All About Ale (and Lagers … and Pilsners …)

Badger brewers share their expertise from German roots to modern milling, mashing and marketing

The roots of German brewing traditions run deep in the state of Wisconsin, so it’s not surprising that many of our Badger grads have found their calling in this craft. Badger Voice spoke with three UW alumni who are influencing the industry today: Otto Dilba ’99 (Ale Asylum — Madison, Wis.); Shane C. Welch ’01 (Sixpoint Brewery — Brooklyn, New York); and Carl Wiersma ’78 (Crown Valley Brewing — St. Louis, Miss.)

Ale A(sy)lum Inspired by Insanity

Photo courtesy of Robin Shepard; first printed in “The Isthmus,” September 2012Otto Dilba ’99 and his colleagues at one of Madison’s largest microbreweries know a thing or two about what should — and should not — go into a good German beer.

“Different breweries have different philosophies,” Dilba explains. “You’ll see cherry stout or blueberry Hefeweizen. That’s not us. We goof around with the names, and have a fun business environment, but when it comes to brewing, we make beer.”

Dilba, co-owner of Madison’s Ale Asylum Brewery, is referring to the now-defunct German purity law of brewing, or Reinheitsgebot, that very few breweries, especially in America, still adhere to.

“It’s something to be proud of; it’s part of our mission statement,” says Dilba, who is also responsible for the brand’s marketing, public relations and design. “But that’s generally not the first thing we put out to the public, because it’s not fun or sexy. We’d much rather talk about why our logo for Ballistic IPA looks like a James Bond girl.”

Dilba co-founded Ale Asylum in 2006 with brewmaster Dean Coffey. Many recent UW grads will recognize the watering hole where Coffey first made a name for himself: Angelic Brewing Company, which he left in order to expand distribution of his craft creations beyond the tap.

Dilba, a communication arts major originally from Tomahawk, Wis., bartended his way through college and bonded with Coffey while managing marketing for Angelic. The Ale Asylum brand was born out of their shared philosophy of not selling to their customers through advertising, but instead letting the beer speak for itself.

“You can have the coolest logo in the world, but if the beer doesn’t support what you’re talking about, it doesn’t matter,” Dilba says.

In fact, Dilba says that after more than six years of mostly word-of-mouth advertising, he’s looking forward to having a marketing budget to play around with, albeit a small one. That’s because another of the brewery’s key philosophies has been to pour its profits back into the tanks — literally. Last year, the brewery moved to a new, 45,000-square-foot location on Madison’s east side. And in November, it expanded distribution, making Ale Asylum brews available throughout Wisconsin for the first time in the company’s history.

OTTO ON …

… his favorites:
“Probably three out of four are Hopalicious. The two beers that pull me away most often are the Ballistic IPA and the Bedlam IPA.”

… the look of Ale Asylum:
“All our logos have to pass the tattoo test: they have to look good as tattoos … and more than a few people have done just that!”

… why he’s proud to be a Badger:
“UW-Madison is a large part of why the city of Madison is what I call a curious city. So many people in our community are interested in a multitude of things, and I think part of that is the university. It keeps people of all ages feeling young, because there’s so much energy surrounding the university.”

Shane Welch, Sixpoint Brewery (Photo by Michael Harlan Turkell)Shane C. Welch ’01

Brewing Expertise: President of Sixpoint Brewery, Brooklyn, New York

From Badger to Brewer: Welch worked at Angelic Brewing Company while in school, as well as at the Wine & Hop Shop. He first became interested in the brewing industry “the first time the taste of delicious beer hit my lips!”

UW-Madison connections are everywhere: Welch says he runs into fellow alumni at bars in New York, including Sixpoint star customer Gabe Stulman ’03, who owns several restaurants in the West Village.

Quintessential German-style beer? Bavarian Hefeweizen.

Why are you proud to be a Badger? “Because they have fun whether they win or lose; they know how to balance hard work and play; and they are forward-thinking.”

Carl Wiersma, Photo courtesy of Crown Valley BrewingCarl Wiersma ’78

Brewing Expertise: Brewmaster at Crown Valley Brewery in St. Louis, Miss. since 2009

“I have been running lauter tuns (part of the brewing process) of all shapes and sizes for 25 years, so there is almost no brew I can’t run off.”

From Badger to Brewer: After graduating with a degree in agricultural education, Wiersma took over management of the family farm from his father. “I didn’t want to ever regret not trying farming,” he says.

He started his brewing career with Kurth Malting in Milwaukee, and within two years was responsible for all malt production at the then-five-million-bushel facility. He’s also spent time with Anheuser-Busch and at a brewery in Fort Collins, Colo. In 2009, Wiersma went to work for the new Crown Valley Brewery as a server, and within three months was promoted to Brewmaster.

UW-Madison connections are everywhere: On his first day of work at Kurth, he recognized the man training him as none other than Jim Kron ’73, a fellow resident at Babcock House, an agricultural cooperative hall. The two have worked together on and off throughout the years, and both are at Crown Valley today. “We have been lifelong friends and carry forward the Wisconsin Idea every day,” Wiersma says.

Quintessential German-style beer? “I am not too expert on German beers, but I was in Munich some years ago, and while at the Hofbräuhaus, I was particularly partial to the light golden lager that was its best seller. In this country, I am partial to the Oktoberfest beer we make at Crown Valley every fall that has very malty tones with some tasty European hops providing a clean bittering end.”

Why are you proud to be a Badger? “I am particularly proud to be a Badger, and every day I try to carry forward a couple of things I gained during my time at the university. Firstly, is the Wisconsin Idea: thinking progressively, never writing off any idea, no matter how harebrained it may seem at the time, is a necessary feature of moving forward in whatever process you are involved in.”

“Secondly, I always think back to the plaque on Bascom Hall with this quote: ‘We believe that the great state University of Wisconsin shall ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.’ I firmly believe Wisconsin will stay a driving-force university as long as we continue to instill these two concepts into our students.”

Robin ShepardRobin Shepard PhD’93

Today, one of the Badger state’s leading experts on beer and brewing is the UW’s Robin Shepard PhD’93. When he’s not lending a hand to communities with water-quality issues or teaching in Life Sciences Communications at UW-Madison, he’s scouring the country to find pubs with the best brews on tap and a rich history to match.

Badger Voice joined Shepard to talk about beer basics, Wisconsin’s long history with brewing traditions and his high hopes for bocks at Oktoberfest. Sidle up to the bar with us for three rounds with Robin.