Where Brewing History Runs Deep

Beer history runs deep in Wisconsin, and with each new year there are more reasons to tour the state, mug in hand.

July 17, 2010 | By Kevin Revolinski, Special to Tribune Newspaper

I roll into Ashland, Wis., just around quitting time and head straight to Deep Water Grille, a block off U.S. Highway 2, a stone's throw from Lake Superior. The restaurant also is home to South Shore Brewery, and at the end of the bar, having one of his own ales before heading home, is Bo Belanger, the brewmaster.

I join him for a pint and hear about what he has brewing. He's busy, as always, and plans are under way to find a larger space to keep up with the demand. His Nut Brown Ale alone could keep him in business, he says. As his beer goes farther afield via distributors, his ingredients, ironically, are becoming more local.

"All of the base malt used in South Shore's beers is grown right here in the Chequamegon Bay/Bayfield Peninsula area," he says, sipping a cold one. "Essentially we're paying the farmer to grow his own feed. I just borrow it for a moment for the sugars." The leftovers go back to the farmers as livestock feed.

I'm lucky to catch Belanger, but like many brewers, he often will take a few minutes to chat with his clientele about the nitty-gritty of brewing beer or maybe about the game that's on at the bar. A visit to a brewery — what I like to call a pils-grimage — can be an enlightening experience, especially in the case of a small-town affair. And though a pils-grimage can be made in any season, summer just seems the most appropriate. So pack your growler — a refillable half-gallon glass jug, available at most brewpubs — a cooler and maybe a tent and sleeping bag: It's road-trip time, and the destination is Wisconsin beer. Just be sure you don't combine your beer with the road. Either stay over or designate a driver.

New South Shore Brewery Tasting Room Opens in Washburn

By Hope McLeod |  Jan 28, 2016 | Bayfield County Journal

Bo Bélanger, owner and original brew master of South Shore Brewery, finally answered a question that’s been on a lot of people’s minds, “What the heck is going on at the old bowling alley on Bayfield Street in Washburn?”
January 22 marked the opening of Tap House, a satellite tasting room, production facility and retail outlet for South Shore Brewery. The tasting room was open on Friday. Ultimately the plan is to brew, bottle and keg over 22 varieties of beer South Shore currently produces in Ashland, also invent some new ones.
South Shore celebrated its twentieth anniversary in 2015 as the seventh licensed microbrewery in the state, a number that’s increased to 125.

“We opened in 1995, but I bought the business in 2004 and since then we’ve been striving, of course, to meet demand,” said Bélanger a few days before opening. He expanded to Washburn specifically for efficiency purposes, to be more competitive in the retail world. “Our bottled and keg product is now sold in 60 counties in three states. So we’ve got to be a little more efficient in how we produce our retail products, and there’s just not enough room to do that in Ashland,” said Bélanger who admitted they’ve been working in a closet, that closet being the basement of the Deep Water Grille & South Shore Brewery.

On and off for two years, Bélanger and friends have been transforming the new facility, formerly a bowling alley and a restaurant/bar. The front door opens into a long bar with various beers du jour on tap. A half-dozen spool-tables and tall chairs fill the entryway. Eight varieties of beer were served on Friday, including South Shore’s bestseller, Nut Brown Ale, also Coffee Mint Stout, an unusual dark beer with obvious coffee overtones and hints of mint, also Saison, a full-bodied Belgian beer with a tinge of clove. Though it doesn’t bode well in terms of marketing, Bélanger said, “It’s known as horsehair or wet wool blanket.”

Perhaps referring to effect rather than flavor, after putting on the Saison blanket with its 8.5 percent alcohol content, innards definitely warm to capacity. Galloping away from the bar and bearing left sits a game room, beyond that the new brew-house encased behind glass so customers can observe the brew-process. This process engages a collection of large tanks: a mash tun, where grains are steeped with hot water to produce barley sugar; a brew kettle that boils the sugar-water down; and lastly two fermentation tanks that take the sweet barley extract and turn it into beer. All of this requires a ton of hot water produced in a giant water tank.
Bélanger said Tap House is all about telling the story of this unique microbrewery.

“We call this ‘from grains to glass.’ I’ve been the president since 1995, and I don’t know a craft brewer that does what we do, even in national terms,” he said.

What they do is basically everything. For one thing they’ve done away with the middleman in the commodity market. It starts by contracting growers to grow hops and barley. After harvest, South Shore ferments, brews, bottles and kegs the beer, which is either served on tap in Ashland or sold to retailers, thus eliminating the need for a distributor.

The South Shore Brewery story began over a half-century ago. “My mom's father, Clarence Schafer from Schererville, Indiana was the agricultural motivation for what we’ve been developing in our ‘grains to glass’ approach,” Bélanger reflected. As a youngster, Bélanger and his family made annual pilgrimages to Indiana to help harvest and process his grandfather’s elaborate garden.

“He grew grapes, fruit trees, made a powerful horseradish, and other fermentables in large stone crocks. His tireless approach to life and jack-of-all-trades proficiency definitely left an impression on me,” said Bélanger, whose talent for brewing emerged after a 14-year stint as a fisheries technician with the Department of Natural Resources in Bayfield. “That was a great job, great people —some of the work I went to school for as a chemistry and biology student in college.”

The biggest takeaway from Gramps was to always use fresh ingredients, which Bélanger does with his hops and barley. “Currently we use the Galligan family from Windy Acres Farms and Zifco Farms for our locally grown barley. We’ve offered contracts to a lot of growers out there, but growing and malting great barley is tough. It might be different in 2016,” said Bélanger, who doesn’t place all his barley seeds in one basket.

He awards contracts based on who grows the highest quality barley that year. Luckily, there are plenty of quality-driven agricultural experts in the area, so he doesn’t have to go far to find them.
Bélanger works closely with the growers, helping them fine-tune their abilities.

“This is a commodity that they’re sort of new at. They grow a lot of barley up here, but it’s either seed or feed. Malting great barley is quite substantially different than that,” he admitted.

South Shore is proud to say the amount of product they produce effectively brings in quality jobs to the area.
“It keeps the money that we make here. Just imagine, $100,000 is going to a couple farmers in Bayfield County. It’s not going to Idaho or North Dakota. It’s going to local farmers right here three miles away from the brewery,” he said with pride.

However, his hops, is grown in Marathon County in the Wausau area. “The soil’s a little bit better, and hops likes a south-facing altitude. We don’t have a lot of the components up here yet,” said Bélanger who does have a quarter-acre hops demonstration plot at the old experimental farm. “We thought that maybe we could do it ourselves, or maybe encourage somebody to take it over, but just like with brewing, hops-growing and barley-growing aren’t for the faint of heart,” he said
Plus it requires a fair amount of capitalization and is a hard sell to banks.

“It takes a lot of passion and fire to get it done,” he said.

Definitely a lot of passion and fire went into getting Tap House ready for opening day. South Shore doesn’t own the building yet, but is in a long-term lease-to-own arrangement.

It’s been months since Bélanger gutted the building. Though great progress has been made, there’s still much to do before the tanks are up and running.

“The whole idea of the open house is to let people know how far we’ve made it,” he said. “Tap House is part of the new business model of most craft breweries, relying heavily on the revenue stream of tasting in a taproom. It’s a place for people to get great deals on fresh South Shore beer and to see what’s new and exciting.”
In addition to a menu of favorites, Tap Room will serve new brews that haven’t even been served in Ashland yet. Bélanger emphasized that it’s “a whimsical, jovial place to sit down, relax and have a beer with a friend, but it’s not a bar.” That’s because of its limited hours: 3-7 p.m. on Fridays and 1-7 p.m. on Saturdays.

“It’s a great place to come hear our story, find out what’s new and have a nice atmosphere to do it in,” said Bélanger, who in addition to farmers has six local employees on the payroll: his almost 30-year old son, Francoise Joseph Bélanger (brewer), Justin Bohn (head brewer), Willem Krift (assistant brewer), Kirk Frerking (brewer's assistant/cellerman), Ken Pearson (sales), and Brenda Bélanger (office administrator).