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Cheers!: Leinie’s Memories of the 1980s

Before the craft beer evolution/revolution had really taken hold, I was a big fan of Leinenkugel’s beer. Back in the time I speak of – the early 1980s – there was no Leinie’s Summer Shandy or IPL. Not counting Leinie’s Light (which, of course does not count as beer), there were, as far as my memory serves, just two kinds of Leinie’s – lager and, in the spring, Leinie’s Bock.

The brewery was an independent, family-owned brewery at the time, just down the road in Chippewa Falls. We considered it local beer, along with Walter’s from Eau Claire (they sold quart bottles in bright yellow six-pack boxes).

I forget exactly how it began, but I was a founding member of the Wednesday Evening Leinenkugel’s Jazz Club. It began as a casual gathering of friends at my house in Superior to listen to jazz on KUMD and drink bottles of Leinie’s.

At some point we decided we needed to share our jazz and beer club with the public. We asked the owner of a jazz club in Superior – the long gone Tony’s Cabaret – if we could meet at her place on Wednesday nights. She wasn’t usually open Wednesdays, but for some reason she agreed to open for us.

Then a friend and I set up a meeting with Leinenkugel’s leader, Jake Leinenkugel. We drove down to the brewery in Chippewa Falls and met with Jake in his office, where we explained to him our idea for taking the Wednesday Evening Leinenkugel Jazz Club public. We wanted his permission to continue using the name so we could have banners and information printed, but we also wanted to strike a deal on kegs of Leinie’s so we could sell it exclusively for 25 cents a tap at the club. Tony’s Cabaret didn’t sell tap beer, so we set all this up ourselves.

Angie, the owner of Tony’s, had her staff come in that first night, not knowing what to expect. It was such a success that Angie made more money just selling cigarettes that night than she made in a typical weekend of dances. She was ecstatic that we had breathed new life into her club and pretty much opened her doors for those Wednesday night gatherings.

We did a couple of huge 4th of July shows there, one of which featured the mayor presenting an award to the club’s longtime trumpet player Frankie Cox. Frankie and his band had played dance music at the club for decades. I think he was in the Guinness Book of World’s Records for having the longest gig ever. Frankie was a very large man who sat on a tree stump on the stage. He was having such a good time that night, he actually fell off his stump. It wasn’t easy getting him up and home, but he was mighty happy for the recognition he got that day.

Word got out about what we were doing there on Wednesdays and jazz players of all stripes began showing up to take part in jam sessions. I was married at one of the jazz club nights just before we took leave of the area by moving to Maui. That night, a hot jazz trio had played a gig at one of the local colleges (was it St. Scholastica? I can’t recall). The gig ended early and they asked for the nearest jazz club. Remember, this was on a Wednesday night. They showed up for the wedding and blew everyone away with their playing (wish I could recall their names).

Angie, the owner, was getting old and wanted to sell the club to us, but, as I said, we moved to Maui, where there was no Leinenkugel’s.

My friends continued the Wednesday Evening Leinenkugel’s Jazz Club for a while after we left, and then Tony’s Cabaret was sadly turned into a parking lot. That’s one regret about leaving at that time. I would not have allowed Tony’s to go down like that. It had a history that deserved to be preserved.

What does all this have to do with beer? Well, Leinenkugel’s, of course.

Let me share one more Leinie’s story. After four years working for newspapers in Hawaii, I ended up at the daily newspaper in Oshkosh, where, at first, I thought my life was over, but soon found myself as the founder of a still lively homebrewing group (the Society of Oshkosh Brewers, or SOBs) and a founding member of a lively new wave funk band (the Lunar Groove Gardeners).

This was the start of the 1990s and craft beer was still inching its way here, so those early SOB meetings often involved finding a place with good beer. For a while we met at a pizza place that served a new Leinie’s product called Leinenkugel’s Limited. It was a Leinie’s craft beer with an incredible malty profile. We all fell in love with it, and were happy to hear it had proved such a success in limited release that the brewery decided to make it a year-round beer.

So we were surprised to show up at the pizza place for a meeting and there was no Leinie’s Limited on tap. We queried the bartender, who wrongly told us it’s a limited release. I informed him that it was made a year-round beer, but he didn’t know anything about that. So when I got home, I wrote a letter to Jake Leinenkugel, telling him we could not find his delicious new beer any longer and suggesting that the marketing campaign for “Leinie’s Limited” (now known as Northwoods Lager) had forgotten to reach out to the places that had served the limited edition.

I forget how much time transpired, but one day a Leinenkugel’s semi pulled up in front of my house. I watched as the driver got out with a case of Leinie’s Limited. “This is from Jake,” he said as he gave me the case of beer. Along with the beer was a letter from Jake, thanking me for the letter I had sent, along with CCs to about 20 company executives.

So, you know, I keep a soft spot in my heart for Leinie’s because of that history. And I love their Big Eddy Springs big brews.

A friend gave me some Leinenkugel’s Winter Seasonal Lager in a generic-looking black and white label. This friend has a beer distributor in his family, so he thought this was a brewery sample given to distributors. I really want to like it, but it seems so meek and mild. There is a hint of the dark characteristics that make winter beers so appealing, but really just a hint, followed by a sharpness that might be exacerbated by the carbonated nature of this beer. It feels chalky on the teeth.

There is nothing wrong with Leinie’s Winter Seasonal Lager, but with so many wonderful winter beer choices these days, why bother with an entry that makes you shrug your shoulders?

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