How Randy Sprecher Built a Micro-Brewery
German beer inspired him, but root beer may be the real secret to his success.
Life is full of possibilities. One moment you’re a carefree adolescent, the next you’re an adult taking on the world. For Randy Sprecher life has been an adventure that has taken him across the world from his native California to Germany and later Milwaukee, where he founded Wisconsin’s first craft brewery.
A military veteran during the Vietnam era, Sprecher found himself not in Southeast Asia but in Germany, world renowned for great beer. Though used to the American take on the pilsner style, Randy developed a taste for authentic German beer. When he returned home to civilian life in 1969 his yen for old world brews followed.
“I didn’t like American, I wanted imports,” says Sprecher, but he soon realized imported European beer just wasn’t the same after crossing the ocean, prompting him to take up home brewing as a hobby, while studying oceanography in his native California.
A love for craft brews true to their European ancestors eventually led Randy to the University of California-Davis, a school known for its premier brewing program. After finishing his brewing training, Sprecher found himself choosing between numerous job offerings across the nation, ultimately deciding on Pabst Brewery in Milwaukee. Randy would spend four years at Pabst, eventually rising to supervisor, but his lust for a true to style European brew wasn’t met at Pabst, prompting him to leave in 1984 to chase his dream of owning and operating his own brewery. A year later, in 1985, Sprecher Brewery opened its doors at 730 W. Oregon Street in Walker’s Point, becoming Milwaukee’s first craft brewery.
Starting small, Sprecher Brewery was initially equipped with custom gas-fired brew kettles capable of 40 barrels per batch and just one beer, the Winter Brew, a blend of what is now known as Special Amber and Black Bavarian. Not long after, the brewery added the soon-to-be-award winning Special Amber and Black Bavarian beers to the lineup, as well as a non-alcoholic root beer.
“I was always about beer, but I was messing around with soda back in California. I was writing down formulas in the library and working with high-end ingredients. I had a lot of experience with that before I got to Pabst in Milwaukee,” says Sprecher, who introduced soda to his company’s lineup to please non-beer fans and underage guests on the brewery tour. What he didn’t know was that the root beer would become a nationwide hit, receiving national praise from Details Magazine and the New York Times.
The success of his root beer is the source of great pride for Sprecher. In fact, the company sells more root beer than all of its beer combined. Of course, there’s always a new company looking to claim the top spot.
“A lot of companies, they’re coming out with their root beer to try and squash us, but they don’t get that big,” Sprecher notes. “I think they’re finding that it’s pretty hard to make a really quality root beer cheaply. All of our sodas have very high-end ingredients. We buy the best stuff we can find for the best flavors. Plus the fire brewing really helps on the chemistry side by focusing the flavor molecules. We’re known for having real strong, pure flavors in our soda.”
The success of both the root beer and beer led to the eventual expansion of both lineups and eventually a new, bigger brewery. In 1993, Sprecher moved to its current location at 701 W. Glendale Ave, just west of Port Washington Rd. The larger space enabled Sprecher to more than double its output with a 105 barrel kettle system and eventually a 150 barrel system exclusively for soda production, allowing the company to spread across the country with sales, while remaining a true micro-brewery.
“We haven’t focused much on how much volume we can sell, although beer and soda combined has sold over 100,000 barrels last year. It keeps going and now we’re finding new markets,” says Sprecher. “It worked out pretty well in the long term. I did it the long, hard way, not selling stock or anything. My ownership has turned into a lot of paperwork, but the soda and beer has been well recognized.”
Specher’s quality is so recognized in Milwaukee that much of its brewing is done for festivals and beer gardens around the city in the summer months. Milwaukee County even hosts a traveling beer garden in which Sprecher bar-trucks appear on set dates throughout the Milwaukee County Park System. Following the end of the beer garden season, the company plans to honor its 30th anniversary with a day-and-a-half celebration with food, music, and of course, beer.
So what’s on the horizon for Sprecher after so many years serving a thirsty nation? Randy Sprecher hints at a “414 beer” in the near future, perhaps meaning the next new brew could be a take on the classic Pilsner, considering the style’s prominence in Milwaukee. But nothing is official yet. In the meantime, the company is proud to announce that it has been selected to be the official beer and soda vendor of the inaugural Milwaukee Running Festival, which will take place over Halloween weekend.