention the entire rest of the Midwest.

To grow, and be recognized as some of the best breweries in the world (which we are), we need to be more pro-active. A strong Brewers' Guild is essential. Strong laws and a legislature that promotes the growth of one of its best revenue-generating industries is also essential. But being tuned into what it is going on regionally, nationally, and globally, reacting to those things, collaborating, innovating, and being creative is essential for survival. Because each in that long list of Illinois breweries is doing all of those things very well.


  1. Yes, I know, DeStihl is in Normal, down near Champaign/Bloomington not in Chicago, but it acts like a Chicago brewery and its proximity to U of I makes it "close enough".

  2. Hey Jeff, great post! It seems the only thing that stands in the way of Chicago breweries - at least in terms of satisfying their own market - is high rent. Wisconsin's beer legislature has been historically very good, but the last few years have foreshadowed a potentially darker future. Our state can definitely learn some things from our bastardly neighbors.

  3. Old Style is a classic lager "authentically krausened" nice plug. Wrigly Field, cold Old style and beautifull women, it doesn't get any better then that!

  4. Beer Advocate has just released a book of list and Wisconsin is barely ranked. Michigan, Indiana and Illinois breweries are listed through out. These lists bare out what you are talking about. Wisconsin breweries need to step up and push the needle instead of "jumping the shark". Because as the author states, these beers from right around the great lakes region are easily distributed.

  5. Care to cite actual evidence that supports your assertion that WI breweries need to pay attention to markets outside of Wisconsin? Beer should be brewed for the local population and be drank as fresh as possible. Over-extending yourself for the sake of more exposure can often cause shortages for your "home" customers and cause hard feelings to the locals. Some breweries already do ship outside of Wisconsin-good for them. Others don't feel they need to-more power to them. I guess New Glarus' model is a poor one-I heard they were close to closing. ;) If you think Metropolitan and Half Acre are better than many of the breweries in WI, I'd respectfully disagree. How are Wisconsin breweries not competing with out-of-state breweries? I sure as hell hope Capital never strays from brewing lagers and other german styles for the sake of "innovation" and "creativity."

  6. In heaven there is no beer, that's why we drink it here...

    Why send our good beer to other states? screw IL.
    Not sure what these "amazing" IL breweries are anyway...nothing that really stands out other than a few individual beers here and there. Anything else easily has a better WI counterpart... you know how hard it is to distribute in the CHicago area? Even Bell's didn't bother for a long time since it was so difficult (due to distributor control)
    a couple years old..but still on point

  7. I was in one of the Greater Chicagoland Binny's yesterday and there was no Half Acre. I asked and said they don't get Half Acre-only some stores do. So, if they can't even supply Chicagoland stores with Half Acre, how are they going to have the capacity to send their beer to WI? Or are they going to ignore their local market? Is that a smart thing to do? They only had 3 Metropolitan beers there. I am the same anonymous as 10:34pm. Your post makes even less sense after my experience yesterday.


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