Years ago, when Lakefront Brewery founder and president Russ Klisch was thinking about how to do more of the one-off beers that were becoming all the rage among craft drinkers, he noticed something about these offerings: They weren’t that different from the brewery’s other beers.
“A lot of breweries, the beers or styles they chose went to one personality,” Klisch said. “You can tell one person’s doing them all. What better way around that than to have a different person design each beer?”
That epiphany was the foundational idea of Lakefront’s My Turn series, which became a reality in 2012. It lets employees from all parts of the brewery’s operations, from head brewer to marketing manager to bottling line worker, style a beer of their own choosing.
My Turn has long been one of my favorite things about Wisconsin beer, first, because it’s the brewery equivalent of the coolest boss. It’s nice when breweries treat their employees well.
But foremost, My Turn also been a source of dozens of interesting new beers that I don’t see Lakefront making otherwise, stretching its portfolio in ways that have helped keep one of the oldest craft brewers in the state relevant during a time when the customer’s demand for new products is insatiable. My Turn has given us Lakefront’s first imperial IPA, a couple of souped-up doppelbocks, two (consecutive) very nice Belgian styles, a chai stout and a dark Mexican lager that was one of the most crushable beers the brewery has ever made.
Employees’ Turns come up four a year in order of seniority, though they may be shuffled slightly to match the season. The current My Turn, a rich doppelbock authored by bookkeeper Wendy Testin, was due for a July release but was pushed back to this month, allowing the heavy beer to occupy the fourth quarter and the light Mexican ale Arturo to sell through the summer months.
The employee picks a style and works with head brewer Luther Paul (author of My Turn No. 3) to fine-tune it. Sometimes the employee may not know exactly what they want to make but will work with Paul to pick something based on the flavors, weight and other attributes they want.
Klisch notes most of the people who choose to work for a craft brewery are into craft beer: “Not everyone here has the technical expertise of formulating beer, but they have the expertise in sampling,” he said. “They know what they like.”
But there are some employees who come to appreciate craft beer on the job. Lakefront production supervisor Terrance Toliver, whose Turn came up No. 6 in 2013, was a Bud Light guy before easing into craft beer while working at Lakefront. With some guidance from Paul, Toliver authored a kölsch well suited to his easy-drinking taste — a few years before the style exploded in popularity for the same reason.
No employee has had a My Turn idea shot down, Klisch said, and the only thing explicitly off the table is barrel-aging, due to production time and cost. Testin’s beer, inspired by a vanilla-bourbon beer she sampled at the Great American Beer Festival two years ago, achieved bourbon barrel-aging character by aging for a much shorter period with bourbon-soaked oak in the tank.
The employee also gets to design the label within the My Turn template — mostly picking colors and patterns. Testin’s black-and-gold label breaks new ground for the series by using (costly, she noted) gold foil accents.
Turners also can take part in brewing and packaging the beer if they wish. Testin went all in on her Turn, halting her work on spreadsheets and invoices to assist at the brew kettle in June and packing six-packs of Wendy into cases on bottling day last month.
That, she said, was the “aha” moment. “You see your name on all these bottles and all this packaging,” Testin said. “It’s like wow, it’s really actually happening. It’s my beer!”
The final honor comes as the beer hits the market: a release party, again designed by the employee, from venue to festivities. For Testin, who has never been married, it was the party of a lifetime, complete with live music, taco bar and a special firkin of Wendy infused with chocolate and spices. She decorated tables to match the beer’s label: black-and-gold daisies in beer bottles, black Hershey’s Kisses and gold-wrapped chocolate coins in a nod to her job.
Testin brings a uniquely Milwaukee bonafide to her career in the beer bookkeeping business. Her grandmother was a Gettelman, born in a house in the family’s brewery complex in 1901, 60 years before the maker of $1,000 Beer and Milwaukee’s Best was swallowed up by Miller Brewing. Testin’s first job out of high school was at Miller, where she’d work for 25 years before joining Lakefront in 2013.
Let’s take a look at how her Turn turned out.
My Turn: Wendy
Style: Doppelbock with vanilla and bourbon oak
Brewed by: Lakefront Brewery, Milwaukee
What it’s like: A bourbon barrel doppelbock that Lakefront had planned to release early this year was scuttled when it soured. That beer now lives only in the imagination, but I imagine it would taste a bit like Wendy.
Where, how much: Wendy is expected to debut in the Madison market next week, with six-packs around $13. Lakefront made 150 barrels and expects that to last through the end of the year, but I’m not expecting to see it on shelves come December.
The beer: Wendy pours a gorgeous amber with an aroma dominated by toasty malt and vanilla. It unleashes a silky sweetness on the front of the palate, with moderate but not overpowering vanilla character and oak accents. It’s tough to tell if that toasty note is from the wood it was aged with or the malt that resembles those you’d find in a nice Oktoberfest beer or Vienna lager. It’s delicious either way. A minor quibble: The bourbon character is noticeable, but it seems to be less soaked through the essence of the beer than you find with true barrel-aged beers.
Booze factor: Wendy’s 9 percent ABV packs a punch. It’s on the big side for a doppelbock but on the lighter side for a beer with bourbon in its description.
The buzz: I’ve always been a little surprised that no My Turn beer has shown back up in Lakefront’s portfolio as a regular or seasonal offering. Klisch said the idea has been discussed but never quite gotten over the hump.
Other internal banter about My Turn has included a mixed 12-pack with three or four favorites, perhaps selected by an online vote. That’s some democracy I could get behind.
Bottom line: 4 stars (out of five)
[Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect that Wendy is expected to be released in Madison next week.]