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Potosi's Community Spirits

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The world's largest cone top beer can, 40 feet into the Wisconsin sky .


POTOSI, Wis.---The remarkable comeback of the Potosi Brewing Company is a story of a community coming together to preserve its history.

From the ground up.
Literally.

One of the cooler things about a visit to the Potosi Brewery/National Brewery Museum/transportation museum/restaurant and beer garden is an original man cave about 70 feet deep.

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"Before refrigeration until the early 1900s breweries needed a place to keep the beer cold," said David Fritz, president of the Potosi Brewery Foundation during my mid-July visit. "Some had caverns. This one is extremely unique in that it's a cave carved out of limestone. It was always damp in here. Just before we opened in June, 2008 we had two feet of water because of the super saturation of the ground. Following that we retrofitted the cave with three high capacity pumps."

In the mid-1800s the brewery would also cut ice out of the Mississippi River---about a quarter mile west of Potosi--and stock it in cave sawdust. The cave temperature is normally 52 degrees.

Any visit to the brewing company is filled with similar historical nooks and crannies.....

.....The brewery opened in 1852 in Potosi, (pop. 711), about 20 miles north of Dubuque, Ia. It closed in 1972.

The 1980s were as bad to the limestone and wood building as disco was to corner taverns. The old brewery began to crumble. There was a small fire in late 2005.

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A beloved brewery, late 1990s and now (Courtesy of Potosi Brewing Company)

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The building--now on the National Register of Historic Places--was on the verge of being torn down.
A 1997 movement to save the brewery building began when Potosi native Gary David and two of his cousins pooled $6,600 to buy the building from Grant County. David is a woodworker who lives in Galena, Ill, about 25 miles southeast of Potosi. He designed and built the handcrafted walnut/white oak/maple bar and back bar in the new restaurant.

"It couldn't have been done without the community," David said Friday from his Potosi studio. "There's no way this could have been done as a private venture. The feasibility from an economic or practicality standpoint, it never would have flown. That's why it laid fallow for so long."

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Potosi Military Band, early 1900s. They obviously liked to make merry while making music.

In 2000 the entire community formed the non-for-profit Potosi Brewery Foundation, which now operates the brewery.
Magic happened. The complex has become a colorful window into regional tourism.

A decade later, A Grant County economic analysis of the Potosi project estimated their impact to the region was equal to $4.3 million in 2009, its first full year of operation.
For example, the Potosi Brewery Bicycle Tour commences at 8 a.m. Sept. 24 at the Holiday Gardens Event Center, across the street from the brewery. Gear heads and beer heads can take 24, 45, 65 or 100 mile rides. A $45 entry fee includes a t-shirt, souvenir pint glass, lunch, beer, drinks and live music. Register at www.active.com or visit the Potosi Brewing Company website.

David, 59, is now Vice-President of the Potosi Foundation Board of Directors. In measured tones he reflected, "The building holds a huge amount of our cultural heritage. When you've got a business that had 70 employees in a town of 700 people for 150 years it meant something to us from a historical background. That was the drive.
"We saw so much sympathy coming forward."

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L to R: Dave Fritz, Ex. Dir. Greg Larsen, and board member Bob Brodbeck.

Fritz said, "There's 42 river parkway commissions around the United States. In 2011 this project was awarded one of the top eight prizes in the United States for what happened here." The Potosi Brewery is being awarded the "National Scenic Byway Award" this weekend at the National Scenic Byway Conference in Minneapolis, Mn.

The non-for-profit received a State of Wisconsin Dept. of Commerce grant to remove lead paint. The state's Department of Transportation awarded three grants to fund the Great River Road Interpretative Center and Transportation Museum.

If this project had been in Illinois, the Department of Transportation would be building a tollway around the brewery.

Community spirit has always been the cornerstone of regional breweries.
The brewery was built in the lush valley of southwest Wisconsin because of access to plentiful spring water. The first fans were feisty lead miners who worked in the area. Potosi brewmaster Steve Buszka explained, "I use virtually the same water they used in the 1800s, except we use a well instead of a spring. But the well pumps from the spring. This was a good place for a brewery back then and it is a good place now."

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Potosi Brewery Tour, late 1950s early 1960s. (Courtesy of Potosi Brewing Company)

The new brewery does not have a 12-ounce bottle filler so twice a month Buszka and his comrades drive 200 miles north to the Stevens Point Brewery (Point beer, etc.) in Stevens Point, Wis. It is the oldest continuing operating brewery in Wisconsin. Using detailed water analysis, Buszka mirrors Potosi with Stevens Point water. "We match the exact mineral content of the water to make the beer the same," he said." Potosi is currently filling 33,066 bottles twice a month, according to Buszka.

The brewery's on site brew kettle and mash tun is ten years old and were imported from a Tempe, Az. microbrewery. The tanks are copper coated which make them more historically significant than the stainless steel that is typically used in brewhouses.

Who drank Potosi in its hey-der day?
Fritz answered, "It went from the East Coast to the West coast. It was almost in every state. At its peak it was the fifth largest brewery in Wisconsin, in the late 1940s early 1950s. They were doing about 70,000 barrels a year. It was even successful when they shut down in 1972 but because it was going out of style to be a smaller brewer and all the large brewers were taking over, the (Adolph) Schumacher family decided to shut it down. Its wonderful to see it open again."

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Froth Cart, not a Food Cart.... The Potosi rolling bar "came to you." It was built on the running gear of a 1929 Pontiac and debuted at the 1939 Grant County Fair in Lancaster, Wis. The bar could carry up to six bartenders. The rolling bar is in a shed in Southwest Wisconsin and there are plans to restore it.

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This kid seems confused at the rolling bar wedding reception. (Courtesy of Potosi Brewing Company)

Potosi serves eight beer variations. "Potosi is a craft beer just like Goose Island or Bell's," Buszka said. "We have everything from a golden ale which is going to be an introductory style of craft beer all the way up to our Old Mill Stout and double IPA. We cover the entire gamut. We did a beer dinner in an urban area of Milwaukee. One lady's quote was, 'All these beers are Motown smooth'. The (flagship) Good Ol' Potosi has a Pilsner malt instead of two-row barley. Its a different way of processing barley that makes it more of a lager (think pale light ale) instead of a golden ale."

With summer winding down, check out the lightly lemony Steamboat Shandy. It is a seasonal beer named in honor of the Potosi steamboat that between 1905-1917 hauled beer 12 miles south down the Mississippi River from Potosi to Dubuque, Ia. The Potosi shandy had a little more bite than Leinenkeugel's Summer Shandy, which I hoarde for the dead of winter. Potosi Foundation Board of Director Bob Brodbeck said, "Our shandy is made with 100 per cent pure cane sugar and 100 percent lemon. This is our first year with the shandy."

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The Holiday line was the most popular beer when Potosi closed in 1972.

Fritz said, "It continued to brewed even after the brewery shut down. (Huber Brewing in Monroe, Wis. purchased the name). When we reopened our first bock beer was Holiday. But everyone thought it was a seasonal beer. Its history was a year-round beer. We'll reserve it as a seasonal beer because of the public perception of the name itself."

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Adolph Schumacher, the end of the Potosi line, 1972

The Potosi Brewery is a family friendly stop as kids can soak up the super sweet Princess Potosa Root Beer. I bought a jug of the hearty hooch for my 89-year-old mom.
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"Princess Potosa was the alleged wife of Julian Dubuque out of Dubuque, Iowa," Fritz said. "She was used in some of the original Potosi advertising. We modified her slightly, but she's our root beer and children's icon. We have (advertising) model trains upstairs and interactive things for kids."

Kids are the beer drinkers of tomorrow.


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Me being a kid near the Potosi replica 1850s tee-pee style hop trelliss (Photo by Dave Fritz)
The Hopped-Up Potosi Basketball Team, circa 1940s

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Dave Hoekstra

Dave Hoekstra has been a Chicago Sun-Times staff writer since 1985. His collection of Sun-Times travel columns, "Ticket To Everywhere," was published in 2000 by Lake Claremont Press. He was lead writer for "Farm Aid: Song for America" (Rodale Press, 2005) which commemorated the 20th anniversary of the Willie Nelson inspired effort.
He won a 1987 Chicago Newspaper Guild Stick O-Type Award for Column Writing. Hoekstra wrote and co-proudced the WTTW-Channel 11 PBS special: "The Staple Singers and the Civil Rights Movement," nominated for a 2001-02 Chicago Emmy for a documentary program/cultural significance.
He lives in Chicago.

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