POTOSI — For almost three decades after Potosi Brewing Co. closed in 1972, the brewery’s buildings on South Main Street in Potosi sat empty.
Visitors would wonder whether anything could be done with the crumbling buildings. Older visitors would remember drinking Good Old Potosi and Holiday beer, their taste fading into their memories.
Today, after $7.5 million in renovations, the new Potosi Brewing Co. attracts visitors from across the U.S. The company sells much less beer than in its heyday, but appropriately as one of the state’s microbreweries.
The restaurant in the brewery building features tables made from old wooden beer barrels. The bar took more than 2,000 man-hours of work for Gary David, whose purchase of fire-gutted bottling buildings started the brewery’s comeback.
“What’s even more fun is exceeding people’s expectations,” said Greg Larsen, the brewery’s executive director since 2009. “There’s a pretty significant wow factor, and from my perspective that makes you feel good.”
Potosi Brewing Co. is hosting the fourth annual Brewfest at the Holiday Gardens Event Center Saturday from 1 to 5 p.m. The event will feature Potosi and other craft brewers, plus wineries, specialty meats and cheeses, and live music. More information is available at www.potosibrewery.com.
The rebirth of the Potosi Brewery is a story of the revitalization of a historic part of southwest Wisconsin. It also is a symbol of the growth of specialty foods generally and microbreweries specifically in Wisconsin.
The Potosi Brewery sells almost 6,000 barrels of beer each year, making it eighth in volume among Wisconsin craft breweries. The top two microbrewers in Wisconsin are New Glarus Brewery and Capital Brewery in Middleton.
“We’re just like any other high-quality craft brewery,” said Larsen, who came to the brewery after working for Dick’s Supermarkets. “We’re nowhere near New Glarus or Capital Brewery for that matter [in size]. We have grown quickly compared to other brands the last two or three years.”
In the days before refrigerated trucks, nearly every small town of any size had a brewery. Platteville had the Platteville Brewery and the List Brewery. Mineral Point had Mineral Spring Products. Cassville had the Cassville Brewery. Dodgeville, Highland, Muscoda, Prairie du Chien, Shullsburg and Wiota once had breweries.
Gabriel Hall and John Albrecht started the brewery in 1852, but mass production began after Adam Schumacher purchased the brewery in 1886. The original Potosi Brewery once was the fifth largest brewer in the U.S., selling Good Old Potosi, Holiday, Holiday Genuine Draft, Holiday Bock, Potosi Lager, Potosi Pale, Potosi Pilsner, Potosi Pure Malt, Potosi Export, Garten Bräu, Alpen Bräu, Alpine, Our Beer, Augsburger, Van Merritt, Peerless, and the nonalcoholic Wisconsin Supreme “cereal beverage” among its more than 40 labels.
Beer was brewed on the west side of South Main Street, then piped over the street to the bottling plant on the other side. A cave in the brewing building was used to keep beer cool. Photos in the museum and on the company’s website show horses pulling sleighs up to the building.
“I think back in the day there was this sense of pride with Potosi being that small community and distributing as wide as it was,” said Larsen.
The original brewery closed in 1972. “The owner’s family didn’t want to grow the business anymore,” which would have required “millions of dollars,” said Larsen.
The buildings sat vacant and decaying for more than two decades. A 1995 fire destroyed most of the bottling buildings.
At the same time, southwest Wisconsin beer drinkers kept Potosi and Holiday beer bottles, cans, mugs, signs and other memorabilia in basements, garages and sheds.
In 1995, Potosi native Gary David purchased the bottling buildings for the cost of their back taxes and then spent three years restoring them. Then in 1999, a community meeting showed interest in reviving the brewery. The nonprofit Potosi Brewery Foundation was formed in 2000.
“Our business model is very similar to Newman’s Own,” formed by actor Paul Newman to sell salad dressing and lemonade with the profits going to charity, said Larsen. “In essence, all you drink goes to charity … a lot of liquid donations.”
The brewery has gotten more than 5,000 man-hours of volunteer work, including from its 18-member foundation board of directors.
“It goes right back to sweat equity,” said Larsen. “It’s just astounding what things the village has done. We would not be open without them, period.”
Larsen estimates the brewery has $4.8 million of annual economic impact in the Potosi area. Across the street from the new brewery complex is the Holiday Gardens Event Center, which hosted an event during the Alice in Dairyland finals in May; the Whispering Bluffs Winery; and Gary David’s Woodworking and Design.
The brewery effort got a huge boost when the American Breweriana Association chose Potosi in 2004 as the site for its National Brewery Museum, instead of more seemingly natural choices such as Milwaukee, St. Louis or the state of Oregon, credited as where microbrewing began. The ABA has a long-term lease with the brewery to host the museum.
“This is a tourist destination, and we get people from all 50 states [and] many foreign countries,” said Larsen, adding that UW–Platteville “plays a key role in bringing in guests.
“You could probably have gobs more visitors, but this is really the essence of the small community.”
Beer brands brewed by the two major brands — AmBev, which owns Anheuser–Busch, and MillerCoors — comprise about 80 percent of the beer market. That leaves smaller brewers to sell to 10 to 15 percent of the market, and microbrewers to reach the rest.
“There’s a lot more rotation [in microbrewed beers] that we’re seeing, and that’s good, because it gives choices,” said Larsen. “We think people are not necessarily drinking more, but better.”
The brewery sells four year-round labels — Good Old Potosi, a golden ale; Potosi Pure Malt Cave Ale, an amber beer; Snake Hollow India Pale Ale; and Potosi Czech Style Pilsener, which earned the Beer of the Year award from Madison’s Isthmus newspaper. Potosi rotates four seasonal beers — Steamboat Shandy, a summer beer with lemon flavor; Gandy Dancer Porter, Weestein Wit, a white beer; and Potosi Fiddler Oatmeal Stout.
And then brewmaster Steve Buszka, about whom Larsen said, “We really feel like we hit the jackpot when we got him,” gets creative with such beers as Potosi Pumpkin Ale, Potosi Tangerine IPA, and Potosi ESB, the letters standing for Extra Special Bitter.
In the cooling cave sits a beer aging for six months in rye whiskey barrels, Templeton Slugger Oatmeal Stout, named for the reported favorite whiskey of Al Capone. Potosi formerly sold a Scotch ale aged for 18 months in brandy barrels. Templeton Slugger sells for $199 per quarter-barrel.
“It’s a minimum of 24 to 27 days start to finish,” said Buszka. “We’re trying to plan at least six to eight weeks in the future.”
“Steve’s got a catalog that tall,” said Larsen. “There’s nothing he can’t make that’s not exceptional.”
Beer in bottles is brewed at Point Brewery in Stevens Point. The Potosi brewery brews draft beer.
“Business is real good,” said Larsen. “But by no means are we out of the woods. You can see the parking lot full, but we don’t have outside investors. It’s going to take time to service our debt.”
The museum features memorabilia of not just Potosi’s beers, but other Wisconsin breweries. The museum has an engraving of what is listed as the “Plattville Brewery,” as well as a box that says “Platteville Brewrey Inc,” available by telephoning 202. The museum sells a CD of beer radio commercials and a DVD of beer TV commercials.
In addition to whatever new beer Buszka cooks up, Potosi is planning to roll out a Potosi Main Street label, commemorating Potosi’s having the world’s largest main street.