Brewer Profile: Trevor Wirtanen of Oliphant Brewing

Trevor Wirtanen, brewer at Oliphant Brewing in Somerset, Wisconsin // Photo by Tj Turner

Trevor Wirtanen, brewer at Oliphant Brewing in Somerset, Wisconsin // Photo by Tj Turner

It’s Tuesday morning in the parking lot of the Liquor Depot off the main drag in Somerset, Wisconsin. As instructed, I peer around the corner looking for a brewery. Sure enough, tucked behind the liquor store, is a wall adorned with a vibrant mural and picnic tables set up under a tent. Inside, the walls are decorated with all manner of campy 1990s paraphernalia—from VHS tapes to Steven Segal posters. Stepping into Oliphant Brewing is like déjà vu on steroids.

The scene evokes memories of my early 20s, hanging out in apartments equipped with futons, string lights, and psychedelic wall art. Most evenings (and a lot of afternoons) were spent drinking beer, watching the same two or three movies, playing cards, and laughing at inside jokes. As it turns out, that’s not a far cry from the theme Oliphant’s founders and staff are going for.

Trevor Wirtanen, owner and brewer, claims that the aesthetic, which he calls “garbage high art,” is due in part to the brewery’s shoestring startup budget. But he and Matt Wallace, his business partner, are two guys who grew up in the ‘90s, and the decor and general feeling in the joint reflects everything they find funny about the era.

The conversation with Wirtanen touches on everything from how to build a brewery, to distribution, and long term goals. Twenty minutes later Wallace and Josh Miller, the brewery’s Minnesota sales rep and Wirtanen’s roommate, join us at the bar. By the end of our hour together, the conversation has devolved into snickering over videos of Miller eating absurd food in the trio’s side project, a YouTube series entitled “Josh’s Noshes.” This seems to be a fairly typical day in the life of the brewer at Oliphant. True to their motto, “let unreason reign,” Oliphant Brewing exudes a sense of laid-back if offbeat fun.

Oliphant brewer Trevor Wirtanen keeps things fun at the brewery // Photo by Tj Turner

Oliphant brewer Trevor Wirtanen keeps things fun at the brewery // Photo by Tj Turner

Wirtanen was in Ireland pursuing a master’s degree in music while he and Wallace, who had been homebrewing together for a few years, cooked up a plan to open a brewery. “I [intended] to go into academia, but then I thought, I don’t really want to sit around,” Wirtanen reflects. “Starting a business sounded like more fun […] I’ve always been a guy who got really into my hobbies.”

Wirtanen, who now does the bulk of the brewing for Oliphant, interned at Dave’s BrewFarm, and worked briefly at Lift Bridge Brewing before he and Wallace began looking for their own space. Wallace’s mother owns the Main Street–facing Liquor Depot and his grandfather owned the space behind it, an old 7-Up bottling factory—a spot perfectly suited for a startup brewery. With $40,000 in funds, Wallace and Wirtanen started brewing three days a week and opened the taproom the other four.

When Oliphant first started, Wallace and Wirtanen just “hoped it would work out.” The brewing came easy, but the learning curve for running a business was steep. Without any real mentors or guidance they spent a lot of time Googling payroll systems and figuring out how to navigate the IRS website. Now that they’ve got systems down, they are finding fun in other aspects of the work.

“The draw now is owning a business and being responsible for it, rather than [brewing] beer,” Wirtanen says. “[I like] being able to set our own goals. There are certain things you can’t control, but it’s nice to see when it works.”

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Photos by Tj Turner

For Wirtanen the variety of work that comes with being a brewer and an owner keeps him interested. “Brewing is kind of a tedious thing, so it’s nice to have other [work]. Brewing is literally the same thing every day with different grains, and hops, or maybe even spices.” Striking a balance between the business side of owning a brewery and the day-to-day brewing is crucial.

It’s clear that a hefty dose of variety keeps things interesting for the folks at Oliphant. They’ve brewed roughly 150–200 different recipes in their three years in business. Nothing, including their four-packs, is guaranteed to be the same.

“We don’t like to say we’re going to do anything for sure, because, why? That’s the fun part of this thing, you get to change it up,” Wirtanen says.

They’ve been self-distributing Crowlers in the Madison, Wisconsin, and Twin Cities markets with success. Oliphant just released its first batch of four-pack cans this summer—their DG2C2MF saison and Lizardize Mariguanas IPA, which disappeared from the warehouse in just four weeks. They intend to continue self-distribution because it gives them a great deal of freedom to determine what they brew and where it goes.

Last year they produced just over 500 barrels on the three-barrel system. This year, they struck an alternating proprietorship deal with Barley John’s Brewing in New Richmond, Wisconsin, which allows them to brew and package Oliphant’s product using Barley John’s facility, significantly increasing their production capacity.

“Our goal is to grow in a way that doesn’t spread us too thin. We don’t have an end size goal or anything,” Wirtanen says. He’s pretty sure the success of Oliphant has a lot to do with the fact that they’ve been careful not to overextend themselves. “Also, we want it to be fun.”

The taproom at Oliphant Brewing in Somerset is an eclectic experience of '90s pop-culture // Photo by Tj Turner

The taproom at Oliphant Brewing in Somerset is an eclectic experience of ’90s pop-culture // Photo by Tj Turner

When was the moment they knew Oliphant was going to work out? Wirtanen says he’s not sure. Wallace pipes in from his station at the end of the bar where he’s working on putting stickers on Crowler labels.

“It was when we got invited to Dells on Tap. It was two nights in a hotel and free water park passes,” he says with unbridled enthusiasm.

Wirtanen, Wallace, and Miller all went to high school together. They are friends, and now they work together. By their estimation, it isn’t a bad way to make a living. They work to create a product they are proud of, something they’d drink. They pay the bills and pay themselves a little something. It isn’t stressful. And that’s the way they intend to keep it, so they can still spend time plotting the next installment of “Josh’s Noshes.”

“I don’t know if I could go back to not having fun all day,” Miller says, and Wallace and Wirtanen wholeheartedly agree.