Eagle Park Brewing Company: A Portrait Of a Young Brewery

When they release their first batches of beer to the public, Eagle Park will be the latest micro brewery to open their doors to Milwaukeeans. To find out the story behind Eagle Park Brewing Company, I headed to their pilot brewery and recipe development lab, located on the second storey of Lincoln Warehouse, the imposing brick building, painted almost entirely red, which hulks at the intersection of Becher and 1st St. in Bayview.

As I discovered through the course of our hour-long interview, Max Borgardt, his younger brother Jackson, and their brewing partner, Jake Schinke, have a vision.

Central to Eagle Park’s vision is brewing both drinkable, sessionable, yet full-flavored beers, as well as the higher ABV beers that many associate with craft beer. In a market where craft beer accounts for only 13% of beer sales nationally, it certainly isn’t unusual for for craft brewers to produce a beer or two designed for mass appeal, but what’s interesting is Eagle Park’s approach to designing what Jackson Borgardt, the lead brewer, calls “gateway beers.”

“I noticed a trend for Mexican Lager,” he says, going on to describe how he then built a recipe with agave nectar, lime peel, sea salt, and Kolsch yeast, mimicking the tart, clean flavors of a Corona with lime. The resulting Golden Ale will be one of the beers the brewery opens with and should appeal to so-called macro-beer drinkers (people who drink mostly beers like Miller or Budweiser) and craft beer drinkers alike.

Look for a sessionable IPA, a brown porter, and an ever rotating single-hop IPA, to be among Eagle Park’s flagship beers available on draught by the end of November and in bottles by spring.

Yet, as our interview ranged from the Borgardt’s smartly-designed beers to their brewing origins, I realized that Eagle Park’s vision is larger than just making great beer. These guys have a five-year plan to be a part of making Milwaukee a destination for beer drinkers. As Max says, “We do nothing small.”

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Eagle Park’s pilot system, nicknamed Ruth.
That drive, a fearless, entrepreneurial spirit, and a total dedication to craft have guided the Borgardts since they first started brewing. “The first beer we brewed was our recipe,” says Jackson, the head brewer, “It was a hoppy brown ale.” Max and Jackson recall the moment they popped the cap on their first beer, “I looked at Jackson and said ‘dude, we can do this.’” From that moment, in the fall of 2013, the Borgardt’s started brewing four or five times a month.

Yet this madcap rush into brewing was not careless. Even before they brewed their first beer, Jackson spent weeks researching. Recalling those beginnings, Jackson reveals his methodical, studious approach to making beer: “From the very first beer that we brewed, I studied really hard …  I [read] any book and blog … anything I could to learn more about brewing, and as I brewed they kept incrementally getting way better.”

A major part of brewing better beer came from gaining an audience for their beer and getting feedback. Through putting it on tap at family parties, the Borgardt’s got their first taste of sharing their beer, finding fans of their homebrew among friends and neighbors. In perhaps the truest testament to their brewing skill, they even converted a dedicated a Corona Light drinker, which is an act nearly on par with baptising someone to a new religion. With that kind of success, it’s not surprising these guys decided to go pro.

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Just looking at these cylindro-conicals, I start hankering for beer. Indeed, let’s do this.
But even going pro is no small venture for Eagle Park. Often, when we imagine opening a new craft brewery we think of someone starting small. Maybe they home brewed for years and followed that passion until they open their first 7 BBL brewery. After a few years of selling beer on draft locally, they build up enough capital to scale up the brewery into tap room and brewhouse. Schinker and the Borgardt’s are taking a different path: they intend to use their 1st Street brew lab for recipe development, and then to contract brew with Octopi brewing in Waunakee. Contracting “allows us to grow without the financial burden,” Max explains, “our goal is to get our beer out there.”

Wondering what happens to the beer from their test lab? Eagle Park plans to open a “speakeasy-esque” 40 – 60 person taproom in the space next door. The tap room will function as a place for drinkers to try Eagle Park’s beer and for the brewers to get feedback in real time. The Borgardts imagine making versions of the same IPA, each brewed with different hops, and then putting the most popular versions into full-scale production.

As our conversation turned from their brewing history to talk about craft beer in the city itself, I found myself wondering the same thing I know many people will ask when they hear that another brewery opened up in Milwaukee, so I asked the brewers of Eagle Park this question, are there too many breweries in the city?

Almost before I finish, Max replies in his characteristically enthusiastic style, “Not even close.” “Milwaukee is Beer Town,” he says.

“It’s super early on,” Max continues, capturing the excitement many brewers and craft-beer drinkers feel about Milwaukee’s beer scene while highlighting how far we still have to go. Milwaukee’s “[craft beer industry] is the best it’s been,” he says, explaining that the city’s new breweries are “opening the door to a brewing scene that could rival Chicago or Minneapolis.”

“It’s a culture,” Jackson interrupts, hitting on one of the finer points — I think — about the current state of the city’s beer scene. Max quickly points out that in many other cities, spending time at craft breweries, getting to to know a brewery’s tap list intimately, is as much a thing to do on the weekend as drinking bloody marys.

For the Borgardts and Schinker, that culture extends to the city’s craft brewers, “if one brewery does well, the scene does well,” Max explains. In terms of major influences, the brewers all cite both Good City and Lakefront’s expanded taproom as examples of what Milwaukee’s craft beer scene could become. “That’s trickling down,” Max adds, “once the bar is raised … people will do the same.”

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From here we turn to talk of influences. As with many craft beer drinkers, Lakefront’s Fixed Gear was a starting point for the Borgardts and Schinker. A turning point came when Max tried Surly’s Furious for the first time. In fact, Surly has come to be something of a role-model for Eagle Park. “Everything about their brand screams them,” Max says, “that’s what we strive for; we want people to get to know who we are. We’re not trying to be anyone but ourselves.”

In that sense, while they model their brews after specific beers they admire, don’t expect these guys to slavishly imitate or follow every hot style. “I think beer is just an offshoot of your personality,” says Max.

If that’s the case, when Eagle Park Brewing Company’s beer hit the market, look for studied, detailed beers that range from mass appeal gateway beers to big IPAs and Stouts. Personally, I’m most excited to taste their idiosyncratic takes on whatever beer currently interests them.

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Cheers

— Nathan