Jake Leinenkugel is a man you want to be sitting next to when there's beer around. It's the seventh inning of a spring training game between the Brewers and the Diamondbacks, and everyone in a 20-foot radius seems to be sipping on a Summer Shandy purchased by the brewery patriarch. By game's end, he'll have bought beers for about 100 different people.
"I remember the days when these things were $2.50," he admits as he hands over the eight bucks or so a beer costs at the modern ballpark. But this is what Thomas Jacob Leinenkugel does these days. The eldest brother of the Leinenkugel clan, Jake was president of his family's eponymous brewery from 1989 to 2015, expanding its distribution footprint into all 50 states and building it into one of the largest breweries in the country. Now that he's retired from "official" brewery work, Jake spends a majority of his time in Arizona, where he and his wife have come for the last 25 years for the brewery's sales training meetings. (There's actually a strong link between the Leinenkugels and the Grand Canyon State -- Jake's grandmother lived in Tucson for more than 60 years, his father grew up there, and his brother started a branch of the Arizona Bank back in the 70s). Management of the brewery is in the hands of brother Dick, who took over as president, as well as several members of the next generation of Leinenkugels; Jake gets to golf, hike, travel and buy beers for baseball fans.
After the game, Leinenkugel sat down to discuss the runaway success of his brewery's seasonal Summer Shandy, brewery buyouts, the changes he's witnessed during his 40 years in the beer industry and what's coming next for the Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Company.
Let's start with the basics. What the hell is a shandy?
That's a good question, because I think most Americans are just discovering the shandy even though it's been around in one form or another for a very long time. Here's the history: in 1922 a bike race took place outside of Munich, Germany and a bar owner named Franz Kruger was running low on beer to give to the competitors. He decided to combine the lager beer he had on hand with lemonade half and half to make the beer last, and the bikers loved it. In Germany, the drink became know as a Radler -- Radler is the German word for bicycle.
"Shandy" is the English or Irish term for a Radler -- beer combined with lemonade. It's actually beer cut with anything -- juice or soda, ginger ale. You even see Coke or Sprite added in great Britain and Ireland.
We were the first brewery to decide to look for German variations of the style to start producing on a large scale. It took us a couple variations to get the lemon flavoring right with the wheat ale base -- we tried lemonade, but lemonade is pretty unstable. The base beer is actually a wheat lager, and natural lemonade flavoring is added after the brew cycle.
And the Summer Shandy is now your top-selling seasonal, correct?
It's actually the top-selling summer seasonal craft beer. We only make produce and sell this for 6 months out of the year -- we sell over half a million barrels of just Summer Shandy. We're also continuing to explore seasonal variations of shandy. We think we're just at the tip of the learning curve for most Americans to find, discover and taste shandy and to understand what it is. We actually did a study a while ago and found that a third of the people who had just started drinking Summer Shandy had never drank beer. For a third of them, it was their first beer, ever. We're finding that Summer Shandy can be a great introduction to other beer styles.
About four years ago, we came out with Berry Weiss and used berries along with lemonade flavoring. It did well but fell right off at the end of October. We decided we needed flavors more representative of the seasons in the rest of the country. So we continued with Lemon Berry Shandy, which was replaced with Orange Berry Shandy, then we came out with a fall seasonal last year with pumpkin spice -- Harvest Patch Shandy, which will come out again this year. Cranberry Ginger Shandy appears in the winter seasons.
We have a special package we do every year, a can sampler pack with four different styles of shandy, that will be available in Arizona for the first time later this year.
Forty years is a long time to be in this industry. What's the biggest change you've witnessed in your career?
The biggest shift has been in the beer drinkers themselves. Forty years ago, the beer drinker was a member of what we now call the Greatest Generation. These were hard-working folks who would spend the day working to support their families and would always stop at the local tavern for beers. All the beers there were the same: basic, good quality lager beers. Then light beer came along and changed everything (I was one of the ones telling my dad not to worry about those. I only missed that by about 40 percent).
The biggest change since that time has been new brewing styles, which started with Fritz Maytag and Anchor Steam, followed by Jim Koch and Kenny Grossman -- richer, darker, fuller bodied beers. That changed the perception of what beer is in the United States. These were still less than 1one percent of the American beer business, though. Jump forward 25 years, and there are now 3,000 breweries compared to when I first started, when there were less than 300.
But like I said, the biggest change is in the new beer drinker - the Millennial. What they like, what they drink. There's a lot of consumer interest in what's new, which started about five years ago in the industry and led to this explosion of craft brewers and new styles. They're seeking out new, different beers because they're interested in the product and the flavors. It's more about the beer for them.
Beer is also better than it was 10 years ago. Craft brewers are investing in most cases in high tech equipment, which results in better-tasting product. If you go back 15 years, there's a bump in the road that just about ruined craft beer because men and ladies were producing low-quality beers. If we go back on quality, we're going to do severe damage to ourselves.
Your brewery was one of the first to sell to a macro-brewer -- MillerCoors, in 1988. These days, buyouts and mergers are becoming more and more common. What's your view of how this affects the industry?
Well, at that time it was just called Miller. We had good affiliation with them as an in-state brewery. They had helped us out on various occasions, and we highly respected them. We decided to merge because our growth was in the single digits and we had no succession plan between the three families involved in the brewery at that time. We've gotten along extremely well ever since. We have our own independence from them, and it's provided us with tremendous resources, from help with distribution to access to hop farmers.
I think as we move on you'll begin to see some of the more established breweries with brewers or founders thinking, "Do I really want to do this for another 20 to 30 years?" and making the decision to sell or merge with a larger brewery.
The reaction from beer geeks when these acquisitions occur hasn't been great, overall. Do you think the move Leinenkugel's made would be viewed differently today than it was back then?
The reaction was probably no different back then as it would be today. You have a loyal group of drinkers who want the beer a brewery makes to be their beer and they want to have the same people involved in making it, forever. After the agreement was made, I had a friend who told me I sold my soul to the devil. Some friend. But he thought the brewery as he knew it would go away. He didn't know all the details. Even a lot of our employees didn't believe that the brewery would continue.
We had a set of rules going into the agreement: that the brewery would always be maintained in Chippewa Falls, that the employees would all remain, that we would always give back to the community, and that there would always be a Leinenkugel involved in the business. Those rules helped us maintain our identity through today.
I think you're going to see more of these types of moves, and there will always be an instant backlash because people don't like change. It's inevitable. It'll be interesting to see how each of these breweries handles the situation with their drinkers. The only thing that cures the idea of "selling out" is time. Time, and living up to your promise to drinkers that you'll never back down in quality and that someone they trust is in charge. The only thing you can do is live up to what you did in the past.
We'll wrap up with a little preview of what's in store from Leinenkugel's. The Leinenkugel's 10th Street Brewery in Milwaukee produces the Big Eddy series of beers, which includes some of your more limited offerings. Are there plans to expand the production of the Big Eddy line or to add some barrel-aged brews to the portfolio?
Yes and yes. Expansion of the Big Eddy program is actually beginning now with our top accounts in the U.S. -- including Arizona. So you should see much more of those beers in the near future. As far as barrel-aging goes, we've already started doing barrel-aging at 10th Street, and we've had a bourbon barrel-aged version of the Big Eddy Russian Imperial Stout on draft a few times at the brewery taproom. You might see that one in bottles someday, but until then you'll just have to come visit the brewery in Wisconsin.