Bubbling Up from the Driftless
Austin Ashley has worked his fair share of different jobs: music promoter, restaurant worker, landscaper, and now soda brewer. What is the common thread between these disparate jobs? Entrepreneurship. Austin has always been driven to do things his own way, and he has the vision and perseverance to see it through.
Austin grew up in Texas, where his Grandmother had a massive garden and fruit trees, which started a lifelong interest food and local production. “When I got a job in a French restaurant they had gardens around the restaurant. That made a big impact on me- local agrarian. That makes so much sense.”
After moving around the country, doing various jobs, Austin met, and fell in love with his now wife, Hallie. “She was living in Wisconsin, so we moved to Madison. This is where I became interested in coffee. Hallie’s brother Caleb Nicholes and I became friends, and when he decided to move to Viroqua to be closer to his son and to start a coffee roastery, we decided to move too. That was the beginning of Kickapoo Coffee. We earned sweat equity in the business which we later sold to (current co-owner) Tj Semanchin,” recalled Austin.
Ever the entrepreneur, he soon decided to put another one of his passions to work- brewing. “I had been making craft beverages for some time. Things like beer and ginger beer. I was working a dead end job making $10 an hour. I decided that I could make my own soda and make at least that. I said, ‘I can do this.’”
With his friend Zac Mathes, Austin and Hallie began their planning for an all-natural, hand-crafted soda enterprise. “Zac began by interviewing beekeepers, probably 60 in total. We wanted to use honey for our sweetener, but we were not interested in corn syrup fed bees. We wanted to find ingredient sources that fit our values. We wanted to make soda as healthy as you can, with natural and organic ingredients.”
Austin talked with a lot of experienced brewers. “They all had two key pieces of advice: start by producing kegs, and don’t think twice, just do it. Kegging is much cheaper than bottling, which requires expensive equipment. I took out $4500 in retirement funds from my last job and bought two pallets of kegs and some brewing equipment. I rented a spot in downtown Viroqua, and in 2012, we were up and running.”
At first, they sold to restaurants, but they found that securing a tap line was very difficult, especially with the micro-brew beer boom. While producing kegs was the cheapest and easiest option to get started, they found that in the long-term, they had to start bottling and getting into the grocery stores. To do this however, would take significant planning, a large financial investment, and a more permanent location.
To accomplish this goal, they needed to raise over $100,000 to buy the equipment they needed. $25,000 came through their Kickstarter campaign and a “Buy Local WI” grant. The biggest chunk of money came through a USDA grant. “I met Sue Noble a long time ago, and started talking with her when the Vernon Economic Development Association (VEDA) started the Food Enterprise Center in a 100,000 square foot commercial building in Viroqua. She was very good at writing grants and was lots of help. She was instrumental in making this work.”
It took a year to get everything up and running, but with a new permanent processing location in the Food Enterprise Center, they were ready to make soda in 2014 with a new brewing and bottling system. “At this point we decided to switch from honey to organic cane sugar for our sweetener. Cane sugar is much easier to work with. It is much more consistent. Honey is too variable in taste, and was too costly and difficult to source. It did take research and time to find organic ingredients. We now make Cherry, Strawberry and Ginger flavors, all of them are certified organic.”
A key breakthrough in sales came from a new distribution agreement with Cooperative Partners Warehouse, a Twin Cities distributor that works with local producers to access natural food stores, cooperatives and restaurants. “We were delivering in an old painted Toyota van, driving all over the place. We wanted out of delivery, and Cooperative Partners helped us do that.”
Starting with 25 customers, Wisco Pop! now has over 150 customer accounts. “We had 400% growth in one year. The reception has been amazing. We are budgeting for another 100% growth in 2016. We are looking at some conventional market breakthroughs, but mostly we are focused on the natural markets,” noted Austin. “In the next five years we will start looking for a national distributor like UNFI. For now, our goal is to keep growing, remain transparent and committed to our values, and to be a model for the industry.”
They are planning to launch a new soda flavor in 2016- Grapefruit/Hibiscus, and are also planning for a new brand of sparkling beverages called “Sparkle”. “We have plenty of room for new products and growth,” remarked Austin.
The process for making Wisco Pop! involves a lot of fresh ingredient preparation. After receiving their orders, they start processing ingredients on Monday of each week. The juice is freshly squeezed, and their flavorings (ginger, vanilla) peeled and cut. The juices, flavorings and sugar are added to water and then boiled for three hours in the extraction process. The extract is then allowed to chill overnight at 34 degrees. The next day they filter the extract and then carbonate. From there the soda is bottled, labeled, boxed and put into refrigerated storage.
“Organic is a good choice for us because we have always been committed to land stewardship and healthy ingredients. People are tired of the term ‘natural’, which doesn’t have much meaning. Certified organic helps us leverage our commitment to cooperation and to stand up and do what’s better.”