Running a craft brewery is a hard job, full of long days. Although that’s no secret to anyone who runs their own brewery, it’s harder to see from the other side of the bar. Plus, it can be hard to stand out. Luckily, there’s a hidden gem in Neenah that stands out in a sea of breweries that only make IPAs. That’s where Barrel 41 Brewing Company comes in.
Located just up the street from the Sunset Hill Stoneware offices, Barrel 41 Brewing Company is a rising star on the local brewing scene. However, this craft brewery already has a reputation as a hometown favorite, despite only being open for a year. With that in mind, we sat down with our next door neighbors to learn about the ins and outs of their business.
The Early Idea
Barrel 41 started as an idea. It was the brainchild of a group of friends who all went to Neenah High School together. Although college and their early adult years had scattered them to all corners of Wisconsin and beyond, the friends still stayed in touch and had a yearning to work with something they loved: craft beer. With experience at other nearby breweries, brew master Nathan Sharpless and his friends Matt Stubing, Lance Goodman and Dan Kraus set their plan into motion.
“I was back home one weekend and they were like, ‘Hey, you want to grab a beer?” Matt recalled. “Sure. ‘Do you want to start a brewery?’
“So I thought about it and a day later I was like, ‘Hell yeah, let’s do it,'” he explained. The following day, he quit his old job and came back to his hometown.
The group of friends ultimately named their new brewery after the highway that brought them all back together. With I-41 less than a mile away, Barrel 41 Brewing Co. was opened in July 2018. The brewery officially began serving its beer a few months later, that November. That fast of a turnaround is very unusual for a brewery, but the crew had luck and a few other factors on their side.
Starting a Brewery
It can take years to open a new brewery in some cases. A large part of that time includes waiting to receive zoning permits, setting up utilities and wading through legal issues. Brewing is, after all, an industry with strict regulations. However, the Barrel 41 crew was ready.
“There are definitely a lot of challenges and a lot of unforeseen issues that could pop up,” Matt explained. “We’re fortunate enough to have a really good team of people. Myself and Dan, we both come from a business background, two of our good friends are attorneys, Nate’s been brewing beer for the last three or four years, and so everyone had a really good role within it. We had a really quick turnaround.”
Matt admitted that the brewery’s location on South Commercial St. in Neenah is a bit unusual. However, since the site was home to a Papa John’s pizzeria before, a lot of the utilities they needed to make their beer were already in place, including HVAC, water lines and plumbing. They only needed to make a few other adjustments for the brewery to be ready for business.
If their team hadn’t included so many professionals who knew how to navigate the red tape, Barrel 41 wouldn’t have been opened as quickly as it was. All told, from the time it was just a spark in their minds to the grand opening, it took about two years to get the brewery up and running.
Barrel 41 is a small business. Like many other retail and restaurant businesses like it, the hardest parts of running the brewery occur behind the scenes. Mundane tasks like ordering printer ink or cleaning supplies from vendors aren’t much on their own, but Matt pointed out that these things add up. It’s an administrative hurdle that many small businesses can relate to, on top of the regulations they have to keep. Fortunately, that’s no trouble here—even during a busy morning, Barrel 41 was running a tight ship when we came to visit.
Plus, preparing the beer is an all-day operation. Nathan is often at the brewery at 6 a.m. to get the recipe ready for the day and spends the whole day there getting batches ready, which Matt feels is something a lot of patrons don’t realize until they’re on the other side of the bar.
“You’re kind of always moving, and it doesn’t feel like work that way,” Matt explained.
However, Matt felt that the most rewarding part of the whole process came with being in the mix of what makes the brewery run. He wears many different hats, helping with events, running the back-end operations and even acting as a bartender and interacting with customers.
“You just start talking with them, and you make a much more personable connection,” Matt said. “It stays fresh, and you really do get to make some great connections with people.”
The community roots run deeper than expected here. Many Barrel 41 patrons have a connection to Matt, Nathan and Dan as former classmates and neighbors, further adding to the feeling that they’ve returned home.
Different Shades of Beer
One of the highlights of Barrel 41’s beer options is the diverse selection. Where some craft breweries might only have a bunch of IPA brews on tap, Barrel 41 has beers on every part of the spectrum.
According to Matt, one of the highlights has been the Cinnamon Roll Crunch porter. This unusual offering features vanilla and cinnamon, plus lactose. Dark but sweet, the porter was popular during the brewery’s first few months in business.
Nathan and the gang also aren’t shy about experimenting with new recipes. They keep in touch with other brewers in their community to see what customers are enjoying and try their own spin on beers they’ve tasted before. While a lot of this involves trial and error, it’s resulted in some of Barrel 41’s most popular beers.
“We go for a mix of what we want to see and what’s hot right now,” Nathan said.
Some of the results are in a league of their own. The new Blackberry Blonde Ale, made with blackberries, is an unusual twist on lighter ales that’s a hit with their patrons. On the other end of the spectrum, the Dark Chocolate Imperial Brown ale was gone within a matter of hours.
On Monday nights, these new recipes get a test drive in the taproom. Each Pilot Batch Monday is a chance not only for Nathan, Matt and Dan to test new beers, but also a way for their customers to try something new. Some of these end up being one-off batches. Others, such as the new Belgian tripel, eventually join the brewery’s regular rotation. This is both a blessing and a curse for the brewers, since sometimes demand outlives their limited batch.
“It’s kind of an ever-changing list,” Matt said. “We print new menus probably every other day.”
Beer lovers can find Barrel 41’s brews far beyond the taproom in Neenah. Certain IPA draughts are in local restaurants and bars near the taproom, plus at craft breweries in Milwaukee and Madison. A lot of these connections came from other local brewers and restaurant owners tasting their beer first hand. In other cases, Matt went out and networked for the business himself.
“It’s kind of cool for us and them I think, because it’s not the traditional distributor where they’re trying to give you 200 different beer options,” Matt said. “It’s as easy as them shooting me a text and I’ll have the beer there in the next hour.”
In turn, Barrel 41 has beers from other local brewers on tap as well. The emphasis is to try and keep the selection as local as possible.
Custom Mugs and Other Merch
Barrel 41 Brewing Company does not currently have a mug club. However, Matt said that they are looking to come up with some creative options that step away from the traditional loyalty program. One idea involved incorporating naming contests on Pilot Batch Mondays into the mix, but the plan is still in its infancy.
Until then, fans can support Barrel 41’s business with the help of some custom beer mugs and stoneware steins. The first batch, a Tom’s Taster, features Barrel 41’s Wisconsin license plate-themed logo. For those who want something a bit smaller, there’s also a Tom’s Mug. This 10-oz. option has the brewery’s unique logo, reminiscent of a barrel and a shield-shaped interstate sign.
Matt admitted he’s a fan of our stoneware. He even had a few beer steins of his own even before Barrel 41 opened.
“I’ve been drinking out of this Sunset Hill mug forever,” Matt said. “Telling people that they’re hand-thrown two miles down the road is the coolest part.”
Our relationship with Barrel 41 is special. Sunset Hill Stoneware’s employees often visit the taproom after work. We’re proud to support the product they put out and are excited to see their business grow.