‘Coming back to beer’

Craig Peterson is becoming a serial entrepreneur. By day, he’s the president and chief executive officer of Zigman Joseph Stephenson Inc., a public relations, marketing communications, lobbying and public affairs firm based in Milwaukee’s Historic Third Ward. From that helm, he has worked for clients and projects as diverse as Crate & Barrel, opponents of the now-defeated PabstCity development and numerous other commercial ventures and political campaigns.

Peterson also is the co-owner and co-founder of Milwaukee World, a local blog specializing in political and crime coverage.

In addition, he’s dabbled in commercial real estate and several other businesses.

Peterson most recently added two new ventures to his growing resume of projects – a beer company and a commercial cleaning service that employs disabled workers.

Earlier this year, Peterson created Buffalo Water Brewing Co., a new beer brand brewed and packaged in Milwaukee. The company’s first beer, Bison Blonde Lager, is being introduced to the marketplace this month.

Peterson concocted his brewing venture when he was leasing office space for Zigman Joseph Stephenson at the intersection of Water and Buffalo streets.

The Buffalo Water name was too good to leave alone, Peterson said, and begged to be developed into a beer brand.

“I talked to my friends in the brewing business, and they said the name is ingenious,” he said. 

The first beer produced by Buffalo Water is Bison Blonde Lager, beer specifically formulated to be paired with Buffalo wings, Peterson said.

“The No. 1 finger food is Buffalo wings,” he said. “And we want the name to be synonymous with wings and hot foods.”

To create his new beer, Peterson sampled 30 different beers he thought would match well with spicy foods such as Buffalo wings. He eventually found a profile that matched well, and he then tracked down its recipe online. With the help of a master brewer, that recipe was tweaked to create Bison Blonde Lager.

While Bison Blonde Lager is a craft beer, it’s different from most microbrews, Peterson said. Bison Blonde Lager is relatively low in alcohol and light in color and in flavor. Many other microbrews have higher alcohol content, heavier flavors and use larger amounts of hops.

“This is what I’d call a crossover beer,” Peterson said. “A lot of women don’t like the hops, heaviness and alcohol content. This beer appeals to people who don’t have an appreciation for big beers. And bartenders like it (Bison Blonde). They can sell twice as much of it (because of the lower alcohol content and lighter flavor).”

Bison Blonde Lager was formulated for easy drinking – what Peterson calls “poundability.” One of the marketing slogans Buffalo Water Brewing is using to promote the beer is “Slam a Blonde Tonight.”

Market growth

Peterson knows lobbying, marketing, public relations and sales, but his expertise isn’t in beer brewing itself. He has created an alternating proprietorship of brewing premises with Milwaukee Brewing Co.’s Second Street Brewery at 613 S. Second St.

Milwaukee Brewing Company is owned and operated by Jim McCabe, owner of the Milwaukee Ale House.

“We are a separate company that leases the space needed to brew our product,” Peterson said. “We took a page from the Sam Adams book.”

By using alternating proprietorship relationships, Peterson will be able to have Buffalo Water beer brewed at several locations around the country, when he is ready to enter different markets. And having the beer in other markets is a key part of his business plan.

“The East Coast and New York state is the holy grail,” Peterson said. “That’s where we want to go. Every year, they have a Wing Festival over the Labor Day weekend. In two days, they draw almost as many people as they do in the whole Summerfest.”

And Water Buffalo’s name could help it gain ground in Western states such as Colorado, where the American bison is a cultural icon.

The first batch of Bison Blonde Lager was finished at the end of October, Peterson said. The beer is now available in two bars – the Milwaukee Ale House, 231 N. Water St., and Just Arts Saloon, 181 S. Second St.

By Jan. 1, Peterson said, one prominent retail chain will sell the beer. He declined to name the chain.

Peterson said current trends give his startup beer company a good chance for success.

“Craft-brewed beer is the fastest growing segment of the alcoholic beverage industry,” he said. “Craft beer is up 17.8 percent in 2006 vs. 2005 and 31.5 percent in the last three years.

“People are coming back to beer. Many of us switched to spirits as adults, then switched to wine which taught us to pay more for a beverage. We’re accustomed to a higher price point, but don’t want to go back to a huge brewed product.”

Peterson and his consultants are working to create two additional beers for Water Buffalo Brewing Co. – a witte (white) beer named Ghost and a nutty ale named Horny Buffalo.

“We have a lot of fun playing on words and with the packaging,” Peterson said.

Buffalo Water Brewing has two full-time employees now – one in marketing and package design and the other who handles viral marketing. In the next few weeks, the brewery will hire a full-time salesperson who will sell tap lines to bars around the state, Peterson said.

The brewing company, in its first year of operation, should grow sales by about 100 percent in the next three years, Peterson said. In later years, growth should taper to 15 to 20 percent.

Peterson’s marketing skills will help set his microbrewery apart because many other microbrewers are experts in beer brewing, but not in selling their product.

“We’re a marketing engine,” he said. “We already have a good-tasting beverage to market, and we take a lot of enjoyment in selling it. That’s one advantage we have right out of the box.”

Another venture

Even though he has plenty of work with Zigman Joseph Stevenson and Buffalo Water Brewing, Peterson also started another business earlier this year. In May, he formed Hunter Industries LLC, a commercial cleaning business that employs workers with mental and physical disabilities.

Peterson’s son, Hunter, was born with Down Syndrome.

“I started talking with social service agencies and got a pipeline going,” Peterson said.

The small company has about 40 workers now and cleans several hundred thousand square feet of commercial space in Milwaukee. It also does a limited amount of job placement service, helping find workers with disabilities find jobs.

Hunter Industries signed its first contracts in July. On Dec. 1, its crews started cleaning another downtown building, which added a significant amount of space.

Hunter Industries has good growth prospects for 2008, and the company will never have trouble finding employees, Peterson said.

“I could find employees all day long,” he said. “I just need more cleaning jobs for them. The building owners and tenants think it’s really neat, and they get a good feeling at the end of the day.”

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