Making Pabst Proud: Wisconsin Startups Mix Beer With New Tech

3/3/14Follow @XconomyWI

The Wisconsin beer barons of the 1800s probably didn’t imagine brewers soliciting recipes from their customers. But that’s what Madison, WI-based MobCraft Beer is doing.

The young company—which crowdsources craft beer recipes, lets people vote online for their favorite, and brews the most popular one each month—is one of several Wisconsin startups that are marrying beer and new technology in new ways.

Given the heritage of beer brands like Miller, Pabst, and Schlitz, the vibrant collection of craft brewers that have opened in recent years, and the budding tech startup scenes in Madison and Milwaukee, it’s probably no surprise that beer-tech startups have popped up in Wisconsin.

“Wisconsin is a great place to do something related to beer,” said Matt Younkle, the co-founder and CEO of Madison-based music startup Murfie. “There’s a very strong beer tradition here, certainly. A lot of folks are very passionate about beer—how it tastes, how it’s poured.”

Younkle knows plenty about the pouring part. In 1996, while studying electrical engineering and computer science at University of Wisconsin-Madison, Younkle and two friends invented TurboTap, a device that pours draft beer three times faster than traditional technology while also reducing waste.

Younkle went on to turn it into a thriving business in Chicago, Laminar Technologies, and in 2007 he sold his shares to a private equity firm. TurboTap is used in professional sports stadiums around the country, as well as bars, restaurants, and hotels, Younkle said.

While entrepreneurs often see themselves as disruptors of legacy industries, Younkle said radical technology changes aren’t always easy for brewers to swallow. In TurboTap’s case, it was more of a retrofit to existing systems that still allowed the bartender to maintain control over the pour, whereas other technologies have tried to automate draft pouring with buttons, microprocessors, and timers, Younkle said.

“[They are] imposing digital constraints on what is otherwise a very analog product in beer. Typically the end result is it doesn’t work out very well,” Younkle said. “I think there’s always room for technology to be put in, but it’s important to think about bridging gaps rather than disrupting in this space.”

David Dupee, on the other hand, thinks there’s room for disruption in brewing. The Milwaukee attorney and craft beer enthusiast is launching an equity crowdfunding website called CraftFund for small food and beverage businesses.

“Statistics demonstrate that craft beer is a millennial beverage. Moreover, craft beer and tech startups share an impulse to innovate and disrupt,” Dupee said in an email. “Therefore, it makes sense that you see more tech startups founded by millennials targeting craft beer.”

Without further ado, here are four examples of Wisconsin beer-tech startups. If there are more out there that I’ve missed, don’t hesitate to let me know.

MobCraft Beer, Madison: Henry Schwartz, Giotto Troia, and Andrew Gierczak could’ve chosen to simply open the next brewpub. But they wanted to do something different, and the result was a brewery that takes customer input to a whole new level. “The [best] part of this is to get the wild and crazy ideas that beer lovers around the U.S. and around the world come up with, and have them see the light of day,” Schwartz said. “We like to establish this direct emotional connection between the manufacturer and the consumer.”

The trio co-founded the business in 2012 while … Next Page »

Jeff Engel is the editor of Xconomy Wisconsin. Email: jengel@xconomy.com Follow @XconomyWI

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