Mark Garthwaite grew up not far from Potosi Brewery.
He now lives near Vintage Brewing Co. on Madison’s West Side and in a county that is home to Middleton’s Capital Brewery, one of the state’s first craft breweries.
So when Garthwaite agreed to meet for coffee, he chose EVP Coffee on Midvale Boulevard, just over a mile south of the Great Dane Pub & Brewing Co. at the Hilldale Shopping Center.
Garthwaite, named in July as Wisconsin Brewers Guild executive director, takes every opportunity he can to reference the state’s growing craft brewing industry. The guild is designed to promote and advocate for the state’s craft brewers. It also runs the Wisconsin Beer Lovers Festival each June in Glendale, Oktoberfest Wisconsin in late September in Wausau and the Ice Cold Beer Fest in Minocqua on Jan. 10.
Garthwaite remains chairman of the Great Taste of the Midwest, is former president of the Madison Homebrewers and Tasters Guild and has been a homebrewer for more than 20 years. He also grew up on a dairy farm in Mount Hope in Grant County and most recently was working in biomedical research at the UW-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health.
In 2013, according to the Colorado-based Brewers Association, Wisconsin craft beer makers produced more than 444,000 barrels of beer, which ranks ninth nationally. There are now about 90 craft breweries in the state, up from 66 in 2009.
Q: Why was it important for the Brewers Guild to have a full-time executive director?
A: Just growth. These (brewers) are all running businesses that are growing. They just don’t have time to manage the day-to-day operations of a guild that advocates for their interest. They need somebody that I think can manage a diverse group of members and a range of business models. It’s impractical if you’re volunteering your time and still trying to run your own business. They are so busy growing their businesses right now.
Q: What are your main duties?
A: I manage and maintain the membership, I work with the board of directors to develop a long-range strategy and facilitate between brewers and affiliate industries. My goal is to grow the membership and articulate more clearly what the craft brewing industry means to Wisconsin. There are 90-some craft breweries, and they only have 6 percent of the beer market in the state. There’s a lot of room for growth but at the same time the economic impact (of craft breweries in Wisconsin) is around $1 billion. It’s a lot of jobs that craft brewers provide.
Q: If we have about 90 craft breweries in operation with more in the planning phase, realistically, how many will we have in the next five to 10 years?
A: I wouldn’t even hazard a guess. Five years ago, I would not have predicted that we’d still be on this trajectory. I will only say, in broad terms, that I see continued growth.
Q: What has been the impact of legislative changes in 2011 that focused on brewing and distribution?
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A: A lot of the smaller breweries that exist now, they operated under a legislative climate where they could build their business a little more incrementally. They had a wholesale exemption so they could sell small quantities. They could pick just one account and just kind of dip their toe into the market. Now, they basically have to set it up with a distributor or establish 25 accounts of their own, which is kind of tough to do. I wouldn’t say it’s hurting the industry but handcuffing it a bit. You have one brewery producing 200,000 barrels and another producing 10 barrels a year. A one-size-fits-all system just doesn’t work as well.
Q: But the growth still continues.
A: Despite being handcuffed a little bit, the growth does continue. Consumers are a lot more educated than they were about beer. There’s a strong tie in Wisconsin to our brewing past and our heritage but in an odd way that’s almost a burden we carry because it’s hard to break out of the old traditions. For other states without that, it’s a blank canvas.
Q: Is the next step for the craft brewing industry in the state continued growth in smaller communities?
A: There are several examples of really small communities that have really small breweries. The scale of a brewery has changed. Our reference point has always been Milwaukee and the large-scale industrial breweries. If you go back to the rise of homebrewing, you had the realization that you could make beer in small quantities and it’s just as good if not better than a large brewery beer. So that realization makes the idea of a brewery in a small community a much more realistic prospect.
Q: What’s your reaction to MillerCoors and Anheuser-Busch InBev trying to create craft beer brands?
A: Clearly there’s a reason why they’re doing it, and they’ve had mixed success. I’ll be interested to see how it plays out.
Q: What’s your favorite beer style?
A: It varies. Generally, I gravitate toward beers that are a little more balanced. I’ve always been fond of British beer styles that have more balance in terms of hops and malt. German altbiers have always been a favorite. Traveling and being in Dusseldorf (Germany) and going around to altbier pubs was a revelation. I also have a great fondness for Oktoberfest beers. It was probably one of my first beer loves.
Q: How did you get into making beer?
A: I had a roommate in college who had dabbled in home brewing. It was 1992 when I first brewed a batch of beer, and I was hooked. It was right at when craft brewing was just getting going. That was also a time when you had the web and information about beer and home brewing was so much more accessible. Suddenly, you had access to recipes and people who were explaining how to make your own brewing equipment. That really opened up the world of beer to me. I was also a molecular biology technician so I had a pretty strong science background. The marriage of science and art is really appealing.
Q: Did you ever think about ...
A: Every homebrewer thinks about opening a brewery. Everyone of them does. For me it wasn’t a serious fantasy. I love it as a hobby, and I would hate to ruin a hobby by making it a job.