A New Era of Craft Beer in Milwaukee
Eight months had gone by and finally, on January 31, 2020, Sprecher Brewery was his. Eight months of nothing but meetings with lawyers and driving by the brewery. Sharad Chadha originally thought the process would take less than two months. It seems these things take more time than Sharad, whose business background lays in technology and engineering, was used to.
While being a brewery owner was not a specific life goal of his, Sharad knew he wanted to stop travelling for his job as an executive at Samsung in New Jersey every week. He wanted to put down roots in his wife’s hometown of Milwaukee and to be present in raising their 10-year-old son. This became a possibility when Sharad started talking with an acquaintance named Randy Sprecher, whose brewery that shares his last name is the oldest craft beer operation in Wisconsin. Randy was looking to retire and Sharad knew this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that he couldn’t pass up.
On the surface, Randy and Sharad couldn’t be more different. Randy was born in 1947 in Oregon and grew up in rural Southern California. Sharad was born in 1972 in the state of Punjab, India, where the men in his family worked in the equivalent of the secret service for the Indian Prime Minister. Their differing histories make for an interesting intersection made possible by the craft brewing industry.
How It All Began
Randy started his brewery after being fired from Pabst in 1984. He worked his way through city and industry politics to secure a former tannery building in Milwaukee’s historic Walker’s Point neighborhood along a canal of the Menomonee River in 1985. Randy wanted to create beer like he had tasted during his time in the military serving in Germany – styles like Vienna lager and hefeweizen that didn’t exist in Milwaukee at that time.
Craft brewery marketing in 1985 was a far cry from today’s constant social media onslaught. Randy’s hope was that word of mouth would be enough. He said, “People would come just to see what was going on. I’d say, ‘there’s the tap, help yourself.’” That’s how tours were run in the early days of Sprecher Brewery, with patrons sampling products and Randy enlightening them to the challenges of building a brewery from scratch. He would show them his vats and other equipment, most of which was recycled from the dairy industry. As business grew, Randy was continually expanding his operation into other parts of the building.
Sprecher Brewery moved to its present location in nearby Glendale in 1994 as the original brewery building was battling erosion caused by its canal-side location. As Sprecher has grown throughout the years – not only through its beer, but also through its famed root beer and soda lineup – the brewery has become a steadfast member of the family of companies that Milwaukee is known for.
A Milwaukee Icon
Indeed, Sharad sees Sprecher Brewery as something that Milwaukee should be known for even further. It was important to Randy that the brewery remain in independent local hands. Sharad also sees the potential of what Randy built for the craft community stating, “If we can keep it independent and Milwaukee based, but grow all over the country and the world – hey, more good comes for everybody.”
Just as Randy learned the trade of brewing through working in various departments at Pabst, Sharad is making comparable efforts at Sprecher, coming in early every morning to take in the sights, sounds and understanding of what it means to own a large craft brewery. You can often find him taking video of the operation, knowing that the facility is in use and therefore benefiting the company, its employees, and the customers.
Challenges are also something that Randy and Sharad have in common when it comes to the brewery. When Randy started his brewery in 1985, he had to battle the brewing giants of Miller and Pabst to get his beer on shelves and at certain venues and events like Milwaukee’s annual Summerfest music festival. While distribution challenges still remain in the craft beer industry today, it seems that Sharad will have tests of his own in this new era of craft beer. Certainly, he didn’t think that less than two months after his purchase of the brewery that a global pandemic would force his brewery to suspend tours and scale back taproom operations in charting an unknown path forward.
A New Legacy
Future challenges aside, the sale of Sprecher Brewery represents the changing of the guard in Milwaukee craft beer from the first generation to the next. This is emphasized by the fact that Milwaukee, and all of Wisconsin, finally has a large brewery owner of color, something that had not been attempted in Milwaukee since the 1960s. Undeniably, it is something to celebrate that in a new era of brewery consolidation where macros are snapping up micros, Sprecher found a way to remain independent.
As for how Sharad feels about taking the helm of Milwaukee’s oldest craft brewery, it’s something he embraces. On his first day he found Randy’s old business cards in his desk, something that Sharad says will remain where he found them as a nod to the brewery’s founder and everything that came before him. “I believe it’s a big responsibility on my shoulder to carry that legacy of good quality products,” Sharad remarks. “When he started, there wasn’t great beer made or craft beer at all in Wisconsin or anywhere, and he just made this great beer. Now we’re going to continue that.”