Minocqua Brewery Beer Depot
(Top left) Minocqua Brewing Co. is arguably not exaggerating by billing itself as the least popular place in town, with a brash, progressive owner frequently being obstructed by local conservative officials. (Right) The lack of local popularity has only enhanced its tourist traffic now that the brewery has been able to open a retail shop. (Lower left) The company contracts out the brewing of its progressive-themed beers, as seen in a photo on the company's Facebook page.

When a progressive brewer butts heads with the conservative establishment, the result creates a consumer base and a new destination for tourists up north.

Minocqua Brewing Company bills itself as “the least popular place in town,’’ but you’d have a hard time proving it as its new beer depot was buzzing with business on a recent Wednesday afternoon.

(Left) Minocqua Brewing Co. owner Kirk Bangstad, shown in a photo from his 2020 campaign for Assembly. (Right) Tourists Lisa Stewart, Ben Schnoor, and their daughter River sit on a curb outside the Minocqua Brewery Beer Depot because a beer garden remains a point of contention between Bangstad and local leaders. (Photo by Susan Lampert Smith)

A California family camped out on the curb, enjoying an “AOC IPA,” as a pair of Harley riders from Kansas City stopped back to report that the barbeque joint recommended by co-manager Dave Kunelius was good, although not as good as real KC barbeque.

“Maybe a little diversity is good in Minocqua,’’ said Kunelius, who said he gets asked all day long where progressive visitors can feel comfortable in a town that greets travelers on Highway 70 with a billboard of the orange ex-president grinning from a “Trump 2024” sign.

The brewery shut down its bar and restaurant in 2020 during the pandemic, following multiple skirmishes with what owner Kirk Bangstad calls the “OBNOM”, the old boys’ network of Minocqua. He got in trouble for advocating for wearing masks, for a Biden sign that was too big for the locals’ liking, and for parking a bus that advocates for voting rights—among other spats. He lost his lease on his home. And he got sued by the local newspaper for libel. That’s not a typo: The newspaper is suing a private citizen for libel, in what one observer called a classic “man bites dog” story. 

But funny thing, the brewery’s progressive-themed beers and tchotchkes soared in popularity after the 2020 election. The brewery contracts to make its “Biden Beer,’’ “Bernie Brew” named for a certain Vermont senator, “[Comma] La — a strong vice presidential stout” named for the vice president,  “Tammy Shandy” in honor of the Wisconsin senator,  “Evers Pale Ale,” which is “made with science and a strong hand,” and the aforementioned “AOC IPA” for the unabashedly progressive congresswoman from the Bronx. 

Five percent of profits go to a political action committee the Portage County native describes as “dark money for good,” aimed at unseating candidates who perpetuate election lies. The Minocqua Brewing Co. SuperPAC has also filed suit against conservative-led school districts that refused to require facemasks, 

The beer brands flew off the shelves in Madison and Milwaukee, but they were hard to find closer to home, as local shops refused to stock them—whether out of political opposition or simple hesitancy.

“I’m the Minocqua Brewery,’’ Bangstad said, “but you couldn’t buy my beer within 40 miles of Minocqua, except at the Ojibwa Grocery Store on the Lac du Flambeau Reservation.”

That changed in June, when the Minocqua Brewery Beer Depot opened in a circa 1931 Texaco station at 329 Front Street, right across the street from Bangstad’s old nemesis, The Lakeland Times. Bangstad said he enjoys the view.

“I’m like the Pride House located across the street from the Westboro Baptist Church,’’ he said.

Inside, you’ll find a cooler filled with beers, T-shirts promoting “Choice” (named for their seltzer) and other progressive ideals, and a historical display of posters that chart Bangstad’s battles with the OBNOM. Visitors will learn that Bangstad and his late wife Elizabeth Smith bought the brewery in 2016, and during the “Pre-Woke Period,” brewed beers with classic Up North names like “Pudgy Possum Porter” and ”Largemouth Blonde.”

The Minocqua Brewery Beer Depot features posters that describe the frequent disputes with city and county leaders and the right-wing local newspaper. (Photos by Susan Lampert Smith)

The “Woke Period” began in 2020, with the Biden signs, Bangstad’s unsuccessful run for State Assembly, and his outspoken support of masks to control COVID. The “OBNOM Wars” began in 2021, when Bangstad launched the progressive Up North Podcast and OBNOM retaliated by delaying a permit for the taproom and then refusing to renew his lease on his rental home. You can follow it all in weekly columns Bangstad puts on the brewery’s Facebook page.

The California family, Lisa Stewart and Ben Schnoor, and their daughter, River, were regular summer visitors to the old brewery and were happy to see Bangstead back in business. 

“We followed the whole ‘brew-ha-ha’,’’ said Stewart. “It’s funny, but also not funny.”

“The whole thing has come at great personal cost to him (Bangstad),’’ said Schnoor, whose family has owned a vacation home on Lake Minocqua since the 1920s. The family had to sit on the curb to sip their beer because the brewery is still arguing with zoning officials.

“We’d like to have a beer garden where people can sit down, but we’re still waiting for a zoning variation,’’ explained Kuenelius, who is also running a longshot campaign against US Rep. Tom Tiffany in the upcoming 7th Congressional District Republican primary.

Another California visitor, Mark Lenz, who grew up in Wisconsin but now makes his home in the Bay Area, said he was happy to patronize a place that values diversity. He was visiting childhood friends who shared his family’s vacations in the North Woods.

“I appreciate what they’re doing and also the fact that they had to put up with a lot of harassment to do it,’’ said Lenz, who picked up some six-packs as a gift for a couple he was visiting.

Bangstad says he knows of other local business owners who are “closeted” Democrats. But when people ask him where to go, he says, “I tell them that people are still nice everywhere, even if they disagree with you.”