When Deb Carey pulled Spotted Cow out of bar coolers and off shelves in Chicago in 2002, distributors told her she was crushing her upstart Wisconsin brewery. Twelve years later, her beer may be as popular as ever in the Windy City, even if you have to drive an hour north to find it.

“Distributors and retailers said I was stupid, that I was going to kill my brewery,” says Carey, the outspoken founder of New Glarus Brewing Co. in New Glarus, Wisconsin. Carey opened the brewery in 1993 with her husband, Dan, as brewmaster, and it grew rapidly through the 1990s. New Glarus began distributing in Chicago in 2000, but by 2002, Carey was growing tired of weekly trips to Chicago that had her waking at 3 a.m. to trek to the city and hawk her beers, returning just in time to kiss her young daughters goodnight. But her decision to pull out of a market responsible for 15 percent of her sales volume wasn’t just about family.

“I hated driving down there, because everyone was on the take,” she says. “To put your beer on tap, everyone expected something for free. I can’t sell you a keg, make $10 on it and then give you $100 in product for free. I said screw this and pulled my beer out. We were so small at the time, maybe 15,000 barrels, that I thought, ‘Who’s even going to notice?’ ”

A lot of people did.

Illinois beer lovers were distraught, and two distributors threatened her with lawsuits for breach of contract and told her not to come crawling back to them when her brand died without distribution in the city (because New Glarus pulled out of the state, Carey says the distributors had no grounds to sue). What they didn’t account for was the loyalty to the great farmhouse ale with the funny name.

One of the first things cheeseheads learn when they move to Chicago is that they have a new responsibility. When you go home to the Dairyland, you are expected to return with some Spotted Cow, Fat Squirrel or Moon Man from New Glarus. A six-pack will do; a case is preferred.

In this writer’s case, I was asked about Spotted Cow in my first job interview in the city. I’m fairly certain that the fact that I promised to bring some back several times a year gave me a leg up on other applicants. But Chicago isn’t the only place that still clamors for New Glarus.

Patrick Campbell, an investment adviser from Iowa City, Iowa, was introduced to New Glarus through friends from Wisconsin.

“Any time someone goes up to that area to visit family or other reasons, I typically request that they bring back Spotted Cow,” he says. “I was introduced to it by friends, and now it’s tradition.”

Tavern owners have been known to push legal limits to satisfy customers’ thirst for Spotted Cow. In 2015, a Minnesota bar was cited for illegally selling Spotted Cow, as was a bar on New York City’s upper east side in 2009. In both states, it is illegal to transport or import alcoholic beverages into the state for purposes of resale without a proper license.

Mars Cheese Castle
At Mars Cheese Castle in Kenosha, Wisconsin, about 9 miles north of the Illinois border, New Glarus beer is big business. Thousands of Illinois residents make a pit-stop at the specialty store to stock up on the beer that hasn’t been available for sale in Illinois since 2002. (Photo courtesy Tyson Wehrmeister)

Undoubtedly the most popular stop for New Glarus “smugglers” is Mars Cheese Castle, a Wisconsin cheese, beer and sausage emporium located off I-94 in Kenosha, about 9 miles from the Illinois border. It’s one of the last stops before those returning from vacations to Door County peninsula or north woods cross the state line, and co-owner and general manager Tyson Wehrmeister says it’s not unusual to see people loading five or six cases of New Glarus beer in their car.

“We are the No. 1 independent retailer for New Glarus,” Wehrmeister says. “When I first tried Spotted Cow in 2004, I told my Dad I was going to bring in 10 cases. He said we’d be sitting on it for a month. We ended up selling out in a day. Sometimes today we get tourists on both sides of their trip. They stock up on their way north, then reload on the way south.”

Wehrmeister makes a point of getting the latest small-batch offerings that Dan Carey creates, and his Illinois customers love him for it. “I’d say 75-80 percent of our sales are to people from the Chicago area,” he says.

While there’s no way to know exactly how much of New Glarus’ sales go to those in Wisconsin’s southern neighbor, it may well be more now than it was when the beer was sold in Illinois. Carey says marketing was never a part of the equation when she decided to leave Illinois behind, but acknowledges that product scarcity has helped build her brand.

“I think, inadvertently, it has been a good marketing decision,” she says. “Scarcity did help. Whenever you make a decision like that, you have to be willing to live with the consequences. I always say you have to get comfortable living with fear. To pull out and be faced with the possibility of lawsuits from wholesalers wasn’t fun, but I felt like it was the thing that would save our sanity.”

As for a return to Illinois, Carey won’t rule it out, but says it’s not in the works.

“We’re growing 20 percent a year; that’s all we can handle,” she says. “There’s still a lot of room to sell beer in Wisconsin, and it’s not like they don’t have great beer in Chicago. We’re happy brewing world-class beer for our friends in Wisconsin.”

Myles Dannhausen is a freelance writer from Chicago. He “smuggles” a case of New Glarus beer for friends into Illinois at the end of most visits to his native Wisconsin.