The Driftless Brewing Company – Soldiers Grove, WI

By Erica Howe –

The Driftless area is full of locally owned and run start-ups; from bookstores to restaurants to family farms. This includes, of course, breweries.

The Driftless Brewing Company, located in Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin, is a prime example of the passion the residents of the Driftless area possess. Inside an old IGA grocery store is an office surrounded by a hubbub of activity. Locals walk and talk, filtering in and out of the building with small glasses of beer in their hands. This is a beer tasting event, and the area is bustling.

A small group surrounds a keg, where one of the four employees is explaining the different beers they have for tasting. The German beer is smooth with a robust flavor, while the Saison is hoppy and light, two very different beers that delight the customers. The happy sounds people make as they taste tells of a happy clientele. These people are definitely on to something.

This ‘something’ began flourishing in 2013, when the company received their federal and state brewing and food processing licenses. When this happened, the Driftless Brewing Company had been a long time in the making.

Around year 2000, Chris Balistreri and Mike Varnes-Epstein met at a potluck Mike was throwing to meet his neighbors, as he was new to the neighborhood. Chris came to the party with a case of homebrew, and the two started talking. Chris quite enjoyed homebrewing, something he got interested in around 1988, while he still lived in Milwaukee. With both formal and informal training from friends, Chris had been homebrewing for years. The two men began a homebrewer’s club in 2009, when a local man put up a 20-gallon homebrewing system for sale in the small unincorporated town of Excelsior. They had been brewing with a 5-gallon system, and now had the capacity to brew much larger batches.

The debut of the Driftless Brewing Company was at local fundraisers. They donated beer to environmental education and preservation fundraisers. This lead to many people asking to buy the beer, but the company hadn’t been founded yet, and the two men did not make enough beer to sell. But the existence of a consumer base caused Chris, who knew a bit about industry, to start seriously looking at getting licensed to sell alcohol. This was achieved in 2013, causing the renovation of the barn they were still working out of.

“Their most common customers have one thing in common; they travel a lot. Fishermen, vintage car clubs, and motorcycle groups come through Soldiers Grove and enjoy stopping for a drink of some locally brewed beer.”

From the very beginning, business was booming. The Company brought ten cases of beer to the nearby Viroqua Food Co-op, one of their first customers. They brought the cases on Friday, and by Saturday they were informed that the cases had all sold. The Food Co-op asked for more cases, but they were brewing only 20 gallons of beer at a time.

According to Mike, a brewing business usually needs to be able to brew 10 barrels of beer at a time. Each barrel is 31 gallons. The Driftless Brewing Company wasn’t brewing even a tenth of what the average brewing company produces. Not about to let this get them down, the Driftless Brewing Co. used a little of that “Driftless tenacity” and began looking at larger places, which would be able to house a larger brewing system.

They settled on an old IGA grocery store, which was a good size and in a good location. The location of the store in the building cluster which makes up the downtown area of Soldiers Grove made it a little more expensive than the company could afford so early in its life, but the village, looking to support local businesses, helped them with a small business loan. The building (much larger than their former half-barn) now houses a 15-barrel system.

The community which fostered the homebrewers’ hobby, is also coming together by providing funders and investors; the Driftless Brewing Company has been a community project since they started donating their beer to local fundraisers. Now the community is giving back. The Driftless Brewing Co. have been working with five distinct funders, along with a number of investors. With this help, they have begun a renovation of a large part of the former IGA, hoping to add a drinking room to the brewing operation. The hope is to bring more business into the area, bring customers for the restaurants and start-up food trucks.

This community-centric focus goes hand-in-hand with their stated mission. They source their ingredients as locally as possible, and 90% of their malt and most of their hops (important ingredients in the brewing process) are sourced within the Wisconsin State. The Driftless area, particularly the nearby towns, provides all the honey, berries and squash needed for the flavoring of the beer. They also work with Organic Valley, a local organic business that has grown exponentially over the years, and the maple Co-op in Cashton, Wi. Even their equipment is from a Wisconsin-based manufacturer which has factories in Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota.

The beer draws people from all walks of life into the brewery to buy beer, but their most common customers have one thing in common; they travel a lot. Fishermen, vintage car clubs, and motorcycle groups come through Soldiers Grove and enjoy stopping for a drink of some locally brewed beer. Word-of-mouth through these groups bring more people, and their money, to the tiny town. This catalyst for economic development could mean big things to the small town of Soldiers Grove. The Driftless Brewing Co. sells their beer in their brewery, to the local American Legion post, at the Viroqua Food Co-op, and to a foodie destination, the Driftless Café.

Of course, the Driftless Brewing Co. remembers their roots of donating to fundraisers. One of the benefits they brew beer for currently is run by the Driftless Angler, a fishing business in nearby Viroqua. This fly-fishing benefit raises funds for conservation and fishing education for local residents. The beer they brew for this fundraiser has a label with a picture of he winning fly from last year’s competition, giving the beer a feeling of being about the area, as well as of the area.

The company has grown in capacity, customer base, and employee numbers. From the duo of General Manager Mike and Head Brewer Chris, the group has grown to include Scott Noe, Cellarman and Assistant Brewer, who had been head roaster at Kickapoo Coffee, and has what Mike describes as a ‘Super-pallet’. Cynthia Olmstead joined recently as the business operations leader, even as she still works as a conservationist who goes around to farms help farmers conserve their land and soil integrity.

The company’s own employees is not where their employment influence stops. Their business to their suppliers, particularly local farmers, gives the farmers proof that they have a market, which can help them get loans or other financial assistance, which allows them to employ more people and grow themselves.

Looking forward into the future, as all businesses must do, there is a lot on the horizon for the Driftless Brewing Company. They are looking for the building’s renovations to be completed in the late fall so that they can open their tasting area. And thinking even farther in the future, they are considering making kombucha or a pop for those who either don’t or can’t drink alcohol, so they have a choice other than water.

This would allow groups to come in and drink without leaving anyone out. Of course, this is possibly years in the future as they become used to having customers in the tasting room. The future of this businesses is also a part of the future of the town. The money brought into the town by tourists coming to experience the Driftless Brewing Company will be a catalyst for new economic and business development.

The Driftless Brewing Company shows the spirit of the Driftless in many ways. From their donations to fundraisers to the Investors helping them to expand, this company has been community-centric. With their local suppliers and all-natural ingredients, they adhere to the idea of good, local food which is so important in the Driftless Area. And the constantly changing menu of beers made from such ingredients showcases new, interesting, and honey flavors.

This is truly a unique destination.

U.S. 61, 102 Sunbeam Boulevard West
Soldiers Grove, WI 54655
(608) 624-5577