Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Company

To continue our look at the breweries of Wisconsin we'll head up to Chippewa Falls, home of the Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Company. Leinenkugels Brewery or "Leinie's" as it is affectionately called here in Wisconsin, was founded in 1867, making it one of the oldest continuously operating breweries in the United States. Unlike the vast majority of Wisconsin and other American breweries, Leinenkugel's managed to weather the storm of Prohibition by switching to flavored sodas and low-alcoholic "near beer". You've got to admire that sort of resiliance.

As with real estate, so with brewing, a huge aspect of a successful venture is location, location, location. Jacob managed to find a place where the water was abundant and eminently suitable for brewing:
Jacob located his brewery near the Big Eddy Springs, from which poured nonacidic, nonalkaline water that the brewery uses without treatment to this day. . . . Water is the key to the brewing process, and most brewers have to treat their water in one way or another in order to make it suitable for brewing. Jacob never seemed to have this problem, and the brewery's water is still of high quality today (The Breweries of Wisconsin, 142.)
The brewery was a family owned and operated enterprise with a fiercely loyal customer base for over 100 years until it was bought out by the Miller Brewing Company in 1988. Some of the top executives at the brewery continue to be in the Leinenkugel family, but in today's world relinquishing of control to a major conglomerate like Miller could very easily spell the end of Leinie's at some time in the future. There won't be any more retooling to put out soda and near beer to weather some future economic storm; rather it will be the standard story of American industry: You're not making the cut any more. Goodbye. Lights out. And that would be a sad day.

Now, as for their products, I must confess that I would not call any of Leinie's brews "great". But quite a few are good. In addition, they are reasonably priced. And because of the Miller ownership the distribution range is broader, so you may stand a better chance of being able to sample one or more in your area.

Leinie's Red Lager is a very solid entry, much better with food than by itself. By itself I find it a bit too bitter, but offset that bittering with some good beef or lamb and you have a great combination. The Creamy Dark is not so much creamy as crisp and snappy, but with a nice roasted backbone and good malt/hop balance.

The Honey Weiss—light, crisp, with a delicate but noticeable honey note—is very popular around here, especially dispensed by the keg at larger gatherings like picnics and wedding receptions.

The Classic Amber, a new brew in the line-up, is really quite good. I expected it to be fairly sweet, catering more to the popular crowd, but it actually has a fairly dry quality and an unexpected, subtle, and very nice roasted note to it.

On the other hand, there are several of their beers that leave me cold. The Leinenkugel's Original is unpleasant to me. Strangely, this is the beer that they used to establish themselves, but I find it over-hopped and a little strange. The Berry Weiss is basically a chick beer, lotsa berry and only sorta-kinda beery. And their Sunset Wheat tastes to me like a blueberry PopTart. Blech.

One that may come in along those same lines is the Summer Shandy—a mix of beer and lemonade—but I have not tried it. On the other hand, a lemonade shandy is one concoction I frequently make for myself on warm summer days (try it!) so it actually stands a chance of being good, if they don't make it too sweet.

But all in all I say Bravo to Leinenkugel's, especially for hanging tough through all sorts of trials. That's great Wisconsin spirit for you.