Amber: Hi, I’m Amber Ambrose and this is BusinessMakers USA, brought to you by Insperity, inspiring business performance. Today my guest is Russ Klisch of Lakefront Brewery here in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and also, I should mention to you we are coming from Hudson Business Lounge and Café, they are hosting us, thank you very much. Welcome to the show, Russ.
Russ: Thank you, Amber, for having me.
Amber: Absolutely. So, first, what is Lakefront Brewery?
Russ: Lakefront Brewery is a local craft brewery here in town. We’re basically two businesses. We have what I call our entertainment business and our craft brewery business. We’re well known in town here, and almost nationally, for our tours, our beer hall, and our restaurant that we have. The tours are a little bit different than most brewery tours. I hire comics and theater people, so you kind of get an entertaining tour as you go along. Our restaurant wins best fish fry, best cheese curds. That’s kind of like winning best deep-dish pizza in Chicago in Milwaukee, here. So, we have that, but also our craft breweries. We’re the second largest craft brewery in the state of Wisconsin. We’re known for our innovative brews. We’ve done things like, first organic brewery in the United States, first gluten-free brewery in the United States, first all-indigenous ingredients that goes into a beer. We’ve also done things like have our My Turn Series where employees brew their own beer. We have our Black Friday the day after Thanksgiving where people line up. We’ve done a lot of other innovative things throughout the years. So, we’re known for innovation and our location.
Amber: Yeah, and focus on not just local but hyper-local. You mention a beer that you guys brew that is indigenous, and so, that means obviously the water comes from here, the malt comes from here, it’s grown in Wisconsin, is that correct? Or, the barley that goes into the malt. The hops are grown in Wisconsin, and then even the yeast.
Russ: We captured the yeast too for that one. So, it was fun. It was fun working with the farmers and getting their barley malted, and growing, having the farmers grow hops for us in the state. I know the winemakers use a word called terroir, and I believe there is a certain terroir with brewing with how the barley grows, and how the hops grow. We have a little different flavor that goes into that product compared to other areas of the country, or even compared to Europe. Also with the local yeast, we are able to capture that in some of our barley that we had, and we grew that up and the beer tasted like this great Weisse beer flavor, almost, that we had. So, it was a very good summer drinking beer.
Amber: Sure. Well, a question I have to you is that hops weren’t always grown in Wisconsin, and you might have had a little something to do with that, which is obviously a very important element in beer that doesn’t normally come from America or, at least, Wisconsin.
Russ: Wisconsin at one time, they grew a bunch of hops here but a big blight wiped everything out. That’s one of the reasons there was a big brewing center. They haven’t grown hops here for a hundred years. You can grow hops in the state, you just have to be careful with the humidity so you don’t get any mildews. I was able to convince some farmers to plant some hops. I actually bought them the rhizomes, the roots. They planted them, they started to go. Some other breweries wanted it, wanted to get in with this, so they also kind of bought into this co-op that I started. So, we have like four or five different breweries now in this co-op that have about five different farmers growing hops for us, where we can always have the harvest. The harvest is actually coming up here pretty soon and we can either do one hop, or we can take these hops and then we can have our indigenous beers throughout the year.
Amber: Which brings me to another part of your brewery is being one of the first ever to have certified organic beer.
Russ: Yeah, we were the first certified organic brewery in the united states, and I believe that is part of our environmental quest is to try to continue to have no pesticides, no fertilizers that would harm the environment in growing the product. We’ve been doing organic beers since 1995 and coming out with different innovative styles.
Amber: So, we’ve gotten to the local aspect, we’ve gotten to the organic aspect, but one thing I definitely want to talk about is the longevity of Lakefront Brewery, because obviously the craft beer industry has, I would say, exploded in the last decade. You were here in ’87 and it’s your 30th year anniversary. What are some observations you have about craft brewing in general?
Russ: Well, I guess the first observation I have is the fact that, you know, craft beer is what people love. They don’t always love the lightest style, something to drink, type of beer. When we started back in ’87, everybody felt like they were disciples who were out there trying to preach it, and I believe once we were able to get everybody educated on beer it took a foothold and everybody understands it now. It’s no different than wine or anything on that sort, where once you become educated on something it’s hard to go back. Once we were able to do that back in the 80’s, everybody back then were like imitators. They all imitated European styles of beer, and then all the sudden became innovators, where people started looking at different styles of beer that we can brew or come up with different styles of beers that are very tasty. Ever since then the industry has kind of exploded in these different, I consider fun, innovative styles that we have, and that’s still going on today.
Amber: Even regional styles throughout the united states.
Russ: Regional styles, yes, that’s fun. That’s a good part of it. You go to different parts, I mean, anytime anybody travels they try to get the local cuisine or what’s different here as compared to back home, and what can I get, and so it’s great to have beers that have different regional aspects and flavors.
Amber: Absolutely. I totally agree. So, you guys got a special environmental certification from the tourism board, right?
Russ: We’re part of Travel Green Wisconsin. That’s a great program the state has. If you score enough environmental points, if you do enough environmental things, you get their logo and it helps promote the green travel industry, and the state of Wisconsin. We’ve done a lot of different things throughout the years. Currently, we’re even putting solar panels on our warehouse.
Amber: So, you’re continuing that quest.
Russ: We’re continuing, we aren’t ever stopping. We’ve done a lot of things like trying to recover the heat from refrigeration, and bringing that in, and trying to save water, trying to recycle everything that you can have, compost almost everything that comes out of our restaurant. So, those are things, I do give an environmental tour once a week at 4:00 on Fridays, if anybody wants to come. I don’t know if I’m as funny as other people, I’m too much of a science teacher I think.
Amber: that’s what makes you a good brewer.
Russ: Yeah, it makes me a good brewer, but anyway, you can come there and I do about two or three minutes’ worth of environmental.
Amber: That’s great. Well, they can also eat the fish fry, which is a famous Wisconsin thing, right? Which I’m so sad we’re not here on a Friday.
Russ: You gotta come back and try the fish fry.
Amber: Yeah, I will be back. In fact, we’re going to come back and go straight to Lakefront Brewery as soon as we get here. So, what are some of your biggest obstacles and how did you overcome them?
Russ: For myself, I’m one of the fewer people in the industry that owns 100% of the brewery, and so, the obstacle is basically money; trying to get money, trying to convince banks to borrow you money, saving money,
Amber: Just raising capital in general.
Russ: Just raising capital and then keeping your employees happy at the same time. That’s one thing in the industry, they see a lot of other breweries coming up with all this big equipment, they’ve got this, they’ve got that, why can’t we have this, and so, throughout the years that’s one of the advantages I’ve had is I’ve had time on my side. I’ve been able to invest money from the brewery back in and also try to convince some bankers to give us some money. So, we’ve been good, we’ve been able to borrow off our buildings. We bought our building very inexpensively in kind of a bad neighborhood, which is now a good neighborhood, so it’s gone up in value which is a big plus for us.
Amber: I would imagine that you might have had something to do with that.
Russ: Yes, I think that once we built it they came. Everybody came around us, and so that was a good part of it.
Amber: Yeah, that’s great. Thanks so much, Russ.
Russ: Thank you for having me, Amber.
Amber: Once again, this is BusinessMakers USA coming to you from Milwaukee. I’m Amber Ambrose and this is Russ Klisch, which rhymes with delish.
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