Leinenkugel's Sesquicentennial Excellence
Over the last 150 years, the legendary Chippewa Falls brewery has been through it all - here's where they're going next.
Interview with Dick Leinenkugel
President of Leinenkugel's
The Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Company is celebrating an incredible milestone in 2017: 150 years of brewing beer in Chippewa Falls. Leinenkugel’s has an immaculately rich history of turning Chippewa’s fresh spring water into world-renowned beer since the 19th century. There’s been five generations of Leinenkugels heading up the family business, and in this special landmark year, we got the chance to catch up with Dick Leinenkugel who grew up in the business and now serves as president and Chief Beer Merchant. We talked with Dick about fostering such an incredible business in the city of Chippewa Falls, what’s in store for the next 150 years, and how the torch will be passed to the next generation of Leinenkugels.
Volume One: Congrats on the big 150 year anniversary. That’s a pretty amazing thing. How does it feel to know that you’re a part of something with such a rich history in this town?
Dick Leinenkugel: It’s humbling in a lot of ways to be in this chair, at this time during our company’s history. I’m the fifth generation, the sixth generation is starting to work in the business now. But I think about the previous four generations and they probably had it much tougher than I do. You think about that second generation taking the business up to Prohibition, they had to be resourceful. Then coming out of Prohibition, the third generation mortgaged their homes to raise the capital to get to the brewing equipment back operating. My dad was with the business for over 40 years after World War II coming back and running the brewery through some pretty lean years where most family-owned breweries in the U.S. were going out of business. I think at one time we were down to less than 50 brewing companies in the country, and Leinenkugel’s was one of them. Now there’s over 5,000. When you think about it in the context of all those years, it’s gratifying and also very, very humbling.
The Leinenkugel family and this business has had a pretty big impact on the city of Chippewa Falls. And obviously, the brewery has a lot of Chippewa Falls pride. What makes you feel that sense of place here?
Well we’re certainly connected to the community, not only the physical site but also the people. There’s a real sense of family, not only among our workers, but certainly among the people in this town. People always point with pride to the brewery in Chippewa Falls, and I just think it’s really cool that local folks will bring their friends and relatives to visit the brewery. It’s a real testament to this city and community as well.
You started working in the business in the ’70s, right?
When I was 17 before I could work in the brewery proper (you had to be 18), my dad asked me if I wanted to give tours for the summer, and I said sure that sounds great. The previous summer I had worked at the local A&W root beer stand, slinging a different kind of beer across the bar. When I wasn’t giving a tour, I’d be selling T-shirts, hats, glasses. When I could work in the brewery, I was stapling cases. The following year, I worked on a route truck as a driver’s helper. That was a great job. We’d go to the local county bars or country bars and deliver beer – we’d deliver kegs and cans and bottles up to Bloomer, New Auburn, Cornell, Ladysmith, Holcombe, all these little towns. It was terrific to deliver beer and also interact with drinkers at the bar throughout the day. The following summer I worked in the bottle shop, and in the keg racking room.
Wow, it really sounds like you’ve really done it all.
Well, my dad always said, “Remember, you’ve got to work harder than everyone else because your last name is Leinenkugel, and everybody’s going to be watching you.” There’s a lot of truth to that. And that’s the case even today in the role I’m currently filling at the leader of the company.
In the context of being in this city, Leinenkugel’s has been around for almost the entire history of Chippewa Falls. The brewery and your family have been able to see the brewery and city evolve at the same time. As you’re building up this brewery over the years, what's happening to the community around you?
While we’re building up the brewery, it was almost cool to watch the city of Chippewa Falls develop into a technology hub, in a way. When Seymour Cray came back from Control Data Corporation in the ’70s and brought a few of his engineers with him to start Cray Research, that was really the development of something besides the mainstay companies of Chippewa Boots and Mason Shoe and the Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Company. Fast forward to today, and you’ve got a lot of things going on in this city. You’ve got the new park, the waterfront redevelopment, got world-class health care, you have a terrific public and private school system, major universities nearby, technical colleges, Illinois Tool Works in here, Cray, SGI, TTM Technologies, all happening right here in Chippewa Falls.
Now that you’ve hit this huge landmark anniversary, what do you think the next 50 years look like?
How about the next 150?
Yeah absolutely, what do you think the next 150 is going to look like?
Well, we’ve got something special here in Chippewa Falls. The brewery attracts people who want to see where one of their favorite beers is made. So first and foremost it’s about the beer and continuing to brew quality beers. But we also want to be able to delight our beer drinkers – surprise and delight, I like to say. One of the ways we do that is really right here at the Leinie Lodge. It’s gotta start with people, and the physical building, and the brewery tour, and what they see here. We’re going to continue to build that experience, whatever that might mean. It might mean lodging, it might mean other hospitality, it might mean food, it might mean some other experience. We know we’re one of the major tourist draws here in the Chippewa Valley, but we want more and more people enjoying our hotels, our restaurants, our bars, our parks, Lake Wissota. I want to make sure they get to see everything there is to see here in Chippewa Falls, and I want them to have a great experience while they’re here. Personally, I want to step out of my role within the next five to six years, and I’d love to see the next generation of the family step in. I want to make sure we have continued involvement by the next generation of Leinenkugels and the Leinenkugel family to run this business.
What new beers are you working on?
We’ve got a Pomegranate Shandy coming this summer, it’s tested well and people seem to like it a lot. Then we’re cautiously optimistic about this Cherry Blonde Lager, which is currently part of our Summer Explorer variety pack. We’re going to continue to focus on interesting German styles, primarily lager beers that we can add a certain twist to.
Leinenkugel’s has always been kind of synonymous with Chippewa Falls. Now you look around you, and the city has a lot going for it. How would you like to see it grow?
We’re excited about the development of our riverfront. That’s a terrific project that the city has embarked on. We’ll continue to be involved in that. We just want a healthy, strong community with great amenities, and we want to be able to make sure that people have a great place to enjoy a beer with their friends and family.
RAISE A GLASS:
two can't-miss Leinie events this summer
14th Annual Leinenkugel Family Reunion
Jun. 17, 9am • Leinenkugel’s, 124 E. Elm St., Chippewa Falls • FREE • 21+ • leinie.com The Leinenkugel brothers invite you to an annual celebration at the Leinie Lodge to say thank you to Leinie loyalists. Enjoy family, food, beer sampling, and entertainment. Check the website for specific events and times.
Leinenkugel’s 150th Anniversary Celebration
Aug. 11, & Aug. 12, Festivities start 10:30am and go all day • Northern Wisconsin State Fairgrounds, 225 Edward St., Chippewa Falls • 1 Day: $18 advance, $20 at the gate | 2 Day: $35 Advance | Parking $5 • 21+ • The two days will be filled with live music, food, shops, games, craftsman showcases, and beer. Headliner concerts both days with Jerrod Niemann on Friday and Collective Soul on Saturday. Fish fry at 4pm on Friday. Don’t forget to stop by the Leinie Lodge for tours of the historic brewery.
150 years of beer excellence in the Valley
Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Company Historical Timeline
1883 Leinenkugel buys Miller's shares and expands the brewery.
1933 Prohibition ends, and the brewery updates all its equipment. Capacity jumps from 20,000 barrels to 75,000 barrels a year.
1987 Miller Brewing Company acquires Leinenkugel's.