26 June 2007
The name almost sounds like the noises made when sneezing, but this beer is nothing TO sneeze at. The acclaimed pride of Chippewa Falls (second to Jack from Titanic) I literally squealed like a schoolgirl when I first put Leinenkugel Sunset Wheat to my lips. I believe my exact words were, "It's like Fruity Pebbles in liquid form!"
They are the seventh oldest brewers in the United States, and are celebrating their 140th year of production. When Jacob Leinenkugel first came to Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, in 1866, he found wide rivers, lush forests, clean water, all surrounded by a land of thirsty lumberjacks and trappers. As the son of a German brew master and brother to two others, Jacob knew an opportunity when he saw one. So he and business partner John Miller set to work building the Spring Brewery. The name held the secret of their rich, tasty product—the pure water that flowed from the Big Eddy Spring. Neither acidic nor alkaline, the water was perfect for brewing full-bodied beer. And, in 1867, the first batch of Leinenkugel’s beer was born. Bless you.
Within thirteen years, Jacob and his crew were handcrafting 1800 barrels of Leinie’s per year to meet the growing thirst for quality beer in the Chippewa Valley. By 1890 he had expanded the renamed Jacob Leinenkugel’s Spring Brewery to include a new brew house, three-story malt house and a barn to house the teams of horses that drew the Leinie’s delivery wagons. After Jacob’s death in 1899, son Matt stepped in as the second-generation Leinenkugel to oversee the precious family heritage that is Leinenkugel’s beer.
"Leinie’s" (I still pronounce this all wrong) has grown from one variety to seven and has won loyal fans throughout Wisconsin, Illinois, Minnesota, Michigan, and even Arizona and Massychusetts! But, since the company's founding in 1867, Leinenkugel's beer had been sold only in the northwoods area of Wisconsin known as the Chippewa Valley. Sales had been steady enough to allow the company to expand its facilities, but it was not until 1970 that Leinenkugel began to reach out to bigger markets. The company began selling its beer in Minnesota that year, and in 1972 also reached into the Upper Peninsula of Michigan market. One barrier to greater distribution of Leinenkugel's was that the beer was made with no chemicals, unlike most national brand beers. This gave it a short shelf life, and so it was difficult for the company to imagine it could penetrate into wider markets. But the beer was becoming known outside its limited Midwestern market. Northern Wisconsin attracted a lot of tourists in the summer, and the hospitality center was devised to bring them to Chippewa Falls and introduce them to the taste of Leinenkugel's. Besides tourists, the company also thought it could reach out more to college students. A number of small colleges dotted the upper Midwest, and by 1982, Leinenkugel was planning ways to appeal to these young drinkers. Way to go, fellas!
By 1987, Leinenkugel was a profitable company, comfortable in its geographic niche. Still a small, family-controlled company, Leinenkugel seemed to be making the most of its regional market without straining for greater growth. But in some ways the company was trapped. While it was doing well in its region, the company did not have the resources in terms of marketing and distribution to get its beer beyond the Midwest. The company wanted to branch out in a different way, too. Specialty brewing--small-scale production of "hand-crafted" special recipe beers--was a market category that was just starting to boom in the late 1980s, and Leinenkugel wanted to get in on it. But the company did not have the cash to finance a switch to a new product. In the meantime, Miller Brewing Company, one of the American beer giants, was experiencing stagnant sales. It was also locked into its core product, and was having difficulty breaking into new areas. Miller first approached Leinenkugel about a sale in 1987. According to Leinenkugel family legend, the father of current company president Jake Leinenkugel thought Miller wanted Leinenkugel to buy it. But it came to pass the other way around. Leinenkugel became a wholly owned subsidiary of Miller Brewing Company on April 1, 1988.
The sale was a shock for many Leinenkugel fans and employees, who feared the giant beer company would adulterate the Leinenkugel recipe and perhaps close down the historic brewery. The brand lost an estimated ten percent of its core customers in the year following the sale. After that, however, sales took off as Miller's marketing expertise and deep pockets allowed the smaller company to branch out. Although sales were still primarily in the four states Leinenkugel had traditionally sold in, Miller managed to get the brand distributed in Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Nebraska, and Colorado by 1994. Sales in the upper Midwest market grew by double digits, and soon after the sale to Miller, Leinenkugel began producing new beers. Since the sale to Miller, Leinenkugel's production capacity nearly tripled, and the brand began appearing in markets as far from the Wisconsin northwoods as California and Florida. The company managed to do this without sacrificing its historic brewery or modifying the recipe for its Leinenkugel's Original brand. By the late 1990s, Leinenkugel's was in places it would hardly have imagined ten years earlier, like the hands of an illustrating Noew Englander. Thank goodness.
And since this review is already long, I'll leave it up to you to check out their individual brews. They have an arsenal of year round brews in addition to the seasonal. I haven't had a chance to try all of them since the stores only stock the Sunset Wheat, but I can already say that nothing beats it's fruity yet still beerlike taste that the other fruit beers lack. Check out their website (http://www.leinie.com) for more information. It's one of the better designed and easy to read ones I've seen. I am almost booking a trip to visit a friend in Minniesota, but don't tell him that it's mainly to try the other Leinies! Oh, please. You try the Sunset Wheat and you'd do the same thing.