By Lee Reiherzer
You know it’s going to get interesting when Kirby Nelson starts channeling Frank Zappa. “There’s this great Zappa quote,” Nelson says. “‘Without deviation from the norm, progress is impossible.’” Lately, it seems, he’s been living by those words. After more than 25 years as brewmaster at Capital Brewery, Nelson left the company in 2012 to help launch Wisconsin Brewing Company. And his departure from the brewery he had become synonymous with was just the first of Nelson’s deviations from his norm.
When Wisconsin Brewing released its initial offerings last November, three of the four beers Nelson had brewed bore little resemblance to the lagers that had made him a legendary figure in the craft-beer world. Among the beers Wisconsin Brewing led with were two styles of ale Nelson hadn’t made before – a porter and an India pale ale. The IPA was especially surprising. Nelson had spent a good part of the past decade railing against the pervasiveness of “over the top” IPAs. He appears to relish the contradiction. “I had been badmouthing IPAs for so long,” he says with a grin and a glass of his Wisconsin IPA at hand. Then he adds, “This one I’m very pleased with.”
Maybe the changes shouldn’t have been so surprising. From the start, Nelson has cut his own path through the world of brewing. Most craft brewers begin as homebrewers. Nelson started at the opposite end of the spectrum. A native of Racine, he landed his first job in the brewing industry in 1978 working as a lab technician for what was then the 6th largest American brewery, G. Heileman of La Crosse. He went on to brewery work in Florida and the Philippines before getting wind of the nascent microbrewery scene back in the states.
“Over in the Philippines, I was reading about these new microbreweries and thinking what a cool idea,” Nelson says. “I thought Madison would be a great place to do that. Within a couple days of being home, I read about this guy (Ed Janus) wanting to start a brewery. I found his number and left a quick resume on his answering machine. He called and I convinced him to hire me. I basically was on the payroll of Capital in February of 1986. And away we went.”
Over the next 25 years at Capital, Nelson won every major commercial brewing award and gained a reputation as one of the premier craft-lager brewers in the United States. “We had made the decision early on that, hey this is Wisconsin, we have this great tradition of lager brewing,” Nelson says. “We wanted to continue that. I was really proud of that. In fact, over the years I stubbornly resisted doing a lot of beers because I was so proud of us being a lager brewery. I was very happy doing that.”
It appeared Nelson’s future was set. “Five years ago I figured I was a Capital boy forever,” he says. But in 2011, discord among Capital’s board of directors led to the ouster of the brewery’s president, Carl Nolen. “They decided they wanted him gone and I just didn’t like how all of that went down,” Nelson says. “Things had changed where I just didn’t feel comfortable with the company anymore. My last year and a half at Capital, I really… I just wasn’t there.”
Meanwhile, Nolen had announced plans to build a $3.75 million brewery in Verona. In October 2012, Nelson left Capital and reunited with Nolen as brewmaster and vice president of Wisconsin Brewing. Just 13 months later, the brewery’s beers landed on store shelves.
The transition and fast launch received abundant press. The publicity raised the brewery’s profile, but it didn’t make Nelson’s job any easier. “It can be difficult when you have this kind of high visibility,” he says. “People taste something right out of the chute and they make a judgment that’s forever. But this new brewery is an elaborate one. Our Amber lager was way different out of our facility than the pilot batch that came out of the Dane (Madison’s Great Dane Brewpub). But the Amber is coming along nicely. I felt the beers were good; they were solid coming out of the chute, but we’re learning a whole new operation. That’s just part of the process. Over the past six months we’ve figured it out. I’m starting to feel more confident adjusting things. We’ve begun to turn it into our brew house.”
One thing that hasn’t changed is Nelson’s basic belief in what good beer is all about. “My philosophy about beer is that I think it should be your companion,” he says. “It’s an adjunct to the enjoyment of life. Beer became popular because it’s pleasant to drink. It’s about socializing and visiting with your friends and relaxing and enjoying the environment around you. It’s not about just sitting there focusing on the glass.”
He’s also quick to point out that he wants the beer he brews to have a distinctly Wisconsin character. “One thing I’m very proud of is that when we say Wisconsin Brewing Company we mean it. Starting with our brewhouse: our brewhouse was fabricated in Wisconsin. We’re determined to use Wisconsin made equipment and Wisconsin raw materials as much as we possibly can. The hops that I’ve chosen for most of our beers are hops that will grow well in Wisconsin. That connection is important.”
The past three years have been tumultuous for Nelson, but his enthusiasm doesn’t appear to have dimmed. “I think we’re doing good,” he says. “We knew we weren’t going to take over the state right out of the gate. We have a lot of challenges ahead of us and we know it. But we’re going to go out there and fight the good fight every day and develop a portfolio of great beers and have a big sweet life. And we’re going to enjoy ourselves doing it.”ν
Lee Reiherzer drinks, brews and researches beer in Oshkosh. Visit his blog, Oshkosh Beer, at OshkoshBeer.Blogspot.com