Austin Ashley moved to Wisconsin in 2000 having dabbled in coffee roasting, cheesemaking, canning…and brewing beer and soda of all kinds. In 2003 he began making test batches of ginger beer, a favorite of his wife Hallie’s. Test after test, family member after family member tasted, judged, and gave critique.
He tried many different flavors.
“There were great beverages, and there were failed beverages,” Austin said.
For the most part, his experiments were of the ‘great’ variety.
“Around 2012 I decided to venture into the consumer market,” Austin said “ to see if there actually was a market for what I was creating. I started doing farmer’s markets, selling my sodas there. It was then that I met my, now business partner Zac, who was making and selling pizza from a mobile wood-fired pizza oven. And we would do soda and his seed-to-table pizzas. Now we’re both full-time Wisco Pop.”
Zac Mathes has always had a love of locally grown, organic, healthy foods. In 2009 he started his HeartBeet Family Farm, which led to his launching HomeGrown Pizza in 2012.
“He is really a Zac-of-all-trades,” Austin said. “He’s an excellent farmer. Hallie and I, and Zac all worked together at Kickapoo Coffee Roasters at one point in our lives.”
In 2014, a Kickstarter campaign was initiated.
“We raised about $24,000,” Austin said “and it was shortly thereafter that our building’s owner, Sue Noble suggested we should find a bottling machine. And it wasn’t long after that she knocked on my door and said, ‘We have all the money needed to secure the equipment to push the company over the hump, and be considered fully commercial.’ And it wasn’t long before we were producing around 200 cases a week.”
Suddenly they were moving more than 400% more product than they had been out the door.
“That happened within a month,” Austin said.
And for the most part, it’s just the three of them running, working, operating the company.
“Occasionally we’ll hire some friends as part time help,” Austin said.
Wisco Pop offers three flavors of soda; Root Beer, Cherry, and Ginger. They use Door County, Wisconsin tart cherries, whole vanilla beans, and organic cinnamon for their Cherry Soda.
“And our ginger supplier is in La Grama, Peru,” Austin said “and the company is actually doing some wonderful things for Peruvian families there in South America, supporting them with their avocado and ginger sourcing. We really have forged a nice relationship with them. Then, the limes and lemons are organic, and we get them from Mexico, and process them in-house with our semi-automated juicer. We get that fresh juice in there, and add organic lavender flowers to the ginger brew, then add some Wisconsin honey.”
This base mixture is then transferred to a giant chilling tank, lowering its temperature to around 32 to 34-degrees.
“In order to add carbonation,” Austin explained “you have to have temperatures in that range because Co2 is only soluble at sub-zero temperatures.”
All of this happens on Mondays and Tuesdays.
Wisco Pop creates one flavor soda at a time.
“Our machine has only one port,” Austin said “that pours into two bottle fillers. To better explain, on Monday we’ll brew the Ginger soda, Tuesday we’ll be carbonating it while brewing the Root Beer. Wednesday we’ll bottle the Ginger, and Thursday we’ll bottle the Root Beer, and so on.”
Marketing is another aspect in making a business grow successfully.
“A year ago we had around 25 accounts, or places where you could find and buy Wisco Pop,” Austin said “and today we’re servicing upwards of 105.”
Distribution then becomes key.
“We use Cooperative Partners Warehouse in the Twin Cities,” Austin said “Elegant Foods in Madison, and Classic Provisions, also out of Minnesota. We used to do it ourselves, but quickly decided we didn’t need that element of complexity in our lives (laugh).”
Wisco Pop is based in Viroqua, Wisconsin, about 30 minutes south of La Crosse.
“I used to have 16-hour days traveling to Milwaukee for drop off,” Austin said, “then back home. That’s a long round trip.”
The do-it-yourself entrepreneurialism gene came from Austin’s father.
“My dad would rip the engine out of something,” Austin said “drag it into the living room, and tinker with it. I grew up with the DIY spirit, and if I don’t know how to do it, I’m going to try to figure it out by myself.”
Austin didn’t overhaul his French diesel engine in his living room, but he did do it on his own.
“When I started working in the culinary industry, I didn’t have a degree,” Austin said “I still don’t, but I used to make money from promotions of music when I was a kid, and then got into food. I just always followed what I wanted to do. I was 21 when I did the diesel overhaul, and figured if I could do that (laugh).”
If he could do that, he could certainly make a tasty soda pop.
“Formal education is great,” Austin said “but I always take joy, and find it fun seeing entrepreneurs that are just kinda’ dirt bags, and are just doing what they want to do.”
Visit wiscopopsoda.com for a retailer near you!