Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the winter issue of Business Leader, a quarterly business magazine produced by the Leader-Telegram. That magazine and other free publications can be found online at leadertelegram.com/magazines.
This winter the locally brewed beer scene in Menomonie tripled in size.
Lucette Brewing Co. had reigned as the city’s local brewery since 2010, but two newcomers recently opened within about a month of each other.
But is Menomonie — population around 16,500 — big enough for three breweries?
“I think Menomonie absolutely is ready,” said Ryan Verdon, a native of the city and owner of Brewery Nonic, 621 Fourth St. W.
And while it might sound like a sudden flood of competition into the local beer market, the two new brewers believe that the businesses will benefit each other by making Menomonie a destination for beer lovers.
“Generally it’s good, the more the merrier,” said Jon Christiansen, owner of Zymurgy Brewing Co., 624 Main St. E., and a former head brewer at Lucette.
Beer tours of the Chippewa Valley included Lucette as one stop, but Christiansen expects two additional breweries in Menomonie will make the city a destination where those visitors will stop and stay for a while.
“That usually gets people to hop off the freeway even more,” he said.
And while they’ll be technically business competitors, the brewers don’t really see it that way and view the growing local beer industry as a community.
“The thing for us is we want each other to make the beer. That just creates more of an interest,” Verdon said.
Verdon and Christiansen have even shared advice to help troubleshoot problems as their grand openings approached.
“We have definitely helped each other out,” Verdon said.
That would often lead to sharing stories about their fledgling businesses at the end of a workday over — what else — a pint of beer.
Their own bosses
Both Christiansen and Verdon had made beer for several years in Menomonie for other businesses when they felt the urge to start up their own breweries.
When Lucette started up in 2010, Christiansen, who had previously worked at breweries in Nevada and a Milwaukee suburb, was hired as head brewer. He stayed with Lucette until leaving in spring 2016 to begin formulating his own business.
Verdon’s professional brewing résumé starts in 2009 at Rush River Brewing Co. in River Falls. About 4½ years ago, he began working for Menomonie coffee shop The Raw Deal when it started producing a line of beer.
For the past year and a half, Verdon also has been working toward opening his own brewery. The idea of working for himself and doing something that can help the community grow appealed to him.
“It’s just a thing I really want to do,” he said.
With their desires and plans to be their own bosses, the two brewers then sought good spots to open their breweries in Menomonie.
Many of the locals who visit Zymurgy for a beer remember the building’s longtime life as an auto service shop.
“The classic joke is ‘I’ll have a Sherlock and an oil change, please,’” Christiansen said, referring to the name of one of the brewery’s popular beers.
Zymurgy is in the former Dennis Auto Service, which Christiansen bought in August 2017 because of its downtown location with off-street parking.
Converting an old auto shop into a brewery has been done in many places, Christiansen said, because the tall ceilings, wide vehicle bays and other building features come in handy for brewing. Zymurgy’s brewing equipment is set up in the auto station’s former car wash, which has slanted floors and drains that make cleaning easier.
But converting the building still took plenty of work.
A floor that absorbed decades worth of motor oil and other lubricants had to be replaced. Bathrooms were redone.
“The biggest challenge was efficiency for heat,” Christiansen said.
He’s continuing to work on reducing drafts in the cinderblock building and intends to seek a façade loan to improve the building’s look.
Verdon also undertook the challenge of reusing one of Menomonie’s older vacant buildings.
Built in 1906, the building he chose had once been a depot when passenger trains stopped in the city, but it sat empty for a long time and fell into disrepair.
“Being from here, it’s just been a building that’s kind of sat around and has not been used for a long time,” Verdon said.
Locals have long talked about finding a way to reuse the piece of Menomonie history, and Verdon turned those musings into his new brewery.
“We were at the right place, right time to make it happen,” he said.
The renovation provided some significant challenges, he admits, as the project was being done to bring back the building’s historic character. The ceiling was redone in lap and plaster like they did in the old days. Most of the woodwork inside the building was restored as well.
Verdon’s father, Ron, also used his extensive handyman skills to whip the old building into shape.
As a Menomonie native, Latacia Greeley said it has been great to see the two old buildings turned into new businesses that have the ability to attract visitors to the city.
“Now that we have three different breweries, that definitely makes our community a destination,” said Greeley, who works as tourism director at the Menomonie Area Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center.
And for those who come to the city specifically for the breweries, she hopes their trip will turn into an overnight stay where they can check out other local businesses as well.
Their journeys toward opening their own breweries have similarities, but Verdon and Christiansen draw different inspiration for their beers.
“I do like to think most of the beers coming out of here will be Belgian and French down the road,” Christiansen said.
But he added he intends to keep a German hefeweizen on tap — a wheat beer brewed with a yeast strain that gives off flavors of banana and clove.
Like any brewery that’s just starting out, Christiansen said they often produce about a half dozen beers and there’s a race to see which one sells best.
So far, two flagship beers have emerged: a hefeweizen made with Eau Claire honey that goes by the name Fluff Head and a light-colored English mild beer dubbed Sherlock.
The locally produced honey is part of Christiansen’s effort to use as many Wisconsin ingredients in his beer as possible. He’s also made a cranberry weiss with fresh cranberries grown in a bog in this state.
Though he’s not trying to be too specific with beers he plans to brew, Verdon gives a nod to beermakers in the United Kingdom as his inspiration.
“I have always loved their approach,” he said. “You can make a full-flavored really tasty beer, but it doesn’t have to be a really strong beer.”
He said the British have a knack for making brews for people who want to have a few, but not get intoxicated.
Among the first pours at the brewery were an English mild ale, a British bitter, an English brown ale, a porter, a milk stout and a pseudo-American pale ale. He’ll also be making some Belgian-inspired beers and eventually wine barrel-aged sour ales.
Verdon took a couple guesses at what could become his most popular beers — either his Scottish ale or a pale ale.
The owners of Zymurgy and Nonic intend their taprooms to be the place to get their beers, but they are doing some sales in stores as well.
Zymurgy got some of its 25-ounce cans into Coffee Grounds in Eau Claire recently.
“We do want our beer to be in stores, but we want to do very small drops,” Christiansen said.
He expects to only have his beer available in about a half-dozen stores in the brewery’s opening months and keep things small — to about a 50-mile radius of the taproom.
Nonic is focusing mostly on taproom sales — people having a pint of beer there, buying cans or getting their growler bottles filled.
Though some of his cans will show up at The Raw Deal, Verdon’s vision for his business is a place for people to gather for a night out.
“I like the idea of having the place be kind of a destination spot,” he said. “I just really want people to have an experience.”
Live music and trivia nights are part of his plans. The yard around the building will have a fire pit and lawn games.
Zymurgy also already has hosted a comedy night as part of Christiansen’s plans for live entertainment at his brewery as well.
He’s looking to satisfy people who want something else to drink besides beer. Christiansen also makes ginger ale, root beer and other sodas.
On the 15-tap lineup, he hopes to always have a few options that are not beer, which can include a soda or kombucha.
“We kind of want to have at least two to three not-beer options,” Christiansen said.
That will help the place draw in families, people that don’t drink beer and students from nearby UW-Stout who come by for a place to study during the daytime, he said.