In 1998, Mary Zamzow gave her husband, Mike, a beer-making kit for Christmas. She had no idea what she was setting in motion. Now, 17 years later, Mike Zamzow is the co-owner and brewmaster of Wausau’s Bull Falls Brewery, a rapidly growing regional brewery that will introduce its beers to Oshkosh this week.
On Thursday, February 19, Oshkosh will get its first taste of Bull Falls beer. Beginning at 9 p.m. Oblio’s Lounge will host a launch party for the brewery with free samples and four Bull Falls beers on draught. You never know what a homebrew kit might lead to.
For Mike Zamzow learning to brew beer triggered an awakening. “I fell in love with beer making.” Zamzow says. “I always enjoyed science and I loved figuring out how things work. I also like working with my hands. For me, the process of making beer at home was very fulfilling.”
Zamzow took a meandering route to brewing professionally. It was clear early on, though, that making beer would be more than an idle-time hobby for him. Before long, he had graduated from his Christmas kit to brewing on a system that resembled that of a production brewery in operation if not scale.
“I had a friend who made me a 28-gallon brewing set-up out of scrap stainless for eight cases of Miller beer,” Zamzow says. The memory still makes him laugh. “Honestly. I could make 20 gallons of beer at once.”
It was the beer he made himself that opened his eyes to what flavorful beer is all about.
“There wasn’t a lot of craft beer available around Wausau at that time,” Zamzow says. “I was coming out of the light lager world. I used to drink Miller High Life. The fun of actually developing and making a good beer; that was really the trigger for me.”
By 2001, Zamzow’s hobby had developed into something of an obsession. When he heard about a three-barrel professional brewing system available at a low price in Eagle River, he bought it, not knowing exactly what he’d do with it. Zamzow had leaped into the unknown. “Initially, we were scared,” he says. “We didn’t know anything about this stuff.”
It was a false start. “We never did brew on that system,” Zamzow says. “We bought it out in the woods and brought it home and it sat in storage for five years in Kronenwetter in a buddy’s pole barn.” The system would eventually be sold to the Peekskill Brewery in New York. In the meantime, Zamzow continued working for the software company he and his father had established.
He kept homebrewing and honing his skills. Zamzow took the web-based Concise Course In Brewing Technology from Chicago’s Siebel Institute. He also began developing recipes for beers that would eventually make their way into the Bull Falls line-up. Zamzow focused on traditional styles of ale and lager. The sort of beers that now form the core of his brewery’s portfolio. But he ran into another hurdle when he attempted to trademark his vision for the brewery.
After registering the logo for what would become Bull Falls Brewery, Zamzow was contacted by the producer of the Red Bull energy drink challenging his use of the name Bull Falls. After almost three years of legal jostling, the parties reached an agreement. Zamzow had his logo, but he still needed a brewery. “We hadn’t brewed a glass of beer at that time,” Zamzow says. “We never really were sure where this was all going, but this thing had a kind of energy all its own, so we continued to work on it.”
Nine years after getting that homebrew kit, Zamzow’s dream began to materialize. He had come across another brewing system. This time a 10-barrel system that was sitting idle in a building that housed a beauty salon in Stevens Point.
“She had all her beautician supplies for her shop in among the fermentors and in that area where the brewery was,” Zamzow says. “It was almost like it was locked in time. There was a brewer’s desk with a hydrometer and pencils and paper and a cup of coffee on it. It was like the guy left the building at five o’clock one day and never came back. I mean, it was eerie.”
Zamzow moved the system “lock, stock and barrel” to Wausau. Now he had to figure out how to work the thing. I asked if he had ever brewed on a system that large before. “No, not even close,” he said. What was the learning curve like? “Well,” Zamzow says laconically, “it was big.”
He managed to get a handle on it.
In September 2007, Bulls Falls Brewery became a reality with Zamzow as the brewmaster and co-owner of the brewery with his father, Don Zamzow. The first beer he made was an Oktoberfest. He was hedging his bets. He figured that if people didn’t like it he’d have a year to figure out how to get it right the next time. He needn’t have worried. People loved it. The barrels began rolling out the door.
Bull Falls Brewery met with early success. They self-distributed the beer in kegs to bars and restaurants in the Wausau area. Growlers of Bull Falls beer were being sold in nearby grocery stores. Within a couple of years they had more than 80 regular accounts. The most vital account was the taproom connected to the brewery where the beer faucets sometimes ran dry.
“The joke around town – and this was started by the mayor of Wausau – was that people were going to go over to the Bull Falls taproom to have an Available Soon Beer because we were running out all the time,” Zamzow says. “We don’t run out anymore, but we still get ribbed about that.”
The 10-barrel brewhouse that seemed so large a few years earlier was now too small to meet demand. “We reached a point where we had to decide what kind of a business we were going to have here,” Zamzow says. “We decided to take the next step and put on an addition and get a 30-barrel brewhouse.”
The expansion was completed in the summer of 2013. It cost nearly $2 million and added 8,000 square feet to the brewery. As that work was underway, Bull Falls installed a canning line and signed a distribution agreement with Mid-Wisconsin Beverage to push its beers beyond the Wausau area. The brewery had never sold more than 1,000 barrels of beer in a year. Now Zamzow had enough capacity to produce 8,000 barrels annually.
Last year, the first full year since the brewery expansion, Bull Falls produced more than 3,000 barrels of beer. With Bull Falls’ entrance into the Fox River Valley market, Zamzow expects production to increase to over 4,000 barrels this year.
When you talk to Zamzow about his brewery, though, it’s not the size, the numbers or the rapid growth he keeps returning to. He’d rather talk about the beer.
We’ll see four Bull Falls beers become available in Oshkosh this winter: Five Star Ale, Hop Worthy IPA, Midnight Star Lager, and Bull Falls Bock Lager. The two lagers, in particular, show this brewery to its best advantage. Full bodied and wonderfully balanced, these are among the best American craft lagers I’ve tasted. Zamzow seems to take a special pride them.
“They’re traditional style beers,” Zamzow says. “They’re not exploratory, experimental beers. When you make these beers it shows up in the glass. There’s nothing to hide behind.”
“We do things the way we do things,” he continues, trying to find the right words. “Everybody gets up in the morning and goes to work and they see the world the way they see it.” Then he comes to what he means to say: “I think when we do lagers, we do them better than anybody else.”
That’s a bold claim, but one not easy to dispute once you’ve tasted his beer. I’m looking forward to having it available in Oshkosh.