“Handshake and Trust”: Washington Island and the Cultivation of Island Wheat Beer

“People love the story of the beer,” Kirby Nelson says simply. “They love the fact that the ingredients are close to home, and that it’s made by a Wisconsin brewery.”

For people who are in love with the way Door County “used to be,” it certainly doesn’t get better than Washington Island. The island, located six miles off the tip of the Door County peninsula, is a scenic gem, with beautiful public beaches, pastoral landscapes, and lovingly preserved historic structures. The most unexpected beauty might lie in the many breathtaking rural spaces on the island. Lush and expansive farm fields line the major roads, standing as a testament to the island’s rural and agricultural history.

Adults who last visited the island 30 years ago as children are often struck by how the land and buildings haven’t changed much from the memories of their childhood vacations, something that the island residents have worked hard to preserve. Even the commercial elements have historical significance – the Art & Nature Center, for example, is housed in the island’s old school building, constructed in 1904. Mann’s Mercantile, the grocery store, has been in operation for over 90 years. If visitors to Door County want to get away from the bustle of urban life, and enjoy a more relaxing pace for a spell, then Washington Island might be a good place to do so.

Photo by Peggy Olson.

On June 20, 1850, the Town of Washington was founded at Henry Miner’s house on Rock Island. The new town consisted of the three islands of Washington, Rock, and Detroit. In 1870, W.F. Wickman, a Dane, persuaded four bachelors from Iceland to move to Washington Island. They came and established the second oldest Icelandic settlement in America. The first settlers on the island were primarily fishermen, but as new arrivals came from Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, they brought with them farming, logging, and other skills that enhanced the island way of life and the economy.

“Farming is a huge part of island history,” says Carol Stayton, President of the Washington Island Chamber of Commerce as well as the owner of Viking Village Hotel. “We’ve been farming potatoes, apples, cherries, wheat, and many other crops for centuries. Ice was harvested from Jackson Harbor and shipped to Chicago for the meatpackers. Christmas trees were grown and harvested and shipped to Chicago, Milwaukee, and their suburbs. The island was a source of many things for ports along Green Bay and Chicago.”

So how does a small island so steeped in farming tradition, 22 square miles in size and home to a year-round population of about 660 people, become instantly recognizable around the state of Wisconsin and beyond because of a beer?

Photo by Peggy Olson.

And not just any beer, but a beer made by a Madison-area establishment who touts itself as “America’s #1 rated brewery?”

Ask anyone involved with the process of producing Capital Brewery’s famed Island Wheat Beer, and they’ll give you an answer in a combination of very similar words.

Luck. Chance. Destiny. Fortune. Serendipity.

“Yes – I would say that the story of Island Wheat would be serendipity – to an infinite degree,” laughs Kirby Nelson, the brewmaster of Capital Brewery. “It was like the stars aligned.”

However, perhaps the luckiest part of the Capital Brewery/Washington Island partnership is how it has helped the island restore many things – among them, a full-time farming economy and a community sense of pride in the island’s history and its offerings.

A scene from 2006’s Harvest Festival. Photo by Peggy Olson.

The story of Capital Brewery’s Island Wheat Beer started simply enough – with a surplus of product. Ken Koyen and his brother Tom, the two primary growers of wheat on the island, had been supplying wheat for Washington Island Brands LLC which owns  the Washington Hotel, Restaurant, and Culinary School. The intent was for the hotel to mill the wheat into flour to make breads, muffins, pastries, and the like. The opportunity came in the fall of 2005, when Ken and Tom grew more wheat than the hotel needed for baking. Brian Vanderwalle and Brian Ellison, the two men behind Washington Island Brands, decided to take a sample of the island wheat to Capital Brewery in Madison to see if they would be at all interested in using it.

Capital Brewery is a publicly-held brewing company based in Middleton, Wisconsin, which is just outside of Madison. In addition to Island Wheat, Capital brews seven annual, four seasonal, and four limited release beers, which amounts to roughly 17,000 barrels a year. The brewery has enjoyed countless awards, including being named the top brewery in America by the Beverage Tasting Institute of America, which consists of a panel of international beer experts. Kirby Nelson, Capital’s Head Brewmaster, has been brewing beer with Capital since February of 1986, and Capital’s president, Carl Nolen, has been in the brewing industry for even longer than that.

Photo by Peggy Olson.

“Capital Brewery was working on a new beer at the time – a cream ale. I have always enjoyed wheat beer, and I was hoping that we would be able to produce one at some point,” says Nelson. “The problem was that we could never find a significant supply of wheat that we were happy with. I was in the middle of researching and testing for the cream ale, and out of the blue, the two Brians (Vanderwalle and Ellison) walked in with a sample of this wheat from Washington Island. We did some testing with it, and it wasn’t long before the cream ale idea was put on the back burner.” Ken Koyen laughs and says, “It was literally a month between the sample being delivered to Capital Brewery and negotiations being discussed for the selling of the wheat. Talk about a window of opportunity!”

“When we obtained the sample, the wheat from the island wasn’t of the right malting quality, but that wasn’t a problem – we knew that we could do a variety of things to change that,” says Nelson. “What was more important was to ensure that we would have a steady supply of the wheat – to make sure that the island was able to keep up with the demand.” Koyen adds, “I think the most challenging part of the process for us wasn’t the fact that we had more than enough farmland on the island – the problem was that some of that ‘farmland’ hadn’t been farmed in about 50 years! It was a struggle at first to find where some of those fields began and ended.”

Photo by Peggy Olson.

The struggle has given way to a revitalized full-time farming economy that many island residents thought was long gone. In September of 2006, the wheat harvest yielded over half a million pounds of wheat. Not only has the partnership with Capital Brewery meant more full-time work for the wheat farmers, but it’s also increased a true passion for farming as well as a passion for alternative ways to do it. Most people may not realize that the wheat produced for Island Wheat Beer is organically grown. “We aren’t certified organic yet – that’s the next step,” says Koyen. “We use fish fertilizer as well as 0050, which is another type of organic fertilizer. It’s been rewarding for us to be able to concentrate on growing a product and helping the island economy without harming the land. We’re also trying out other types of crops and are researching the possibilities of exporting those – flax, soybeans, oats, alfalfa. It’s exciting because it’s a way to step back into our heritage – we’re farming the way that my family was in the late ‘50s or early ‘60s.”

For Carol Stayton, that is one of the reasons that the partnership between the two entities has been so exciting. “For the island, the partnership with Capital Brewery was more than just being able to help produce a beer. I mean, yes, the fact that we are part of such a successful product is wonderful, but the brewery very much wanted us to retain our sense of heritage…in fact, it was one of the reasons they were so interested in the wheat. The island has been able to bridge the past to the present by simply working with what we have, with the land and resources we have. Island Wheat Beer shows that you can achieve progress without changing who you are.”

Tom and Ken Koyen at work on their combine preparing the island’s crop. Photo by Peggy Olson.

Nelson notes that the organic nature of Island Wheat Beer is not simply limited to the farming of the wheat. “The whole partnership with the Koyen brothers and Washington Island Brands was very natural as well. We’ve been working together for a while now, and I still don’t think I have a copy of a written agreement with the Koyens about the wheat! It was all done with a handshake and trust.” Ken Koyen agrees, saying, “The best thing about working with Capital Brewery was the fact that Kirby and Carl, my brother and I – we’re all farm boys. We all have similar backgrounds and that makes for a solid partnership.”

It has also been a “family affair” on the Capital Brewery side as well. When Island Wheat hit the shelves of Wisconsin liquor stores and taverns in February of 2006, every employee working at the brewery was involved in the distribution, with the president of Capital himself behind the wheel of a delivery truck to deliver the first cases to Madison-area establishments. “We’re proud of all of our beers, but Island Wheat was such a community effort from start to finish that we all wanted to be involved,” Nelson says. When the beer was first introduced, virtually all of the employees at the brewery had to work double time to keep up with the demand. “It was absolutely crazy for a few months!” Nelson smiles. “The demand has slowed down significantly, but it’s by far our strongest selling beer.”

Photo by Peggy Olson.

When asked why the beer piques so much interest, Nelson says that the reason for the popularity is two-fold. “People love the story of the beer,” he says simply. “They love the fact that the ingredients are close to home, and that it’s made by a Wisconsin brewery. But the other reason people seem to enjoy the beer is that it’s so drinkable. A true North American Wheat Ale (the judging category Island Wheat falls under) has a very mild taste and a very light color. It’s a great beer to drink for people who typically enjoy mass-produced light beer. It’s a clean flavored beer, and even people who aren’t adventurous beer drinkers enjoy it.” Nelson laughs and adds, “To be honest, the taste of the wheat from the island surprised the heck out of me! I thought the commercially-grown wheat would have a better flavor; but overall, the island wheat turned out to have a much more pleasant taste.”

Stayton and Koyen can attest to the new-found interest. “People who had never heard of Washington Island know about us now, simply because of the beer,” Koyen says. “There’s a map of Washington Island on the bottom of every Island Wheat six-pack – I can’t think of a better marketing tool than that.” Stayton agrees, saying, “Island Wheat has been great for our economy – not just the agricultural economy, but our tourist economy as well. The brewery and their distributors put on a Harvest Festival on the island during the fall and it brings a lot of people who would otherwise not know us. And it’s great to have that extra bit of tourism, but it means more to us that an awareness of the island is created as a whole.”

Photo by Peggy Olson.

Currently, Island Wheat is only being distributed throughout Wisconsin, with no immediate plans to take it to other out-of-state markets. “We’re really trying to grow the brand in the state before we take it elsewhere. Believe me, the interest from other markets has been immense – I can’t even count how many people from Chicago we’ve had in the brewery saying, ‘When are you going to bring it down by us?’ It’s still a new brand, and it’s not going anywhere. We’ve got plenty of time to take it to other places,” Nelson says.

Because of the huge success of Island Wheat Beer, wheat harvested on the island is making its way into other exportable products. In early spring of this year, Washington Island Brands launched Death’s Door Vodka and Death’s Door Gin, a spirit also distilled from Washington Island wheat.

Even with the popularity Washington Island has experienced on account of Island Wheat, Stayton doesn’t expect the island to change much. “As I mentioned before, I think that’s part of the beer’s appeal. It acts like a business model of sorts for the island. It shows people that you don’t always have to completely change who you are to be in tune with the future. Working with what you have, doing it well, doing it responsibly, and doing it the best you can – this partnership shows that pride in your roots is good, and that it’s possible to work that into whatever you do.”