Larsen: Reborn Potosi Brewing Company looks to fuel economic growth
By Brian E. Clark
The Potosi Brewing Company is back.
And three of the beers it produces are available not only in the brewpub in the small Mississippi River town from which it takes its name, but around the Badger State, northwest Illinois and soon, Minnesota.
The 158-year-old, four-story brick building that houses the restaurant, kettles and barrels cost $8 million to restore. The structure is also home to the National Brewery Museum, which is filled what beer aficionados like to call “breweriana.” Remarkably, Potosi (pop. 711) beat out Milwaukee and St. Louis to land the museum.
“A lot of people are coming to see and taste our history,” says Greg Larsen, executive director of the brewery. “Beer buffs are intrigued by our signs that date from the late 1800s. In one respect, it’s kind of like an art gallery.”
The Potosi brewery was started in 1852 and was once the fifth-largest brewery in Wisconsin. At one point, it produced more than 60,000 barrels and was delivered coast to coast.
But it closed in 1972 and the building went into a slow decline until native son Gary David, who had lived in New York and gained international fame as a woodworker, returned home and bought the old bottling building across the street from the brewery to use as a studio.
David watched the brewery – which is on the National Register of Historic Places – continue to decline, which pained him.
So he and several acquaintances bought it for the back taxes (about $9,000) and put a roof on the structure.
One thing led to another and a community group formed a non-profit corporation to restore the brewery. Over time, the organization raised $8 million, landed the brewing museum and created a job engine for Potosi. It's also a source of community pride.
“We employ about 60 full- and part-time people here,” says Larsen, who notes that the brewery drew about 60,000 people to Potosi in 2009. According to the museum log book, they came from all 50 states and 37 foreign countries
“Part of our mission here is economic development,” he says. "We couldn't do all this, however, without the help of our many volunteers."
But he says the economic benefit to the Grant County village – which is 20 miles northeast of Dubuque, Iowa – is substantial: about $4.5 million in 2009.
The brewery began making beer in late 2008 and was content at first to supply suds for its restaurant.
“But as wonderful as it is to serve visitors, that’s not enough to sustain ourselves,” he says. “So we had to reach out and get into a wider market.”
Now, the brewery has a joint operating agreement with the Stevens Point Brewery, where Potosi brewmaster Steve Buszka, works his magic part of the month. But the Potosi facility continues to make approximately 1,500 barrels annually.
Now, Larsen says, the Potosi folks hope their namesake beers can attract some attention in the regional marketplace.
“Part of our marketing angle is that we are nonprofit,” he says. “Once we retire our debt, (now down to $4 million) our profits will go back into the areas we serve. So if Milwaukee is 40 percent of market, 40 percent of profits will go back for community efforts and charities. That’s pretty cool.”