Dick Leinenkugel can run — with his love of the outdoors, that has never been a problem — but he can no longer hide. Never was that more apparent than last weekend.
On Friday morning at Avalon Hotel & Conference Center he welcomed beer distributors and others in the industry from across the country who were attending “Camp Leinenkugel.” He presided over an employees meeting that afternoon, and hosted Scott Whitley, CEO of MillerCoors’ craft and import division, at the Stanley Rodeo that evening.
Then on Saturday he was front and center like never before at Leinenkugel’s gathering of several thousand of the brewery’s biggest fans for the Leinie Lodge Family Reunion. When he wasn’t talking with Leinie’s drinkers, he was singing with the band, using his own lyrics (about Fireside Nut Brown being replaced by Snowdrift Vanilla Porter) to the tune of Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl,” and then wrapping things up with a toast to all those Leinie’s loyalists.
That is what happens when you are president of the Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Co.
Nearly half a year has passed since Dick Leinenkugel succeeded his older brother, Jake, as the head of the family-run brewery, and it has been a bit of a whirlwind.
“It’s been a great six months. Moving back here, seeing Chippewa Falls through fresh eyes, as a resident for the first time since 1980 but also as one of its business leaders, has really been tremendous,” he said.
Six months into the job, the changes in Leinenkugel’s life have been constant. In that sense, it is no different than the industry he has been a part of since he began working at the Chippewa Falls brewery as a schoolkid.
“The continued pace of change in the industry overall — I don’t know if it’s surprising, but it seems to be even accelerating,” Leinenkugel said. “It used to be that you could take a deep breath in the winter months, and in the spring gear up for summer. It’s not that way anymore.”
More variety on the way
At least, it’s not that way at Leinenkugel’s. An increasingly integral part of MillerCoors, the Chippewa Falls brewer introduced another new beer this spring, and has others in the pipeline for 2015 and beyond.
The latest addition to the Leinenkugel lineup is Grapefruit Shandy, a twist on the Shandy phenomenon that Dick Leinenkugel dreamed up nearly a decade ago. Summer Shandy has since become one of the biggest successes in the beer business, taking it into all 50 states.
Before the year is out, Leinenkugel’s is expected to hit the million barrel milestone for 2015 beer sales, and introducing beers such as its Grapefruit Shandy is part of the reason. Grapefruit joins the lemonade-flavored Summer Shandy as a March-August seasonal offering, but reaction has been so positive that it could became the brand’s ninth year-round beer.
Other Shandy flavors from Leinie’s include Cranberry Ginger and Harvest Patch (a pumpkin spice flavor that will stand on its own this fall after only being available in a sampler pack last year), and the Shandy can sampler pack that is poised to add cocoa berry and spiced pear styles in 2015.
The Shandy wave seemingly knows no bounds, and has left in its wake all sorts of competitors unveiling shandies of their own. “Now the Europeans are getting into the game with their Radlers, and they are bringing more of them over to the United States,” Leinenkugel said.
Despite all of the new competition, he said that nine out of every 10 Shandy beers sold are Leinenkugel’s.
More than just shandies
Even though its shandies constitute more than half of all Leinenkugel’s total sales, the brewery isn’t neglecting its other beer styles.
“We don’t just want to be the Shandy Beer Company. We are a brewer and we’ve been a brewer since 1867 with a wide portfolio of beers,” Leinenkugel said.
Leinenkugel’s has made its reputation on lagers, leaving it on the outside of the hoppy India Pale Ales that have been driving the craft beer movement. Leinie’s has countered with India Pale Lager, a stronger beer brewed with five hops and caramel and pale malts. It was only available on draft in selected markets last fall, but is about to see wider distribution.
Leinenkugel said Friday that MillerCoors has made close to a $3 million investment in the Chippewa Falls brewery to enable Leinie’s IPL to be brewed and packaged here. The beer is expected to be rolled out by the end of next month for six-pack sales in stores in Wisconsin and the Twin Cities, with plans to expand sales into more Great Lakes markets in the first half of 2016.
Another new beer Leinie’s is calling Heart of Oak (with some oak characteristics) will be introduced as part of its autumn explorer sampler pack.
Positioned for the future
This constant addition of new beers, and the loss of some old favorites, is bound to continue.
“I was just talking with a retailer friend from Chicago who owns a bar right across from Wrigley Field, and he asked me, ‘What do you think about this craft beer craze?’” Leinenkugel said. “And I said I think it’s here to stay.
“Think about it. You and I grew up in an era where pale yellow beer in a plastic cup was our choice. But our kids have known nothing but an industry that has had choices and variety through what we call today craft breweries, and there’s only more of them being built every day.”
He explained that beer is no different than any other business.
“Look at it across any consumer category, whether it’s ice cream or gum or coffee or whatever. This is a different millennial drinker today that is used to variety, choice, local. They want to know who their brewer is, where it comes from, and those are all macro trends that are going to continue to build our craft brew business,” Leinenkugel said. “And at Leinie’s we’re well positioned.”
The brewing company continues to conduct plenty of market research, and will keep selling its location here in Chippewa Falls in its advertising campaigns.
“We’ve long attached ourselves to what all of these people pulling boats and campers know: There’s this place in the northwoods that they get away to,” said Leinenkugel.
Dick Leinenkugel took the company’s advice and got away to his own place in the northwoods this past year. It’s his home once again, and when he ducks into Gordy’s or goes out to eat, there’s no escaping who he is or what he represents. Not when your name is the same as the beer.
He truly can’t hide, and that’s okay. Because the time he has spent on-site, working out of his office in the Leinie Lodge, has reinforced something Leinenkugel knew all along. You might call it one of the brewery’s secret ingredients.
“People visiting here from MillerCoors in Chicago, they are amazed at the love and passion that our employees have for our beers and our brewery. That is so tremendous, to have ‘outsiders’ say that,” Leinenkugel said, in reference to the 142 employees at the brewery and lodge.
“I think it’s part of being in small-town America — and that’s part of who we are that makes us great, our location here in Chippewa Falls.”