The Inside Story of a Chicago Brewery’s Wild Launch in Milwaukee

Here’s how a small, nondescript liquor store in Westown became the first outlet to sell beer from the buzzy but traditional Dovetail Brewery.

When a brewery is thinking about the most likely stores to launch its beer in Wisconsin, Tourist Convenience in Westown probably doesn’t spring to mind.

Dovetail Helles. Photo by Dovetail Brewery

The small liquor and convenience store at 240 W. Wells St. is not exactly (OK, at all) well known in beer geek circles. The name isn’t even plainly visible to passersby. 

But this week it was the leading edge of some pretty exciting beer news: the Wisconsin launch of Chicago’s Dovetail Brewery. Since spring 2016, Dovetail has been making beer in traditional Continental European styles – especially the lagers from the regions of Germany, Czechia and Austria. Buzz for the brewery has been high, and that checked out at last year’s Lager & Friends festival hosted by Gathering Place Brewing in Riverwest; Dovetail’s two beers were the foremost of my many highlights of that fest.

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Wisconsin, starting with Milwaukee, had been in Dovetail’s plans for 2020 since before the coronavirus pandemic upended everything in the beer business. Dovetail owner and brewer Hagen Dost said the self-distributed launch was originally planned for spring, to roughly coincide with this year’s Lager & Friends in late March. 

That plan, of course, was put on hold as the pandemic took hold. Lager & Friends was postponed and eventually went virtual, and Dovetail’s sales staff moved into the brewery to help with production while making sales calls over the phone. 

“COVID hit and it screwed everything up,” Dost said. “Once we kind of got settled into a new routine, we started talking about Wisconsin again. We penciled the production into the schedule and just kind of kept it in mind.”

Regular production staff were brought back in June, and this week Dovetail sales director Dan Modica finally began calling on Milwaukee bottle shops. The thought was to meet some people, build some relationships, perhaps secure some long-term orders and eventually send beer in two or three weeks.  

Tourist Convenience, 244 W. Wells St. Photo from Google Street View

Then Modica entered Tourist Convenience on Wednesday.

He made his pitch, and beer buyer Mike Qutoum bit – harder than Modica was expecting. He had two open spots in his cooler right now, and he’ll take two cases, one each of Dovetail Helles and Dovetail Hefeweizen. But he needed them now, Qutoum told Modica; the spaces won’t be open in two weeks.

Never one to pass on a chance to make a sale, Modica said he’d be back tomorrow with the beer. Two cases turned into four, and Modica pulled off I-94 on Friday to tell me was now delivering 20 more cases of Helles and Hefeweizen to Tourist Convenience. 

Qutoum said Friday that he doesn’t drink, so he hadn’t tried Dovetail’s beer – and wasn’t aware of its reputation until the four-packs started flying off the shelves Thursday. “I had an empty spot, and I wanted to fill it up with something new,” Qutoum said. “So far people have loved it, and so I want to keep it coming.”

As Dovetail spread the news on social media and OnMilwaukee picked up the story, longer-term general interest from other outlets became short-term orders, and Dovetail Helles and Hefeweizen will hit shelves today at Discount Liquor (5031 W. Oklahoma Ave. only), Ray’s Wine & Spirits (8930 W. North Ave., Wauwatosa), Avenue Liquor (4075 S. Howell Ave.) Burt’s Beer & Liquor (2523 E. Oklahoma Ave.), Downer Wine & Spirits (2638 N. Downer Ave.) and, of course, Tourist Convenience. Orders range from two to 10 cases of each beer, so some will surely have the beer through the weekend. 

Dost described the unexpectedly sudden push into the new market is “very Dovetail,” but he has been as deliberate and patient with his business as with his beer, which is made with Old World techniques like decoction mashing and open fermentation. Dovetail only began canning in 2018, two and a half years after opening, and an expansion last year – with five lagering tanks from Quality Tank Solutions in Waukesha – allowed more, gradual growth. Milwaukee joins only metro Chicago and a few downstate Illinois accounts in selling Dovetail beer. 

“We’re not running at capacity yet,” Dost said. “It’s little by little, step by step. Don’t grow too fast to the point that the business or the quality gets away from us.”

Dost and Modica both expressed deep respect for the market Dovetail is stepping into. It’s a permanent play, but definitely a see-how-it-goes one, too. “Being an out-of-town brewery, we know it’s tougher the farther you go, and we’re also sensitive to the fact that Milwaukee has some great breweries,” Dost said.

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Executive editor, Milwaukee Magazine. Aficionado of news, sports and beer. Dog and cat guy. (Yes, both.)