When I began hearing whispers of the news back in May, it just made so much sense.
Lake Louie Brewing of Arena would be acquired by Wisconsin Brewing Co. in Verona, with the deal to close July 1.
These are two breweries that already had close ties. Lake Louie owner and brewmaster Tom Porter and Wisconsin Brewing part-owner and brewmaster Kirby Nelson have been friends for going on 20 years. Porter has told me a couple of times through the years that Nelson was instrumental to Lake Louie’s success, whether it be diagnosing a problem in the brewhouse or helping out when he was short a sack of malt.
A bit of context that cannot be ignored is Porter’s recent — and so far successful — bout with cancer.
The terms of the transaction weren’t disclosed, but this has the look of a favor to an old friend who needed one, a pathway to a retirement that seemed uncertain if Porter had stuck to it on his own.
But my view on this deal is that these are two breweries that need one another from a business perspective.
Wisconsin Brewing opened in 2013 with a leadership team that bolted from Capital Brewery and built a humongous facility with an 80-barrel brewhouse and a plan to make 250,000 barrels of beer within a few years. It was startlingly audacious, building that big of a brewery with nothing but Capital as proof-of-concept.
And I think that audacity (some would call it arrogance) has hamstrung WBC since. I’ve always felt that its beer is being pushed — by the brewery, by its distributors — more than it’s being pulled by consumer demand.
The beer has been anywhere from fine to very good; I don’t think that’s the problem. But aside from a fantastic patio and the very cool Campus Craft Brewery in which UW-Madison students design a beer that WBC releases, it seems like a brand that not enough people care about.
I see Lake Louie as the complete opposite: a brewery built on a shoestring with a large and enthusiastic following (built over nearly 20 years vs. WBC’s six). It also has Warped Speed, a flagship beer that has retained brand loyalty even in today’s promiscuous beer times. It’s a landmark beer, particularly here in the Madison area.
But it’s been tough going for Lake Louie lately. It made about 4,800 barrels of beer in 2015, according to numbers from the state Department of Revenue, and about 3,400 last year — a drop of more than 30%.
Barry Adams’ story breaking the WBC-Lake Louie news in May noted that even last year’s figure was reached without the benefit of any sales or marketing team. Lake Louie used to have sales and marketing people, but apparently it had been relying on its distributors to sell its beer lately. Those distributor reps have hundreds of brands to push, and maybe a beer that sells itself like Warped Speed will do OK, but other beers can get lost in the portfolio.
You can probably start to see the alignment here: A company good at pushing its product and with a ton of capacity (WBC is also adding equipment this year) and a company with a great product that doesn’t even have anybody to push it.
I didn’t realize just how bad it had gotten for Lake Louie outside of the Madison market until I went out looking for a Lake Louie beer to write about for this column. I live in the Milwaukee area now, and I thought Tommy’s Porter would be a good choice, as an excellent year-round beer that I haven’t reviewed before.
I struck out at four major bottle shops, so I’m guessing it isn’t carried by any bottle shop in the state’s largest metro area. My regular bottle shop here, meanwhile, carries three Wisconsin Brewing beers but only Warped Speed from Lake Louie.
So here we are: This week’s beer and a perfect illustration of why this deal happened.
Warped Speed Scotch Ale
What it’s like: Around here, Warped Speed is the scotch ale other scotch ales are compared to, vs. vice versa. The best comp nationally might be a relative newcomer to Wisconsin: 90 Schilling Ale from Odell Brewing in Colorado.
How much: The pricing on Lake Louie’s beers is some of the best in local craft, usually $8-$9 a six-pack.
Booze factor: Warped Speed’s name is a reference to how quickly you can get wobbly if you drink it more quickly than its 6.9% ABV demands.
Up close: Warped Speed is a beer that looks like a craft beer: deep chestnut brown, with ruby blazes when light strikes it just so. The nose speaks of caramel, toast and a hint of earthy hops.
With a sip that malty caramel character envelops the palate, but it’s not an overly sweet beer thanks to what I imagine must be generous hopping. The earthy hop character presents a little on the back end, with a caramel-toast flavor running the finish.
Mix in a medium-full, soft body and you’ve got yourself a Wisconsin hall-of-fame beer that should be the centerpiece of Wisconsin Brewing’s beer strategy.
Bottom line: 4½ stars (out of five)