I first met Mike Brenner over two years ago to discuss his, then in the works, brewery for one of my MBA classes at Marquette. I was supposed to meet with him to discuss growth and distribution plans with the final goal of submitting suggestions to help Mike reach his 5 year sales goals. I don’t know if any of my suggestions were helpful, or if he even perused my write-up, but I suppose at this point it doesn’t matter anymore. Mike opened his brewery, Brenner Brewing Co., last November and it’s quickly taking off. With a love of the arts, a strong local presence, an MBA from the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee, and a brewing degree from the Siebel Institute of Technology, Mike has a promising future in the Milwaukee craft beer scene. His brewery, which was in the works for a few years is bound to be a boon for the city.
I really enjoy talking to Mike when I get the chance, and really enjoyed this interview. I hope you find this interesting, because I sure had a blast!
WIBG: A lot of professional brewers get their start with home brewing, what was it that led you to brewing?
Mike: There was a point where I moved back to Milwaukee in 1996, and I was living at my parents while one of my best friends was living in a house with a bunch of dudes. We would all hang out and drink, and one day we thought we should try and make our own beer. It was like the classic formula, I was 22, so it was like; let’s find a better way to get wasted. Unfortunately it wasn’t very romantic.
WIBG: You had your start in the art world, what made you transition from owning a gallery to owning your own brewery?
Mike: I think it was a lot of different thing. It was a perfect storm of weird. I was running a non-profit art group that I had founded for 9 years, I had a gallery that I had been running for four and a half years, I had been running Turner Hall for about a year, and I was doing free-lance graphic design. My best friend was driving a BMW to his awesome job and I was driving a broken down ’97 Honda Accord and I just thought what the fuck. Here I am, I have four jobs, but I am still sleeping on an air mattress in my art gallery and living off McDoubles, this is crazy! What am I doing? I realized there had to be a better way to support the arts.
WIBG: How many brewers do you currently have on staff?
Mike: There are two of us now, Ray and I. There’s a lot going on here. There will be a lot of days where he ends up brewing and I’m busy with the rest of the business. I’m only a few months in and already delegating.
WIBG: How often are you brewing to keep up with the demand for your beer?
Mike: We are probably brewing like once every 2-3 weeks, but it kind of goes in spurts. The last month we brewed every week, and now we haven’t brewed for 2 weeks and it’ll probably be a couple more weeks until we brew again because the system was so big, which was one of the strategies behind the business plan. I figured if we buy more equipment up front, we can brew fewer batches because each batch is larger and we don’t have to spend as much time brewing. So right now I don’t have to hire someone to brew full time, and I have time focus on the rest of the business.
WIBG: Since you aren’t brewing constantly, you must have a pretty big system, what size if your brew house?
Mike: It’s 30 barrels (945 gallons) and I have six fermenters. There are four 60 barrel (1890 gallons) conical fermenters and two open 30 barrel (945 gallon) tanks. In hindsight it cost a lot money up front, and I really wish I had some of that money now.
WIBG: What made you choose to go with two open tanks?
Mike: I don’t know. As someone who homebrewed and then went to Europe (as part of Siebel) there are a lot of great European breweries making amazing beers in open tanks… At the brewing school they had some small horizontal tanks, but almost all the batches we brewed there were open too. I just can’t imagine not having the option to ferment in open tanks; the flavor is just much more complex.
WIBG: With the Open fermentation, you lose some control, have you had any batches that have gone unintentionally sour?
Mike: None of the batches in the open tanks have gone sour because the room is HEPA filtered. We did have one batch of our IPA that went sour though, right after we started. The first batch that we brewed was our Maiden Opus sour and when we moved it something didn’t get cleaned right and we soured a batch of the IPA. There was also a blind spot in the tanks that doesn’t get cleaned, so that IPA was how we found out.
WIBG: Did you dump the sour IPA, or do you still have some around?
Mike: No, we saved it because if you add brett (brettanomyces), lacto (lactobacillus), and pedio (pediococcus) to anything it tastes delicious, at least in my opinion. We ended up letting the IPA sour for a few months and then blended it with the Maiden Opus. The maiden opus is 90% 2-row, 10% Caramel-20, Saaz hops, and European Ale yeast. Then after it fermented, we added in the Roeselare yeast blend and we transferred it into Opus 1 Cabernet barrels and transferred the IPA into the fermentation tank after we thought it was clean, but it got infected. We decided to age it and blended it 50:50 with the Maiden Opus.
WIBG: Did you blend all of the Soured IPA with Maiden Opus, or do you have some sour IPA left?
Mike: We do, to make the blend; we took all except for 3-4 barrels of the original batch Maiden Opus to blend 50:50 with the IPA. Then we took the IPA that was left and filled up the Opus 1 barrels again. So, now we’ve got the soured IPA in Opus 1 barrels, and it’s been sitting there since November. We also still have some of the Maiden Opus still in oak with one batch that has raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries in the barrel.
WIBG: Are those all going to be released for a one year anniversary party?
Mike: I think so. We will pull some at one year and will likely save some for the second anniversary to see what it tastes like then. That’s the fun of doing all the barrel aging, we can just save one barrel and see what happens.
WIBG: Are you worried about any cross-contamination with your barrels, like the Sour IPA or Maiden Opus souring any other upcoming barrel aged releases?
Mike: I think we learned our lesson very early, so we have been very careful since then. Now we have a separate set of hoses, seals, and valves for souring.
WIBG: With one intentionally sour beer, Maiden Opus, and now a sour IPA, are there plans to expand your sour beer line?
Mike: For sure. We’re going to do an Oud Bruin, sour brown ale, in the next couple weeks. And then, we’ve reserved enough Cabernet barrels to do a couple more batches of beer in cabernet barrels. And I’m trying to look for other wine barrels to age beer in as well.
I really like wine barrel aging instead of bourbon barrels for some reason. I’ve never been super enthusiastic about whiskey and bourbon barrel aged beers, I think because they are so common and so rarely done well. They are often overpowering, if I wanted to drink whiskey I would drink whiskey.
So yeah, we’ll keep adding sours because I love sours, so we will see what’s happening. Right now all of our sour barrels are aging next door, and I wish I had another warehouse with more space.
WIBG: Do you have any plans to upgrade your system, or warehouse space?
Mike: Not right now. Because we are self-distributing we are a little behind our initial sales projections. We can still hit our initial 5-year sales projections with the equipment we have, so I am actually starting to talk to some people about contract brewing. It goes in spurts though, so like 3 weeks ago every fermentation tank in the brewery was full, but we usually have at least one open fermenter.
WIBG: Since you are thinking about getting into contract brewing, will you get more fermentation tanks if you get requests?
Mike: I don’t think I would invest any money in that, I mean contract brewing for me isn’t something I am super excited about. It’d be nice to make extra money, but this is my baby so I am pretty protective. We keep it clean here so the idea that we could have someone else coming in here is a little unnerving.
I think if were to get into contract brewing, it would be someone else coming in and doing their thing. I wouldn’t brew for somebody else, so that kind of arrangement would have to be the right person who keeps it as clean as we do. So contract brewing would be a pretty minimal endeavor, it would be for maybe 1 or 2 people tops.
WIBG: Since you are known for supporting local arts and music, do you source any of your ingredients locally?
Mike: We get the grains for most of our beers from Briess Malting. The bacon bomb is mostly Weyermann Beachwood smoked malt, our amber uses some special B, and that’s Belgian. But other than that I use malts almost exclusively from Briess. I haven’t used any Wisconsin Hops yet.
For our Russian Imperial Stout, Witch Craft, we used all Kallas honey, they’re on the north-west side of Milwaukee. And we’ve used all Anodyne coffee in our coffee beers. Those guys are awesome neighbors, so we love working with them.
WIBG: I know you have only been open a short time, but are you planning any special releases?
Mike: Every release is special and Maiden Opus will be around for a while. Right now we’ve got a Czech-style, Bohemian-ish Pilsner with 20% rye, which kind of makes it not at all a Czech Pils. We used almost all Weyermann Bohemian Pils malt for that. So it has Rye and I put in some Acidulated Malt, so that’s kind of weird. Then we started the fermentation in one of the conicals and lagered it in one of our oak foudres in the walk in cooler.
WIBG: You have foudres too, how big are they?
Mike: I think they are 40 hectoliters (1056 gallons); it’s been a while since I bought them, so I can’t remember.
WIBG: What made you decide to ferment in open oak foudres?
Mike: Going to Pilsner Urquell in Pilsen and seeing in their cellar got me interested. They had giant oak vessels filled with a special beer that you could only get at the brewery in the Czech Republic. It just made me think, I want to ferment a beer in a big oak vessel.
WIBG: So you just went out and got some?
Mike: Well, mostly, yeah. I want to use them for sours, because another part of the brewing school was traveling all over Europe. We went to places like Rodenbach and they had like 450 of those foudres there.
Before we soured them though, I wanted to do something with it. I even thought about doing a, just to be a snotty asshole, using barrel-aged water. Like filling up the foudre with a thousand gallons of water, get the oak flavor in the water and then try to brew with it. I might still try to do that.
WIBG: That could turn out good
Mike: …or it could be disgusting
WIBG: There’s only one way to find out though, right?
WIBG: Are you planning any upcoming collaborative releases?
Mike: Maybe. I’m trying to get something going. There’s one guy I went to brewing school with who has been trying to push us a group of us from Siebel to brew a collaborative beer. He works at Butcher Knife in Steamboat Springs, and another guy works at the Commons Brewery in Portland, and they wanted to do a beer with Bell’s as well. He’s wanted to do this since October; he sent me another e-mail in February to ask if I was in. I told him I was, so, we’ll see if that happens. Otherwise I know the guys at the Commons in Portland are definitely down for it, so I know we are doing that at some point. I am going out there for the craft brewers conference so that would be a good time to do it, but we’ll see, maybe I’ll fly those guys out here to do it.
WIBG: You mentioned Butcher Knife in Steamboat, have you ever been to Steamboat, it’s a nice place?
MIKE: I’ve went to school in Colorado twice, but I’ve never been there.
WIBG: When were you out in Colorado?
Mike: I moved there in the spring of 1994 for a semester, and then I came back and was playing music professionally for about a year and then I went out for the fall of ’95 and spring of 96. Then I came back here and stated at MIAD.
WIBG: I think the last time we talked I mentioned that I also went to CSU, 2004-2009.
Mike: Oh yeah? It was great out there. Kind of a weird thing going out there two different times and being like fuck it, I’m going back to Milwaukee, where the real beer is…
WIBG: I keep talking to people who talk about how craft beer is really exploding there. When I was there, it was only New Belgium, Odell’s, and Coopersmith’s. Those are probably the ones that were around when you were there too, right?
Mike: I think when I was out there it was only New Belgium. I think they had just gotten out of their garage in ’94. Back then I didn’t even know what craft beer was. I was there spring of ’94, and after I came back I was like, I want to brew Fat Tire, how do I brew Fat Tire back here in Milwaukee. I grew up drinking Miller then I moved out to Colorado and realized there was something else, something better. I don’t think I drank a Coors the whole time I was there, it was like blasphemy, but Fat Tire seemed like it was okay.
WIBG: Yeah, I was so happy when I left Fort Collins, I thought I was finally leaving Fat Tire behind, I didn’t think I would see it again. Then week after I got here, New Belgium expanded distribution into the state and Fat Tire was everywhere.
Mike: Well, that was it, I first had Fat Tire there, and then for years I was like, there’s this beer called Fat Tire, and it’s great. Then when they launched it in Milwaukee I realized I didn’t really like it. But at the time I went from Miller to Fat Tire, and I was really excited about it. Then by the time I had it again, I had tried like a million beers and I wasn’t as excited about it. That’s the beer that started it all for me though.
WIBG: So, what’s your favorite beer style?
Mike: I don’t know. I think I like weird shit, like things I’ve never tried before. I think I default to either Belgian sours or IPAs. If I go somewhere, because I have to drink so much professionally, I just try to find something I haven’t had before. That’s just the way I try to do it. If I’ve had everything on the menu at a restaurant or a bar and I need to drink I will get a Belgian Sour first.
WIBG: How about your own beers, do you have a favorite?
Mike: Umm, it depends on my mood. I really like our sour, it’s pretty mild, but I can pick up the pediococcus a bit more now even though it’s been in the cold. I can taste the vinegar from the pedio more, which I like. But I think just an easy drinking beer like the City Fox. When we were bottling that I pulled one right off the line and was like, I’m going to crush a thousand of these this summer. I’m going to be drinking this all summer long. So, that’s definitely going to be the go to.
WIBG: So since you bottled that, is there anywhere in particular that you are distributing to?
Mike: We haven’t even done 6-pack holders yet, right now we are only distributing in cases with dividers to bars and restaurants. We were just trying to ease into it. We hadn’t even run the bottling line prior to the first time we bottled City Fox. So the first time we ran City Fox it took us 7.5 hours to get 10 cases of beer bottled. We had to set up the line and when we starte running it and labels were flying everywhere and bottles were smashing on the floor. We had 2 entire 55 gallon garbage cans full of 17 cent bottles with 6 cent sticker labels on them. I was so pissed, it was so much waste. And then we ran it again and kind of got it dialed in. By the time we ran the Bacon Bomb, it was better.
By the time we ran the IPA we did like 100 cases in less than 3 hours. So I think we kind of have it figured out. There was only like a case of bottles wasted instead of half a palette.
WIBG: Is there any particular brewery or brewer that you look up to, or look to for inspiration?
Mike: Mostly New Belgium, because of the Fat Tire. *nervous laughter* Umm, I don’t know.
WIBG: Have you met Peter Bouckaert when you’ve dealt with New Belgium.
Mike: No, but I’ve meet a lot of guys there, and they’ve always been awesome to us. All jokes aside, I was like I don’t know if I can make the Pale Ale, because we use all Mosaic hops, like some dumbass home brewer, “I use the hardest hops in the world to get.” I put up a post on the pro brewer forums and asked if anyone had Mosaic, they e-mailed me and one of their guys who is from Wisconsin hooked me up and sent hops at their cost.
Then when we were messing with the foudres, we had heard that they might have issues when they were brand new. I met a few of the guys when I was out in Colorado for the GABF and they gave me their cards, so we were e-mailing them back and forth and they gave us lots of good advice. They were super cool actually. All jokes aside, the structure of their business is awesome, which is great. There aren’t a lot of places where all of the people love to work where they work. That’s one of the great things about this industry.
WIBG: New Belgium is pretty famous for going employee owned, do you think you have any plans to go employee owned like they are?
Mike: Fuck no! Just kidding…. I don’t know. I think that’s what’s happening with a lot of the breweries, you get into this passing it on. But basically you have all these breweries run by owners who are getting to retirement age and they don’t have kids who are ready to carry on the torch, so have to figure out what to do with their business. So they either go employee owned, they sell it, or they pass it off onto their kids. With many of them, they are left with two options, they could sell their business off to AB-Inbev or they could go employee owned. I think that’s going to be a big thing with a lot of the first round craft breweries soon, because they put in their 20-30 years and then what?
I’ve got to start procreating…
WIBG: Do you have a favorite beer?
Mike: Umm, this is such a tough question because everyone judges you based upon what you say. I don’t know if there is any specific beer that I look forward to. I think for me it really is about new stuff, so there isn’t something that I am like “I can’t wait till this comes out.”
I have never gone to Dark Lord Day and I’ve never waited in line for the Black Friday beer at Lakefront. I don’t, there’s something about that, not like I wouldn’t love people to do that for one of my beers, but I’m not the kind of person who waits in line for something. It’s really just new stuff.
Although, maybe that’s not true, because I have totally geeked out at beer fests when they pour one ounce pours of Dark Lord or Utopias. I do that, but they are just such weird beers, so it’s just not worth it. It’s not just like any Imperial Stout, you know? Really when you have a beer like Utopias it’s just so ridiculous…
WIBG: Coming from home brewing, do you have any advice for home brewers that could help them brew better, more consistent beers?
Mike: I think the key things I did when I was home brewing that helped a lot, at least when getting investors, is that people would say this doesn’t taste like homebrew. I think the key things were getting the beer off the yeast as quickly as possible to get all the off flavors from autolysis, the yeast cells exploding. That was a key thing, trying to be very good about going from primary fermentation into secondary and moving the beer of the yeast as quickly as possible. Monitoring it, so you know when it’s done fermenting, and pulling it off the yeast. I think that’s a big one that even I would get sloppy about because it’s a tone of work, but I think it makes a huge difference in the taste of the beer.
Other than that, there’s a lot of stuff that most people don’t do, or don’t know about. Like actually oxygenating the wort, buy a carb stone for $20. Initially I was using lab grade oxygen, but I switched to a little fish tank pump with an air filter and then I aerated. Even adding a little yeast nutrient to strengthen the yeast cell walls.
WIBG: A lot of home brewers, myself included, dream of starting a craft brewery. Do you have any advice for someone who may be hoping to start one in the future?
Mike: It’s all about planning and sticking to the plan. That’s the hardest thing. I talk to a lot of investors, or a lot of people who are interesting in investing who said they have wanted to invest in this industry for decades, and they have talked to a million home brewers, and they were interested in investing in those people. But that those home brewers could never put pen to paper, like never write a business plan. I think if you really want to do this you need to write a business plan. You have to get serious about the numbers, or find someone who can for you.
I think also, it’s a lot easier for investors to swallow the idea of giving you money if you’re like, “I’m the beer guy,” and then this is the books guy. That’s partially the reason I got the MBA, because I can’t work for someone else, I have to be the final word.
If you are really serious about starting a business you really have to focus on the numbers and understand what you are doing and stick to it, that’s key.
WIBG: Is there anything we haven’t covered that you would like to?
Mike: We didn’t really talk about the arts component at all. Each label features a different Milwaukee artist and once we go into 6-packs we will have codes on there that you can scan and find out about the artist, see their work, and download music from local bands. So the bottles become little, well I call them 12 oz. ambassadors for Milwaukee and all the cool shit that happens here. We also got the artist’s studio with 22 artists next door and a couple thousand square feet of gallery space. It’s really important to us to support art and what we do here. That was the whole point of starting the brewery. So we also try to get strategic partnerships with like Alverno Presents, sponsoring their events and other art and music events. Or working with bars where we sponsor their green room so the bands get free Brenner beer when they play there.
We’ve also build a stage and we are working on getting a better sound system for bands, and we’ll be doing some more live music.
Well, that’s all for my interview with Mike Brenner. I really enjoyed hanging out with him, and talking about his brewery. Hopefully you found this as enjoyable to read as I found the conversation.
That’s all for tonight, check back again soon for a beer review!
Happy Drinking, and remember to always drink Wisconsinbly!