Brewmaster alum is a thirsty fan’s best friend
It’s March 24, and 10 days remain until Opening Day at American Family Field. While those other Brewers ramp up to the season in warmer climes, Leinenkugel’s master brewer John Hensley ’02 is grinding to get the brand new on-site brewery up and running at the team’s stadium in Milwaukee.
Tucked into the concourse behind the left-field stands, J. Leinenkugel’s Barrel Yard isn’t quite ready for prime time. Next to the brewery, the year-round taproom and restaurant will serve the beers made on site.
The clock is ticking. Mr. Hensley knows the stadium will soon be hopping with 42,000 fans thirsty for more than baseball.
This feature story first appeared in the Summer 2023 issue of The Carthaginian magazine.
After Graduating from Carthage with a degree in chemistry and biology, Mr. Hensley mentally penciled in the next natural steps in his education. He’d apply to a graduate program — maybe even medical school. Just not right away.
Opting for a gap year to gain experience and build savings, he contacted a temp agency. Two positions were available that fit his criteria: one with a meat packing company and another with a major brewing company. He chose the latter.
Med school never stood a chance. Mr. Hensley has turned a temporary gig into a 21-year career.
Returning to campus in March to share insights from his career journey with Carthage students and faculty, he could say with confidence it was the right choice.
“I can’t imagine doing anything else now,” he said. “There aren’t too many unhappy people in brewing.”
For now, during the Barrel Yard’s startup phase, Mr. Hensley can tolerate the 3 1/2-hour drive from Leinenkugel’s headquarters near the Minnesota state line, but he’ll need someone skilled at the ballpark full time. Enter Corrine Georges, the pilot brewer he just hired.
Together, they start to calibrate the newly installed kettles and tanks with a test brew.
“No floaties?” he asks, referring to the harmless but visually unappealing flakes that most commercial beer makers try to prevent.
“Not horrible,” she says.
And the work continues.
The Master Brewer position at the Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Company comes with lots of managerial responsibilities: personnel, quality control, supplies, production schedules — you name it. So Mr. Hensley savored the recent return to hands-on beer-making.
A pilot brewery is the place to experiment. Over the years, the alumnus has learned how subtle adjustments to ingredients and conditions can produce distinct flavors of malted beverages.
Carthage provided a strong foundation in biochemistry, enabling Mr. Hensley to see the interplay between temperature, osmotic pressure, pH, and other variables. Taste is only one part of the equation; a recipe has to be repeatable. Maybe 1 in 15 makes it from concept to mass production.
It’s hard to top the tingle of pride Mr. Hensley felt the first time he spotted a customer leaving the store with a six-pack of Sunset Wheat. Winner of a bronze medal at the 2006 World Beer Cup, the tart Belgian-style beer is the closest thing he’s had to a solo project.
He keeps an ear to the ground, anticipating consumers’ changing tastes. Sometimes, like clothing, beers cycle in and out of style. Last August, the company brought Sunset Wheat out of a three-year “hibernation” for an encore.
Depending on the recipe, Mr. Hensley estimates the entire brewing cycle will take 3 to 4 weeks. As their test gets underway, the faint but unmistakable aroma of baking bread wafts through the Barrel Yard brewery, signaling yeast at work.
“Now you see why we call ourselves yeast farmers,” he jokes.
The stainless steel equipment is packed into a space about half the size of Leinenkugel’s other new pilot brewery at the Leinie Lodge, a popular attraction across the river from the main plant in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin.
Small can be great, Mr. Hensley knows from his time at Carthage. Attending larger universities, his high school friends reported a much different college experience.
“I really appreciated the smaller classes and personal attention we got,” he said.
He maximized the hours outside of the classroom, too. Besides lettering in soccer as a freshman, Mr. Hensley took an active part in social fraternity Delta Omega Nu and biology honor society Beta Beta Beta.
Although he married another Carthage graduate, they never actually crossed paths on campus. Jennifer (Johnson) Hensley ’06 entered right after John’s graduation. The couple, who now have three children, met during an outing with mutual friends.
The practical benefits of Mr. Hensley’s education extend beyond science. Thanks to an emphasis on communication in core courses like Western Heritage (now Intellectual Foundations), he grew comfortable as a public speaker.
That comes in handy when talking to beer distributors…or curious college students. His packed itinerary as a campus guest included a Biochemistry class discussion and a Q&A organized by the Carthage Engineering Program.
“Connecting our students to alumni like John opens their eyes to the wide variety of career possibilities afforded by studies in STEM and helps them to realize that it’s OK to not have all the answers today,” said Professor Robert Nagel, director of engineering.
Six days before the home opener, the Brewers send out a press release announcing the first three Leinenkugel’s specialty beers that will be served at the Barrel Yard: Cherry Gose, Hop Head (IPA), and a newly remastered Red Lager.
Eventually, those will rotate out in favor of beers exclusively brewed in-house with baseball-themed names. The announcement even hints at the possibility of “calling up Brewers players to participate in the brew making process.”
As for grad school? Well, preserving the spirit of his original post-graduation plan, Mr. Hensley did ultimately earn an advanced degree. Two, in fact: a Diploma in Brewing and, last year, a Master of Science in operations and supply management from the University of Wisconsin–Stout.
He entered the field as a flavor chemist at Miller Brewing Company’s pilot brewery in Milwaukee. After a decade there, he was hired as assistant brewmaster for Leinenkugel’s.
The two brands share a parent company, Molson Coors. Within that Fortune 500 giant, Leinenkugel’s has maintained a distinct identity as a sixth-generation family-run business. Jennifer works there, too, overseeing merchandising.
In 2019, the apprentice climbed to the top rung, a job with minimal turnover. Mr. Hensley is just the 11th brewmaster since the company’s founding in 1867.
His enthusiasm, like his products, has aged well. So it’ll probably be a long wait for brewmaster No. 12.
Opening Day has arrived! The Barrel Yard is serving, the Brewers are shutting out the New York Mets, and the fired-up crowd is belting out the carefree lyrics to “Beer Barrel Polka,” a Milwaukee seventh-inning stretch tradition.
“Zing! Boom! Tararrel! Sing out a song of good cheer…Now’s the time to roll the barrel, for the gang’s all here.”