There is a small brewery in the North Woods, run by a husband and wife duo, one that I’m almost embarrassed I haven’t told you about before.
It’s so tiny that its brewer maneuvers around a 9-by-15-foot space as he crafts his beer three barrels at a time. His grain mill is powered by a hand drill. The beer that comes out of those tanks — meant for use in a dairy — is hand-bottled and delivered to customers by that same brewer.
Its beers — each big, bold and brawny — are inspired by the 23 sled dogs that have lived with them on a homestead surrounded by woods that sources spruce tips used in one of the brewery’s signature beers.
The brewer is prone to making stream-of-consciousness online posts about the nature of brewing, the state of the beer industry or other topics. He calls them manifestos, and you would too, even if they didn’t come from someone living in relative wilderness. Some of them ruffle feathers.
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So, Black Husky Brewing is a great story, and there’s finally a reason I just have to tell it: It’s moving out of the woods and into the city.
Tim and Toni Eichinger announced earlier this month that they will open a new brewery and tap room by next spring in Milwaukee’s dense and eclectic Riverwest neighborhood.
It may sound like a fish-out-of-water story, but for the Eichingers it’s a homecoming. Tim, 53, grew up in Milwaukee and up north; Toni in Milwaukee. They married just after high school and left West Allis in 1999 to move into the log home they built in Marinette County.
The dogs that grace the labels came to live with the Eichingers well before the brewery opened in 2010 in a log outbuilding they also built. Inside is a three-barrel system that Tim described as a glorified homebrew system built from reclaimed dairy tanks. Tim brewed 300 barrels last year and might narrowly top that this year, but they’re at capacity.
Most breweries Black Husky’s size rely heavily on local customers for their business, but when your neighbors are mostly wildlife and bars and grocery stores with little taste for the kind of bold beers Black Husky makes, you have to go to Plan B.
“You have to be in a market that’s pretty mature from a craft beer brewing standpoint,” Tim said. “Up here you don’t get a whole lot of craft beer.”
Of the 70-some retail customers, Tim said, only a handful are outside Madison and Milwaukee — one each in Wausaukee, Marinette, Shawano, Green Bay, Sheboygan and Kenosha. Toni estimated 90 to 95 percent of Black Husky beer is sold in Milwaukee and Madison.
Sales haven’t been much of a problem as the brewery’s reputation has grown in the last couple of years. Toni said about 60 of the brewery’s roughly 70 accounts approached them asking to carry their beer, and there’s a lengthy wait list for new accounts.
The fiercely independent Black Husky eschews distributors, so Tim himself makes the four-plus-hour drive to Madison or Milwaukee once a week to deliver every keg and bottle to each customer.
So the business reasons for Black Husky’s move are clear enough.
But the personal reasons are many as well. The demands of running a thriving business with just two people are extraordinary. They took one day off last year, they said. And Tim missed one brew day this year after contracting Lyme disease — it was caught early and treated successfully — and he still hasn’t caught up.
And while Tim and Toni have nearly no down time at all, they have even less together. No fish fries as a couple, no trips to the farmers’ market. And, critically, no family visits together. The Eichingers’ son lives in Milwaukee with his wife and 2½-year-old daughter, and although Tim often stays with them after a long day of deliveries, Toni only sees them about once a month.
The Milwaukee move will cure much of this, it seems, and allow the business to grow substantially. The former auto shop they’ve selected for a site is more than 7,800 square feet, much of it wide open to allow efficient placement of the new 10-barrel brewhouse and fermenting tanks. The mash tun will be oversized to accommodate the ample malt bills required for the many big beers that are Tim’s specialty. The new brewery should be able to boost quality further, Tim said, and raise capacity to about 2,000 barrels a year.
And a tap room will open a new frontier for Black Husky — on-premise sales — though they say it will be limited, with short hours and no food or live entertainment.
While the variables are many, it’s hard to imagine Tim’s beer not getting even better with upgraded equipment. The bar is already high with many Black Husky beers, including this week’s beer, a massive hop bomb named for the Eichingers’ original black husky.
Style: Imperial pale ale
Brewed by: Black Husky Brewing, which is about 4 miles outside Pembine, 4 miles from the Michigan border and 75 miles due north of Green Bay.
What it’s like: There’s another giant, boozy, hoppy beer made by a Midwestern brewery: Bell’s Hopslam, one of the world’s most esteemed beers that will return in January only on draft and in cans. Howler packs a bit less hop slam, but it’s a solid comparison.
Where, how much: Black Husky’s bombers are sold at limited bottle shops and establishments in Madison and range from about $6 to about $10, depending on the beer. My bottle of Howler was $10 at Riley’s Wines of the World.
The beer: Tim’s two favorite Black Husky beers are Sparkly Eyes, an imperial version of his Sproose already imperial India pale ale brewed with spruce harvested from the Eichingers’ property, and Howler. The latter is a single-hop, single-malt beer using standard two-row malt and the non-standard Equinox hop, a newer variety with all kinds of weird and interesting flavors. Tim described Howler’s hop character as dank and marijuana-esque; Toni finds it more floral.
I’m going with strawberries, because my pour of the amber-orange Howler unleashed an overwhelming rich strawberry jam aroma. That character played up front in the flavor, too, firm up front before retreating to an accent as a resiny bitterness emerged and built sip after sip. But there’s a ton of malt in this full-bodied beer, and the honey clearly adds to the sweetness and brings drinkable balance to such a huge beer.
Booze factor: Black Husky beers are almost all big; Howler comes in between 10 and 10.2 percent ABV, more than twice what you’ll find in a macro lager.
The buzz: Black Husky has always struck me as a somewhat mysterious anomaly. This great big hoppy beer comes from where? The brewer said what? Their very infrequent appearances at beer festivals — another product of the two-person show and the Eichingers’ unwillingness to let proxies be the face of their brewery — added to this perception.
But with the move to Wisconsin’s biggest city, almost all of that is going to be changing. Black Husky won’t be isolated anymore, tucked into the woods out of view. Will being surrounded so much more closely by its customers change it?
Tim and Toni swear it will be business as usual. They plan to remain a small brewery — and 2,000 barrels is still that — with no plans to sell outside Wisconsin. Tim still expects to hand-bottle every bomber and wash out every returned keg. They said they listened to offers from distributors, but the numbers just didn’t add up so they’ll continue self-distributing.
Black Husky is what it is, Toni said, and her and her husband’s formative experience up north will be coming with them, even if all of the dogs won’t.
“We had many life-changing experiences in Pembine, and we take the impact of those experiences on our hearts and lives with us,” Toni said. “They don’t go away, and we don’t become someone else, just because we are located somewhere else.”
Bottom line: 4½ stars (out of five)
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