Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Company
The Jacob Leinenkugel Brewery has been making beer in Wisconsin for over 145 years, and the family linked to it is now in its sixth generation in the industry. And while the brewery is well known for its longstanding beers like Leinenkugel's Original and seasonal 1888 Bock, a new generation of brews, named Big Eddy, are finding a niche among craft beer drinkers. In fact, these limited releases are attracting so much interest that the brewery is planning to expand them in 2013.
Jacob Leinenkugel founded his brewery in Chippewa Falls in 1867. Madison beer enthusiasts might be surprised that the Leinenkugel family considered Cross Plains as a site for a brewery, and even opened one in Sauk City during the early 1860s. But the logging frontier and its thousands of thirsty loggers drew him to Chippewa Falls. Jacob sited his brewery there at the base of a hillside, where water was easily available from what the locals had named the Big Eddy Springs. It was called the Spring Brewery until 1888.
The brewery still draws water from Big Eddy, which inspired the name for its new and most robust beers. The first of the Big Eddy brews, an imperial stout, was released in 2007. But it wasn't until this year that the Big Eddy series really took off, with a Scotch ale, an imperial India pale ale, a Baltic porter, and now a re-release of the imperial stout.
While Leinenkugel's is known for more than a dozen beers in its primary portfolio, the Big Eddy series is an attempt to reach the palate of craft beer drinkers who crave assertive flavors, lots of body, and alcohol strength. These brews were the idea of Dick Leinenkugel, who at the time was the brewery's vice president of sales and marketing. Leinenkugel's turned to its Tenth Street Brewery in Milwaukee to produce the Big Eddy beers -- the small brewhouse once belonged to G. Heilman Brewing and was used to make Blatz beers before it was acquired by the Miller Brewing Company in 1995 to make Leinenkugel's beers.
Tenth Street has also served as a pilot brewery that helped develop the Big Eddy line, along with several other limited-release Leinenkugel brands. Miller Brewing (later MillerCoors and SABMiller) has owned Leinenkugel's since 1988.
Marketing the Big Eddy beers in Madison is the responsibility of a sixth-generation Leinenkugel family member. C.J. Leinenkugel, 29, works as a retail beer merchant for the Tenth and Blake division of MillerCoors, which handles specialty lines of beer. He currently lives in Madison and often teams up with Frank Beer Distributors of Middleton, who handle Big Eddy (and all of Leinenkugel's beers) throughout most of southern Wisconsin.
"Wherever beer goes, I go," says C.J., who is the son of company president Jake Leinenkugel. Other sixth-generation Leinenkugels include C.J.'s two older brothers. Matthias (Matt), 37, is directly involved in the family business at the main brewery in Chippewa Falls, where he focuses on brewery operations and safety. Kirk, 34, works for a distributor in Chippewa Falls. Both C.J. and Matt, like their father, Jake, and grandfather, Bill, had Marine Corps backgrounds before coming back into the family business.
After serving in Iraq, C.J. found his way to Madison College, and eventually attended UW-Madison, where he earned a degree in Consumer Affairs in Business in 2010. Even though he is not involved directly in the brewing of Big Eddy beers himself, C.J. is an active homebrewer who's currently enjoying his own IPAs. And that certainly figures into how he might use whatever influence he has in selecting future styles for the series.
C.J. knows that the family's affiliation with MillerCoors is something that's upsetting to some beer fans, who see it as a big brewery takeover of a smaller craft brewery, and one that has a long history of family ownership. However, C.J. notes that while MillerCoors does own Leinenkugel's, the family has a lot to do with what is brewed and how it's made, and most of the core Leinenkugel brands are produced exclusively in Chippewa Falls.
Big Eddy is clearly a new direction for Leinenkugel's, a strategy to attract craft beer drinkers.
C.J. is quick to point out that Leinenkugel's won't stray far from its traditional lager brewing roots, but he's not shy to describe the Big Eddy series as really big beers that offer something unfamiliar to those who think they are familiar with Leinenkugel's. Don't be surprised if you see barrel-aged beers or even a barley wine made with rye malt sometime soon, C.J. says.
The Big Eddy beers are made in relatively modest-size 45-80 barrel batches at Leinenkugel's Tenth Street Brewery, and sold mostly in Wisconsin, with some distribution in states around the Great Lakes. Total Big Eddy production is expected to be around 10,000 barrels this year.
The most recent Big Eddy to appear is a re-release of the Russian Imperial Stout. The beer is made with 11 different malts, which give it deep black color, lots of body, and strength at 9.5% ABV. The Russian imperial stout is a style made for Russia's tsars during the time of Catherine the Great.
Also on shelves now is the Baltic Porter, which started appearing last September. It's also very dark, full-bodied and strong at 8.5% ABV. It's robust with tones of chocolate malt and a complex spiciness from additions of licorice root. The Baltic porter style evolved as a strong beer that could withstand sea voyages to reach the lands circling the Baltic Sea.
The Imperial IPA was released this summer. It represents the first time Leinenkugel's has made such an assertively hopped brew, showcasing five different varieties: Citra, Cascade, Amarillo, Warrior and Simcoe. It finished at 8.2% ABV. The beer quickly became hard to find. "Hoppy beers really appeal to the craft beer drinker right now," says C.J. "They're the sexy frontier of brewing."
The Wee Heavy Scotch Ale was unveiled last spring. It's made with more than a half-dozen different malts, including a cherrywood-smoked malt that lends a smooth toasted flavor along with caramel and chocolate maltiness. It finishes at 9.5% ABV.
Of the Big Eddy beers released so far, the Scotch Ale, Baltic Porter and Russian Imperial Stout are nice beers to age, for those who like to cellar big and bold malty beers. Big Eddy brews are sold in four-packs for $11-$12.
Frank Beer is even holding back several cases of these in its Middleton warehouse with the intention of creating lateral tasting opportunities with future releases.
In 2013, two new styles are expected to be introduced into the series, alongside the first four. Leinenkugel won't say what those two new Big Eddys will be, other than they'll be bold.