Five years ago, Third Space Brewing co-founders Kevin Wright and Andy Gehl envisioned being a new craft brewery in a city that only had a handful. Lakefront, Sprecher and Milwaukee Brewing were established, and there was a smattering of smaller breweries like Enlightened, Biloba and, in late 2015, a young Raised Grain Brewing.
By the time Third Space opened its doors in fall of 2016, the scene had blown up. Eight new craft breweries opened in the Milwaukee area that year, quickly and drastically changing the beer landscape.
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“It’s funny, there was a preopening phase when we were working on business plans and it was all about being different and new,” said Gehl. “There wasn’t a whole lot of activity here. And then (in 2016) there was announcement after announcement of other (breweries) coming too. At first it was intimidating. But it quickly became this driving force that motivated us. It drove us to be a better brewery and company.”
The brewery boom in 2016 was just the beginning, and helped usher in a slew of new craft beer options in the area. Third Space was a big part of it. The brewery is celebrating its fourth anniversary with a month-long slate of events that includes the release of Baby Yo Fuzzy Little IPA on Sept. 19 and a virtual celebration on Sept. 26.
A Happy Place
Wright serves as the brewmaster and brought with him the considerable skills he honed while attending the Master Brewing Program at the University of California-Davis and working at Hangar 24 Brewery in Redlands, California. The West Coast influence comes through with the blend of citrus, fruit and moderate hop bitterness of Happy Place Midwest Pale Ale. It’s the brewery’s flagship and one that has become a fixture on tavern tap lines, store shelves and at Brewers games (when baseball is played in front of fans).
“Our brewing philosophy from the beginning was bringing unique, bold flavor profiles,” explained Wright. “My experience on the West Coast meeting Midwest beer culture. We wanted some big newer hops, but beer itself brewed to be balanced and drinkable. There’s a real purpose to the balance of them.”
Part of the philosophy also includes a fair amount of fun and community. Third Space has succeeded at that through the creation of popular events like summer’s Wisconsin IPA Fest, winter’s Ice Bear Fest Après Ski Party and a number of limited beer releases.
“Craft beer is about having fun and that’s another thing we said from the beginning,” said Gehl. “We want the brand to be cohesive but also have events and things that highlight how fun craft beer can be. How do you turn that into a true experience for people? IPA Fest isn’t about Third Space, it’s about bringing together breweries from across the state. And Ice Bear Fest gave Kevin an excuse to buy a snow machine.”
A Variety of Styles
Third Space excels at pale ales, but Wright is clearly adept at variety. The brewery has a robust barrel-aging program, and offers well-executed brews like Java Blanca Coffee Cream Ale and Unite the Clans, a Scottish ale that has won three medals at the Great American Beer Festival (including gold in 2017). Frog Weiss – a kettle sour made with fig, raspberry, orange and ginger – was a pilot brewing project that turned into a hit.
One popular style Third Space doesn’t have on the regular menu is a hazy IPA.
“It’s one of the hardest styles to brew right because it’s inherently unbalanced,” added Wright. “When you do find good ones, people have found a way to balance the style. We hang our hat on balance and drinkability.”
Third Space is still growing, even during the pandemic. In 2019, the brewery produced around 8,600 barrels, and Gehl expects that number to be around 10,500 in 2020. The distribution footprint includes Milwaukee, Madison and parts of northeast Wisconsin.
“We always envisioned ourselves as a statewide brewery,” explained Wright. “At some point in the future we want our beer to be available everywhere in the state of Wisconsin.”
Later this fall Third Space is adding a second kettle to up the capacity of their kettle-soured beer. Wright also plans to squeeze a few more fermenters into their large warehouse in the Menomonee Valley.
Third Space was a big player at the beginning of the brewery boom, and Gehl and Wright plan to continue doing what they do to keep Milwaukee on the craft beer map.
“It’s like the rising tide concept,” said Wright. “The more people associate good beer with local, the more they’re searching for local beer. If it’s in their mind good beer is coming out of Milwaukee, they’ll be looking for more local options.”