City Brewery, the successor company that has taken over the former G. Heileman brewery facility in La Crosse, Wisconsin, has been expanding distribution of its own beer brands into the Chicago area. Metropolitan = Chicago was the G. Heileman Brewery’s largest market. Jon Reynolds, City Brewing Co.’s director of sales and marketing predicted last week that the Chicago area will again become the largest market for the La = Crosse brewery’s products. “I’m thinking it will be two to three years” before the Chicago area replaces the La Crosse area as the brewery’s largest market, he told the La Crosse Tribune.
The City Brewery began operating in late 1999, a few months after The Stroh Brewery Co. closed the Heileman brewery and sold Stroh’s brands to = Miller Brewing Co. and Pabst Brewing Co. The brands Pabst acquired included the Old Style and Special Export labels that the La Crosse brewery was best known for. Old Style’s share of the Chicago beer market rose sharply in the late 1970s and early 1980s, peaking at 4 percent in 1982 before it began to erode. “It was truly Chicago’s beer,” said Randy Smith, City Brewing president and former general counsel for the G. Heileman Brewing Co. Reynolds said City Brewery products have been available in northern Illinois counties that border Wisconsin, between Rockford and Lake Michigan, for more than two years. The company’s products were available in about 30 percent of the Chicago market by the end of 2002.
But by the end of this month, City Brewery brands will be available in about 90 percent of the Chicago market, Reynolds said. The Joliet area represents the other 10 percent, he said. “And we’ll be there in the month of May,” he said. The City Brewery is featured in an article headlined “The ghosts of G. Heileman revisit Chicago,” in the March = issue of the free Chicago bar journal “The Tap,” which is available in many taverns there. Reynolds said he has heard nothing but positive = comments in Chicago about City Brewery products. “I believe they are looking for that taste profile – the fully kraeusened, naturally carbonated taste that was a big part of what they grew up with,” he said. Kraeusening is a secondary aging process that naturally carbonates beer and was used to make Old Style and Special Export in La Crosse.
“The brand name plays very positively because we’re a city in Wisconsin, and the former advertising campaign always finished with ‘G. Heileman = Brewing Co., La Crosse, Wisconsin,'” Reynolds said. “So there’s an immediate connection with the consumer as to what the beer stands for and what the name La Crosse gives it.” So far, the La Crosse brewery has introduced its La Crosse Lager, La Crosse Light and City Slicker = malt liquor brands in the Chicago market. It also is distributing imported Sleeman beer from Canada in the Chicago area. Reynolds said the brewery probably will begin distributing its seasonal brands in the Chicago area this summer.
“The interest in the brand is because there’s been such a long history and tradition of La Crosse supplying full kraeusened beer with artesian spring water,” said Robert Rokusek, general manager of L&V Distributors in the Chicago suburb of Crystal Lake, Ill., which has carried the La Crosse brewery’s brands for the past few years. “People have been looking for that in the market. The kraeusening style gives it a special flavor that naturally carbonates the beer and makes it taste smoother.” Rokusek said “People really like the beer,” although the La Crosse brewery’s brands represent only about 5 percent of his company’s total sales. His company distributes about 30 brands. La Crosse Lager accounts for about 90 percent of the volume of the City Brewery brands that L&V sells. “The marketing has been a little lean,” Rokusek said, “with little advertising.” It’s been a real grass-roots beer. One particular customer will try it on tap in a bar and tell a friend. It’s been consumers spreading the word” that has helped his company’s sales of La Crosse brands continue to grow.
“I’d say we’ll be very low budget the first year” for advertising in the Chicago market, Reynolds said. “We might do some print ads.” The brewery advertises on the “Discover Wisconsin” TV program that is seen in the Chicago area, he said. Chicago is a large market, and “everything is expensive in Chicago,” Reynolds said. But he hopes to increase the = brewery’s advertising in that market – perhaps with billboards and radio advertisements – in a year or two. La Crosse Lager represents about 90 percent of the volume of the three City Brewery brands his store carries, said Dennis Riley, general manager of the Teddy’s Liquor store in Crystal Lake. “They have a 30-pack we can put out there for $10.99, and that’s attractive” to customers, he said. “I talk to people and tell them ‘You should try this – it’s the old Old Style brewery,'” Riley said. “I tell them the story. We are happy to see that brewery operating,” Riley said. “It would be a shame if La Crosse was not a beer-producing city. The tradition is there. We’ll do what we can to help them. They’re doing things right.”
(This article was originally published in the La Crosse Tribune on March 17, 2003.)