Leinenkugel’s new pilot brewery aims to hatch ‘the next big thing’

Leinenkugel’s this week christened a new pilot brewery at its brewing campus in Chippewa Falls, Wis., a project that will allow the 155-year-old brewery to develop, test and bring to market new beers faster than ever before.

The compact brewery, which brewed its first batch of beer in late February — a pre-Prohibition-style lager inspired by Leinenkugel’s Original — is equipped with a flexible 3- to 7-barrel brewhouse with enough capacity to ferment multiple beers at any one time. It will start with five fermenters and five bright tanks, but there’s room for expansion.

“Our overarching goal here is that the next big thing to come from Leinenkugel’s – the next Summer Shandy, for instance – will be delivered from this pilot system,” says Tony Bugher, a sixth-generation Leinenkugel who is slated to become president of Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Co. in 2023. With Leinenkugel’s Master Brewer John Hensley at the helm, Bugher is “very confident we’ll achieve that goal.”

The pilot brewery will give Leinenkugel’s the capability to showcase and sample new beers to its most-important focus group: the 125,000 customers who file through the Leinie Lodge’s doors each year.

Tucked into the back of the Leinie Lodge, a tasting room and retail store perched on the opposite side of Duncan Creek from Leinenkugel’s main brewery, the new pilot brewery will brew a bit of everything, Bugher says. That includes IPAs, sours, dopplebocks and whatever emerging or traditional beer styles Leinenkugel’s brewers have the desire to make and share with Lodge visitors.

Not only that, but the smaller system will allow Leinenkugel’s to bring back fan favorites that have been in hibernation in recent years, including, perhaps, its Big Eddy series, Leinenkugel’s Apple Spice or even Leinenkugel’s Ice.

Visitors will be able to sample the new batches of micro-brewed beers starting next month. The beers will be poured at the Lodge and available for take-away in 16-ounce and 32-ounce crowlers.

Should one of them take off with customers, “we’ll make a decision on whether to scale the recipe, move production across the bridge to the big brewery and into distribution,” Bugher says. “For as small of a system this is, it’s a massive deal because it gets to the heart of our biggest priority: To continue our tradition of innovation.”

Bugher points to Leinenkugel’s track record on innovation over the past few decades: Starting in the 1970s, his grandfather, Bill Leinenkugel, launched the brewery on a series of transformational launches with Leinenkugel’s Light and Leinenkugel’s Bock. From there, his uncles – former brewery president Jake Leinenkugel and current president Dick Leinenkugel – ushered in brands such as Sunset Wheat and Honey Weiss. And, of course, Leinenkugel’s Summer Shandy, which brought the brewery into bars and households across the U.S.

The pilot brewery will allow the brewers in Chippewa Falls to “take their creativity to a whole new level,” says Paul Verdu, vice president of Tenth & Blake, Molson Coors’ U.S. craft arm. “We set out just over two years ago to reestablish Leinie’s as a powerhouse Great Lakes-based craft brewery, and this is another major step in that direction.”

In a tongue-in-cheek nod to the importance Leinenkugel’s has assigned to the pilot brewery, Bugher says its construction displaced Dick Leinenkugel’s long-time office space.

“That alone will tell you how big of a priority it was,” Bugher jokes. "As Dick would tell you, the president's office is out in the market, anyway. And I agree."