The Leinie Life

Dick Leinenkugel talks about beer, brotherly advice, and his brewery’s big plans

Tom Giffey, photos by Kelsey Smith

“Today’s drinker – and especially today’s Millennial drinker – wants something just for them, and so we have to manage that complexity.”

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Dick Leinenkugel may be president of the legendary brewery that bears his great-great-grandfather’s name – a brewery that now sells its products in all 50 states, a brewery that’s part of the second-largest beer maker in the nation, MillerCoors – but he’s not isolated in a corporate office far from Chippewa Falls. In fact, he’d only be closer to the action at the Leinie Lodge if his desk were behind the bar that serves up samples to crowds of visitors eager to drink in his family’s famous products and the northwoods aura they embody. When it’s time to take a photo he strolls out of his office, grabs a glass, pulls himself a pint of Summer Shandy – the brewery’s breakout, nationally marketed product – and eagerly mingles with visitors.

Already well-known from advertising campaigns that focus on his family and its history, Dick Leinenkugel became the public face of the Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Co. when he officially took over as president of the brewery from his older brother, Thomas “Jake” Leinenkugel, in January. Dick made time in his busy schedule recently to chat with Volume One about his new role, his favorite beers, and what’s next for a brewery that’s closing in on 150 years in business.

Volume One: Having your office right here in the Leinie Lodge is an enviable location for the president of a company. I assume that’s by design?

Dick Leinenkugel: I think my brother Jake purposefully put his office here. He wanted to be close to the bar, close to the action, close to people coming in through the door, and you know it’s great marketing. You can go out and sample some beer with people and hear their comments. We try to bring out new and different styles of beers, like our Grapefruit Shandy, which is in a draft test right now. (It’s available) in package and on draft in just a few locations. So we’re testing it this month to see what drinkers think of it on draft, because it was only released in six-pack bottles. It’s been a tremendous success, but we want to gauge how the drinker interacts with it when there’s also Summer Shandy on draft. Here you’ve got a ready-make test market, if you will, not more than 50 yards from my door.

Growing up with your last name, was it a given you were going to work for the family business?

It was not, because we were a very small company back in the ’60s and ’70s when I was growing up. I went to college at Marquette, leaving here in Chippewa Falls in ’76. … I worked at the brewery in the summers. I gave tours one year, I worked stapling boxes one year, I worked on a route truck – a brewery delivery truck – one summer, and I also worked in the bottling shop one summer. So we started at the bottom and learned all facets of packaging and making beer and interacting with our customers who were coming through touring, but we weren’t big enough to bring on a whole lot of other family members full-time. My dad (Bill) was running the business; his cousin, Paul Meyer, was vice president; and Bill Casper, who was our chairman at the time, was a grandson of Jacob Leinenkugel; so there just wasn’t room for Jake and me in the business. … I went into the Marine in 1980 after college, and when I decided to get out of the Marines in 1984, I didn’t even think about joining the family business. … I ended up accepting a job from a small sports marketing company called Kemper Sports Management, and I ended up being the tournament director for the Women’s Kemper Open, which was an LPGA golf event that took place is Hawaii each spring. … So I got into the sports marketing business, and for three years I was tournament director. And then it was actually in the spring of 1987, my wife was pregnant with what would be our son Jeffrey at the time, and I said, “You know, this may be the time for me to try to get into the family business.” And I pitched to my brother Jake, who was our sales manager at the time, opening up a sales position in Chicago, where my wife and I were living, and Jake took it to the board, and the board voted yes, so we opened up a position in Chicago for me, and I started selling beer and working with our distributors and calling on our chain customers in Chicago.

You got a really differentiated portfolio of beers that appeals to lots of different drinkers. Some of the Big Eddy beers are rated as highly as any beers out their among aficionados, whereas you have the Berry Weiss and the shandys that appeal to people who may not drink a lot of beer or who want something that tastes very different. How do you manage in still a relatively small operation to balance this whole spectrum?

Most brewers would love to make just one style of beer and a lot of it. Our drinkers out there want variety and are asking for it in many different consumer products, whether it’s bread or gum or cheeses or yogurt. Today’s drinker – and especially today’s Millennial drinker – wants something just for them, and so we have to manage that complexity. That’s part of our job. We’re not going to just make all different styles of beer, I think there’s got to be a strategy to it, and that strategy that we planned on relates to who we are as a brand and a brewer, which is kind of this dichotomy of German tradition, German heritage, six generations that our family represents, and using our American ingenuity. So when we make a German Kölsch-style beer like Canoe Paddler, what can we do that the Germans wouldn’t do, and that’s add in a rye, and rye adds a nice little crispness. And the judges must agree because at the Great American Beer Festival in its first year Canoe Paddler was awarded a gold medal, and last year it was awarded a bronze. Then we did a Helles-style beer, which are the sweeter, maltier style beers brewed around Bavaria, around Munich. We added five American hops. Germans would add one hop to it, it would be very low in bitterness, where ours is a little bit more aromatic with hops. So, that’s kind of where we’re going. it’s got to kind of relate to us, and I think you’ll see more styles in the future coming out that take that German style and put a little American twist on it.

You became president in January. How has the transition been? What advice did your brother give you?

Jake is still giving me advice. It’s not like he’s gone away. … When I took the chair, he said, “First of all, Dick, you’re going to have to manage your calendar, because there’s going to be more and more demand on your time,” and that is coming to be a brutal truth. As I assumed this position, so you’re not only being asked by your distributors to be out in market representing the brand, you’re asked by the national accounts team to accompany them on chain calls, I’m being asked to do homebrew events on behalf of charity. ... There are all these things that all of a sudden that pop up on your calendar, these requests that come in, and Jake told me about that, and boy, it’s true, there’s an increased demand on your time because of your position here and your position as the leader of the company in Chippewa Falls.

I think the other thing is that Jake said, and he always counseled me on this, is that you’ve got to be part of this community as well. I haven’t lived here since I went away to college in 1976. I was based in Chicago until 1993, and then in 1994 I moved my family to Milwaukee. So I raised my kids in Milwaukee and then worked out of Miller Brewing Company’s headquarters working on the business. I took a two-year hiatus and became Wisconsin’s (Department of) Commerce secretary in 2008, and served that role until 2010, when I came back to Tenth and Blake (Miller’s craft and import division), so I had to kind of re-integrate or introduce myself to the community and the business leaders here.

So what does 30-some years away from Chippewa Falls look like?

In many ways it hasn’t changed, but in many ways it’s changed greatly. I’ve told this to a lot of people: The best thing about Chippewa Falls is it only takes you five minutes to go anywhere. And I kind of had to reset my clock, because living in Chicago and living in Milwaukee you had to plan a minimum of 30 minutes to go somewhere, so I was literally showing up for appointments 15 minutes early, thinking I had to get in the car and leave. So it’s a great thing you can get anywhere in five minutes. But the bad part of it – and I don’t know if it’s a bad part – but you can’t hide. If you go out, you’re going to be seen, whether it’s to Gordy’s or at the YMCA or wherever, you’re going to run into somebody you know.

How much of Chippewa Falls and Wisconsin is integrated into this company, in terms of the sales pitch you give when you sell the product around the country? How much do you highlight Wisconsin as a culture, as a feeling, as a place?

We really tell the story a lot, about our roots, I think it’s really important. It’s differentiating the family, the face, the place, and the story. The place is Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin. Why did Jacob Leinenkugel come to Chippewa Falls in 1867 and establish the Spring Brewery? It’s a great story to tell: 2,000 thirsty lumberjacks in this town mining the white pine lumber to send down to build the great city of Chicago. The largest sawmill under one roof. You know, I love telling that story of this entrepreneur, this brewer who came here and put his brewery on these grounds where he found the purest spring water in the world to make his beer. It’s part of the brand, part of the story, part of our heritage. We certainly put it on our packaging. …

We’ve used “northwoods” before, and I think people in the Great Lakes get it because they vacation up here, they see the woods and waters and lakes. … But our growth is going to be getting people in Texas and California and Florida and New England and the Pacific Northwest to enjoy Leinenkugel’s as well. And there they may not relate to quote-unquote the northwoods of Wisconsin. But Wisconsin is still recognized as a great brewing state, as a great state of craftsmen, whether it’s cheesemakers or sausagemakers or dairy, so I think it’s something we can continue to use and tell the story. And you know what, people from Wisconsin are just genuinely really nice people, so I don’t mind being associated with being in Wisconsin. Plus, we’ve got some pretty good sports teams.

How do you appeal to people in other parts of the country who, despite the long history of this company, are hearing about it for the first time and because of products – the shandys – that are relatively new? That has to be unusual.

Actually it’s an advantage because it’s such a differentiated style, shandy, and it’s so refreshing. And it’s so great for a warm climate, especially for our Summer Shandy with lemonade. It should work in climates where it’s hot, like Arizona and Florida and Texas, and heck it should work along the Pacific beaches of L.A. and San Diego as well. I think first and foremost you start with a beer, and the great beer and the quality beer that we make. And then secondly you have to educate and tell why you’re different and the great proposition you bring to them. What’s your reason for being and why they should enjoy your beer. And you tell again the story of five – now six – generations, 148 years of family brewing heritage from Wisconsin. And it’s a story that resonates. And once they try the beer, you’ve got ’em.

So you’ve reached 50 states. That had to be a watershed moment. What’s the next big goal for this company?

The next goal is to continue to grow for distribution, and it’s continuing not only to grow in the Great Lakes where we’re known, but certainly in … what we call the Pacific Region, the Central Region, which is Texas and Colorado, and in the southeast – Carolina, Georgia, Florida. Those states. To make our plan and our vision of doubling our business by the end of 2020, we need to accelerate our growth rate in those states. By the end of 2020, what I’d like to do is get 2 million barrels of beer. We’ll be at roughly 1 million at the end of the year.

To get to that 2 million goal, is that a lot more shandy, or a lot more everything?

Yes (laughter). Right now all shandy combined – so Harvest Patch, Cranberry Ginger, the variety packs, the Summer Shandy – will be about three-quarters or 70 percent of our volume. Over time, 50 percent of our volume will be made up by other beers, things like IPL, which I think will be a tremendous hit. I think we’ll be able to grow Honey Weiss again. And then our seasonal beers like Oktoberfest, Snowdrift Vanilla Porter, and other new beers that we’re adding. I would expect that by the end of 2020 half of our beer will be shandy, half of our beer will be a mix of other flavors, and there will be many beers that are currently in our portfolio that will be hibernated. And by the end of 2020 there will be other new beers in that portfolio. It’s just the nature of the game.

Tell us about the IPL.

It’s just released in package at the beginning of July. The IPL is an India Pale Lager. The reason we did a lager – and we put in almost $3 million in equipment here in Chippewa Falls to do that – was, people like IPAs. They like hops, they like the aroma, they like the taste profile that hops adds into beer, but I didn’t want to do just another IPA. We could have been just the 954th IPA. But IPL is what we do best: We age beers, we cold store them. That’s what lager means, to age cold. So we took our Leinenkugel yeast and lagered the beer, a hoppier, more malty style of beer, using some hops that are only available in that IPL. We don’t use these hops in other Leinenkugel beers. What I think lagering does is it helps the beer smooth out, it doesn’t quite have the bite a the end that an IPA does, and I think it will help us reach those drinkers that want a hoppier style of beer, so I’m hopeful that this is going to be a big beer for us.

Any other things coming down the pike that you can talk about?

Yeah, a couple of new things. One is Heart of Oak. That’s in the fall variety pack right now. That’s a beer that uses some oak in the brew kettle that imparts an oakiness to the flavor of the beer, so that’s really, really cool. It’s a Vienna style lager, so a reddish lager, with oak. Winter’s Bite, which is a beer that’s spiced, will be coming out in the winter variety pack, and then we’re looking at some new beers coming next year as well – potentially a new spring-summer seasonal.

How many different labels do you have right now?

It’s well over 25 … including our Big Eddys and including our seasonals. I think (when people ask about something we’ve stopped brewing) what you tell people is, we’re not discontinuing it, we’re hibernating it. We’re putting it into hibernation. A great case in point is we actually came back out with a hibernated beer, our Big Butt Doppelbock this past year, which hadn’t been brewed since 2009, and we put it out for a three-month run in January, February, and March, and people loved it. So that’s not to say that we won’t bring back an old favorite now and then.

Speaking of favorites, do you have one?

You know, I love our Summer Shandy. I’ve probably had more Summer Shandy this summer than I had last summer. I like Honey Weiss. That’s still one of my favorites. I think that’s a great beer, especially if you get it fresh on draft in a beer clean glass, our Honey Weiss is exceptional. I still love the Original. I go back and drink the Original. Oktoberfest is one of my favorites as well. I always look forward to Oktoberfest. My dad always said there’s two kinds of beer. He said, “There’s Leinenkugel’s, and then there’s free beer.” So I like ’em both. … All beer is good beer, is what I’m saying.

To learn more about the Leinenkugel Brewing Co. and the family behind it, visit www.leinie.com.