There’s something a bit spooky about Black River Falls. If you dip into the Wisconsin town’s early history, you find accounts upon accounts of lunacy, arson, and murder; the founding stories of the city are sufficiently dark that they’ve given birth to a minor side industry including a book and film (Wisconsin Death Trip), music, and spurious, poorly documented accounts of hauntings.
It’s therefore appropriate that the Sand Creek Brewing Company operates on the site of the tragedy-stained Oderbolz Brewing Company. Established in 1856 by Swiss immigrant Ulrich Oderbolz, the brewery was meant to be passed down to the founder’s four sons. Tuberculosis and a still explosion claimed the lives of Edward and George, respectively. “Charley cooked himself,” says Jim Wiesender, one of Sand Creek’s co-founders, referring to how a third brother, Charley Oderbolz, tumbled into a boiling mash tun at the brewery, lingered for a day, and died. “And Frank [Oderbolz] went over the dam,” he adds, referring to a fatal 1911 boating accident.
Sold to a consortium of local businessmen after Frank’s death and re-invented as the Badger Brewery, the new company lasted only eight years until Prohibition shut it down. The building burned down in 1932, was rebuilt, and saw a number of uses throughout the 20th century, returning to its original function as a brewery in 1995, with the founding of the Pioneer Brewing Company. Jim and Dave Hellman worked with brewmaster Todd Krueger and brewed some nationally recognized beer, winning two gold awards at the World Beer Cup in 2000. Both beers, Oscar’s Chocolate Oatmeal Stout and Pioneer Black River Red, are popular staples for Sand Creek. A third gold medal followed in 2002.
“They ran it up until 2004, when Jim and Dave [Hellman] took over their father’s business selling Miller products,” says Wiesender. “They sold the company to [brewer] Todd [Krueger] and myself.” Wiesender and Krueger have cultivated an open-doors policy at the brewery — Friday afternoon tours often turn into impromptu potlucks, friends and strangers alike tucking into homemade food and drinking beers purchased from the brewery taproom. “We are the worst-kept secret in town,” says a grinning Wiesender.
Sand Creek distributes throughout Wisconsin, in northern and southern parts of Minnesota, central Iowa, and northern Illinois. Production is relatively modest, but ramping up.
“We do — of beer alone, we did 5,100 barrels last year,” says Wiesender. “If you want to add in our [Frostop-branded] root beer, that’s another 1,500. So you figure about 7,000 barrels of total production.”
“I could use more tanks today,” says Wiesender. “If you’ve got some in your truck, bring ’em in. I could use four more fermentation vessels right now.” Bottles roll off a line set up in the plant’s basement; holes were punched through walls to give it the length it needs.
Part of the demand for brewing capacity stems from Sand Creek’s work as a contract brewer. Among others, Sand Creek produces the various brews put out by Furthermore, a Spring Green, WI-based company that has developed a regional reputation for creative beer.
When queried as to his best-selling products, Wiesender replies that it depends upon the season.
“Right now, our #1 selling beer is our Sand Creek Hard Lemonade,” he says. “It was a product we put together at the request of a distributor who wanted to do a draft hard lemon product rather than deal with the bottles. We designed it, test marketed it for two years on draft, and then started rolling it out in bottles.”
As he chats about the drink’s origins, a couple of locals stroll in with a growler. “You have an empty jug, and that’s a sad thing,” says Wiesender, filling the growler with hard lemonade and ringing up a sale.
Sand Creek’s hard lemonade may be the best you’ve tried. Lacking the medicinal or artificial qualities typical of what is normally a syrup-sweet drink made for and consumed by 16-year-old girls, Sand Creek’s version actually retains a bit malty soulfulness and a flavor that recalls an old-fashioned candy store lemon drop. Sweet, it most assuredly is. But it’s not an assault on the tastebuds.
“It’s 100 percent malt-based; there’s no industrial alcohol added to it,” says Wiesender. “We use real fruit juice when we make it and we use pure cane sugar when we mix in the sweetness.”
Oscar’s Chocolate Stout sounds like it might be a similarly easy-going novelty beverage, but the stuff is serious — dark as midnight with a smoky, malty, cocoa-dusted flavor that suggests Swiss baking chocolate, not a Hershey’s bar. There’s a slight astringency to it, and moderate carbonation that gives it a bit of unexpected tang and lightness. Oatmeal comes through as an aftertaste and undertone that gives the other flavors a solid foundation on which to build.
Wiesender’s approach is all business, but the taste of Sand Creek’s beers definitely reflects a mature craft sensibility. “We make beers that are on the extreme side of life — a few of them — but for the most part we want to make sure you enjoy them and want to buy another six pack or another pint,” says Wiesender. “Instead of just having one beer and saying: ‘Oh that’s too much hops…’ Todd designs them to be a very easy drinking.”
Once Sand Creek is able to get its capacity up to a higher level, Wiesender sees the future lying — at least in part — to the north and west.
“I’d like to see us expand into the Twin Cities market — we’ve got a good following up there and a lot of people drive to Hudson to pick up our beer,” he says. “It’s a tougher market for us; it’s a big area and I don’t want to get up there and disappoint. So I tell people, we’re in Hudson, for now…”
Sand Creek Brewing Company
320 Pierce St
Black River Falls, WI 54615
Fri 3pm (and later, as needed)
Sat Noon-4pm (May through September only)
Other tours times available by appointment
Octoberfest, first Saturday in October (Oct. 3, 2009)