Last fall, Lithia Beer of West Bend introduced bottles of its Regner Red brew in eastern Wisconsin. Now the brew is starting to turn up in Madison. Lithia, once called "The beer that made Milwaukee jealous," is looking to catch the interest of beer enthusiasts interested in Wisconsin brewing history, and recapture its historic swagger.
So far, Lithia has released its Regner Red and Bucky Blonde ales. Both are based upon pre-Prohibition recipes from the former West Bend Lithia Company, a brewery that dates back to 1848, the year Wisconsin became a state.
The driving force behind Lithia's resurgence is West Bend businessman Gunter Woog. He's owned the Lithia Beer trademark since 1999, and was simply waiting for the right time to bring back the beer. The name had been unregistered since the Walter Brewery of Eau Claire stopped operation in the 1980s.
Woog, born near Frankfurt, Germany, says he has beer in his genes. He came to the U.S. in 1952 at the age of six, and has been in business in West Bend for over 40 years; his company, Imagineering, specializes in silver recovery in manufacturing processes.
Looking to revive Lithia, Woog teamed up in 2008 with Christopher George, the brewmaster at Riverside Brewery, a brewpub in downtown West Bend. They made a batch of beer for the grand opening of a new addition to West Bend Mutual Insurance Company's corporate headquarters. (One of the first policies West Bend Mutual sold was to the West Bend Brewing Company in 1894.) After a few more batches were released, the beer developed a local following, so Woog turned to Sprecher Brewing of Glendale to scale up production.
Woog loves beer and says he wants to do something for the community: "It's a hometown brand; we've captured the spirit of the original beer, and I want it to be something that I can give the community, something that will be around for another 100 years." Some proceeds from the sale of the beer help support the restoration of Regner Park, the Washington County Historical Society, and the Museum of Wisconsin Art in West Bend.
Regner Red Ale was initially distributed in Madison in early August. It's an all-malt ale with a complex maltiness and spicy qualities. The beer is made with nine malts and five different hops. While bitter, the main central hops like Chinook and Cascade blend nicely with the Chocolate, Borlander and Munich malts.
Woog plans to release his second bottled beer, named "Bucky Blonde," come October. But it's already starting to turn up on tap in a handful of Madison craft beer bars. While lighter in color and hoppy bitterness than the Red, it's still a flavorful brew.
By this fall, distribution of Regner Red and Bucky Blonde should cover about two-thirds of the state. Both sell for $8-$10/six-pack.
Next year, Woog plans to release Lithia Christmas Beer, a dark brew based on a historic recipe that included additions of brown sugar and molasses. The old Lithia brewery even mailed Christmas cards to local residents every winter announcing the beer.
The original Lithia brewery was founded by Balthasar Goetter, who operated it from 1848 to 1851. Relatives took over for a time, and in 1889, it merged with another brewery to become the West Bend Brewing Company. In the decade just before Prohibition, its Lithia Beer label became so popular the name was changed to the West Bend Lithia Company. Its new owners, the Walter family, also had brewing interests in Appleton, Menasha and Eau Claire.
After Prohibition, this name remained in place until West Bend operations were closed in 1972 and its brands were moved to the Walter Brewery of Eau Claire. Lithia beer was made there until the 1980s. Portions of the old brewery in West Bend are still standing today and remain used by local businesses.
Water has a lot to do with the Lithia Beer name. Lithium is a mineral that naturally occurs in the groundwater under West Bend. The early labels of the beer featured slogans like "Brewed with the finest mineral water."
"There are a lot of old-timers around here who say of Lithia's old brews, 'Ah, that was a good beer in my day,'" says Woog. But nostalgia may win out over accurate memories, he notes, since the old-timers have to be over 90 years old to have been drinking those old school recipes -- before Prohibition, he adds with a laugh.