Deb Carey is an artist and entrepreneur. She’s also the public face of Wisconsin’s largest craft brewery, New Glarus Brewing Company, the makers of Spotted Cow. An active participant in political discussions and actions and a mentor to many in the industry, Carey sees a responsibility well beyond making and selling beer.
Earlier this year she deliverd a keynote speech at the 2018 Craft Brewers Conference in Nashville, Tennessee, and beforehand she took a few minutes with the Brewing Industry Guide to talk about the business of beer, sustainable growth, and how the brewery came up with the best-selling beer in Wisconsin.
CBB // In the twenty-five years since you and your husband [Brewmaster Dan Carey] opened New Glarus, so much has changed in the beer industry in the United States, but you’ve also grown so much, last year making 240,000 barrels of beer. As you’ve grown, have things gotten easier or harder?
DC // The brewery is all consuming, and it’s like a child that never grows up. I think that’s the part that people don’t get. No matter where you are, it always seems like the grass is greener on the other side. When we were selling just 3,000 barrels, I thought that things would be easier if we were bigger. But what happens is that the work just changes.
No, I’m not on the bottling line, and I’m not washing kegs or the floors, but sometimes those jobs are preferable to what I do now, such as negotiating with wholesalers. Being bigger means more money is on the line. And while I might not be working as hard physically, I’m being challenged daily by the marketplace, and there’s no getting around that. You have to work to enjoy the ride because that’s what you sign up for when you have your own business.
CBB // In the years you’ve been around, the brewery has become a trusted resource for both established brewers and new folks coming on line. Despite the growth in the industry, there is still a community, and that’s important. Why do you think that part of the industry has stayed largely intact?
DC // I think that brewers making their own beer—I mean those who are putting heart and soul into a brewery—are a special type of human being. They are artists, passionate people, and kindred spirits. Sometimes brewers who I met once or who are a start-up call and say, “I have this going on” or “Can you help with this?” and I’ll take the call every time because there are a lot of us who have been in this a long time, and that’s the way it’s always been.
At the beginning of New Glarus, there were breweries such as Sprecher, Wisconsin Brewing, Point, and others, and we’d all talk because we needed each other. And over time, it’s not just professional, but personal. It’s a rich relationship because we can call about brewery problems, but we’re also talking about our houses and our babies and life. Of course they are competitors, but there’s a responsibility to help everyone out. We can’t forget that.
CBB // Some of the new entrants into the industry—we’re now at 6,000-plus breweries in the country with more coming on line each day—are facing different challenges than you were when you started, but the lessons you learned are applicable today, right?
DC // There are a lot of people who look at our brewery, our success, and feel like they can just walk up to us straight-faced and say, “I’m going to do what you did.” It can be easy to dismiss the energy that other people have put into something. If you put the time in, you can be successful, but it’s not easy. I think that everyone who has had some level of success—a politician, an author, an attorney—knows that hard work can pay off.
CBB // There was a time when the three things that you didn’t talk about in the bar were sex, politics, and religion. But more and more it seems that the political climate has come into the brewery conversation and that more brewers are becoming politically active. You’ve been vocal on issues important to the brewery on the local, state, and federal level. What has spurred that?
DC // Things are coming to a crescendo in what is an increasingly divisive political climate. But beer is a beverage for every man and every woman, and you hear a lot of the struggles that everyone is having. To me the idea of politics is taking care of people. I need people to work, and I need people to buy beer. Otherwise I can’t pay people to work and make beer to sell. It all fits together cleanly, so the passion for conversation that moves things along comes from an honest place.
And we need to make sure that politicians are working in our best interest, especially in beer. What brewery can make beer without clean water? And where do we get barley from if farmers are impacted by climate change? Brewers are spinning our gold from the earth. We need to be good stewards of the planet, and that comes with being politically active. Maybe it’s not so much that brewers are different now from ten or fifteen years ago; it’s just that politics are reaching that crescendo, and it’s difficult to ignore. The more people you have involved, the better the outcome you can achieve.
CBB // A few years back you made the move to go to an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP). Why was that the right decision for New Glarus? DC // It took us more than a year to put the ESOP together, and right now employees own 10 percent of the company and eventually will own 100 percent. Dan and I are fifty-eight years old, and we’re not going to be around forever.
I’ll never forget one of our first investor meetings after we started when someone asked me, “What are you going to do if Dan dies next week?” Since then, we’ve made sure that whatever we do, it’s with an eye toward the future. We get offers all the time from people who want to buy us, and these days those letters go right into the trash can. An ESOP looked like it offered the best record for continued longevity. This brewery is part of the economy here, and we’re not going anywhere, so it was an option that works in case we get hit by a truck next week. It means that we don’t have to sell out. I want this brewery to be around for 300 years.
CBB // I know it’s a question you get all the time, but it’s one that people are so interested in. There are breweries much smaller than you that have a multistate footprint. New Glarus has committed to being an in-Wisconsin brewery only. What was the thought behind that?
DC // We have no intention to change from being in-Wisconsin only. It made sense for us because you can already see some breweries that pushed into other states pulling back. Beer is a perishable product, so why send it far and wide? For us, being able to sell everything we make within a few hundred miles of the brewery has advantages. We know our wholesalers very well, and being close to others means there are no superficial relationships. If you’re in a lot of states, you have more to worry about, more relationships to manage. You need to stay on top of sales staff, and that can be hard the farther out from the brewery they are. For us, staying in one state makes sense. It can be a challenge, but I don’t know why more people aren’t doing it this way, frankly.
CBB // While you make a variety of beers, the beer you’re best known for is likely Spotted Cow. It’s a relatively simple beer, but still one that people struggle to define. It’s now also the best-selling beer in the state. Were you surprised by its success?
DC // We let people call Spotted Cow what they want. We call it a pre-Prohibition farmhouse ale. It doesn’t fit into any homebrewing contest guidelines or styles that Charlie Papazian recognizes. It wasn’t released until five years after we opened.
We were thirty-two years old when we started, and we knew it was possible that we might go under. But, we thought that we were young enough that if that happened, we’d be able to start over. Dan has a special gift. I can’t explain it, but he thinks of a beer recipe, and he makes it, and it tastes great. One beer is our Wisconsin Belgian Red (brewed with cherries), and I thought that would be the beer that would jump-start things. We picked up a lot of awards for it, but it never took off.
One day we were at an event where someone was talking about beers from the 1800s, and Dan just got this idea and made a beer in that tradition. We called it Spotted Cow because this is Wisconsin, and we have a lot of those. It resonated with people and just took off. In 2016, we introduced it in cans, and now it’s 10 percent of our business and growing. We didn’t have a flagship beer before it. Our fruited beers are like 1 percent of the business and are ridiculously expensive to make, but they are still the beers Dan loves to make. He is a very gifted and creative brewer, and if he were just making the same beer day after day, that wouldn’t work. Making the fruit beers keeps him interested.
CBB // So, what’s next?
DC // Our distillery project will be coming on line soon. Distilling has been on our to do list for twenty years, and we finally have the space and time to do it. Dan has yeast in his veins, and anything having to do with fermentation he finds interesting.
For us, it’s a way to expand product offerings without cannibalizing our success in the beer industry. We’re working on some products that will be interesting and tasty and relevant to our state, with some things people have seen before and some things they have not. We want to give people an interesting flavor experience, and we’ll see where it goes.
*This interview has been edited for clarity and length. *