Making Pabst Proud: Wisconsin Startups Mix Beer With New Tech

The Wisconsin beer barons of the 1800s probably didn’t imagine brewers soliciting recipes from their customers. But that’s what Madison, WI-based MobCraft Beer is doing.

The young company—which crowdsources craft beer recipes, lets people vote online for their favorite, and brews the most popular one each month—is one of several Wisconsin startups that are marrying beer and new technology in new ways.

Given the heritage of beer brands like Miller, Pabst, and Schlitz, the vibrant collection of craft brewers that have opened in recent years, and the budding tech startup scenes in Madison and Milwaukee, it’s probably no surprise that beer-tech startups have popped up in Wisconsin.

“Wisconsin is a great place to do something related to beer,” said Matt Younkle, the co-founder and CEO of Madison-based music startup Murfie. “There’s a very strong beer tradition here, certainly. A lot of folks are very passionate about beer—how it tastes, how it’s poured.”

Younkle knows plenty about the pouring part. In 1996, while studying electrical engineering and computer science at University of Wisconsin-Madison, Younkle and two friends invented TurboTap, a device that pours draft beer three times faster than traditional technology while also reducing waste.

Younkle went on to turn it into a thriving business in Chicago, Laminar Technologies, and in 2007 he sold his shares to a private equity firm. TurboTap is used in professional sports stadiums around the country, as well as bars, restaurants, and hotels, Younkle said.

While entrepreneurs often see themselves as disruptors of legacy industries, Younkle said radical technology changes aren’t always easy for brewers to swallow. In TurboTap’s case, it was more of a retrofit to existing systems that still allowed the bartender to maintain control over the pour, whereas other technologies have tried to automate draft pouring with buttons, microprocessors, and timers, Younkle said.

“[They are] imposing digital constraints on what is otherwise a very analog product in beer. Typically the end result is it doesn’t work out very well,” Younkle said. “I think there’s always room for technology to be put in, but it’s important to think about bridging gaps rather than disrupting in this space.”

David Dupee, on the other hand, thinks there’s room for disruption in brewing. The Milwaukee attorney and craft beer enthusiast is launching an equity crowdfunding website called CraftFund for small food and beverage businesses.

“Statistics demonstrate that craft beer is a millennial beverage. Moreover, craft beer and tech startups share an impulse to innovate and disrupt,” Dupee said in an email. “Therefore, it makes sense that you see more tech startups founded by millennials targeting craft beer.”

Without further ado, here are four examples of Wisconsin beer-tech startups. If there are more out there that I’ve missed, don’t hesitate to let me know.

MobCraft Beer, Madison: Henry Schwartz, Giotto Troia, and Andrew Gierczak could’ve chosen to simply open the next brewpub. But they wanted to do something different, and the result was a brewery that takes customer input to a whole new level. “The [best] part of this is to get the wild and crazy ideas that beer lovers around the U.S. and around the world come up with, and have them see the light of day,” Schwartz said. “We like to establish this direct emotional connection between the manufacturer and the consumer.”

The trio co-founded the business in 2012 while participating in the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater’s student business incubator, Launch Pad. They’re now producing about 14 barrels of beer per month, with intentions to boost that to 40 soon, Schwartz said. MobCraft’s team makes its beer at House of Brews microbrewery in Madison, but they’re scouting Madison locations to open MobCraft’s own brewing facility, Schwartz said. Currently, its beer can be found in bars and retail outlets throughout the Madison area and a couple locations in the Milwaukee area.

—CraftFund, Milwaukee: Dupee founded the crowdfunding site in 2012, five months after the federal government passed the Jumpstart Our Business Startups (JOBS) Act, which in part allowed for non-accredited investors to put money into startups through websites. But Dupee and others are still waiting for the Securities and Exchange Commission to implement the law.

Instead, Dupee is now focusing on rolling out CraftFund in states that have passed laws allowing equity crowdfunding within their borders, starting with Wisconsin, which passed such a measure last year. Dupee expects the site’s first Wisconsin deals to occur in May, when the state’s law is expected to take effect. Nationally, CraftFund has 704 investors and 65 companies registered on its website for potential crowdfunding, including MobCraft. Beer will be a primary focus for CraftFund, but the site’s scope will extend to restaurants, cafes, distilleries, cheese makers, and more, he said.

—Beer Mapper, Madison: Knowledgeable bartenders have a map of the beer spectrum floating around in their heads. The Beer Mapper app makes that knowledge an interactive, two-dimensional reality on an iPad.

Kevin Jamieson, a San Francisco native working on an electrical and computer engineering PhD at UW-Madison, developed the beta app for helping new craft beer drinkers visualize their personal palate. Jamieson and his advisor, UW-Madison engineering professor Rob Nowak, used algorithms to design an app that creates a heat map depicting a person’s preferred types of beers across the spectrum from stout to IPA to lager, and everything in between.

The app presents a series of questions, asking if the user prefers beer A or beer B, beer C or beer D, and so on. After several answers, the app generates the heat map, complete with specific beer brands listed within their respective categories. Jamieson and Nowak partnered with to build the app’s database of beers, incorporating 10,000 beers that have more than 50 reviews on the site.

But the app’s creators have no interest in turning Beer Mapper into a business and running it. They’re in talks to license their app to Chicago-based Savvo, which has developed an app to help shoppers choose wines in retail outlets. Savvo installs kiosks in stores that run the app on an iPad, and the startup intends to expand its service to beer with the Beer Mapper, Jamieson said.

—BrewU, Milwaukee: This company formed last fall during Startup Weekend Milwaukee 2013 as BrewU, although it’s in the process of changing its name, co-founder Chris Welker said. The startup’s mission is to provide a collaborative space that offers home brewing lessons to beginners and novices, as well as renting out equipment and space for experienced enthusiasts to brew if they can’t do it in their apartments or homes.

BrewU hasn’t secured a facility yet, but it has held two workshops at a local restaurant, Welker said. The tech component here? BrewU will do the usual customer engagement through social media, and its co-founders are also thinking about developing an app for reserving brewing space at its facility, a la OpenTable, Welker said.

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