VIROQUA — The Food Enterprise Center is vast and can offer sensory overload.
Fizzeology is here with its raw fermented vegetables. There are 16-ounce jars filled with organic sauerkraut, Kimchi and a Latin-style kraut that includes carrots, red peppers, cilantro, lime juice and red chili peppers.
B&E’s Trees has oak bourbon barrels filled with maple syrup that is aged for six months and then bottled, while Nami Cutler, a Japanese native, makes a line of dehydrated veggie chips. Kickapoo Coffee Roasters processes coffee beans from around the world while LuSa Organics produces handmade body products.
Each of those businesses is worthy of a story, but I made the two-hour drive from Madison to Viroqua on Highway 14 last week to get a glimpse of a craft soda company.
The state is booming with craft beer makers such as Ale Asylum, New Glarus Brewing, HopCat, Central Waters and so on. The rise of the industry has been well documented. In fact, I profiled on Friday, Rockhound Brewing Co., Madison’s newest brewpub, and in our Sunday Business section, wrote about Maureen Easton, an attorney leading a craft-brewing law team at Foley & Lardner.
It’s unlikely that craft soda will match the volume of craft beer, but the industry is gaining momentum. And that’s why I spent a morning at Wisco Pop, where they were bottling their line of cherry soda that contains honey harvested near Dodgeville and tart cherries from Door County.
The company, with four employees and 2,000 square feet of space that resembles a brewery, also makes a ginger soda and a root beer. There are plans for an organic line of strawberry, cherry and ginger sodas and a sparkling water.
The products made by Austin Ashley and his team bear little resemblance to the 75-cent can of Diet Coke that was in the cupholder of my Toyota RAV 4 on the way there. Ashley makes a natural soda that he says is in a different class from the root beers made by Sprecher’s in Milwaukee and Blumer’s at Minhas in Monroe.
“It is not Diet Coke,” Ashley said, during a break from packing boxes with cherry soda that sells for about $2.50 a bottle. “We’re using real sweeteners and any kind of produce that you can see in an aisle of a grocery store, not (ingredients) from flavor warehouses that scientists had created.”
Ashley’s sodas are in more than 100 retailers and sold primarily in individual bottles, although there are plans for multi-packs. In 2014, the company had revenues of $44,000 but by 2015, those revenues grew to $170,000 with the production of 15,000 gallons of soda. In 2016, Ashley thinks he’ll make 38,000 gallons and projects sales at around $400,000.
In 2014, Wisco Pop won a “Local Hero Award” from Edible Madison magazine in the artisan food and beverage category, an honor that in 2015 went to Jeff Ford at Cress Spring Bakery in Blue Mounds. Ashley’s cherry soda was also given four out of five stars by Bobby Hearn, editor-in-chief of Five Star Soda, a website that reviews craft soda around the country.
“If the cost is higher to make something because it’s better for you, people will pay that,” Hearn told Food Dive in June. “A lot of it just has to do with the audience expanding and the focus of soda changing, not necessarily to be healthier, but just to taste better and use better ingredients. As long as those trends keep up, craft soda will be here for a long time.”
Wisco Pop is tucked into the center of the 100,000-square-foot facility purchased by the Vernon Economic Development Association in 2009. The center welcomed its first tenant in 2010 and today has 16 businesses that are doing their part to grow the entrepreneurial economy of one of the state’s coolest counties.
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Vernon County is home to Organic Valley, an independent cooperative of organic farmers based in La Farge that has nearly $1 billion in annual revenue. There are Amish enclaves, blue-ribbon trout streams and in downtown Viroqua, founded in 1846, a collection of shops and restaurants and WDRT-FM, a community-funded radio station.
The downtown also includes the Temple Theater, where a fundraiser Saturday raised money for the city’s new $3.6 million library. The 14,000- square-foot facility opened Feb. 22 and is twice the size of the previous library space.
One of the big stories to come out of Viroqua last week, besides the buzz about Bernie Sanders, was the approval Tuesday by the Viroqua City Council to close 132 feet of Center Avenue behind the Viroqua Food Co-op.
The co-op, that had $7 million in sales in 2015 and averages about $5,000 a day in sales from its deli, wants to expand and has bought property at the corner of Center Street and Broadway.
Most, if not all, of the products made at the Food Enterprise Center, can be bought at the co-op.
“This is an economic development strategy based on community development,” Sue Noble, executive director of the Vernon Economic Development Association said on its website. “We’re turning the food movement into action. We’ve created a facility and a network that welcomes investors, grows food businesses and attracts entrepreneurs to a convenient and innovative place to locate a business.”
At the Driftless Cafe, Wisco Pop once was sold on tap but now is sold for $3 a bottle. When I stopped for lunch, one customer had it poured over ice in a Mason jar and paired with a heaping bowl of homemade macaroni and cheese. The soda has become a staple at the restaurant despite its price.
“People expect it and don’t mind it,” said Samantha Skifton, a waitress at the popular cafe. “It’s really done well and is supported by the community. They do a good job.”
Ashley, 37, was born in Corpus Christi, Texas, where in high school, he played guitar and began booking bands. His gig continued after high school before he moved to Colorado in 2002 and began working in restaurants. He briefly considered getting into brewing, but instead began experimenting by making soda in his home. After meeting his wife, he moved to Madison and then Viroqua where he was a partner in Kickapoo Coffee Roasters at its founding in 2005. He sold his share in the business, operated by his brother in-law and sister in-law, in 2006.
Ashley started with small-batch ginger beers and fermented fruit bubblies and later added locally produced honey at the suggestion of his wife, Hallie. Ultimately, he couldn’t keep up with the demand from family and friends so he and Hallie launched Wisco Pop in July 2012.
They initially sold their products in kegs at restaurants and at farmers markets, which is where they met Zach Mathes, who had a pizza cart.
Wisco Pop now focuses on only bottles and Mathes is now part of the company, where soda made in 217-gallon batches on a Monday are bottled Wednesday on a $35,000, two-head filling line at 12 bottles per minute and packed into 94 cases. A single batch of cherry or ginger soda uses 200 pounds of honey.
“I think the community really represents what we’re doing as a business (and it) is not separate from how the community is identified,” Ashley said. “We’re a business that’s creating scratch products just like other people are, and I think it’s becoming mainstream. It’s popping up like craft beer.”