Is Milwaukee’s craft brewery market reaching
near saturation? How many breweries are too many? What does it take
to open a brick-and-mortar brewery? We ask Milwaukeeans from three
local breweries to weigh in, and reveal how today’s craft beer
scene is redefining Brew City.
Three of the four
masterminds behind Raised Grain Brewing Co., from
left to right:
Jimmy Gosset, Nick Reistad and Scott Kelley.
What It Takes to Open a Brewery
a craft brewery is more than discoursing about beer. It involves
plenty of grunt work. Even with that caveat, however, comes success.
“First-timers tell us we need signs out on the road,
but we keep filling the taproom,” laughs Nick Reistad, a former
professional cyclist and business partner of home-brewing fans Drs.
Scott Kelley and Jimmy Gosset and entrepreneur Kevin Brandenburg.
Their popular pub, Raised Grain Brewing Co., is located near Goerkes
Corners in Waukesha.
Working from their own designs and with assistance
from Reistad’s wife, Kim, the foursome performed a lot of work
themselves, even proudly tiling a bathroom. “We think we did a good
job with that. Looking around the room, we see smiles,” Reistad
The group met in September of 2014, and a year later
held their soft opening. Multiple business models were considered
before settling on one, then came space leasing and buying
equipment. Within that quick trajectory, the partners were licensed,
and eventually launched with eight tap beers.
“Take what you think you will actually need, then
double that number,” Reistad suggests of the financing process. “We
have found that to be true, and then some. There are always
unforeseen expenses. But our beer is selling very well, so we’re
able to support our growth.”
The gang raised their glasses when Raised Grain’s
first beers came out of the tanks, and then everyone went back to
work. “(The) same thing (happened) when we won a gold medal at last
year’s Great American Beer Festival,” recalls Reistad. “We had about
15 minutes to celebrate.”
For Andy Gehl, co-founder of Third Space Brewing,
retaining the charm and authenticity of space are among the pros of
reinventing an existing building. “We were really excited to rehab
an old factory building from the height of Milwaukee’s manufacturing
heyday,” he says. For Gehl, it was also an effort to help revitalize
the Menomonee Valley.
The co-founders of Third
Space Brewing, Kevin Wright and Andy Gehl
“Another major pro of rehabbing is the cost,” he
continues. “It is much more economical to find an existing space
and fit it to your needs than to build from scratch.”
Planning for Third Space took about three years, from
initial concept to opening, but it was an entire two years of
full-throttle development, with construction alone taking almost a
full year, Gehl adds.
The brewery name comes from a sociology concept that
humans need third spaces in their lives, outside of the first space
that is home and the second space that is work, Gehl points out. “We
all need a third space where we can relax, have a good time, connect
with friends, and engage with the community,” he enthuses.
Gehl is grateful that he and his team raised most of
their capital from savings as well as from debt financing from two
lenders, allowing flexibility in running and growing the business.
Third Space’s primary lender is First Bank Financial Centre, and its
secondary lender is the Milwaukee Economic Development Corporation.
Big Head Brewing Co. in Wauwatosa was launched with
about $100,000 in capital investments. The money was put to work
immediately, as its owners worked to secure and renovate a former
cabinet shop. For co-owner Pat Fisher, location is more important
than the building type. To hold down costs, a corps of volunteers
pitched in to flesh out the space. It helped that the rehabbing
became a big party, with free beer, pizza and prizes. But the work
is ongoing, he says. “As soon as we opened, we started making
improvements,” Fisher adds.
Is Milwaukee’s Craft Brewery Market Near Saturation?
beer columnist Kathy Flanigan has plenty to say about the conundrum
of perhaps having a plethora of Milwaukee area craft breweries.
She’s also the author of “Beer Lover’s Wisconsin: Best Breweries,
Brewpubs and Beer Bars.”
“Too many breweries? Nah. I don’t believe the market
is saturated. I think it’s a matter of what kind of brewery you’re
shooting for,” Flanigan points out, indicating that the facilities
are well spread out. Even in clustered areas, there is a diversity
of styles, she adds.
“In a lot of ways, breweries and taprooms are the new
corner bars. I think there will be a shakeout of sorts, but I don’t
know that it will be radical,” she postulates. From Flanigan’s
professional perspective, the future of craft beer in Milwaukee
looks good. “We were late to the boom, (and) we’ll probably be late
to any bust,” she predicts.
“People have been talking about saturation in the
market for a decade now,” says Nick Reistad of Raised Grain Brewing
Co. in Waukesha. “Are we there? Are we getting close? Who knows!
There is a lot of good beer made in Milwaukee, which is incredibly
He adds that, at some point, there will be a
contraction in the craft beer market, and the break will be on good
vs. great beer.
“If you’re going to start a brewery, make sure you’re
making great beer,” he warns.
For Reistad, as long as Milwaukeeans drink local
beer, there is room for market expansion. “If people want their
local craft breweries to keep growing, to be able to continue
innovating, and to continue to support the local economy by
employment and making charitable donations, they should drink
locally brewed beers,” he says. “But that only makes sense to our
customers if we, the breweries, make beer they enjoy.”
Third Space Brewing’s Andy Gehl agrees. “We think
there is a lot of room in this market for growth, but new
breweries have to find their own niche,” he says. Gehl sees a
major shift toward consumers choosing to drink local, which
creates space for new start-ups. “However, if everyone is doing
the same things, it will be hard to survive,” he points out.
“We try to differentiate ourselves with our focus on
quality and in creating flavorful yet balanced beers. That is a bit
more of a mainstream approach, but it works for us because we have a
highly experienced brewmaster at the helm,” Gehl explains. “Other
breweries will focus on just sour beers or on creating unique
styles, and that will work for them. Everyone has to find their
Conversely, Pat Fisher of Big Head Brewing Co.
sees a crowded market and predicts an eventual shakeout. When is
still up in the air, he says, emphasizing that each facility
needs to continue to work to set itself apart. Big Head hosts
private parties, Packer nights and other activities to draw in
folks who also truly appreciate great beer. An emphasis on the
latter is most important, Fisher affirms. Subsequently, Big Head
is always looking for new brews, such as those gleaned from
customer requests, he adds.
A Day in the Life of a Brewmaster
By Scott Kelley, brewmaster at Raised
Grain Brewing Co., as told to Martin Hintz
Wake up, so I’m at my 8- to 10-hour day job by 6 a.m., as a
practicing physician at a dermatopathology lab. I then head to the
brewery around 4 p.m.
Check on fermentation, monitor brews already started, oversee
operating the bottling line, order grain for the next week’s brews,
make sure everything is running to our standards. There is always
something unexpected. Troubleshooting is part of the fun. My
schedule is on-the-fly, but I’m backed up by a great team (who’s)
all on the same page, making everything flow easily.
Snack. Grain deliveries always come with a couple of candy bars
tucked between grain bags. Usually the person who accepts the
delivery gets them, but sometimes one is saved for me.
Eat dinner at the brewery. We have a small grill out back, and our
own food truck has an amazing chef who can whip up something while
Pop into the taproom and have a beer with people. They are always
eager help out with quality control — I wonder why?
One last check on everything for quality, check the temperatures on
the tanks, (and) make sure everything is cleaned up.
Close and lock the doors, head home, (and) hit the bed by 11 p.m.