It’s tough out there for a craft brewer. And, in a twist, that’s good news for us.
The latest out-of-state arrival on Wisconsin beer shelves is the eminently quirky but entirely excellent Short’s Brewing, which until recently had been to Michigan what New Glarus Brewing was to Wisconsin.
New Glarus has been around twice as long as Short’s and is five times bigger, but they shared a rigorously enforced and loudly proclaimed devotion to their home states. If you’re not in Wisconsin, you can’t buy New Glarus beer. Outside Michigan? No Short’s for you. (Mostly.)
This exclusivity has been a key part of these breweries’ identities in recent years — New Glarus since it pulled out of Illinois in 2003 and Short’s since its off-the-wall beers and well-executed classics inspired Michiganders to look up Bellaire on Google Maps sometime after its founding in 2004.
So when Short’s announced this February that it would begin selling beer in first Pennsylvania, then Illinois and, finally, last month Wisconsin, some answers were in order. Joe Short, the brewery’s curly mustachioed founder, took the change in philosophy so seriously that he hand-wrote a letter explaining the decision to its Michigan fans.
“We championed the Michigan-only thing for so long that I kind of had to take a couple of steps back and think about everything — all of the employees, the future of the industry, and give everyone a heartfelt explanation of why we’re doing what we’re doing,” he said later this winter in a candid company podcast.
The short version? Short’s overreached in expanding its brewing capacity.
Joe Short and other company executives said in the podcast that the intent in 2009 — after building out a brewery in Elk Rapids, not far from Short’s hometown of Bellaire — was always to remain Michigan-only. Short’s saw 25 percent sales growth in Michigan in 2015, but that was below company goals, and, more worrisome, production forecasts lagged further in the second half of year.
That left a brewery that can make about 52,000 barrels of beer a year running at about 80 percent capacity, due, Short said, to robust competition from Michigan breweries and those out of state: “We’re one of the first breweries to say, hey, we’re experiencing some saturation in our market.”
The addition of out-of-state markets, then, would allow Short’s to utilize that excess capacity, cashing in on a reputation for interesting and quality beer that had crossed state lines even if the beer hadn’t. It wasn’t about moving enough units to build another or bigger brewery, it was about sustaining what was already in place and in motion without “selling out.”
“We had to evaluate the marketplace and the changing craft beer scene and evolve so we could stay true to our core belief and our core mission, which is to stay fiercely independent, and not to have any outside owners and not to sell out and to keep making the best beer possible and get the beer to the people who love it,” Short said.
Later in the podcast he evoked Deb and Dan Carey’s “Only in Wisconsin” paradigm: “I would have loved to remain in the spirit of a New Glarus model, but times are a-changin’, the industry is changing ... We have to evolve and move as necessary.”
Wisconsin was the last of three new markets added by Short’s, and “the company has no immediate plans to add any additional states to their beer footprint at this time,” it said in its announcement.
The windfall for Wisconsin at the outset includes five year-round beers and one seasonal, as well as a handful of offerings from the company’s Starcut Ciders brand.
Short’s portfolio includes more than 30 beers planned for limited release this year, but the team on the podcast hinted most of those would be held back in Michigan to meet demand for them there. Time will tell how much of those we’ll see here.
While I really like the year-round India pale ale Huma Lupa Licious, the beer to showcase in Short’s introduction to Wisconsin is a no-brainer. It’s pure Michigan and pure Short’s.
Style: Fruit rye beer
Brewed by: Short’s Brewing in Elk Rapids, Michigan, due east from Door County on Grand Traverse Bay.
What it’s like: Soft Parade is a different animal from both of Michigan’s and Wisconsin’s best-known fruit beers. It’s less sweet than Founders’ Rubaeus, and not sour like New Glarus’ Serendipity or Raspberry Tart. And it’s bigger and burlier than all of them.
Where, how much: If a Madison bottle shop has one Short’s, it might be Huma Lupa Licious, but if it has two, chances are Soft Parade will be in that mix. My six-pack was $11 at Trixie’s Liquor.
The beer: Soft Parade — the name is a reference to the Doors album — pours the beautiful mauve you might expect from a beer that’s made with pureed strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and blackberries, and the aroma is all of that bouquet of Michigan bounty.
The problem I often have with fruit beers — they become jammy, unbalanced messes — is a distant memory in Soft Parade. Critically, the berries are added before fermentation is complete, so the ale yeast chews up some of their sugars, leaving behind only modest sweetness but a lot of the fruity flavor essence. The piquant rye adds quite a bit to the intrigue, and Soft Parade finishes with a clean, refreshing dryness and a gentle but lingering bitterness that reminds you you’re drinking beer. For a beer conceived to appeal to wine drinkers, I sure do like Soft Parade.
Booze factor: Though its label identifies it as a “high-gravity ale,” Soft Parade weighs in at 7.5 percent ABV — much higher than it tastes, and quite a bit higher than most fruit beer peers, but about on par with a hearty IPA.
The buzz: Sharp Beer Baron observers might remember that I wrote about a Short’s beer in August 2012, when a few of its offerings briefly appeared in Madison around the Great Taste of the Midwest. Brewers who attend the festival need to be licensed to sell beer in Wisconsin, and with that hurdle cleared, Short’s decided to send a small amount of beer into local distribution as well.
More Short’s beer followed in subsequent Augusts, which seems now — and, honestly, did a bit then — like a trial balloon for outside-Michigan distribution, despite the company line. Beer is a passion for many of us, but it’s also a business, and brewers would be foolish not to constantly re-evaluate strategy as home markets become increasingly competitive, as Short’s did.
And if, for Wisconsin, that means a sixer of Soft Parade or Bellaire Brown or Huma every once in a while, that seems like a pretty good deal all around.
Bottom line: 4 stars (out of five)