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When Tom Porter says "big beer," he's not talking about the big guys, corporate breweries like Anheuser-Busch and Miller. The owner of Lake Louie Brewing of Arena, Wis., is referring to the batch of Mr. Mephisto's Imperial Stout that he, brewer Tim Wauters and assistant Asa Derks are coaxing through the filtering process on a Monday morning just before Christmas.
"It's a giant - it's a huge beer," says Porter.
Big beers, with their more complex additions of yeast and higher alcohol contents, can be like difficult babies. Derks is having trouble with the filtering of the Mephisto, and eventually the size of the batch ends up a little short. "Big beer is a crapshoot," Porter says philosophically.
Mr. Mephisto is a seasonal beer, available for just a short time each year; it's one of six that Lake Louie produces annually, in addition to five brews available year-round. Lake Louie's seasonals are a hot commodity, and beer lovers watch closely for them to come on the market.
Lake Louie's beers appeal to beer geeks and people who just like good beer. They're more drinkable than they are cerebral - you're not going to be hit with a mashup of weird flavors or unusual ingredients, and the result, whether in the lightly hopped Coon Rock Cream Ale or the sweet, malty Warped Speed Scotch Ale, is smooth.
Put it this way. Lake Louie doesn't brew extreme beer, but it brews extremely good beer.
Porter - yes, he realizes it's a great name for a guy who makes beer - even sells a namesake "Tommy's Porter." "Yep, we go there," Porter laughs.
But things are changing at Lake Louie. Having hit the brewery's 10-year anniversary, Porter is "absolutely cranking" to keep up with demand. He hasn't even had time to follow through with his initial plans to come up with a special anniversary brew.
At least he's not hauling product down to the basements of local taverns anymore - an activity that eventually blew out his knee. Now, the focus is on the brewing.
Arena is just a blip on Highway 14 on the way to Spring Green. The Firm Worm (a bait shop/convenience store combo) and Arena Cheese (with its large fiberglass mouse out front) are landmarks you might remember from passing by on your way to someplace else. The town itself is a handful of houses, a post office and an elementary school.
There are no signs for Lake Louie, the lake (really just a swimming hole) or Lake Louie Brewing, located about a mile outside of town near the Wisconsin River.
It's what's known in the brewing business as a farmstead brewery. The picture that leaps to mind is a 19th-century white farmhouse with a red barn and picket fence, but the Lake Louie brewing operation takes place in a boxy brown corrugated metal building that's been added onto a couple of times, near the house Porter built himself with the help of friends.
Porter's brewery is located down a pretty tree-lined driveway, and there is a white fence by the road. A county snowmobile trail runs past the property, and there are woodland paths on Porter's 20 acres where he and his wife, DeAnn, like to walk their dog, Pebbles.
In the flooding of June 2008, Porter and his crew watched from the second-story office of the brewery as waters ran wildly just along the edge of the driveway but never came all the way up to the building.
"I was surprised," Porter remembers, "because we're low here, and near the river." At that time water was nearly lapping the edges of Highway 14.
Porter, 51, is an Arena native. He's lanky, down-to-earth and given to making his points with homespun phrases that sound like they might have been scripted by Mark Twain - like "Then you're between a set of fence posts and a ditch" and "Do I think you should put eight tires on a car?" referring to a not-so-bright idea.
The story behind Lake Louie Brewing is legendary in local beer circles - how Porter graduated from home brewing and quit his job as an engineer, starting the brewery out of his garage. By some accounts, he's still brewing it there.
This is only sort of true, as the original garage structure is still part of the building where the brewing takes place, but is dwarfed by additions - the first built in 2002. Porter eventually bought more equipment from a defunct brewpub in Eugene, Ore., and added three larger fermenters. It's all far larger than what could be contained in a suburban garage.
Even so, the idea that Lake Louie retains a homemade quality is not that far off the mark. Porter has two employees, although part-timers come in to help with bottling; his wife keeps the books. Up until 2009, he distributed all the beer he made himself. He signed on with Frank Distributors of Middleton only last year.
While Frank is able to deliver Lake Louie into more retail locations, even now it's an extremely local beer, found in a range stretching from about Cottage Grove to the east, to Janesville to the south, to Mineral Point and Dodgeville to the west. "And we're in the Showboat in Wisconsin Dells now," Porter says. "We're thrilled about that."
Lake Louie is not available in Milwaukee or La Crosse, and certainly not in Chicago or the Twin Cities. Beer lovers have been known to make the pilgrimage to Arena and be surprised that the brewery is not set up for tours, samples or even sales, but the Firm Worm can set them up with a six-pack.
Porter still likes the smallness of the brewery. And it is still very much his project.
It didn't start out that way. A decade ago, Porter was an automation and manufacturing engineer. "I was the dreaded 'stopwatch guy.' You know, 'You should be making two more of those per minute.'"
He and a coworker from Madison Kipp started home brewing together, splitting the results fifty-fifty. "I sat in a lawn chair and watched him brew the beer," as Porter describes the operation. Then the coworker moved away, leaving Porter to ask the question, "What am I going to do with all this shit in my garage?"
He describes the day 10 years ago when he dressed up and went out "to sell myself to sell the beer" as "the biggest mountain I ever had to climb." He managed to steel himself to do it for just one day.
The first business that took him on was D.W. Heiney's restaurant in Black Earth. But Porter doesn't blame anyone for not hooking up with Lake Louie right off the bat: "How did they know whether I was still going to be there a week later?"
In fact, that thought crossed the mind of Scott Patchin, Heiney's owner.
"He walked in with three pressurized containers about 10:30 in the morning," Patchin recalls of Porter's first visit, "and asked for some of my time. I was kind of rolling my eyes - what am I getting myself into here?"
Patchin had his doubts about going with what was at the time one step up from a home-brewing operation. Would Porter be able to keep production up? Would the quality be consistent? Nonetheless, Patchin liked the beer so much that "by 1:30 I was ready to lie down and take a nap."
Today there are just three beers on tap at Heiney's, all from Lake Louie. "Of course, sometimes diners come in looking for a Miller or a Bud Light," says Patchin. "I explain the three beers" - Coon Rock Cream Ale, Arena Premium Ale and Warped Speed Scotch Ale - "and do some sampling." Any lover of dark beer will like the Scotch Ale, Patchin says, "and they're going to come back for more. If I try to pull any of these three beers, my clientele just says 'No, no, no.'"
Tom Porter credits other early supporters, like the staff of Star Liquor, on Willy Street, and Steve's, on Madison's west side, with helping Lake Louie stay on its feet.
Adam Casey of Star Liquor remembers that when he started at the store in 2000, the owners were doing "everything they could to get that beer in here," and for years it was sold only in half-gallon growlers. "The volume we sold in growlers, for a retail outlet, was unique," says Casey.
"They're very good, high-quality beers. I call Tom 'the beer witch' because it seems like he can't make a bad brew. Plus people like the story behind it - how Tom was an engineer and just left it all to start the brewery. But if the beer wasn't good, that wouldn't make any difference."
That brings up the question of just what makes a beer good anyway, what makes beer snobs wax poetic about things like mouthfeel and malt aromatics on beer forums.
"Water is everything!" says Porter. It can be magic. "It's 98% of what you're drinking." And it turned out that the water from the well on Porter's land is really good water for brewing ales. "As a beginning brewer, I could do no wrong with ales," Porter recalls, "but I couldn't make a lager to save my life." Ales are top-fermented at higher temperatures for a short time; lagers are bottom-fermented at low temperatures for a longer time.
From a business standpoint, Porter's talent for ales was fortuitous, because 10 years ago southwestern Wisconsin had several good lagers, but not a lot of really good ales, Porter notes. Lake Louie hit at the right time to fill a niche: "Now, it would be a heck of a lot harder to get a toe in the door."
Lake Louie is probably best known for its Warped Speed Scotch Ale, a sweet, malty beer with, as the beer fans say, "caramel notes," very smooth and very drinkable. Its sibling, Louie's Reserve, is a limited-run "bolder version" of the Warped Speed that has a higher alcohol content and has achieved raves rating it as one of the best Scotch ales made in the world.
The brewery's "Kiss the Lips" India Pale Ale comes from brewer Tim Wauters' interest in historical beer styles; its recipe is meant to replicate the materials that would have been available when IPAs were first brewed in England in the 18th century. "I'm really proud of it," says Porter. "The bitterness is gone like magic, and it makes you want to have another."
Mr. Mephisto is an imperial stout - "imperial" signifying that some ingredient - hops or yeast - has been amped to the max. In other words, imperials are a more intense version of a recognized style of beer.
The alcohol by volume, or ABV, of Mr. Mephisto is 9%, compared to a benchmark beer like Budweiser (5% ABV) or, for a more local benchmark, New Glarus' Spotted Cow (5.1% ABV). And while Mephisto and the other seasonals are often intense brews, Porter doesn't really produce what craft brewers call "extreme" beer.
"Extreme" beer can be many things - extreme in terms of its base ingredients, its brewing method, how hoppy it is, how long it's been aged and what kind of container it's aged in. Extreme beer brewers will try anything, expanding the notion of what constitutes beer. Sam Adams, for instance, has come up with a beer that's aged for 15 years and has 27% ABV.
For his part, Porter is more interested in augmenting the availability of "session beers," which have lower alcohol content, so you can drink a few with friends and not end up too impaired to get home.
Some craft brewers are into "imperial everything," says Porter. "They want to see how much wild ingredients they can put in, how much hops they can put in. Extreme beers get lots of press, and have broadened the draw, and it's good for the industry. The innovation is noticed."
But it's just not his style: "Pushing the envelope, that's good, but I don't like drinking those beers personally. I love Thai food, but not the hottest there is."
Porter is a lover of balance. "If you can pull off [taste] from the front of the tongue to the back of the tongue, hitting the whole palate, that's more important to me."
Porter has also been cautious when it comes to expansion; that means the space in the brewery is at a premium. The bottling equipment is all on wheels, so it can be rolled out of the way on the days when bottling isn't taking place.
"This is a $60,000 piece of [bottling] equipment," says Porter. It's unconventional for a smaller brewer to have such expensive equipment, but it's accurate enough to avoid short fills (bottles not filled to the correct line), which he can't sell. "$20,000 would have got me a nice old Meyer rotary, but I'd be fixing it all the time."
A new addition to the production line is a box taper, which Porter found at a junkyard for $250; he then spent October ("and some of November") fixing it up. "They're usually $10,000. I can get anything to run if it's mostly there," he says, noting that not having to tape each box shut by hand has really transformed the operation.
There are a lot of "handyman specials" at small breweries, Porter observes. Poverty - or more to the point, avoiding it - is "a huge motivator for a small brewer."
As if on cue, a piercing warning beep pervades the room. "Flip that off, the one on top," Porter shouts over to Derks. "That's the carbon monoxide monitor. I tore it apart this weekend, but it still doesn't work."
Before the economic downturn of fall '08, Porter had been intending to expand the physical brewery again, but he thought better of it. "Did I want to stick my neck into a noose with a loan again?" Porter has no investors and no partners, and he was worried.
Beer, like hot dogs, is a product that's thought to weather an economic downturn pretty well. After all, people need something to drown their sorrows in - although not necessarily a craft brew that costs between $8 and $12 for a six-pack. "I was nervous," Porter confesses, "that people would trade down or buy less."
But while the beer industry saw a 2.2% overall downturn in total sales in 2009, the market for craft beers actually grew, both by volume and by dollars, according to the Brewers Association. Porter's hunch is that people have reconsidered a more expensive bottle of wine with dinner "and gone to a $9 six-pack instead."
But other elements have conspired to make the margins extremely thin these days. "Commodities have gone crazy," Porter says. A hop crop failure two years back kicked things off, and everything from barley to bottles has increased in price. Energy costs have risen too: "Malting and drying the grain can be expensive."
Porter has also been cautious about "jumping on bandwagons" like organic and local - he grins wryly and calls himself a "fair-weather brewer." He did hook up with a new venture, Gorst Valley Hops, near Mazomanie. Hops take three years to mature, though, and crops at Gorst Valley have yet to come to fruition. Porter has already contracted for his 2011 hops from a grower's union in the Pacific Northwest.
He has worked hard on not increasing the cost of the product, focusing on in-house efficiencies. But there is only so far that can go.
To get a better price on bottles, for instance, the order needs to be five semi-loads, not one.
It's time to expand. "I think we are at that point," Porter muses. "There comes a time in the life of any small business where it's like a shark in water - you either move and grow, or die." On the other hand, he's wary of growth changing what he loved about brewing beer in the first place.
"Do I want to grow? Not really. I'm an engineer. We're conservative at heart."
What's on tap?
In addition to Warped Speed Scotch Ale, Kiss the Lips IPA and the seasonal Mr. Mephisto's Imperial Stout, Lake Louie produces the following beers.
Modeled on cream ales from before Prohibition using hop varieties that would have been grown in southwestern Wisconsin at that time. In the 19th century, Wisconsin was one of the foremost producers of hops in the U.S. and Sauk County the foremost hop-growing county in the state. Coon Rock Cream Ale is named after a local landmark on the Wisconsin River near the brewery.
Arena Premium American Pale Ale
Lots of hops, but with more malt flavor than the traditional American pale ale style.
A traditional dark ale "with assertive chocolate maltiness and a light, dry-roasted finish," according to Isthmus beer columnist Robin Shepard.
Milk Stout (November-March)
A creamy English Stout made with lactose from cow's milk. Yes, it really does taste milky.
Louie's Reserve (September)
The amped version of Warped Speed Scotch Ale.
Prairie Moon Farmhouse Ale (April to September)
A Belgian Witbier (white beer), unfiltered, light alcohol, mildly bitter.
Spicy, sweet and yeasty beer based on Trappist ales of Belgium.
Dino's Dark American Porter (April)
A variation of Tommy's Porter brewed with less dark malt and more hops.