Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the spring issue of Business Leader magazine. To view that and other special publications from the Leader-Telegram, go to leadertelegram.com/magazines.
John Hensley is just the 11th brewmaster in the 151-year history of Leinenkugel’s Brewing Co.
With a degree in biology and chemistry, and 16 years of working in the beer industry, Hensley took over as brewmaster Jan. 1. His background is a huge factor in how he landed the job.
“It takes a lot of different sciences to run a brewery,” Hensley said. “You’ve got to have the science mindset behind it.”
It is easy to see that Hensley loves his work.
“At the end of the day, we’re making beer. Seeing people enjoy our products — and getting to share a beer with them — is a pretty special feeling,” he said. “Folks get in here, they tend to stay here.”
Worthy of the name
On a typical day, Hensley walks through the plant several times, checks the machines and the beermaking processes, and samples the beers to make sure they are all up to standard.
The biggest challenge is “keeping the beer consistent and ensure it is the same, batch to batch,” he said.
Hensley easily rattles off facts and figures about the composition and recipes of the beers.
“I have a cheat sheet in my pocket, but I’ve learned a lot,” he said.
On a daily basis, about eight beers are being brewed in Chippewa Falls.
“It’s about 40,000 gallons of beer brewed a day,” he said.
Most of the Leinenkugel’s varieties are made locally, but some of the top-sellers, like Summer Shandy and Honey Weiss, are also made in Milwaukee.
“In a year’s time, we have 18 different brands we’ll do, including seasonal,” he said.
One of the challenging aspects of the job is participating in the daily “sensory panels,” where he and 17 others taste each beer to make sure they are correctly made.
Leinenkugel’s president Dick Leinenkugel said he has been impressed with Hensley.
“He is certainly well-qualified,” Leinenkugel said. “He comes from a generation that has seen craft brewing in its glory. I think John will bring that type of thought and innovation to brewing.”
The prior brewmaster, John Buhrow, had worked at the brewery for 40 years and mentored Hensley.
“He set John Hensley up for success,” Leinenkugel said. “Having that apprenticeship, he got to learn from (Buhrow).”
Hensley, 38, is from Belleville, Ill., near St. Louis.
He attended Carthage College in Kenosha, and was considering his options with his degrees in both biology and chemistry. He signed up with a lab staffing agency, which led to his first job out of college at Miller Brewing Co. in Milwaukee.
“It was a little bit of blind luck getting into the industry,” he said.
His dad had a homebrew kit, so he was fairly familiar with the processes.
“I had an idea of what it took, but had never done it myself until I got into the industry,” he said.
Hensley wound up staying there 10 years, beginning as a “pilot brewer,” learning the skills and techniques.
“I was in charge of general operations,” he said. “It was a perfect place to learn, because I generally did every job in the building.”
When a position at Leinenkugel’s in Chippewa Falls opened in winter 2012, he jumped at the opportunity.
“I do everything from ordering to scheduling releases,” he said. “It was one of the draws of coming up here.”
Since joining the Miller Brewing Co. family, he participated in creating Sunset Wheat and other new beers.
“Any new product since then, I’ve had a hand in helping create it,” he said. “We definitely have a hand in recipes and development and creation.”
A lot of his work is just making sure the beer is fermenting as it should.
“I’m just here to make the yeast happy,” he said with a laugh. “And give them a healthy home to do their work.”
Even when the work day is over, Hensley likes to go from the brewery across the footbridge to the Leinie Lodge to meet with fans of the beer.
“It’s a nice place to unwind and see our customers,” he said.