The Good Life: Kirby Nelson on making beer, having fun and staying young at heart

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By: 
Matt Geiger
Kirby Nelson during a brief moment of relaxation at Wisconsin Brewing Company in Verona.

“I’ve never grown up,” says Kirby Nelson, overlooking a glistening pond on which he recently blew up a fairly large dragon. “And honestly, I can’t think of anything I would hate more.”

Today the pond is more serene. Nelson is sitting on a hulking slab of limestone, sipping a powerful beer and watching a flock of geese as they float quiet laps on the water’s glasslike surface. His white hair is blowing in the late summer breeze. He is talking candidly – it’s the only way he can talk, those who know him are well aware – about his past, his present and, most importantly, his future.

Nelson is 60. He is one of the founding fathers of craft beer in the Midwest. And he believes firmly that his best years are yet to come.

Nelson, whose gregarious, mirthful demeanor and no-nonsense approach to brewing have always made him a jolly celebrity on the Wisconsin beer scene, hasn’t grown up, but he has changed. As he settles in at Wisconsin Brewing Company, which he helped build from the ground up in Verona after leaving Capital Brewery, he is at peace with his life. There is no anxiety. There are no what-ifs.

Only glee, which Nelson tends to express in verbiage that would sound perfectly natural coming out of the mouth of an old sea dog.

He wears his gonzo personality on his sleeve, like some child of Hunter S. Thompson and Frank Zappa. This is a guy who began the tradition of hurling smoked fish from a brewery rooftop onto drinkers below. He’s a man who recently blew up the aforementioned dragon on the same day he made beer in a massive, churning outdoor cauldron fueled by lava-hot rocks.

“I’ve been around a long time and I have a big mouth,” he concedes with a laugh.

But his outgoing personality belies a brewing philosophy that has always been conservative. He wants to work “within the parameters of drinkability,” he explains.

“I don’t want a loudmouth, showoff beer,” Nelson explains. “Innovation is fun, and a lot of good can come from it. But so can a lot of junk.”

“I don’t believe in the kitchen sink process,” he adds. “I’m making food stuff here.”

It’s actually a fairly unique sentiment in a state where the craft industry is flooded with new breweries, each trying to outdo the last by making wackier, flashier brews. There are very few ingredients that haven’t made their way into Wisconsin beer in recent years, but Nelson, even when he strays from his classic lagers, takes a more measured approach.

“If you look at the classics. If you look at German lagers, British ales, Belgians – they are all balanced and drinkable,” Nelson says.

He worries that a portion of the beer market suffers from “shiny new object syndrome.” It’s cute, he says, but it might not be sustainable.

The current hop craze, which is lining shelves with bitter IPAs that some critics call “palate-wreckers,” is “nuts.” Nelson makes multiple pale ales, but he works to balance their bitterness.

Part of his brewing philosophy comes from the way he sees his role in the process.

“I am an environmental technician,” he says, eschewing a more glamorous title. “My job is to give mother nature the right environment to do her thing.”

He approaches his job a bit like a mechanic, with a blue-collar sensibility.

“I’m not so much a beer geek as I am a brewery geek,” he comments. “The more you understand, the better you can be at the artsy stuff.”

Back inside the brewery, as Nelson lies on the concrete floor and uses a wire brush and a large dose of elbow grease to scrub a large, stainless steel footing, he is clearly in his element. Two raucous Irish setters are making a commotion in a nearby office. The palatial, sparkling new brew house is immaculate.

It’s a big change from the way he spent the first 30 years of his brewing career. Nelson first made a name for himself at a little, fledgling brewery in the City of Middleton. As Capital Brewery grew, he learned to work in an environment that was not originally designed for making beer.

During his time at Capital, Nelson won somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 national and international brewing awards. While he laughs off the significance of such accolades, it is an accomplishment nearly unmatched by anyone else in the realm of craft brewing.

Nelson, a Middleton resident, fused family, fun and work into one all-inclusive component of his life.

“As far as I’m concerned I don’t have a job,” he says. “I have a life. Brewing and family are both part of it.”

“I love Middleton,” says Nelson, who still calls the Good Neighbor City home. “I love it. All the people I dealt with there were really kind to me.”

Nelson’s departure from Capital, as well as a lawsuit brought by he and other shareholders against the company for mismanagement, made headlines. The lawsuit, which alleged that Capital Brewery president Scott Weiner and director Richard King ignored minority owners’ input, violated company bylaws and wasted company assets, represented a very public rift. It was later dismissed based on a matter of legal standing, but the judge in the case never ruled on whether the accusations had merit.

Many of the people who once helped build up Capital now walk the halls of Wisconsin Brewing. Carl Nolen, Capital’s former president, runs the company. Multiple other employees left Capital to join Nelson and Nolen, as well.

When Wisconsin Brewing started making its first batch of beer in 2013, Nelson admits feeling pressure to succeed.

But he was confident in Nolen’s ability to lead.

“I had seen Carl come into Capital and it was amazing. That place shouldn’t have lasted 15 minutes. We didn’t know what we were doing. But Carl did,” he says. “I wanted to follow Carl here because I realized this is a guy with vision. He understands the industry, and we enjoy ourselves doing this.”

Nelson also had faith in his brewing team, which is populated by men and women he describes using glowing terms including “genius,” “inspirational” and simply “the best.”

“So many people give lip service to the idea of treating employees well,” Nelson continues. “But here I really think it’s more than that. Wisconsin Brewing is a wonderful place full of great people.”

All those factors helped assuage Nelson’s early trepidation.

“I gotta admit, I was 57, 58 years old. I wondered, ‘Am I up for this?’ Then I realized, hell yeah,” he says with palpable confidence. “Now I’m 60 and I’m convinced my best years are yet to come.”

“We build for success,” he says.

While still in its infancy, Wisconsin Brewing Company is cranking out its own brews, as well as contract brewing for Toppling Goliath, Pabst and others.

“We’ve been able to show that with a beautiful new brewery, we can do anything,” Nelson says. “We don’t mess around, and it’s something I’m incredibly proud of.”

In fact, Nelson says he sometimes feels like he is the “weak link” on his team of brewers. It’s a wonderful problem to have, he adds.

“I think I learn as much from them as they learn from me,” he says.

“One of the reasons I’m so hot on this place is the talent pool we’re hiring,” Nelson continues. “And one of the things I’ve always been proud of here is not having a high turnover rate. We really try to work for that.”

Beer should be dependable, he says. It’s a concept reflected in the names of many of his brews. His Munich-style lager, for instance, is actually called “Ol’ Reliable.” His porter is called “Chocolate Lab,” he explains, because four-legged friends are the perfect talisman for companionship and reliability.

He’s a scholar of Wisconsin history and brewing culture, speaking affectionately and knowledgably about supper clubs and all the nostalgic imagery they entail.

Wisconsin Brewing’s recent “Nectarine,” a special pale ale, is another ode to the state’s illustrious brewing history.

In 1868, Peter Fauerbach came to Madison and established Fauerbach Brewery on the shore of Lake Monona.

One of their earliest brews was a low-alcohol beer named “Nectarine,” which they billed as a “hop and malt tonic” with amazing curative powers. It was even sold in local pharmacies.

“Fauerbach malt tonic was sold in drug stores with all these outlandish claims about its effects,” Nelson says with a big grin. Drinking nectarine would build “strength, energy, force and vitality” and help you “win the battle of life.”

Nelson seems to be winning the battle these days.

“I’m maturing a little bit,” he says. “Not enough to interfere. Not enough to grow up.”

“Life is a gift and I’m enjoying the hell out of myself,” he concludes. “I worry less than a used to, but I’m also more determined than I ever was before.”

 

 

 

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