It’s beer, but it’s not just beer. It’s an experience—a very local experience meant to be cherished and shared.
So say the owners of the Driftless Brewing Company, Chris Balistreri and Michael Varnes-Epstein, who use words such a craft and artisanal to describe their method of brewing.
“Craft beer is a savored beer,” described Varnes-Epstein. “You have it with meals, you share it with someone, like a good cheese.”
The two, who first began making beer together in September 2009, recently purchased the former grocery store in Soldiers Grove.
They have many plans for the brewery they are building, but central to those plans is a collection of beers unique to the region, inspired by the landscape and the ingredients, which they are committed to sourcing as locally as possible, all within Wisconsin.
“Ingredients create a certain sense of terroire, the French term for the flavor of a place,” Balistreri explained. “A cascade hop can be grown in my backyard as opposed to Michael’s backyard. We could grow them at different elevations, different soils, and they are going to have different flavors profiles.”
“Each beer that Michael and I produce, we are thinking about what our choice of ingredients are,” Balistreri continued. “To a certain degree, we have tied our own hands in that we are sourcing directly within the state. We don’t want German hops and German malt to make German beer. We don’t want English hops and English malt to make English-style beer. We feel that we can do a really good job with what we have available here.”
The decision to source locally is ultimately freeing, according to Varnes-Epstein, who said the local ingredients and the commitment to local, high-quality sources for their ingredients will ultimately distinguish their product.
“I believe this, some people would disagree, but if your drinking one of the major beers on the market, it’s not necessarily for flavor,” Varnes-Epstein said. “It has a flavor, but your not going to drink it and go wow. It’s not going to stop you to savor it.”
He likens their product more to fine cheese and wines, to fermented foods rich in flavor and complexity.
“If you eat something, you will know the difference between something of quality and something that is not,” Varnes-Epstein continued. “Just like fine wine and fine cheeses, there is a language, an education that helps you enjoy it and share it. Even if people don’t know all the ingredients and the characteristic of each ingredient, what they do know is that when they taste something with flavor, they are going to say ‘Wow, that’s really good.’ So what’s good about it? ‘Well, I get this roasty, chocolately taste in it and it’s a little bitter, but it doesn’t last real long, and I like that’.”
“The language of beer is the language of food,” said Balistreri. “As we sit here today and eat, it’s all the same thing - sweet, salty, bitter, some of the unknowns, like fat and umami, those are the flavors that we all can discern at varying thresholds. All of our palates are little bit different.”
The brewery has four beers they make on a regular basis: Local Buzz Golden Ale, Dirt Brown Ale, Kick-Axe Pale Ale, and Hop Goddess.
Asked to describe these beers to get a taste of craft beer lingo in action, Balistreri happily provided product descriptions off the cuff:
“Local Buzz Golden honey ale is a real nice soft beer. That’s the whole purpose of it is to keep something real drinkable, to please any palate. It pairs wells with foods, lighter foods, and great in the summertime. We use honey which ferments out completely. What that does to beer is dry it up a little bit so you get a crisp mouth feel, something that will make you want another one, it’s not overly hopped. You get some nice soft notes of honey in the finish, a real sparkle to it.
“The Dirt Brown Ale, we use a bunch of roasted malts and chocolate malts in it and so you do get that, but we keep the alcohol content and keep the special malts down, so that you it’s smooth, balanced, with a creamy texture.
“Kick-Axe Pale Ale, that falls in the family of pale ales, and ours is more of a west coast version. So it’s a little higher in alcohol content, around six percent. We hop it with local cascade hops. They have citrusy, grapefruit notes and a just little pine in it.
“Hop Goddess is a high version of a pale ale. Tons of hops. Lots of malt. Higher alcohol content. We use all the sea hops, which would be Cascade, Chinook, Centennial, so you get all these fun, resinous, floral aromas and flavors.”
All of their beers are ales, a category that Balistreri says covers the majority of craft beers.
“There are two families of beer, the lagers and the ales,” Balistreri said. “Ales encompass almost all beers. They have a warmer, faster fermentation. Ale yeast is a bottom fermenting yeast. It can be done in 14 days. It includes the stouts, porters, Weiss, and Belgian-style beers.”
Lagers and pilsners are cold fermented, top feeding beers that can take months before they are ready to package.
“But when you’re making a million gallons at a time, that doesn’t matter as much” Balistreri added.
Within the category of ales they have chosen to create in, Balistreri and Varnes-Epstein continue to experiment with ingredients and flavors.
“We did a Belgian about a year and a half ago – ‘Driftless Winter Night’ - and we used currants from Ricardo Jahnke,” Balistreri said. “I literally crushed them with my hands - I washed my hands first - but I crushed them so that the juice would mix into the beer. I added those right into the fermenter and let them sit for two weeks.”
The product was so good, the two are still hoarding a couple of bottles.
“You can add wood curls, chocolate, coffee, lemon peel, orange peel, cinnamon, dried fruit,” Balistreri continued. “Some ingredients are brewed right into the body of the beer during the fermentation – pumpkin, rice, wheat.”
The heaviness of the beer is the result of its original gravity, according to Balistreri. The original gravity is the ratio of sugar content to water when you begin fermentation. That affects how much residual sugar is left in the beer and its alcohol content when finished.
The two men see plenty of opportunity for their business to succeed and to help the local economy.
“We have 2,700 breweries and beer pubs right now licensed in the country and growing, with the potential of another 2,000 in the next four or five years coming on board,” Balistreri noted. “So, it sounds like it might be a crowded field, but I really think it’s more like it used to be like. There used to be a brewery, butcher, baker in every community and in the cities many of each.”
Wisconsin had over 300 breweries in 1900. Now they have around 80. But the strength of Wisconsin for brewing still exists in its water and burgeoning hops industries.
“We see the need for jobs in our state and in our area.” Balistreri continued. “One way to help that become a reality is to support local producers. All of our malt is from Briess Malting in Chilton. Hops are now growing in Wisconsin again. They are as every bit as good as the hops growing anywhere else in the world.”
“We want to contribute to the local economy, build demand for local hops,” Varnes-Epstein added. “That’s local economy, local agriculture. So just like Sonoma valley and Napa Valley for wine or Germany for different flavors of beers that people try to recreate, we’ll create a Driftless taste that people will say ‘I’m in California, so how do I get Wisconsin hops and Wisconsin malt because I want to recreate the Driftless taste?’”
Industries that were disappearing as antiquated have begun to have a resurgence as a direct result of the craft brewing and distilling, according to Balistreri who pointed to coppering, the making of barrels. Demand for new barrels for distilleries and used barrels in beer making have resulted in that trade beginning to make a comeback after virtually disappearing.
More immediately, their plans are focused on the realities of a young brewery. Having demand outgrow their ability to supply their beer, they have purchased a building into which they must grow in order to succeed.
The acquisition of loans is the next step, said Balistreri.
“A brewery is a pretty expensive thing to put together,” Balistreri said. “It’s a lot of stainless steel. A brewhouse itself – the boil kettle, mash kettle, hot liquor tank, pumps – all kinds of different things that come into play – coolers... They are pretty intensive expense wise, as far as a food processing operation goes.”
The two expect to have their starter system in place within three weeks, with permits in place so they can restart production within 45 days with a pilot system. But plans, if financing comes together, lead to a 15-barrel system that will enable them to produce the volume necessary to turn a profit.
“We knew if we were going to do this, we couldn’t do it out of a small building or a barn, we had to move into something where we could really grow the business,” Balistreri said. “The industry says that you need to have a 7-barrel or bigger system just to break even, so we know that is a pretty good place to start. The whole thing is the business has to be profitable or the business doesn’t stay around. The beer industry, like it or not, is predicated on cranking enough beer, volume.
“We are not trying to sell as cheap a commodity as we can possibly produce in thirty-packs,” Balistreri explained. “What we want to do is four-packs and six-packs. That is really indicative that we want something that can be shared, that we are really thinking about quality over quantity.
“We envision a, in likelihood, a Saturday tour. Then when the tour ends, we open up the sample room for those who came on the tour, but for the general public too,” Balistreri continued. “Bring back your half-gallon jugs, known as growlers, and we’ll fill those at a discounted price and stay and enjoy a glass at a little cheaper price.”
“And we will also be working in different events, some of which will be education events,” Varnes Epstein added. “For example, in a tasting event is how to taste, what to look for, what kind of glass to use, how to clean the glass, how to pour the beer, because each one of those helps to bring out the very best flavor in those beers and helps you enjoy drinking them in a more thoughtful way.”
The two hope to get a variance to install a small beer-garden with flowers and tables outside the entrance to the building.
“I think a big part of our job is communication and education about what we are doing and the values we bring to it,’ Varnes-Epstein said. “So, we are starting a new business and a lot of people may not understand the difference between Budweiser beer and out beer, a craft beer. We want people to feel free to talk to directly to us, to understand our product. We hope to see people be responsible in their use and to encourage that.”
“And we need to be thinking about things like MAD mothers,” Balistreri added. “They make some really valid points. Drunk driving is deplorable. Reckless use of alcohol that leads to destruction of individuals, people, property is wrong. That’s where we get into what Michael is talking about—communication is an important part of what we have to do.”
The venture is pushing both men to develop new skills and has brought a third player into the mix, Cynthia Olmstead, as an operations manager.
“We have all been working together for about six months now,” Olmstead said. “My role is primarily in financing and fundraising right now. What is kind of cool about this whole process is the local support. It has been tremendous. Other businesses have been very supportive and see what this business can do for them and the community.”
The three hope that working together they can help bring people to the area and act as a sort of gateway to Soldiers Grove, introducing visitors to what the village and surrounding area has to offer.
And someday, the two men hope to create jobs directly by being able to hire help. Until then, it’s a full-time plus job that neither seems to mind. It’s a passionate interest that they love to share.
And as Varnes-Epstein, who has been a stay-at-home, homeschooling, homesteading dad for many years noted, “It was well timed—my kids are getting older and they are in public school now and one is going off to college soon. So that leaves more time and a different direction for my life.”
For some history of Wisconsin breweries, see http://www.swnews4u.com/section/161/article/20444/.