SOLDIERS GROVE - The Driftless Brewing Company seems to have turned a corner when it comes to production at their updated facility in Soldiers Grove–the increase is due in large part to the greatly enlarged brewing system that was installed recently.
The local brewery moved from a one-barrel system to a 15-barrel system as part of a larger remodeling and upgrading of the former food store located in the village’s Solar Town. In addition to the massively larger brewing system, the company created a ‘destination’ taproom, some very functional office space, refrigerated storage areas and more.
The four-member management team is working very hard to take their production to the next level.
With their one-barrel system, Driftless Brewing had about eight accounts including the nearby Country Gardens Lounge and the Acorn Lounge at the Old Oak Inn, which has since closed. They also sold their beer at the Kickapoo Exchange Food Co-op in Gays Mills and the Viroqua Food Co-op. The other original outlets in Viroqua included the Rooted Spoon, Driftless Café, American Legion and Dave’s Pizza-which has since closed. It seemed that everyone who could get it loved the local brew.
Additionally, the Driftless Brewing Company supplied beer at events, like the Crawford Stewardship Project’s annual ‘Love the Land’ event in Gays Mills. They also supplied beer for wedding receptions.
Well, that’s changed. Driftless Brewing Company’s business operations director Cynthia Olmstead shocked herself as she counted up the accounts last week. Driftless Beer is now sold to 96 accounts in 11 counties. The beer is distributed by General Beverage and the appetite appears insatiable.
Some of the customers now include Woodman’s, Festival Foods and a whole host of restaurants.
In addition to Olmstead, the business operations director, the four-member management team includes the owners of the business, Michael Varnes-Epstein and Christopher Balistreri, and former part-time worker Scott Noe. These four people have gotten very busy in a hurry. With the exception of Eli Mandel’s part-time help in the taproom on Fridays and Saturdays, it’s just the four of them.
Michael Varnes-Epstein functions as the team’s brewery technician–constantly connecting the process of brewery’s many parts. Scott Noe is probably best titled as the production manager and assistant brewer, while Chris Balistreri is the head brewer. However, as you might imagine, the titles don’t begin to tell the story of what each of these four people must now due in the expanded operation. To be completely accurate, each person would probably have to have four to ten titles.
In addition to the massive increase in production, the company has also opened its ‘destination’ taproom on Fridays and Saturdays. Luckily, Olmstead worked to get some state grant money to help hire Eli Mandel to work at the taproom. This has greatly helped the overworked four of the management team.
“He’s saved our lives,” Cynthia said of Eli’s help in the taproom.
When you talk to the team members, you can see they are happy with the success. Yet you can also sense, it’s all new and pretty hard for each of them to believe at times.
Varnes-Epstein seems to function as the management team’s utility player–filling in everywhere he’s needed. He laughed a little when he was reminded that the original idea he and Chris Balistreri pursued 10 or more years ago was to create a brewing club.
“It’s just gotten to be a bigger club,” Michael said with a chuckle. “Actually, it’s a viable business. That was our vision. We planned and worked for this to happen. We’re still visioning–it doesn’t stop. We’re figuring it out every day–growing and still envisioning what we’re creating.”
Scott Noe went from working sporadically five years ago to working steady part time to now working ‘more than full-time’ and becoming part of the management team. The production manager still remembers the overwhelming feeling of being left with the large steel tanks and more sophisticated equipment and wondering if he could really make it work.
However, Noe got a lot of mentoring in bigger brewing going into the expansion from a friend who had spent 18 years in a variety of operations brewing beer. He also did a lot of research and things did work out.
Help from others is essential to the success of the operation. Both Chris and Cynthia noted that other craft brewers are always ready to help or offer assistance if it’s needed.
There’s kind of the craft brewers against the big guys mentality it would seem. At one point, Chris referred to his fellow craft brewers as “my brothers and sisters.”
And it’s not the support of other brewers and technical assistance that the team at Driftless Brewery is referencing.
“We’ve had so much support from so many people–including the Village of Soldiers Grove,” Cynthia was quick to point out.
So, the Driftless Brewing Company currently brews six core beers. These beers include Local Buzz, Dirt, Kick Axe Pale Ale, Rolling Ground India Pale Ale, Cow Cult and Saison de Jardin. This is what is now sold at the 96 accounts either in bottles or kegs.
Each beer is unique. Local Buzz is blonde ale described as golden and clean with a honey-kissed finish. Dirt is brown ale, described as a smooth malty American Brown with notes of chocolate, caramel and light roast and with just enough flowery hops to lend balance. Kick Axe Pale Ale, the company's biggest seller, is described as “a tribute to the Kickapoo and Bad Axe Rivers that carve our region.” Kick Axe presents floral candied hops that meander into a bready malt finish. Rolling Ground India Pale Ale is described as layers of citrus, pine and floral aromas that adorn this showcase of Midwest-grown Cascade, Centennial and Chinook hops. Cow Cult, a milk stout, is made from locally sourced organic malt, hops and lactose powder. The ingredients are crafted to create this velvety black elixir with notes of creamy roasted cocoa.
One thing that permeates the Driftless Brewing Company is their commitment to local sourcing and the local economy. Both the hops and malt tend to come from southern Wisconsin. The massive brewery equipment installed in the past year was built in Wisconsin and it goes on and on. After the beer is brewed, the spent grain is provided to local farmers to use as feed supplement to livestock.
In addition to the core beers, Driftless Brewing still makes one-barrel specialty batches that are sold only in the taproom–some might be barrel-aged. While Cynthia likes to call it the ‘destination taproom,’ Chris, the head brewer, is fond of referring to it as an ‘educational taproom.’ Maybe they’re both right it's a destination for those, who enjoy beer and they’ll probably learn something about beer while they’re at the taproom.
While everyone on the management team is working extremely hard to make the company a success, it’s head brewer Chris Balistreri, who probably most traces the brewery back to its origin.
The brewer remembers his love of German and Belgian beers as a very young man. He also recalls his first home brewing experience in late 1987.
Returning to Wisconsin from California, a longtime friend attending UW-Madison challenged Balistreri to brew some beer.
“You love beer so much why don't you brew your own?’ his friend asked.
Chris Balistreri accepted the challenge. He read Charlie Papazian’s groundbreaking book ‘The Art of the Home Brewing,’ purchased the ingredients to brew his first simple beer–Righteous Real Ale, and it turned out.
“I wasn’t totally sure of what would happen, but then I could see it works,” Balistreri remembered.
“It was a real simple beer,” the brewer said. “The availability of craft beer ingredients was pretty rudimentary.”
Since then there’s been a lot of water over the dam or under the bridge and most importantly there’s been a lot of beer coming out of the spigot.
Things grew from there for Balistreri and lots of others. There are now, tens of thousands of craft brewers in the United States. Nevertheless, craft-brewed beer still accounts for less than 20 percent of the total beer market.
The brewery club that Chris Balistreri and Michael Varnes-Epstein had tried to start with Jack Knowles on his farm in Excelsior was morphing into a small business. Around 2010, the three were brewing beer a half barrel at a time.
In 2011, Balistreri attended the Master Brewers Association of America Brewing and Malt Science Course in America. He received a certificate and kept making beer.
Michael took some time off for a trip to Africa and Jack got more involved in his other business. Chris kept brewing.
Then, in 2014, Chris and Michael bought out Jack and moved the operation to the old supermarket in Soldiers Grove. From there, they took the steps to became a state- and federal-licensed brewery. They expanded production from a half barrel to a barrel.
“We went from a dimple to thimble in the world of beer,” Balistreri says of their expansion and move. Their first beer was called Local Buzz–it’s still one of the brewery’s core beers.
Cynthia Olmstead joined the business in 2013 and brought some business skill sets that were very important. She was instrumental in the expansion–coordinating funding from five sources and serving as the general contractor for the construction.
Olmstead currently handles oversight of distribution, finances, marketing, media relations and personnel.
Scott Noe had worked in production with Chris and Michael part time, but that began to change as the business developed–leading to his current full-time responsibilities.
By 2018, the 15-barrel system was being installed and by January the Driftless Brewing Company was up and running with the new system.The Driftless Brewing Company Taproom is open from 3 to 9 p.m. on Friday and 1 to 9 p.m. on Saturday. The brewery and adjoining taproom are located in the former supermarket space in Solar Town adjacent to the Soldiers Grove Library and directly across Highway 61 from the Campbell’s One Stop. A grand opening event is being planned for Saturday, July 20–stay tuned for more details.