Randal Sprecher doesn’t mince words. After 30 years at the helm of the Milwaukee brewery that bears his name, he’s seen enough to know what he likes, to realize what works and what doesn’t, and to have opinions that can be taken as fact.
He was just a few days removed from the Sprecher Brewery anniversary party that drew hundreds under overcast skies, a fact that was still on his mind. It’s been beautiful all summer in the upper Midwest city, he says, but rained on the one day he wanted to be clear. In the grand scheme of his career and the impact his brewery has had on the modern industry, it’s a good bet that he’d be moving on from this minor annoyance quickly.
Indeed, without any prompting, Sprecher, who goes by Randy, started in on the hard root beer trend that is currently storming the beer world. His brewery made a hard root beer five years ago, putting the soda into bourbon barrels, infusing real flavor into the product, letting it take time to mature. As if with a wave of the hand, he dismissed Not Your Father’s Root Beer and the others that quickly followed it to market.
“It’s a wintergreen bomb,” Sprecher says, “no brewing expertise in them, and they are making them from concentrate.” What really irks him is the way the product has been positioned: as a beer. “We’re a flavored malt beverage [FMB],” he says. “They are trying to make it sound like a beer.”
For a man who has continually tried to innovate, forge new paths and stress the importance of technical knowledge in brewing, Sprecher did acknowledge, however, that the popularity of that other root beer has been good for his business.
“We’re busy as the dickens here,” he says. His brewery is continuing to make beers, like the award-winning Black Bavarian lager, and other styles that are more old world than new wave. And also focusing on the FMBs, like a hard apple-pie-flavored beverage, a hard ginger beer and a line of cider.
Sprecher, a former brewery supervisor for Pabst, founded his brewery in 1984. The Midwest was a tough nut to crack for a small brewery, because of the customer loyalty that existed for long-running companies that dominated the general consciousness, like Miller, Pabst, Schlitz and more.
But with a commitment to quality, reviving styles that spoke to a certain sensibility and looking beyond beer, he was able to build a respected business that now counts new generations of drinkers as loyal followers. Beyond beer, the brewery has launched a number of food products, including potato chips, sausages and sauces. There’s also a popular line of non-alcoholic sodas that bear the company name.
For all his experience and forward thinking, Sprecher is unsure where the industry is headed.
“I’ve challenged people to come with a forecast on a two-year plan and what will be popular,” he says. “It’s hard because you really can’t predict, so all we can do is try to put things out first and make the best product we can.”
Striving for the best is the advice he gives all new brewers who seek his counsel. He’s often dismayed at the lack of education and training that members of the new generation have put into their career before opening a brewery of their own. Technical knowledge is key, not luck or hopes. The same goes for bars, he says, a business category he finds himself acting as a consultant for more and more these days.
Thirty years into his brewery, Sprecher’s brain is still racing as hard as it was when he started, and he shows no desire to slow down, even referencing the three decades ahead.
“I’d like to go and buy another lifetime,” he says, “because we have so much going on now.”
John Holl is the editor of All About Beer Magazine.