Every time we drive up to Wisconsin, our car no sooner crosses the state line than my husband pulls over into a gas station and grabs a six-pack of beer. Yes, weird. No, he’s not an alcoholic. His mission is to buy Spotted Cow, a craft beer from New Glarus Brewing Company, located in the 2,000-person town of New Glarus, Wisconsin.
Spotted Cow is a legend of a beer in the Midwest. Some even call it epic—the taste is light, citrusy, and clean, with a crisp finish. The company brews a wide variety of beers, with names like Fat Squirrel, Moon Man, and Two Women—and all multiple award winners.
The catch: They only distribute in Wisconsin. I found this so strange that I called up founder Deb Carey, to hear the history of the brewery and her reason for keeping it local.
A Wisconsin native, Carey started her entrepreneurial career at age 16 with an interest in art. She made postcards, wedding invitations, and business logos, until her family relocated to Montana after high school. Looking to expand her clientele, she drove to a nearby brewery to inquire about their need for a graphic artist.
The investigation proved fruitful—not only did she get a job, but she also met her future husband. “Dan was the brew master, he was actually the youngest brew master in the country at that time—it was 1983 and he was just 23 years old,” says Carey.
The couple started a family and moved into a trailer, but wages were slim and times were getting tough. Dan was garnering a fair amount of attention, so he soon moved the family to Germany for a brewing internship, and then back to Chicago to attend the Siebel Institute of Technology for a degree in brewing technology.
Before long, the family was on the road again. This time to Oregon, where Dan worked as a brewing fabricator. Carey felt inspired to use her artistic talent again, so she opened an art shop. Things settled down…albeit for only a short while.
“We didn’t have much time off and Dan was traveling like crazy. He had to get another job and finally landed something stable at Anheuser-Busch in Fort Collins, Colorado,” she says.
Three years later and unhappy with corporate life, the Careys were at a loss. Friends constantly asked them if they’d consider opening a brewery of their own, but the couple always shook their heads, thinking it would be too expensive and difficult to juggle business with brewing.
One day in mid-1993, Carey got an idea. “I told Dan, ‘I could start a brewery and you could work for me,’” she remembers.
A few days into writing a business plan, Dan got on the phone to check malt supplier prices. “He called a supplier in Wisconsin and the woman on the other line said, ‘Are you bidding on the equipment in Appleton? The 10-barrel system for the great price?’”
Dan hung up the phone, dumbstruck. He didn’t know anything about the sale. Carey was thrilled. She put their house on the market the next day and placed a bid on the equipment. Pretty soon, she was on a train from Denver to Milwaukee to get a loan. The process wasn’t easy, but she secured the equipment and in the summer of 1993, the Careys, along with their two daughters and dog, piled into a U-Haul for the long trip to Wisconsin.
“We rented a crappy old house with no air conditioning, and traded stock for the occupation of an abandoned warehouse in New Glarus,” she says.
The couple was facing an up hill battle. They dug a from-scratch drainage system in the warehouse floor, cleaned up the building, and employed five guys from a bar down the street to help transport equipment. The hard work was worth it. New Glarus Brewing Company was off and running just four months later, in October 1993.
“It was just me and Dan and we brewed 3,000 barrels that year—we didn’t sleep much,” says Carey.
The early days were hard for the Careys. There were issues with suppliers and wholesalers—but no issue as big as that with a bank in June 1994. It was that month when Carey was given “unreasonable terms on the purchase of the brewery.” Carey did finally find a banker willing to give her agreeable terms, and operations continued. Little by little, word got out about New Glarus Brewing Company. Bars started selling varieties, the brewery opened for tours, and production grew.
Today, New Glarus is a household name in the Midwest and in beer circles around the world. In 2003, Dan won the Association of Brewers Small Brewer of the Year award, and in 2005 and 2006, the Mid-Size Brewer of the Year Award, according to the company’s website.
“Dan is incredibly passionate about making some of the best beer in the world, and I think we have achieved that,” Carey says.
The brewery employs 62 people and is on par to produce 100,000 barrels of beer this year.
Why only distribute in Wisconsin? “I get asked that hourly, but the brewery’s success is predicated on the quality of the beer and taking care of our people. If you don’t take care of your people, you won’t make great beer,” she says.
Her goal is continuous growth. “We’ve been in a genuine double digit growth pattern for the last 10-15 years. In fact, Spotted Cow is the second best selling beer in the state behind Miller Lite and we’ve never advertised,” she says.
What is her advice to budding brewery owners?
“Work in a brewery first, be careful with your money, do not give up control to anyone, work with used equipment, and be ruthlessly honest about your strengths and weaknesses,” she says.