Potosi tries to forge a sustainable path back to the glory days of Wisconsin brewing.
Sustainability wasn’t a buzzword for Potosi Brewery when it opened more than 200 years ago in Potosi, Wisconsin. “Reduce, reuse, recycle” wasn’t a catchphrase.
It was simply the only way to brew, and the only way to run a successful business.
How we think of and see sustainable practices in the brewing industry today is really a return to the old way of doing things. When Gabriel Hail opened the brewery in 1852, quenching the thirst of farmers, miners and fishermen in the “Catfish Capital of Wisconsin,” he planted the seed of sustainability into Potosi’s heritage.
After 120 years of faithful brewing, the brewery ceased operations and closed its doors in 1972. Many lovers of Potosi beer thought they would never enjoy a swig of Good Ol’ Potosi again.
But the people of Potosi couldn’t let go of its heritage or the old fashioned way of brewing sustainably and maintaining ties to the Wisconsin land, a way Gabriel Hail—if he were here today—would be proud of.
Since the brewery’s resurrection, resource management has been a priority. The brewery ties itself to the land in the same way it had in 1852: by using valuable resources that rest right in the limestone bluffs it was built beside.
The brewery still uses natural spring water from the bluff to brew its beer. It also makes use of what looks like a bombed-out cave in the back of the brewery to store and age beer, just as Hail had.
Today the brewery is indebted to the village of 700, as well as history buffs and beer fanatics. Without them, the brewery would be an empty, condemnable building and the heritage of Potosi would be lost.
To understand how old the brewery is, Frank Fiorenza, Potosi village president and member of the Potosi Brewery Foundation board of directors, likes to remind guests and visitors that the brewery opened before Abraham Lincoln became president and the Civil War began.
Presidential changes and war weren’t all Potosi Brewery endured.
Prohibition ended the life of many breweries in America. Out of the roughly 2,800 breweries in existence before prohibition began in 1920, only around 137 remained when it ended in 1933. Potosi Brewery was one of the few survivors.
The brewery even stood tall during the Great Depression, keeping the people of Potosi and the surrounding areas employed and, once prohibition ended, tipsy enough to ease their troubles.
Like many breweries at the time, Potosi Brewery made it through Prohibition by making and distributing root beer, milk and near beer, or beer with a low alcohol content, which breweries were still permitted to sell.
Despite enduring tremendous hardships and competition, the brewery shut down in 1972, leaving only eight breweries left in Wisconsin. The following 30 years took its toll on the buildings.
Robin Shepard, associate professor at UW-Madison and beer writer for the Isthmus newspaper in Madison, reflects on a time he took his students on a conservation field trip along the Mississippi to Potosi in the early 1990s.
“I still have this image in my head from 25 years ago of a building that should have been condemned,” Shepard says.
Gary David bought the ruined Potosi Brewery Bottling building in 1995, while his cousin bought the brewery itself in 1997. After bringing family on board, David held a community meeting in 1999 to discuss what to do with the brewery.
“In ’95, they were ready to tear the buildings down,” David says. “I purchased it to save our history and the heritage…all of which would be lost if it was a vacant lot.”
With an outstanding turnout of Potosi community members, beer fanatics and history buffs, the Potosi Brewery Foundation formed in February 2000 with the goal of resurrecting the brewery to its glory days as one of Wisconsin’s five largest breweries.
The foundation quickly became the sole owner of what is now Potosi Brewing Company and, in 2008, accomplished its goal of bringing the brewery back to life while preserving its vintage forms of sustainable brewing.
A significant step toward a sustainable trajectory is “all Wisconsin made,” according to Shepard. “Potosi Brewery is rich with historical brews and ties to history, and is now starting to throw sustainability in the mix,” he says.
The brewery’s resurrection may not have been successful if it weren’t for the number of visitors the American Breweriana Association attracted by making Potosi Brewery home to the National Brewery Museum.
According to the Potosi Brewery website, Len Chylack, president of the American Breweriana Association, says Potosi was selected to house the National Brewery Museum because of its community’s affection for beer, attachment to its brewing history and its brewing culture. Potosi was voted by an 80 percent margin to house the museum rather than Milwaukee or St. Louis, according to David.
Fiorenza, with gleaming eyes, says he believed it was Potosi’s sense of community that led the association to choose Potosi.
“What sold the association on making Potosi home to the National Brewery Museum over, say, New Glarus or Milwaukee, was our ties to the community,” Fiorenza says. “They were amazed that a village of 700 people could raise $5 million to resurrect the brewery.”
Potosi’s innovative and community-led redevelopment project allows the brewery to focus on creating a positive sustainable impact on the environment and the economy.
“The brewery could have been easily knocked down, but it was restored instead,” Fiorenza says, shifting in his chair at the bar. “All of these walls are the original walls [from Hail’s time].”
As he shows the brewing facility, including the cave, Fiorenza reflects on what made restoration a sustainable option.
Fiorenza makes sure to point out the see-through floor tile, roughly 2-by-2 feet in size, which showcases a natural spring the brewery uses to brew its beer—the same spring the settlers of Potosi used in the early 1800s.
Through the gift shop, Fiorenza walks to a glass wall and door leading into the cave that holds the brewery’s rye beer whiskey barrels at a perfect aging temperature of 43 to 46 degrees Fahrenheit. No air conditioner necessary.
Unwilling to detach itself from the remnants of the time-worn building, the foundation made the brewpub’s tabletops from salvaged cypress wood from the old vats used to age beer, dating to the 1890s and early 1900s.
The restoration also allowed the brewery to use recycled tires for the floors of the entrance center and the floor of the Potosi Brewery Transportation Museum, as well as to install LED lights to conserve energy.
More importantly, the brewery found it could focus on sustainable ingredients for its beer by staying local. Since a large carbon footprint is left when ingredients travel across state borders to reach their destination, it makes the most sense to gather as many ingredients from within the state that houses the brewery. However, not all ingredients are readily available in local Wisconsin.
The basic ingredients of beer are water, yeast, malted barley and hops for flavor. All of Potosi’s malt comes from a Wisconsin maltster.
As for hops, getting them supplied from a Wisconsin hops company is a continuous effort as not all hop varieties grow well in Wisconsin. The best current alternative is to support the reintroduction of hops in Wisconsin as an alternative crop, Fiorenza says.
Potosi Brewery not only focuses on what it puts into the beer, but also what it does with the byproducts of the brewing process. The brewery gives spent grain to local farmers and recycles condensed steam as reusable energy to heat the brew kettle.
However, it needs noting that Fiorenza, the Potosi Foundation and the people of Potosi see sustainability as much more than using natural resources and positively impacting the local environment. It is the brewery’s larger view of sustainability that will return it to its former glory days.
“Sustainable brewery practices creates a sustainable brewery, and a sustainable brewery creates an economically viable community,” Fiorenza says. “Everything is tied together.”
This resonates with the foundation’s mission to channel all profits to support historical and educational initiatives and charitable causes.
In the last two years, Potosi has put more than $33,000 toward youth recreation, UW-Platteville scholarships and gift packages for silent auctions, according to Fiorenza.
For the Potosi community, the brewery was never an end in itself.
“It’s a catalyst for creating economic development,” Fiorenza says, after noting Potosi Brewery had a $4.6 million impact on the region in 2010.
Since renovating the brewery, Potosi Brewery attracts 65,000 to 70,000 visitors a year from more than 40 countries. Fiorenza hopes to double the number with the opening of a new brewhouse adjacent to the current brewery, which is estimated to open in early 2015.
Steve McCoy, the third Steve to take over the brewing responsibilities as brewmaster at Potosi Brewery, is excited for the future of the brewery and how he can make it more sustainable.
McCoy can hold a long conversation about yeast, sludge, spent grain, fertilizer and water treatment, all of which he keeps in mind as construction of the new brewhouse continues.
“In the future we’re looking for a biomass burner, a boiler fueled by dried spent grain or wood or pellet fuel or something to that effect,” says McCoy. “Basically carbon-neutral.”
McCoy says the new brewhouse is being designed with extra room for new sustainable equipment once the brewery performs feasibility studies and can afford to do so. However, that doesn’t mean it isn’t incorporating sustainable devices into the brewhouse already.
“The boiler we chose is an on-demand boiler, one of the most efficient boilers out there,” McCoy says. “Most boilers keep a certain temperature and stay on. Ours turns on and off when you need it.”
Cheese and beer have always gone together, but Potosi Brewery takes it up a notch by pulling refurbished refrigeration units from old cheese plants to put in its new building. For McCoy, all purchases and practices are tied together at the end of the day.
“For me it’s all about what am I purchasing? What vendors am I choosing to work with? Do they have sustainable practices? Is any waste coming off my process? Where am I sending that?” McCoy says.
The mindset of Potosi’s brewmaster resonates with Fiorenza’s 5 Ps, to which he pins the success and the encouraging return of the brewery’s glory days: patience, persistence, perseverance, “pesos” (money) and partnerships.
Surprisingly, partnerships—not pesos—have been the most important P to the success of Potosi Brewery, according to Fiorenza. The resurrection of the brewery, and its focus on sustainability, is the result of multiple partnerships and community-wide support.
“We’ve had [the community’s] support because this building, this brewery, had been a fixture here for 120 years,” Fiorenza says. “It’s part of the history and the heritage of the people of this community.”
Pair Your Potosi Beer
Learn which foods to pair with your favorite Potosi beers and how the brews got their names.
Potosi Pure Malt Cave Ale: An amber ale that pairs well with a variety of foods like burgers, seafood and salads.Miners populated the Potosi region to mine lead used for military lead shot. In the late 1800s, the brewery had them mine a cave to age beer in, which, at the time, was the best way to refrigerate beer, according to Brad Saunders, president of the Potosi Brewing Company board.
Snake Hollow IPA: An India pale ale that pairs well with curry, cheese curds and spicy Mexican dishes.The area now called Potosi was once a group of homes settled down a deep hollow leading to the Mississippi River, called Snake Hollow. Conveniently, the name also applies to the type of beer, as hoppy beers often have a bite.
Good Old Potosi: A golden ale that pairs well with light foods like chicken, pizza and salmon.Developed as one of its first beers after the resurrection of the brewery, Potosi Brewery wanted to brew a beer representative of the original Good Old Potosi brand used in the late '60s. After collaborating with local residents, the brewmaster put together case files reflecting the original beer style and flavor the brewery had during its good ol’ days.
Potosi Fiddler Oatmeal Stout: A stout that pairs well with cream puffs, spicy barbecue and meat pie.Potosi is known as the Catfish Capital of Wisconsin. Fiddlers are baby catfish, which are well-known to the area and the Mississippi River. Each year a Catfish Festival is held in Potosi.
Steamboat Shandy: A sweet golden ale that pairs well with brick cheese, bratwurst and zesty Asian dishes.As early as 1948, Potosi Brewery used a steamboat to distribute its beer up and down the Mississippi River. Potosi was one of the few breweries that owned a steamboat and one of the few breweries that had the means to distribute its beer across state borders.
Photos Courtesy of Potosi Brewery