Meet Middleton's Bohemian Brewer

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Matt Geiger

You might say beer is in Brian Destree’s blood. Not literally – he’s sober and bright-eyed on a busy Wednesday morning – but in a deep, ancestral way.

His family emigrated from Pilsen, Czechoslovakia, the birthplace of the ubiquitous “pilsner” style of beer, in 1863. As if that weren’t a strong enough link, they ended up in northern Wisconsin, in a town with the same name.

That heritage gave him two things: the ability to swear in Bohemian, and inspiration to take up a career in brewing.

At 36 years of age, Destree is director of operations at Capital Brewery, making him the face of a beer producer that is synonymous with the Good Neighbor City. Destree, who took over for longtime brewmaster Kirby Nelson when Nelson departed to found Wisconsin Brewing Company in Verona, brought with him a new outlook on brewing and a new slate of recipes. But he also has respect for those who laid the foundation before him.

He first tinkered in brewing with a partial mash kit during the summer of his 17th year. “We told my mom it was a summer science project,” he chuckled. “We dabbled in making beer, but it was terrible.”

While his first attempt at brewing wasn’t a very good indicator of the success that would eventually follow, science remained his favorite subject at school.

In college, he studied chemical engineering and biochemistry.

“Those fields,” he said, “turned out to be highly valuable as a brewer.”

He later enrolled in the Master Brewer Program at UC Davis, then landed jobs at the mid-sized Leinenkugel’s and the behemoth Miller-Coors, which produced an estimated 1,000 barrels of wort every hour.

Working for mid- and large-scale operations, Destree became familiar with the intricacies and efficiencies associated with brewing.

“It was a lot of in-line measurements,” he said. “A lot of collecting and looking at data. Not a day went by when we didn’t adjust those recipes to get them just right.”

When he was initially hired by Capital Brewery two years ago, it was to serve as Nelson’s right-hand man during the company’s upcoming expansion projects. When Nelson departed shortly thereafter, everything changed.

“It was unexpected, but I was confident because I know how a brewery should work,” he said.

“The biggest challenge here is that everything is old and 100 percent manual,” he said. “But at the same time, that’s our greatest strength because the guys that work here are great. Everything is dependent on them. Now, instead of getting all my information from a computer, I’m getting it from people with a lot of experience.”

Capital’s status as a small, craft brewery – they plan to crank out about 34,000 barrels this year - also allows Destree more creative freedom than he ever had at his prior gigs.

“I basically have free rein,” he said. “Nothing holding me back.”

“With the prior recipes, we made an effort not to tweak them,” he said. “Those are established brands. But at the same time, we really branched out with our new stuff.”

Destree quickly ramped up Capital’s hop-heavy offerings, a dramatic shift away from the prior emphasis.

“I believe in the beers that were already being made here,” he said. “I wouldn’t have come here if I didn’t. All we’ve done is add to that.”

With a new brewery currently being constructed in Sauk Prairie, Capital’s Middleton facility will soon become a much more specialized operation. Most brewing will move north, and only small, limited release recipes will be made in the Good Neighbor City.

“We’ll be able to expand our barrel aging,” he said. “Maybe dabble in some sours.”

And the brewery’s bustling outdoor bier garten will continue to be a hub for music, family gatherings, charitable fundraisers and a motley assortment of regulars who have always given Capital a funky, jovial vibe.

“It’s an interesting collection of people,” Destree laughed. “I get along with everybody, but I will say that when Kirby first left [the regulars] were very, very curious about who I was and what I was going to do. Hopefully the beer speaks for itself and they’re pleased with the result.”


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