Last week I had the privilege of interviewing Jeff Hamilton, the current president of Sprecher Brewery and the Wisconsin Brewers Guild as well as one of the founders of the Wisconsin Beer Lover’s Festival! In my opinion, the Wisconsin Beer Lover’s Festival is probably the best beer fest in the state. Not only does it feature almost every brewery in the state, it also offers food pairings from some of the state’s best chefs! Last year was my first year going to the Beer Lovers Festival and it’s definitely at the top of my list, every year!
Enjoy the interview!
WIBG: Prior to joining Sprecher and working in the craft beer industry, what industry were you involved in?
Jeff Hamilton: Actually, I am a Metallurgist, or metallurgical engineer. I spent a lot of time in the metal casting business. Probably the most fun thing I did was work for Carroll Shelby for a while making wheels. After that, I worked for about 13 years with Rockwell Automation in the plant automation business. Then I came over to Sprecher as the Vice President and General Manager, and I have been President for three years.
WIBG: How long have you been with Sprecher?
JH: I’ve been here eight years.
WIBG: How long have you been the president of the Wisconsin Brewers Guild?
JH: I’ve been president for three years and I’ve been on the guild board for seven.
WIBG: Were you involved in the craft beer community prior to joining Sprecher
JH: I was not involved in the craft beer community, but I was a big fan of beer and I had done some home brewing as well.
WIBG: What is your opinion of the explosive growth of the craft beer community and craft breweries in Wisconsin and nationally? Do you think the growth is sustainable?
JH: I think there are two major factors driving the explosion of craft beer. People are much more interested in what they are consuming. If you look at the popularity of the food channels, there are a lot of people that are interested in exploring flavorful foods a lot more than they have in the past, so I think that’s one thing. Also, the flavors that craft beer can offer are really enhancements to that whole experience. People are looking for flavor and craft beer brings that, because beer pairs very well with food. The second factor is the movement towards things that are local. People would much rather spend their money on products that are produced, grown and offered within a few miles of their home rather than something that may have come from halfway across the country.
WIBG: Do you think the growth is sustainable?
JH: I think it will be sustainable for quite some time. I think if you look at any industry, and there are a few I could cite here in recent history. Software is one of those things that if you look in the late 80’s and early 90’s there was an explosion of that industry. Everything was moving from non-computer to computer, if you will, and there were a lot of companies jumping in to make all different kinds of software. Over time a lot of that has shaken out, that boom came and went, although now computers are part of our everyday lives.
I guess another one that was more recent is in the early 2000’s there was a huge explosion in the popularity of custom motorcycles. That was one of the hottest things going. Harley’s business rode up to all time highs as part of that and then it kind of tailed off. It’s still very popular, but certainly not like it was then.
So I think that every business has natural cycles. When it appears that things are hot, like they are for craft beer now, a lot of people want to get involved. They see it as their way to prosperity I guess. The other part of it is that a lot of people just love beer and there are a lot of intriguing things about making your own beer, or making beer for others. I think it’s bound to taper off like any natural cycle, but I think you are going to see steady growth. The trend of people moving to more flavorful, more local beers will continue. I think you will continue to see the erosion of the large, less flavorful beers.
WIBG: With that in mind, is that what lead you to work to develop the Wisconsin Beer Lovers Festival, since you were one of the founders of the festival?
JH: What led us to develop that, I think are probably the needs of a couple of organizations. I am part of the Glendale Convention and Visitors Bureau, and our mission is to try to bring business, activity and activity into Glendale. Glendale’s CVB had some marketing funds available and we were looking for a signature event for the city. The Brewer’s Guild at the same time was looking for a way to not only promote craft beer but also to raise funds to operate our organization more efficiently. So it seemed that two things were coming together tat the right time
The popularity of beer festivals has increased a lot over the past 5, 6, 7 years. There have been several festivals pop up in the area since we started this one. So, at that point, there weren’t a lot of festivals in the Milwaukee area, the Brewer’s Guild has things to offer that a lot of the other festivals don’t. One of the unique things about this festival is that you will be served by the president, or brewmaster, or general manager or whoever the person is who’s running the plant or producing the beer. You’re not going to be talking to salespeople or outside promoters or retail people. You are actually going to be talking to the people who know the most about the beer.
One of the unique things about this festival when we started it is that we want food to be an integral part. So, you also get to talk to a lot of local chefs while you are there, right beside the brewmaster and we try to make sure we are serving beer and food that pair well and complement each other.
WIBG: I really do like getting the chance to meet the brewmasters and local chefs. I really do think that the Beer Lover’s Festival is probably one of the best festivals in the state.
JH: I would like to agree with that, but I’m a bit biased.
WIBG: There is no other festival that you can go to and meet the brewers. Everyone who is there has a chance to talk to the brewers and the chefs, not to mention tasting the wonderful food and beer pairings that are created.
JH: Yeah, I love this festival, and we get a lot of good feedback on it, so I think it’s a winner.
WIBG: When pairing chefs with breweries for the festival, is that something that you leave up to the chefs and breweries, or is that something that is figured out ahead of time?
JH: It’s kind of a work in progress. The first years, we tried to accommodate requests, like this restaurant wanted to work with this brewery or vice versa. That’s become very difficult when we have 40 breweries to work with, so usually what happens is that if it’s a brewpub they are going to bring their own food to pair with their beer. After that, we kind of pair people up. The chefs and brewmasters come up with the pairings that they are going to do.
WIBG: What are your opinions on canned craft beer, and do you expect an increase in the number of breweries that switch to canning rather than bottling? Do you think it will become mainstream?
JH: I hope it does, because it’s the best thing for the beer and it’s the best thing for the environment. There are no real bad things about cans, and there are a lot of really good things about them. So, I certainly hope it becomes more and more mainstream and I think that it will. Every time I pick up one of the trade journals there’s another brewery switching over to canning their beer.
Beer doesn’t like light and it doesn’t like oxygen, so a can is the best container for it, besides a keg. So I think that’s part of it. The other part of it is that it’s a lot cheaper to move aluminum than it is to move glass. Water and glass are very expensive to transport so any time you can take some of that weight out, you are doing a good thing.
Finally, cans are by far the most recycled item on the planet. People say that glass is recycled and our glass is probably about 70% recycled for our bottles, but that’s very high. Mostly it’s probably in the 40% range, and plastic is even worse. People throw it in the recycling container but there’s nobody to buy it, so a lot of it goes into the landfill anyway. With aluminum cans, almost every can that is dropped in a recycling container, or pretty much ever can that is thrown along the roadside is going to be turned back into a can. The only can’s that probably aren’t going to go back into that cycle are the ones that people throw in the garbage, when they shouldn’t be.
WIBG: Do you personally have a favorite beer either in the Sprecher lineup, or from another brewery that you look forward to?
JH: Sure, I could list a few. As far as Sprecher goes, I like our hoppier beers, so I like our IPA, which is one of the beers we make all the time. From time to time we make a couple other specialty beers, we made Citra Bomb with fresh Citra hops and that was probably my all-time favorite, but I like the IPA.
As far as other Wisconsin beers that I like, I am a fan of the O’so Hop Whoopin, Blacktop from New Glarus, and Hopalicious from Ale Asylum. I guess if I had to look beyond Wisconsin, my favorite beers are probably from Firestone Walker out of California. That’s not really available around here but it happens to be right up the street from where Randy Sprecher lives, so I end up going up there quite a bit when I am out in California. I am pretty fond of most of their stuff.
WIBG: I usually only ask brewers this, but since you are the president of the Wisconsin Brewer’s Guild, you probably have a unique perspective on it. Do you have any advice for someone looking to start a brewery in the state?
JH: I would say do a lot of homework and talk to a bunch of other brewers if you can. I think a lot of people tend to think this is a very easy business, but it’s probably one of the hardest things you are ever going to get into. It’s very highly regulated, one of the most highly regulated industries there is. There is a whole lot of science and chemistry involved, you rely on microbiology for your products and that’s something that isn't always controllable so you have got to know what you are doing and know how to use science to control nature. I also think that people often think there is a lot more of a margin in beer than there is. So, I would advise people to take a good hard look at their business plan before they dive in.
Having said that, I think there is room for many more breweries here.
WIBG: Is there anything else that I haven’t asked that you would like people to know, either about Sprecher, the Brewers Guild, or about the Beer Lover’s Festival?
JH: I would just say that the Beer Lover’s Festival is a great opportunity for Father’s Day. A lot of people bring their father; I think that’s a really cool thing. I don’t know too many dads that wouldn’t like to have a trip to a beer fest. So, it’s a great way to spend Father’s Day!
That’s all for today! If you don’t have your tickets to the Wisconsin Beer Lover’s Festival, you can still get them on their website or at the gate the day of the event! Hopefully I will see you there!
Check back next week for my fest review!