(Janesville, WI) Neil Johnson, Gazette
John Rocco is trying to imagine what patrons will say when he and his partners open Rock County Brewing Co. this summer in downtown Janesville.
It'll be the first brewery to open in downtown Janesville in recent memory, and the first microbrewery ever licensed to operate there under a new set of zoning ordinances that cater to startup microbreweries and brewpubs.
Janesville native Rocco and his brewing partners-Rockton, Illinois, resident Ed Sundstedt and Andy Walker of Janesville-have at least three decades of home beer-making experience. Rocco and Sundstedt run Farmhouse Brewing Supply, a home-brewing supply store in Janesville.
The three brewers hope the gods of hops, malt and fermentation will bring them a brew sublime enough to throw a hearty foam on any potential flashes in the pan.
"Being really the first microbrewery in downtown, in Janesville, you're going to be a novelty. And that's not a bad thing. But if you're selling a novelty, it better be a good one," Rocco said. "People better really like the product you're making, or you aren't going to be a novelty very long."
Rocco spoke without looking up as he pried nails from old barn boards piled four feet deep in the storefront on the lower deck of the former Carriage Works, 18 N. Parker Drive. That's where the crew plans to brew and sell handcrafted beer-everything from spicy smoked ales to mellow Hefeweizens and smooth, Belgian-style beer.
The barn boards are going to become paneling to accent the brick walls inside Rock County Brewing Co.'s new space.
The brewery will have a storefront tasting room: a bar with taps run straight into casks of beer brewed in the rear of the building in a three-barrel system. The terrace side of the building will have a floor-to-ceiling, roll-open glass window that the brewpub will open to welcome foot traffic and summer breezes.
Rock County Brewing Co. is leasing its space from brothers Shawn and Shannon Kennedy, owners of Janesville-based SASid Insurance. The Kennedys are renovating the microbrewery space and the upstairs of the Carriage Works, which will house SASid's corporate headquarters and offices.
Wisconsin is awash in licensed breweries that brew, sell and distribute in small volumes. It is a market that has mushroomed in the last 15 years.
Just not in Janesville.
Until a year ago, Janesville had what city Economic Development Director Gale Price called "antiquated" zoning rules that did not cleanly allow microbreweries and brewpubs to operate here.
"We had been late to a dance that's been ratcheting up for almost 20 years," he said. "We'd been behind the eight ball because we had a code that was completely silent to a growing national trend. We literally did not allow for microbreweries or brewpubs."
The city council approved changes last year to allow certain business districts, mostly ones in and around downtown, to permit microbreweries. Under law, those operations can brew and sell up to 60,000 barrels a year.
Rock County Brewing Co. plans much smaller volumes than that, with initial batches spun out every few weeks in a three-barrel system. The partners have estimated brewing fewer than 1,000 barrels their first year.
That, the partners say, could be enough to fuel walk-in customers and a local keg beer distributorship to Janesville-area taverns and bars and grills.
Under the microbrewery's model, customers would have to buy beer either in single-serve quantities for tasting, kegs or "growlers," which are half-gallon, sealable glass jars.
Under that model, commerce would rely largely on people coming downtown to visit the microbrewery.
The city and some developers and downtown business groups have plans to revamp downtown commerce and wrap it around the idea of pedestrian-focused, niche shopping, afternoon-long visits and entertainment.
Two more downtown microbreweries are in early talks, Price said. He thinks the businesses could drive other developments.
"It gets people's attention. Investors and entrepreneurs know a microbrewery is a very significant investment in a space," Price said. "If somebody's willing to make a major investment like that downtown, it shows there's interest and viability, maybe across a broader spectrum."
Ed Sundstedt said the microbrewery's emphasis would be on craft, not bombast.
"Dad comes in with a baby stroller, and he tastes a beer he might want to pour for a buddy or two at a cookout later that day. That's the speed," he said.
The microbrewery would have truncated hours compared to local taverns: probably 3 to 9 p.m. during three or four weekdays, with hours a little earlier on weekends to catch crowds at the downtown farmers market.
Andy Walker believes Rock County Brewing Co. could bring a change to downtown that's like watching a glass of beer poured by a slow, patient hand.
"The world has a fast-food chain version of everything. So does Janesville. We want people to slow down and enjoy," Walker said. "Janesville's more than a one-note town, and we hope what we brew is the same way. That's our goal: to give people a little something unique to remember Janesville."