Kirby Nelson

Kirby Nelson, brewmaster at Capital Brewery for 25 years, is leaving the company this month to join Wisconsin Brewing Co., a venture started by Carl Nolen, Capital's former president.

JOHN HART - State Journal archives

VERONA — The state's newest brewery will begin like no other.

Wisconsin Brewing Co.'s $3.75 million facility in Verona is not only being built to make up to 300,000 barrels of beer a year, but its brewmaster is considered by many to be one of the deans of the craft brewing industry.

Kirby Nelson, the creative force behind award-winning beers at Capital Brewery in Middleton since 1987, has been named the brewmaster at Wisconsin Brewing. Nelson brings instant credibility and marketability to a company still more than six months away from selling its first glass of beer.

"It's buying a race car and having Mario Andretti drive it for you, and I'm not exaggerating," said Tom Porter, a friend of Nelson and owner of Lake Louie Brewing near Arena. "He's an icon in this industry. Not just in this area. It's got to be a huge leg up for Carl (Nolen) to start with that."

Nolen was Nelson's boss and president at Capital from 2004 to 2011 before being asked to leave the company. After Nolen departed, he and his brother, Mark Nolen, and a small group of investors made an unsuccessful bid in 2011 to buy Capital. The group then began working on a plan for the brewery in Verona.

The Verona City Council was scheduled to consider the project on Monday, including $600,000 in tax incremental financing (TIF) from the city for the Livesey Co., which plans to build the 23,500-square-foot facility and lease it to the brewery. The vote on the TIF proposal, however, was postponed and now will likely be considered on Oct. 22, said city administrator Bill Burns.

If approved, the project, on about five acres of land in the Verona Technology Park, could break ground later this month and be finished by June, employing 32 full- and part-time people. A 76,500- to 100,000-square-foot second phase in 2016 would add about 70 more employees and a bottling and packaging line, something that will be done until that time at Sprecher Brewing in Glendale, Nolen said.

"We are going to produce all different kinds of styles," Nolen said. "I believe craft beer consumers today are in it for the experience. They're not just dedicated to one brand or one style. For us to launch this company correctly, we're going to need to have a very diverse portfolio."

'It's very emotional'

Nelson, 56, a Racine native, began his career at Capital as the craft brewing craze was just beginning. He became known for his German-style lagers but later developed a broad range of beers to give the brewery a greater reach into the craft beer market.

Shareholders were informed of Nelson's departure in a letter dated Oct. 4, but it did not say where he was going. The decision to leave was not easy for Nelson.

"I agonized over it for quite a while," Nelson said. "When you've been intimately involved with something this long, it's very emotional."

But Nolen's gain is a loss for Capital, where Nelson has been the public face of the brewery since almost its inception.

Tom Stitgen, Capital's general manager, said Nelson's last day will be Oct. 17, but Nelson would also work as a consultant for the brewery. A nationwide search is under way to find Nelson's replacement, but in the meantime, Brian Destree, who has 10 years of brewing experience with Leinenkugel and Miller, will serve as acting brewmaster.

"The brewery is in good hands," Stitgen said. "We don't anticipate missing a step. It's a very civil departure."

Starting out big

The vast majority of craft breweries start from humble beginnings. Start-up facilities are often small and cramped and produce, initially, only a few thousand barrels of beer a year. Most take several years to achieve the production level Wisconsin Brewing plans to start at.

The company aims to continue the growth of the craft brewing industry, which accounts for less than 6 percent of beer sold in the state. Nationally, the number of breweries in the country is at more than 2,100, a 125-year high, according to the Brewers Association.

Nolen's brewery would include a tasting room and outdoor beer garden. Distribution would be focused on beer drinkers within the state's borders, which reflect's the company's name.

"It's crystal clear of who we are and what we do. There's no question what our business model is," Nolen said. "It captures our (state's) heritage."

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