Investment in brewery helps Leinie's trot out more beers

Dick Leinenkugel, left, and Jake Leinenkugel
It's been nearly six months since Dick Leinenkugel, left, succeeded his older brother, Jake, as president of Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Co. The Wisconsin-based company was started by the brothers' great-great-grandfather.
Jim Mone | AP 2014

Nearly half a year has passed since Dick Leinenkugel succeeded his older brother, Jake, as the head of the family-run Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Co., and it has been a bit of a whirlwind, The Chippewa Herald reported.

"It's been a great six months. Moving back here, seeing Chippewa Falls through fresh eyes, as a resident for the first time since 1980 but also as one of its business leaders, has really been tremendous," he said.

Six months into the job, the changes in Leinenkugel's life have been constant. In that sense, it is no different than the industry he has been a part of since he began working at the Chippewa Falls brewery as a school kid.

"The continued pace of change in the industry overall — I don't know if it's surprising, but it seems to be even accelerating," Leinenkugel said. "It used to be that you could take a deep breath in the winter months, and in the spring gear up for summer. It's not that way anymore."

At least, it's not that way at Leinenkugel's. An increasingly important part of MillerCoors, the Chippewa Falls brewer introduced another new beer this spring, and has others in the pipeline for 2015 and beyond.

The latest addition to the Leinenkugel lineup is Grapefruit Shandy, a twist on the Shandy phenomenon that Dick Leinenkugel dreamed up nearly a decade ago. Summer Shandy has since become one of the biggest successes in the beer business, taking it into all 50 states.

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Before the year is out, Leinenkugel's is expected to hit the million barrel milestone for 2015 beer sales, and introducing beers such as its Grapefruit Shandy is part of the reason. Grapefruit joins the lemonade-flavored Summer Shandy as a March-August seasonal offering, but reaction has been so positive that it could became the brand's ninth year-round beer.

Other Shandy flavors from Leinie's include Cranberry Ginger and Harvest Patch (a pumpkin spice flavor that will stand on its own this fall after only being available in a sampler pack last year), and the Shandy can sampler pack that is poised to add cocoa berry and spiced pear styles in 2015.

The Shandy wave seemingly knows no bounds, and has left in its wake all sorts of competitors unveiling shandies of their own. "Now the Europeans are getting into the game with their Radlers, and they are bringing more of them over to the United States," Leinenkugel said.

Despite all of the new competition, he said that nine out of every 10 Shandy beers sold are Leinenkugel's.

Even though its shandies constitute more than half of all Leinenkugel's total sales, the brewery isn't neglecting its other beer styles.

"We don't just want to be the Shandy Beer Company. We are a brewer and we've been a brewer since 1867 with a wide portfolio of beers," Leinenkugel said.

Leinenkugel's has made its reputation on lagers, leaving it on the outside of the hoppy India Pale Ales that have been driving the craft beer movement. Leinie's has countered with India Pale Lager, a stronger beer brewed with five hops and caramel and pale malts. It was only available on draft in selected markets last fall, but is about to see wider distribution.

Leinenkugel said MillerCoors has made close to a $3 million investment in the Chippewa Falls brewery to enable Leinie's IPL to be brewed and packaged here. The beer is expected to be rolled out by the end of next month for six-pack sales in stores in Wisconsin and the Twin Cities, with plans to expand sales into more Great Lakes markets in the first half of 2016.

Another new beer Leinie's is calling Heart of Oak (with some oak characteristics) will be introduced as part of its autumn explorer sampler pack.

This constant addition of new beers, and the loss of some old favorites, is bound to continue.

"I was just talking with a retailer friend from Chicago who owns a bar right across from Wrigley Field, and he asked me, 'What do you think about this craft beer craze?'" Leinenkugel said. "And I said I think it's here to stay.

"Think about it. You and I grew up in an era where pale yellow beer in a plastic cup was our choice. But our kids have known nothing but an industry that has had choices and variety through what we call today craft breweries, and there's only more of them being built every day."

He explained that beer is no different than any other business.

"Look at it across any consumer category, whether it's ice cream or gum or coffee or whatever. This is a different millennial drinker today that is used to variety, choice, local. They want to know who their brewer is, where it comes from, and those are all macro trends that are going to continue to build our craft brew business," Leinenkugel said. "And at Leinie's we're well positioned."

The brewing company continues to conduct plenty of market research, and will keep selling its location in Chippewa Falls in its advertising campaigns.

"We've long attached ourselves to what all of these people pulling boats and campers know: There's this place in the northwoods that they get away to," said Leinenkugel.

Editor's note: This is an AP Member Exchange shared by The Chippewa Herald.