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During a "getting to know you" Q&A with ABC News, Democrat Mary Burke fielded a question that hardly will change the course of Wisconsin’s future.
But it did present a dilemma for the would-be governor of the state of beer and brats.
The question: Spotted Cow or Summer Shandy?
The question forced Burke to choose between two well-known Wisconsin beer makers: New Glarus Brewing Co. and Chippewa Falls-based Leinenkugel’s.
She had to choose between a regional craft brewery and a much larger company. And between a slightly cloudy "farmhouse ale" and a wheat beer mixed with lemonade.
Burke didn’t equivocate in her reply.
"Spotted Cow," she said. "New Glarus is a great brewery and Spotted Cow, you can only get it in Wisconsin and (it's) one of my favorites."
Wait, what? We didn’t realize Spotted Cow was so exclusive.
And when we asked some beer drinkers — journalists know a few — several seemed surprised that the brew wouldn’t be available beyond the border.
"People love when politics and beer collide," noted Milwaukee Journal Sentinel columnist Jim Stingl.
So we decided to set aside policy debates (it is late August, after all, and we are planning that Labor Day cookout...) and tap this claim.
Is Spotted Cow available only in the Badger State?
Breweries and their brews
Spotted Cow is the most popular beer produced by New Glarus, the brewery founded in 1993 by Deb and Dan Carey in the village of the same name in south central Wisconsin. New Glarus has enjoyed rapid growth, including a $21 million expansion, and then another $11 million addition.
But compared to the Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Co., New Glarus is tiny.
Last year, New Glarus sold 146,000 barrels, making it the 17th largest craft brewery in the nation, said Eric Shepard, executive editor of Beer Marketer’s Insights, a trade publication. Leinenkugel sold almost seven times as much, 975,000 barrels.
Also, Leinenkugel is a subsidiary of Chicago-based MillerCoors ,which has breweries in Milwaukee and other locations around the country. New Glarus is privately owned with 27 investors.
More important, for Burke’s claim, is where the suds are sold.
New Glarus sold beer in Illinois for about six years before making a business decision to pull out in 2003. At the time, the Careys said they were unable to keep up with the demand and wanted to focus only on Wisconsin.
In 2010, Deb Carey gave a little more colorful elaboration to the Madison Beer Review, a beer-oriented website.
"Brewers call Chicago a whores' market," she said.
Carey said New Glarus pulled out because "it didn't want to participate in illegal business practices such as giving away beer to get bars to carry its products."
"Everyone has a hand out and everyone wants some cash, (free) beer or a discount," she said in the story. "As far as I'm concerned, it's not worth the graft and hassle."
She added: "Small brewers can't afford to pay to play. I really blame the big domestic brewers for creating this mess."
In an interview, Carey said that even though the brewery has ramped up production and could reach 250,000 barrels a year, the sales strategy won't change.
"I'd be happy to die and not sell beer out of state," she said. "We're going to really drill down and focus on our No. 1 asset, which is (brewmaster) Dan, and make world class beer for our friends in Wisconsin."
New Glarus' website highlights the Wisconsin-only status with the prominent message: "Only in Wisconsin." Labels say: "Drink Indigenous"
Shepard says New Glarus’ strategy is unique among small brewers.
"New Glarus is by far the biggest craft brewer available in a single state," he said in an email.
Shandy also a hit
Introduced in 2007, Summer Shandy became a huge hit for Leinenkugel. Like Spotted Cow, it’s the company’s top seller.
But it’s a lot easier to find a bottle of Shandy. Leinie’s brews are advertised nationally, including during the NCAA men’s basketball tourney. They’re found in all 50 states. New Glarus does virtually no advertising.
Of course, you can find Spotted Cow in fridges around the country, thanks to visitors who snare a case on their way home from Wisconsin, or who use the online gift shop.
So let’s drain this one.
Burke chose Spotted Cow as her beer of choice, saying she liked the beer and the fact it was available only in Wisconsin.
The brewery made a business decision and stopped out-of-state sales about 11 years ago. And that’s become an important, if not entirely well known, selling point for the brewery ever since.
We rate her statement True.
Correction: This item originally stated that Summer Shandy was introduced in 2011. The correct year is 2007.
Wisconsin State Journal, "Spotted Cow confiscated from New York City Bar," Nov. 24, 2009
Chicago Tribune, "Brewer’s success to leave Chicago flat," Dec. 4, 2002
Mary Burke interview, ABC News, Aug. 7, 2014
Chippewa Herald, "Popular Summer Shandy carries Leinenkugel’s into all 50 states," March 28, 2013
Telephone interview, Deborah Carey, president, New Glarus Brewing Co., Aug. 16, 2014
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