Interview with Moosejaw Pizza & Dells Brewing Co. brewmaster - Jamie Baertsch

For the past decade Moosejaw Pizza and Brewery has been the home to the Dells only microbrewery. Serving ten different styles of hand-crafted beer at all times, keeping both visitors and locals alike coming back often for the chance to drink beer that is extremely fresh.

Jamie Baertsch, who holds the title as the “Only Female Brewmaster in Wisconsin,” is the one to bring Moosejaw’s beer to fruition, and was gracious to spend a few hours showing me the process of brewing, as well as letting me sample some of her delicious liquid wares.

Tell me a little about yourself – are you originally from the Dells?

I’m from Portage. I went to school in Biotech. I had no interest whatsoever of brewing beer. I didn’t even drink beer. I was one of those really naive kids in school where I didn’t know anyone to go to a kegger with. I didn’t know anyone to carryout alcohol. I was that dumb like – how do you get a fake id?

When I was in school I was kinda a wild child in college – like BMX biking and punk rock. My teachers all thought that my personality better suited, they were all home brewers, and they thought my personality better suited being a brewer then a biotechnologist. They didn’t see me sitting around setting blots all day long, so they told me I should make beer. And I was like, I can specialize in beer? I didn’t know anything about it, I had maybe like five beers my whole life before that, but it sounded like a cooler job then wearing a white lab coat all day. So at that I point I said maybe I’ll just make beer, and I was like the first person in my graduating class to get a job!

How did your career start at Moosejaw?

I started off as an unpaid intern. I came here an applied when they first opened - and they didn’t hire me. So I came back three months later and applied. Came up and talked to the brewmaster at the time which was Dana Willy, and I asked him if I could help clean or sanitize sometime, and he was like you might actually know what you are talking about when it comes to brewing! (laughs)

So, he let me help, and I was an unpaid intern for like five months until they realized that it was an insurance liability issue not paying me (laughs), but I did that and I bartended at night. I would bartend till close, and then I’d go home and get two hours of sleep, and then come back here at 5am. All I got to do was scrub floors and polish tanks – I got nowhere near the beer for like three years. Like really I didn’t. Just all grunt work! (laughs) It was horrible. And I still scrub floors and polish tanks today – not much has changed!

Do you brew beer here every day?

We brew about one to two times a week. Some weeks are slower. In the summer I’ll sometimes brew three times. I only have five fermenters. Once they’re full I have nowhere to brew into. It all ends up being a game of chess. You have to wait for a tank to be empty, the serving tanks, so you need one of those to empty or at least be low enough to keg it off so you can move the fermenter into it.  You have to have someplace open to brew into.

How much beer does Moosejaw brew compared to a larger brewer?

Miller does more in one shift than we do in a year! We’re a micro brewery. I only brew about 1000 barrels a year.

Did you ever do home brewing before this?

No, never. Well maybe like two batches, but no, not really. No, because especially since when you start working in a brewery, the last thing you want to do is go home and make beer. I want to go home and do anything but that! (laughs)

So who owns Moosejaw?

Mark Schmitz, and he has partners. He’s partners with the Waterman’s.

Can you tell me any of the history of the place?

Yeah. I know a bit. This place was, actually it came out of a one room bar . . .

Where was that? Somewhere local?

Down the road and across the street. It was really close. How long was the Pump House open? Seven years? I know I’m close. I think it was seven by the time Moosejaw open. It was torn down a couple years ago. That was really popular with the locals, and then he (Mark) was approached by people he worked for before. He worked at Noah’s Ark, and back when you could cash in your 401K, he cashed it in to buy the Pump House. His former employers approached him to expand, to beer and pizza, that’s a really good idea! So, this is the expansion - Moosejaw Beer and Pizza.

Is this the only Moosejaw restaurant there is?

This is the only Moosejaw. We do have a sister restaurant Buffalo Phil’s over by Tanger (outlet mall). You can kind of guess all the places we are affiliated with because we all kind of lookalike. All the woodwork is really pretty.

Yes, I love the log cabin, rustic look of the place. Any plans to open another one in the future?

No, right now, mainly just the brewery. We just started a new project, the bottling project. We’re really looking to how we’re going to expand this, where were going taking this project. This is one of our bottles (hands me a twelve ounce bottle of beer called Rustic Red).

Cool looking bottle design. Is this the only flavor that’s currently bottled?

Right. We’re looking into bottling our Honey Ale and the root beer next. 

So how many different beer flavors do you make?

I have ten beers on tap always, and I change those out as the seasons go and as the malt supply demands. Like the Golden Lager. That recipe just got changed. Literally the new recipe is in fermenter four right now. Want to try the amber? (Rustic Red)

That’s good! (After tasting a poured sample)

That’s my best seller. It’s our flagship. When brewers have their main beers, we call it flagship. This is my flagship beer. It’s the one we distribute out of house. Even though in-house our Honey Ale is our bestseller – the Honey Ale & Golden (Lager), but this is the one. It’s a great intro to craft brewing. It’s my idea of - Alright, come over here. It’s an all malt beer. It won’t scare you. Just step away from the Bud Light and Miller Lite! (laughs)

I bet you need good taste buds to be a brewer. Did you always have a good palate?

No, that’s developed with time and training. That’s definitely something, especially with the mass amount of sensory training I’ve had, it still gets better with more training and the more beer you taste. It’s just something that comes with time. I mean obviously some people are born with fantastic palates and sensory skills – and I know some of those people – there on serious corporate taste panels. All they do is sensory. It’s pretty crazy to drink with them! (laughs) I have a friend that is a grandmaster beer judge and it’s so funny when he comes to taste things, because he picks out things you’d never taste in your beer. Sometime it’s hard to taste things in your own beer, and he’ll pick out things, and you’re like what are you talking about? And then you’ll look deeper – oh my gosh. Yeah, you’re right. I’m wrong. (laughs)

So which beer is the most popular at Moosejaw?

It kind of goes back and forth, but it’s pretty much the Honey Ale. The Honey Ale is what we go through the most. Like in the summer, every week we're brewing one of those. Those tanks empty so fast. That’s the next one we’re going to put in bottles.

Do you brew any fruit beers? I actually man enough to admit that I do! (laughs)

Yeah, right now I have a Raspberry (Crème Ale), a Cherry (Ale) - fruit beers sell really good here is what I have found.  You’d think it would just be the women, but nooooo – it’s the guys, it's crazy! (laughs) I’m not the biggest fan of fruit beers. I like some, but you know you don’t always have to make what you like – because if I made what I like we wouldn’t sell any beer! (laughs)

What’s your favorite then?

I tend to like darker beers. I do like malty beers a lot, a lot of lagers – a lot of what I make is right around there.

Any other beers you brew here that stands out?

I’ve got a Smoked Porter on right now that’s nice. It goes really good with ribs!

I might have to try that combo - it sounds good! Do you name the beers that you create?

Sometimes I’ll name the beers, but not really. I usually leave that stuff to Jill (Marketing Director Jillian Murphy). I’ve only named a couple of them that I really was like, put my foot down - we’re going to name them this!

Well now you got me curious to which ones those were . . .

Well one was . . . I brewed a beer, made a recipe for when my daughter was born – Betty’s Breakfast Stout. That had lactose in it, because I never drank so much milk then when I was pregnant with her! It had oats in it, barley and wheat, because that was what in my granola in the morning. I had to do all my tasting in the morning so I figured that was Betty’s Breakfast! (laughs). Then there’s Wyatt’s Barley Wine. I just brewed that this year, because my son was just born. So his Barley Wine is actually cellaring in the basement right now, and that’s a 12% beer.


I used a bunch of fancy European based malt for that, like a whole bunch of crazy stuff. That’s cellaring in the basement, and because the alcohol is so high on it, it actually ends up being like a wine. You need time and age to really let those big flavors come together and mesh to really make it smooth.  I will release some of that for our 10th anniversary probably in April. Then I think I’m gonna hold back the rest and do a release in August when the most people come through here, because I only have ten barrels of it.

That’s got to be fun to make beers that you can personalize and play around with the different flavors.

I can make whatever I want really, and some are maybe not as good as others. Some recipes don’t fly here. Some I would think would be the last thing I think would sell. One time I did a Lemongrass Ale. Lemongrass is an Asian spice, and I put it in a “lawnmower beer,” kind of a really light lager, and we sold a ton of it. It went so fast, I think like three weeks. Fifteen barrels was gone in three weeks. It was crazy! It was just the right amount to add, a little characteristic. It was like, really? That sold? OK…

Do you ever make some that doesn’t sell and you’re just stuck with it?

No, because I’ve learned that you can always sell something. My biggest nightmare every year is if I do a Pumpkin Ale – people beg for Pumpkin Ales – and I don’t think they really like them, because they are always lingering around. People say - I love Pumpkin Ale. Why didn’t you make a Pumpkin Ale? - I got like fifteen barrels, why is it still here in January? You guys say you like it, but you don’t come in and drink it enough. So…

In October it’s probably on the mind, and then after that . . .

If you don’t get rid of it by Thanksgiving you’re screwed!

I can imagine.

So that happened, and one time we just changed the name of it. You change the name and it’s like a completely new beer. We did that on one beer that would not sell - it was a dud, it would not sell. We changed the name to a movie that was out at that time – Fools Gold - and it sold like the very day we changed the name. It was going out like gangbusters! I’m like are you serious? That’s the part of marketing where I’m like - Jill take it! (laughs) I don’t even want to think about why this works, but it does. It’s crazy.

That’s interesting, I didn’t even think about that.

Oh yeah, it’s all on perception. Like there are certain words you don’t use when describing a beer, because it freaks people out. Like if you use the word bitter, or like hops. When we do taste analysis a lot of hops will be described by brewers as being spicy . . .

I bet that scares some people away.

Yeah, people will freak out! Like spicy? People will just go to a place in their head and say - we don’t want it. 

See that would intrigue me, Spicy. But bitter wouldn’t.

Yeah, but you know, bitterness is not always what you think it would be. And a lot of times if it’s a hoppy beer, doesn’t mean that it’s bitter.

(pours me some more samples)

This is a good example of a bitter beer. That’s the Black IPA. Now a trick you can do when your drinking beer and you want to know what you’re tasting – plug your nose and then drink it. Now you’re only going to taste four things. Bitterness is on the back of your tongue, sweetness is on the tip, sour is on the side, and salty is in the center.

That’s true, because I feel the bitterness in the back. (after tasting a sample)

Right, you feel it in the back. Everything else is an aroma – so it’s going up. So when you drink beer, you have to actually swallow it in order to get it all the way back to your nasal cavities, so you can truly taste it. People who drink wine and spit it out, I’m sure it’s because wine has some pretty volatile and horrible flavors in it. I’m sure you wouldn’t want it to go all the way down and really experience it, so I understand why they’re spitting it out! (laughs) But you can’t taste beer without, because the flavors are so subtle. Beer really is a very delicate thing.

So what is the best part of your job?

Best part of my job . . .  I get to do different things all the time. I mean yeah, there is a lot of cleaning, but I do so many things, like a jack of all trades. There is a little electrical here, a little plumbing there. There is taxes, reading Senate bills. There’s reading crop reports. Being able to source new ingredients, being to source new equipment, used equipment. Doing general maintenance, broken stuff . . .

Sounds like a lot of variety.

A LOT of variety. I got to know a little bit about welding, obviously because if a tank breaks, I got to talk stainless steel with the guy fixing it. The last guy who did welding on my equipment did the most amazing job of welding I ever seen! That big guy (points to a large tank) busted a hole in the bottom of the tank. Luckily I was cleaning the tank at the time so there was no beer in it, but it busted a hole right at the bottom. So he had to climb in there, and he welded while doing a handstand! Someone is holding his feet, and he’s got one hand in place, and he’s welding upside down while doing a handstand! Plus, he had to do it as a sanitary weld, because it’s inside my tank. He had to do a sanity smooth weld while doing a handstand upside down. I was like wow! I just signed it. I was like, I don’t even care how much this cost – that is amazing! (laughs) Yeah, I get to see stuff like that. I get to travel all over. I get to go to the coolest parties, and hang out with the coolest people. It’s in my contract that I get to go to get educational things . . .

Conferences and stuff like that?

Yeah, I’m part of a couple trade groups - Master Brewers Association of America, Brewers Association of Wisconsin Brewers Guild . . . so I get to go to the Great American Brew Festival that’s in Denver each year. I’ll go the Craft Brewers Conference, this year it’s in San Diego. I’ve gone to it when it was in Boston, and Seattle, and Chicago . . .

It just goes with the job description?

Yeah, and I travel to get to speak at some too. I actually spoke at the last Brewers Conference when it was in Boston and presented a piece: Stupid Things That Every Brewer Should Know – But Often Doesn’t. Just like the dumb things that I did when I took over the brewery, because no one wanted me to be here. I was like their last choice – I absolutely was. They wanted to take anyone but me, and I don’t blame them. I really wouldn’t have wanted me! (laughs) I really didn’t know much. And then the brewer ahead of me never really thought it was going to be me either, so he really didn’t teach me as much as he probably should have. And even when I tried to take over, they brought someone else in, and that guy fizzled out. So I didn’t even get the former brewer’s exiting info.  Like he should have been telling me certain things. So my first year was quite a disaster. Plus, it was the year where all the equipment’s warranties ran out, so everything broke the next day after the warranty ran out . . .

Of course.

The boiler broke, the chiller broke, everything went down. I’d be in a little ball crying on the back platform. Just horrible, it was awful.

But now you’re an old hat to all this, and things are a little easier?

Yeah, I get to go around and travel, do cool stuff. Get to go to beer fests. There’s a beer fest every month if I wanted to go. I go to about four or five a year in the state.

That sounds fun! Get to hang out and drink beer while promoting your own?

It’s not even at this point really advertising for us, because we’re popular enough. Really it’s kind of like the boss is just like go out and have fun for the weekend. 

Sounds like a cool boss.

I go a lot less since I’ve had kids, but now that they’re getting a little older, there still both babies, but now that I’m at least not pregnant, I can go out and drink! (laughs) Before that it probably would have been a little bit of a faux pas to go off to a beer festival pregnant. (laughs) Even though I still had to drink throughout my pregnancy.

I was going to ask . . .

Yeah, I actually fired my first OB cause me and him . . . my husband was there and said:  “I thought you were going to get in a fist fight with him!” I thought so too! (laughs) He was like a real stickler for things, and then I found a new OB and she was like, yeah, you know, whatever. I think exercise and just being physically active is more important than you drinking a couple ounces of beer a week. You know, it’s not like I was chugging a six pack. I mean, it was maybe three ounces a day of stuff I had to taste, because I’m the only one that has the training. I mean Mike (her co-worker) knows what some things taste like, but he doesn’t have the extensive sensory training that I’ve got.

Speaking of training, tell me a little about what you’ve done.

I go to different classes every year just to keep up on the stuff that’s new. I just got back from Minneapolis last year where I took a course. It was a bunch of quick courses all at once from the leaders in the industry. One was on barrel aging. There was one on malt analysis. Reading spec sheets, reading between the lines of what they’re actually saying. There was one on calculations. There was one on hop aroma, and stuff like that. Stuff only brewers would care about. Like one on foam - bubbles – you sit there and look at bubbles – so exciting! (laugh)You’re probably looking at me like what a nerd!

No, not at all. Making beer is pretty cool in my book, although some of science aspects of it go right over my head.(laughs) I think I’ll stick to letting the professionals like you make it for me. I didn’t know there was so much involved in it…

(Laughs) I know. A lot of people think we just sit around and drink beer all day, but honestly it really isn’t.

Is there any danger to your job?

Steam boilers, pumps, chemicals, are all dangerous. Tanks are pressurized. I’ve seen tanks implode before and that’s scary. I don’t ever want to see a tank explode – that would be scary. It’s definitely nothing you want to play around with.

Well, I’ll wrap this up with a “tabloid” question. Do you know of any famous people that have come through here?

Famous people come here all the time – that country singer – um Chesney?

Kenny Chesney?

Yeah, he came through and got ribs last year. He was on tour. Rock stars are always coming in due to the Crystal Grand Theater. We’ve had some woman wrestlers from the World Wrestling Federation come through here. Every once in a while Mark will have a political fund raiser here, but mainly singers. Whoever is playing at Crystal Grand, and Packers – they play a lot of golf around here.