In a beer-loving college town like Madison, it's not surprising to learn about a business scheme dreamed up in a dorm room. Now Troy Vosseller, the co-founder of Sconnie Nation, who in 2004 started a T-shirt brand with his roommate and $600 between them, has launched a beer company he hopes will appeal to fans of the macrobrews that made Wisconsin famous.
Six-packs of Sconnie Beer in 16-ounce cans have been turning up around Madison over the last month, just in time for the hot days of summer. Vosseller is hoping that the brew will become as common around the Dairy State as foam cheeseheads.
Sconnie Beer debuted in late April at the UW-Madison Memorial Union and in a few local bars; by Memorial Day, the cans had found their way into local liquor and grocery stores. By the end of July, the beer should be available throughout southern Wisconsin, in cities like Janesville, Milwaukee and La Crosse. Vosseller plans statewide distribution by year's end.
The Sconnie brand is popular among college students and younger alumni of UW-Madison. "Sconnie" captures the state's unique culture of beer, brats, bowling, cheese, and the Badgers, Brewers, and Packers. Vosseller doesn't claim to have invented the word, but he certainly has popularized and commercialized it with the apparel line that he and Ben Fiechtner started as roommates.
Vosseller, a Brown Deer native, eventually bought out his partner in 2008. The company has expanded beyond T-shirts and now offers a variety of novelty and retail items imprinted with the Sconnie logo. Now Vosseller is after the Holy Grail of beer, one that captures Wisconsin's character: "Sconnie as a brand is about celebrating the Wisconsin lifestyle, and while it pokes a little fun at beer, brats and cheese, we're really embracing those things that make our state unique."
Adding beer to the Sconnie Nation product lineup had been in the back of Vosseller's mind since the founding of his company. But while he owned the Sconnie trademark for use with apparel, the same trademark for beer belonged to William Kuether Brewing of Clear Lake, Wisconsin. When that brewery closed in 2007, Vosseller purchased the name and held onto it until he could further develop his ideas for his own beer.
Vosseller turned to Gary Luther, the brewmaster behind Berghoff Beer, made in Monroe at the Minhas Craft Brewery. Vosseller says he's not directly competing with small microbreweries and craft beer makers; rather, he's targeting drinkers of the classic American lager style, especially the 21- to 35-year-old college students and young adults who buy based on price.
"Our intention was never to have a craft beer, but rather, a beer that would compete with Bud, Miller and PBR at their price points and flavor profile," says Vosseller. He adds, with a laugh, "We're what you call a local macro beer."
Sconnie tastes similar to those big-brewery products. It has a deep clean golden color and a soft grainy-maltiness that's mildly sweet. It has a light hoppiness at only 16 IBUs (International Bitterness Units), with a faint bitterness that stays way in the background. At 4.7 percent ABV and $5.50 a six-pack, it'll be a session beer for many drinkers, especially in warm-weather months, and should be popular for tailgate parties.
Vosseller, 27, received his B.S., M.B.A. and law degrees from UW-Madison. He works part-time at the UW Law School's Law & Entrepreneurship Clinic. When it came to designing the Sconnie label, he turned to a college friend, graphic designer Andre Gagnon. Symbols of Wisconsin life -- cows, cheese wedges, fish, brats -- stand out against a vivid red background. Several can designs were posted online, and fans of Sconnie Nation voted for the one they liked the best.
Vosseller says he wants to achieve statewide distribution before adding other beer styles. However, as its popularity with Sconnie Nation grows, he is considering offering it in 12-ounce cans and bottles.
Sconnie Beer and its symbolism are even drawing attention in the political realm. Vosseller recently got a call from the Wisconsin Executive Residence asking him to donate Sconnie Beer to Gov. Scott Walker's "beer and brat summit" on June 12. Vosseller did donate the beer, but says it wasn't an automatic yes.
"This is an interesting time in Wisconsin politics, and we didn't want to be seen as supporting one side over another," he says. When asked whether Sconnie Beer has dedicated shelf space in the governor's refrigerator, Vosseller's replies: "I don't know about that -- I just want to be in everyone's refrigerator!"