The Journey of Craft with Bill Tressler from Hinterland Brewery

We’re back!

Join co-hosts Chris Farmand and Katy Noel as they dive right into a new season of The True Craft Podcast. Chris and Katy discuss the vision for the season and kickoff with our first guest, Bill Tressler, CEO and Co-Founder of Hinterland Brewery out of Green Bay, WI.

We unpack challenges the craft industry has faced over the years as well as the mindset changes brewery owners have had to make in order to stay adaptable and profitable in the face of headwinds. 

We are thrilled to be back! 

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Transcription – Intro

Chris: Katy, what’s up?

Katy: Hey, Chris.

Chris: Are you as excited as I am to launch the TrueCraft podcast for a second time?

Katy: If anything, I’m more excited.

Chris: More excited. That is great. To all the listeners, I wanted to record a quick trailer of what we have in store coming up for the relaunch of the True Craft Podcast. But before we get into that, let me introduce to you our magnificent new co-host of the show, Katy Noel. 

Katy: Hi. 

Chris: Katy, give us a 20 second background of introduction or background of yourself.

Katy: Oh my. Okay. I was born and raised in Eugene, Oregon, I graduated with my degree in interpersonal communication. And I have found myself as the Brand Associate here at Small Batch Standard. And I get to work with cool people every day.

Chris: Amazing, amazing elevator pitch. That was, that was, that was perfect. And so why I think this season is going to be unique, or why I think this relaunch is going to be unique and successful is because we’re going to be talking with my institutional knowledge, but you bring a look and a feel and a curiosity and a distance from the craft brewing industry that is just going to really enhance the conversation. So that’s why I’m excited to introduce you as the cohost. And yeah, we’re just gonna, we’re going to go from there.

Katy: I’m looking forward to it, Chris. So can you tell me how this season will be differe nt than previous seasons?

Chris: Yeah, we’re going to keep it simple. It’s going to be very, very simple. It’s going to be you and I and a guest. And we’re going to have honest conversations about topics that are currently hot, cold, prevalent in the craft industry. So we are going to come up with questions and we’re going to interview guests who are really going to add a lot of value —

Katy: To the conversation.

Chris: Yeah. Yeah. So, Katy, the way that this season is going to be different than our original is we’re just going to simplify it. Okay, it’s going to be me, you, it’s going to be a guest. We’re going to push past all the history, right? We know how most breweries were started. So as a listener, if you hear us talk to the guest and they say the words “Same, same,” they had a very similar story to how they started up. We’re not interested in their story. We’re interested in what’s currently on their mind. What’s plaguing them, how they’re winning. How are they winning in their market, either through retail or wholesale or what have you be. So that’s how it’s going to be different. We’re going to go straight to the issues, straight to the wins, and we’re going to uncover them and just have an honest conversation about it.

Katy: What are you most excited for about this season, Chris?

Chris: Oh, I’m excited to revisit the conversation with some guests that we had from the original launch of the podcast. And I’m really excited to talk to all the new guests. We have tons of new guests that are interested in being on the show. And I think we’ve laid out some topics that could be controversial, could certainly be helpful to all the listeners. I’m really excited to get that information out.

Katy: I’m excited to learn.

Chris: Awesome. So let’s do it.

Katy: Let’s do it.

Transcription – Interview with Bill Tressler

Chris: Hey everyone. Welcome to a new episode of the TrueCraft Podcast. Today’s guest is Bill Tressler, CEO and co-founder of Hinterland Brewery in the one and only Green Bay, Wisconsin. Welcome, Bill. 

Bill: Hey, thanks. Good to be here.

Chris: Yeah, I’m so glad you’re able to join us today because I know the listeners are going to get a totally different perspective than the majority of our young whipper snapper. Not that you’re not young, Bill. You are so young and you are so active, and I know all about your hobbies. However, you’ve been doing this for a minute. I’m pumped to say you’ve been doing this for nearly three decades, and you have so much knowledge and so much history to bring to the conversation, especially now. Wouldn’t you say that we’re kind of at an inflection point with craft beer and where do owners go?

Bill: Yeah, it really feels like that. We’ve seen a couple of periods like this throughout our history, but this one seems a little deeper and maybe even a little darker than we’ve seen in times before.

Chris:Ok so I don’t think that you have the same same situation that most breweries do, how you got started. Can you give us a cliff notes version of how you and Michelle got this thing going?

Bill: Yeah, I mean, it kind of grew out of, obviously like everybody, I was a homebrewer, right? But at the same time, I was a journalist and I was working for the San Francisco Chronicle. The paper went on strike, and I needed a job. And that was just starting my career. This is back in like ‘93 ‘94. And I wound up taking the job as the editor of a beer magazine called, I ended up realizing I didn’t know a lot about commercial brewing, so I enrolled in UC Davis’s University Extension program to learn more about brewing science and fermentation and ended up doing that. Dove into that, took a lot of classes there, then Dr. Lewis at the time had started a new school called the American Brewers Guild, and I enrolled in his school and ended up doing a brewing science and engineering program. Once I finished, I was kind of at that point where I felt like I wanted to start my own brewery. So we moved back to Green Bay from the Bay Area and started this tiny little brewery just in the Shellenite. It was a little seven-barrel system out in the countryside, and the old cheese factory and that was our origin story, so. Grew it from there.

Chris: So you got to experience the 1999-2000. Because I would say ‘93-’99, was a bit of a ramp-up, of craft breweries, kind of a movement.

Bill: For sure. 

Chris: I should — you lived through ‘99. Tell us what happened. 

Bill: It was actually an interesting period in time. Because, you know, back then, when we first got started, you know, we’re competing, you know, with not anywhere near the number of breweries. But there were some really good breweries in Wisconsin. There was breweries like New Glarus, Lakefront, and a few others. And, you know, it really became this challenge to meet, to be at, $4.99 on the shelf for a 6-pack of beer. So it was like $4.99 to $5.99, which, you know, we just couldn’t do it. We couldn’t make those, you know, make beer and sell it at that price point.

Chris: And when you say we, you’re talking about all craft?

Bill: Well, it really was all the craft, right? And it sunk a lot of breweries. But at the same time, we ended up, we went draft only for a period of time, which we had a pretty big bottling operation. And we just kind of, we just kind of said, you know what, going to take a pause on bottling. And we went draft only and we focused on our pub. We had just built, a renovated, know, building downtown and built a pub. And yeah, and it was kind of, you know, was kind of one of those things where we knew we had to wait until people were willing to pay more for beer. And I specifically remember New Glarus at one point after that, I think it was 2001, 2002, something like that. They came out with a price hike and they were going out at $7.99. And I looked at that and I thought: I think we can make that work. And so that’s when we decided to jump back into the bottom game. Actually contract bottles for a bit which was kind of a disaster but it got us back in the ring. And then we put in another packaging line, an updated packaging line into the brewery and began bottling again. But it was a weird point, man. Everybody — it was survival. I felt like you had to let your business evolve into what it needed to be at that point in time. And just do what it took to stay in business. And we had a… We had just opened in 2000, we had just opened this new pub. That was really, you know, with kind of a wild idea, it was a restaurant that was focused on very high-end food, right? And you know, we were flying fish from Seattle and Hawaii and, you know, all over the place.

Chris: Green Bay, Wisconsin?

Bill: Yeah, people thought we were crazy, right? But we wanted to be something different. We didn’t want to just be another brewpub that served Shepherd’s pie, you know what I mean? And I felt like we had to express ourselves in a way, and we had luckily landed this really good chef who was also a Green Bay native. And, you know, he said, I’ll come back to Green Bay, but these are the conditions. I had to have this, this, and this. And so I went on this mission to figure out how to bring in fresh fish from the West Coast. And it was kind of comical. I talked to these people at Delta Airlines in Green Bay to bring these boxes of fish like every day in the luggage of the planes. And a couple of times, they would explode, and there was fish juice everywhere. Anyway, a long story. We were just doing what we had to do. But in that period, we built a really successful restaurant. And that was what was really giving us cash to keep our brewery going.

Chris: So the fine dining, the high-end dining was in demand. Pairing it with the beer was still really new.

Bill: Yeah, absolutely. In fact, people would be like, there were a lot of people coming in and wanting wine. And we started to sell some nicer wines and things like that because we were able to do it. But we were really pushing people to try good food with beer. And so we set our restaurant was sort of — they didn’t call it this back then — but it was farm-to-table, so to speak. And we were bringing in a lot of wild game and a lot of fresh fish. And we were taking beer, a lot of styles of beer, that nobody had really any experience with in Green Bay at that time and saying, you should eat this with this. And it worked. It was sort of something that people hadn’t seen before in Green Bay. You know, coming back from San Francisco, there was a good amount of it being done in that area. But in Green Bay, Wisconsin, there was nothing. So it worked out to our advantage.

Chris: That’s awesome. Are there any similarities between 2023 and 1999 when it comes to the craft beer scene that you experienced?

Bill: Well, I think that there is one thing that we saw is a lot of breweries just closed up shop. A lot of, there’s a lot of equipment on the market. There was a lot of auctions. There was a lot of people that got into the beer business prior to that that were kind of looking for quick cash. I don’t know if that’s, you know, so much the scenario now, but, you know, people weren’t well financed. And they just kind of got into it because it was their dream and they realized how tough the business was. They’re like, all right, I’ve had enough of this. So they closed up shop. You know, I think there’s a lot of things to making a business last, stand in touch with time, so to speak. And good finances, one of them. You always have to have that. You have to have enough cash on hand that you can survive the highs and lows. But I think what we’re seeing now is a lot of just… There’s just so much in the market and how do people choose, how do they understand what they’re buying, every day people are inundated with new styles of beer and stuff. You know, there was a little bit of that then, but, you know, it was to a lesser extent. Now it’s just, you know, a lot more of a convergence of products in the market.

Chris: It’s crazy how you’re describing that time period and what I’ve witnessed over the past decade and what you’ve been experiencing over the past decade, it literally mirrors each other. 

Bill: Yeah, 

Chris: It mirrors each other. So I don’t know if we can make some sort of conclusion here that says, really, this is another cycle. And the breweries that are well capitalized, that have a good business plan, that have good finances, that have solid liquid, potentially have solid food, are just going to push right through. It may be painful, may not be painful, but they’ll make it to the other side. And the ones that aren’t, they can just go ahead and exit now because it’s going to happen inevitably.

Bill: I used to call this, there was an analyst from Anheuser-Busch that I used to follow in the early days because there was very little information on craft, and this guy, like he could almost predict the future, you know what I mean? And it was wild because he said there would be this big high and then there would be, it’s going to be followed by a, you know, 14-month low… And I used to read his columns and basically, we would really tighten our belt based on that information. And I think that it’s true today. I don’t think he’s with us any longer. But, you know, anytime you hear of headwinds coming, there’s probably a good reason for it. The economy has been interesting to watch, and you can almost feel it. You can see it on people’s faces when they come through the doors. You know, when there are times of austerity coming. I think we’ve been through the last six to nine months, maybe a year or whatever, just people wondering where everything’s heading.

Chris: So I’m going to go out on a limb here though and say there’s one glaring difference though between today and 20 years ago. And I think that glaring difference happens to be from certainly the marketing, certainly the choices that are out there, right? And when I say choices, I’m talking about like beverage choices, not just craft beer choices. Yes, there’s tons of craft beer, but craft beer drinkers have just so many beverage choices now.

Bill:.. They do. I would also add to that that craft beer at that point in time had 0% market share. That’s kind of a big difference. People are used to choosing craft beer at this point. But like you said, there’s so much out there now. Every crazy style of beer plus, you know, we’ve also, you know, dipped our toe into the seltzer world. We’ve dipped our toes into the RTD world. And it’s really like the generation that’s coming now is sort of used to having unlimited choices. You know, you walk into a convenience store, and there are a hundred flavors of Gatorade that they grew up with. As well as our generation, it was like Coca-Cola or Pepsi, right? So people were used to just limited amounts of flavors. Now, everybody wants unlimited flavors, and it’s really hard to discern which ones are going to last.

Chris: Yeah, that’s a huge point. And really to add to that, there are so many choices, and it’s just in your face all the time. On your face, on the phone. It’s on TV, it’s in print. It’s just everywhere. You’re just constantly being reminded of… Which I don’t know how craft takes a page out of that playbook to just remember that you’ve got to continue to promote. Regardless of how long you’ve been there, or how old your product is, or how solidified your brand is, like the big boys are solidified, but they continue to put it in your face every single day. A looming question for me, what keeps you coming back every day? You’ve been doing this for a while. You’ve seen so many trend changes, style changes. What keeps you coming back to this?

Bill: For me, it’s always been, every morning when I walk through the door, there’s a chance to create something. It’s that creativity, it’s the idea that we’re making something and that we can enjoy it relatively soon after we create it. So that’s a huge piece of it. The other thing is it’s the people part of the business. The employees I work with every day, the customers that come through the door, the distributor partners that I work with out in the field. Over 28 years, I’ve built a lot of really great relationships and I love that. I think if I were ever to exit the business, I would miss it terribly. Because those bonds run deep and it’s still super fun to me. It’s still amazing to come in and see my team and say, “What’s everybody excited about? What should we be doing?” Even when times are tough, and we have to tighten the belt a bit, it’s still like, hey, we got this. We can power through this, we can make it. We all know what to do. We’ve been there before, and we all know what that looks like, and we get through it together. I mean, COVID was one of those periods where we’re like, holy shit, what just happened? You know what I mean? And, you know, we knew we had to make it through, and we did everything we could do to make that work. And so I love the idea of coming through the doors every morning and finding that team and working with everybody to make it all happen here.

Chris: I believe you get such a competitive advantage. Just understanding that this is not a sprint. It’s a marathon. You’ve seen this before in probably a couple of different iterations. I keep talking about 1999, but there were certainly others that have happened. 

Bill: Yeah, 2008 was another really interesting time, right?

Chris: When? 

Bill: 2008, when we had the big stock market crash. That was a wild time too.

Chris: Yeah, yeah. I would say as of today, we have not experienced a recession like we did in 2008. Thank God. Thank whatever you believe in, because everyone was bracing for another major recession. But I don’t think it’s actually happened. I think the feds did an amazing job of really landing this runaway, this runaway freight train, right? Airliner that had just spurred so much spending and so much debt accumulation. But yes, 2008 was very scary. Yeah, it was a very, very scary time for many industries. I know that if I was a brewer in Wisconsin, I’d be knocking on your door and I’d be saying, “Hey, I got — these are my fears. And these are my concerns and these are my wins, and, you know, help me get through these, right? Help me get through these, given your experience.” So, any breweries… I don’t know if I’m… If I’m putting you out there, but if I was a brewery in Wisconsin, if I was a brewery anywhere, I’d be reaching out to you. But certainly if I was in your backyard, I’d be knocking on your door.

Bill: I think it’s an interesting… You know, it’s an interesting time. I don’t know that we’ve had that much… I mean, we do have a really great relationship with other breweries in the state. And certainly people, you know, we all talk and what I was recently had a talk with that. That Russ from Lakefront Cave. And, you know, someone in the group or in the audience, like, raise your hand and say, “How have you been able to make it?” I think they’re 35 years or something like that, you know? And his answer to it was, “Good finance. That’s how we made it.” You know what I mean? He was one of those ones who seemed even more experienced than I have. And, you know, Russ is really smart in business. And he always knows when… I mean, let’s face it, a lot of people get over their skis, know? They play huge plans, overspend, you know what I mean? Like, all of this stuff. We’ve all seen what that looks like. But Russ is very smart in how he’s managed that business. And how he knows when it’s the right time to pull the trigger on something and when it’s the wrong time, you want to just hold tight, you know?

Chris: How big is, Lakefront? I’ve heard of them. I don’t know their size or story. 

Bill: They’re big. I mean, they’re 50,000+ barrels, I think.

Chris: Got it. Okay. Big, big, right. So describe to the listener your current setup now. Describe your current setup, your pub, manufacturing setup, so on and so forth.

Bill: So we have a 24,000 square foot facility. Half of it is restaurant. Half of it is brewery. We seat like 300 people in the pub. We have an extra 200 seats outside. And, you know, the restaurant is a massive part of what we do. It’s a huge tourist destination. We’re located right next to Lambeau Field, home of the Packers, in the Titletown district. So, you know, you could walk out our door and pick up a rock and throw it and hit the stadium. That close, right? We see about 25,000 customers through our doors every month. So the restaurant’s an animal, the brewery… The highest production we’ve ever done in a year is a little over 8,000 barrels. We are probably somewhere around half of that today. Last year, we produced 6,000 barrels. This year is a little interesting. We’re kind of waiting to see where it ends up. Coming out of COVID, we put together a pretty awesome sales team to get back out there and win back business. And that helped a ton. But there’s definitely headwinds in the market today. So, you know, we’re insulated in a way because we have such a strong on-premise business here. We’re kind of in that mode right now, just right-sizing everything and making sure that we don’t get over our skis in terms of labor and production and all that kind of stuff. So yeah, it’s kind of interesting, right? Like everything that you’re reading in the industry right now is talking about the quote on the arc that it’s growing down. And being sure that everything is working as it should, but at the same time recognizing that there are, you know, craft is in a tough spot right now.

Chris: Right. Definitely. Are you… So you use the term “growing down,” you use the term “right size.” I think a lot of breweries are not okay with being okay. They’re uncomfortable with possibly the… The business is taking them, that they didn’t intend to settle. Are you comfortable with the path that you’re on right now?

Bill: I’m super comfortable with it. I will say that, you know, in 2016 when we were building this new facility, we had big plans for growth and we put in a bunch of 120 barrel tanks and a bunch of 90 barrel tanks. We were absolutely certain that we were going to grow well through those. And I think, you know, there was a voice in the back of my head that was saying, “Don’t get too crazy, you know what I mean? Let’s keep everything checked.” I’m glad that I haven’t continued to add on to the brewery, not because I wouldn’t have loved to see the brewery grow well beyond that. I think that we’re in a good spot right now. And the only thing I wish that I had were a few smaller tanks, honestly. When did you ever hear a brewer say that? We all wanted to have, you know, 20,000 barrels of production or something like that. But honestly, we’re right on the line of being a little bit big, but also being flexible. You know, so it’s working for us now. We’re making it work, right?

Chris: Yeah. Yeah. From everything that I’m seeing where I sit, primarily on the finance side and the number side, the retail is the future. I’ve mentioned this a number of times in a lot of my writings and talking. So if you’re a brewery and you happen to have a solid retail operation, with or without food, you should be okay. There are some things that could hiccup and mess up the plan, but you should be okay. And where the real struggle now is with wholesale, with distribution.

Bill: When you came to Wisconsin and talked at the Wisconsin Brewers Guild and said, we should focus on two to three brands, I think everybody, you know, at that time, it was a huge shocker. Of course, we’d been talking before that, so I was kind of prepared for that. But the reality is that, you know, I don’t think you’re wrong. It’s hard to keep up with rotation nation and be profitable. You know, we definitely kind of went at it with like, okay, we’re going to do limited releases, but we’re going to make a good amount of money on those limited releases, and we’re going to get in and get out. We’re looking at our core brands and making sure that they’re the right brands for where the market’s at. We’re one of those weird breweries that our IPA is our second bestseller. Our focus has always been on our Cherry Wheat, which is a style that probably isn’t, you don’t have to go head to head necessarily with every single brewery out there trying to make the best IPA in the world.

Katy: I think that ties interestingly into what you guys were discussing earlier in regards to how many options there are on the shelves for everything these days. There’s still this value to be had for focusing your portfolio on a couple core items and maybe having one or two rotating things to keep something fresh. It’s interesting that’s where the wisdom is despite all the options on the market.

Bill: I think also for us, one of the lessons I learned from working with you guys is that we really needed to find something that was different, that we could go to market with, that wasn’t something that was competing with everyone out there. It’s important for me to still be a beer, brewing beer, like it’s in my blood. So we started pretty heavy into gluten-free beers, and I’ve had a number of family members with celiac and things like that so I recognized that that market was kind of an important market. And so we put some eggs in that basket and they’ve beared fruit for us. You know, because it’s something that, you know, when you look at the landscape and you say, how many great gluten free beers are out there and I think most people’s experience would tell you there are none. And so we set out on a course to make a really great-tasting gluten free beer. And we found that there’s that there’s some ramp there and some road in front of us on that. And that’s what’s helped a lot too.

Chris: That’s awesome. Yeah, I think the gluten free market is one that is relatively untapped. I don’t know the technical side of the brewing of it. But I think there is a huge market out there for it. I wonder why more breweries don’t do it. If it’s hard to brew or what, you can speak to that maybe.

Bill: It’s very expensive. It’s also, it is very non-traditional in terms of mashing techniques and use of various enzymes and things like that. And it’s something that, done well, you can make people extremely happy, right? Done poorly, it’s just another whatever gluten free beer. It’s just another challenge. 

Katy: How much of a learning curve was there on producing?

Bill: A lot. It’s a challenge. There are challenges like, if you’re brewing with millet, for example, the size of a millet seed is basically a fraction of barley. Those people’s wedge wire screens or whatever they’re using in the lauter tun, they’re smaller than the gap that is traditionally made, right? So it took us a bit to be able to actually lauter efficiently, right, and figure that whole thing out. But then there’s also the other side of it where you can’t introduce the gluten anywhere in the process, right? Like so, you know, we can’t have it go through the same mill or conveyance system for the rest of your day. When you put it on tap, you know what I mean? That line has to be absolutely clean of any potential, you know, gluten-containing product. These are things that we take super seriously and we do a lot of testing to make sure that we are, you know, below the gluten threshold. Or that no gluten is present because it has consequences, right? And like it can do, cross contaminate, like somebody might get sick, right? That would really suck and it would be a bad situation. So I think that there are those kind of factors that keep people out of that realm. And they can see more breweries that are 100% gluten-free doing gluten-free beers than you do breweries that kind of mix the two, right? But we know that when we do it, we have to be like, we have to be damn perfect and absolutely clean up any potential for contamination. So that’s been a huge limit here.

Chris: Yeah, cool. All right, Bill, where can the listeners learn more about Hinterland Brewing and on the web? Social? Like tell us where we can learn more about you.

Bill: Yeah, so we are obviously our website is Instagram, our handle is @hinterlandbeer. We’re out there on most social media and yeah, I think that’s probably the primary ways to find out about us. Of course, if you happen to be anywhere in the state of Winsconsin or Chicago or upper Michigan. We sell beer in all of those markets and you can find us on store shelves there.

Chris: Awesome. I appreciate your time today Bill. Wealth of knowledge. I want to have you back on soon because I feel like we could talk for a long time so appreciate it and have a great day. Talk to you soon. 

Bill: Absolutely. Thank you. 

Chris: Appreciate it Bill.

Katy: Thanks for your time Bill.

Bill: Bye. 

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