I know people in craft brewing have mixed feelings about Leinie’s, but to me, it’s a midwestern brewery run by the same family for decades. And that family has worked hard to make good beer and treat people right. The Leinie-heads are legion. Me? I love Leinie Creamy Dark. That’s the good news.
Here’s the bad news. When I was writing the beer book, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jake Leinenkugel and his dad, Mr. Bill Leinenkugel. Lovely people. Lovely.
Bill Leinenkugel, who is now 87 and long retired, is one of those brewers who kept the faith during the dark days of the 1960s and 1970s. The beer business is never easy, but it was particularly difficult then for the nation’s smallest brewers. Their numbers dwindled dramatically and those who survived did so only by dint of hard work and, well, faith. For the Leinenkugel family, it was all about keeping faith right there in Chippewa Falls. The brewery’s survival mattered not just to them, but to their friends and neighbors who worked there.
The Leinenkugels have been criticized since then for selling to Miller in the late 1980s, but the family could see the writing on the wall: There was a good chance the company might not survive and they knew that the people who would be hurt the most were the people down the street and around the corner. So they sold. As a result, people in Chippewa Falls continue to enjoy the benefits of local beer and a good local employer.
Anyway, back to Mr. Leinenkugel: When I finished the initial draft of my manuscript, I sent a copy of the relevant pages to all my interviewees. (I wanted to make sure I hadn’t screwed up basic facts or grossly misrepresented what people had told me.)
A few days later, Mr. Leinenkugel called me to thank me. He was obviously please as hell that anyone had taken the time to write a history (albeit short) of his family. He was kind, gracious, and …. thrilled.
I was in tears by the time I hung up
. Last week I learned that he has an inoperable brain tumor. He’s dying. He knows he is. But in death as in life, he’s keeping the faith. “God has been awfully good to me all of my life,” he told an interviewer. “I have no qualms about dying.” (*1)
So — here’s to Bill Leinenkugel. I can only hope to live my life with as much kindness and optimism as he has.
Thanks and a tip o’ the mug to my pal Jim Arndorfer at the “Brew” Blog for info about the interview and about news about the Leinie rollout.
*1. The interview is in Beer Business Daily, which is available only by subscription. Thanks to my dear friend Daniel Bradford, publisher of All About Beer magazine, for passing along the interview, and to BBD’s owner, Harry Schuhmacher, for not minding that Daniel did so.