In Milwaukee Record’s “Meet A Brewer” series, we aim to introduce you to some of the professionals behind the scenes who are responsible for making your favorite local beers. The recurring series continues with Matthew Hofmann, who’s the owner and brewmaster of Sahale Ale Works in Grafton, Wisconsin.

Milwaukee Record: What’s your personal brewing background? How did you get started in brewing, and what led you to where you are today?

Matthew Hofmann: I started homebrewing in college while attending UW-Milwaukee. I was a science major and also loved cooking—and beer—so combining a lot of my interests was fun. When I was considering grad school, I decided I wasn’t ready to go and explored some other options. Friends of mine loved my homebrew and said I should look into brewing for a job. I began visiting the handful of breweries in Milwaukee at the time and about a month after meeting Russ Klisch from Lakefront, he offered me an internship. I had already been accepted to the UC-Davis Master Brewers program and had a part-time semester left at UWM. In the interim. I worked at Lakefront, first doing cellar work and quickly moving up to run the brewhouse on second shift after one of their brewers abruptly quit. I worked there for just shy of a year while awaiting the start of brew school.

After the five-month program at UC-Davis and obtaining my Diploma of Brewing from the Institute of Brewing and Distilling, I landed a brewing gig at Avery Brewing Co. in Boulder, Colorado. Although I learned an incredible amount there, my girlfriend at the time—now my wife—was still living in Milwaukee. She had the far better job and wasn’t interested in giving that up, so I reached out to Lakefront about coming back. They brought me back to run the Quality Program. In addition to that, I also started the cask beer program and got to design a few special project beers, my first professional level recipes!

After three years in this role, I saw 3 Sheeps Brewing Co was looking for a Head Brewer. I had met Grant Pauly a little before that and loved the direction they were going and thought I could help grow that relatively new—at the time—brewery. I was hired on and helped write recipes, make cask beers, helped start the barrel-aging program, build a quality program, and more. The last six months there, I helped commission their new 30-barrel brewhouse and centrifuge in their current space.

Then the Head Brewing position opened up at the now-closed St. Francis Brewery and Restaurant. I was pretty happy at 3 Sheeps, but thought I’d kick the tires and see what the position was all about. I realized it’d be a great opportunity and took the job. I was able to make largely whatever beers I wanted, including barrel-aged beers. I was the only involved in the production of the beer there, so I got to do everything from recipe development to brewing, cellar work and packaging. I won my first medal at the Festival of Barrel-Aged Beers while there, with a beer that I personally executed from start to finish. It quite a proud moment to beat out some of the best—and much bigger—breweries around the country.

While I had been working on it for years, my plan to start my own brewery took years of fits and starts. My wife is a career educator and myself a brewer. We don’t have family money or connections to big investors, so it took some time to get the capitol together, but we finally did and Sahale was born in July of 2019. I still do all the brewing from start to finish, along with the recipe development. I also do virtually all the marketing, event planning, HR, and more. I do have a great team to help run the taproom and we tend to maintain a great staff of part-time bartenders as well. We are excited to celebrate our 5th anniversary this month. The party will be the 20th and 21st with live music, food trucks and plenty of beer!

MR: What are some of your favorite beers you’ve ever made—either at Sahale or otherwise—and why?

MH: The aforementioned FOBAB winner, TEOTWAWKI, is a special one. I still make this beer for our annual Halloween release. I love German lagers, so my Dunkel and Oktoberfest are some of my favorites. Heat Waves Ginger Wheat Ale is a beer we’ve won several awards for, but I love ginger beers, which this emulates. It is brewed with ginger, hot peppers, and is lightly sweetened with local honey. I’ve also really liked all three of the collab beers I’ve done with my buddy Jesse, whom I worked with at Avery. He now lives in Madison and shares my love of German cuisine and beverages. He distributes landjaeger to Sahale and several other accounts around the state, wrote a book on landjaeger production in Green County and the surrounding area, and is currently writing the first book that chronicles the history of sausage making in Wisconsin. We’ve made a caraway rye lager, a German Pale Ale, and recently released a Smoked Helles Bock, which all turned out great in my opinion.

MR: What’s your all-time favorite style of beer, and what makes you like it so much?

MH: This is tricky to answer. My favorite style is often whatever I am drinking, as long as it is well-made. I can appreciate nearly every style, especially with the right food and/or setting. I love a German Dunkel. It’s smooth and easy-drinking, but they have enough flavor to keep it interesting, and when done right, can have a lot of depth. I absolutely love barrel-aged beers. There is something about the wood and the notes from the spirits that create magic. I am always looking for depth of flavor, meaning every sip I take, I find a new flavor or another dimension of the beer reveals itself. I am always searching for this type of experience from a beer. To me it distinguishes a great beer from a good or average beer.

MR: Do you have any go-to macro beers?

MH: Oh yes! Three letters: P-B-R. I am a big fan. I drink it more than my own beer and all other beers combined. Great combo of drinkability, but still has depth of flavor. I got to give High Life a shout-out as well. I would never pass on one of those, unless PBR was an option instead. Fun fact: we are actually brewing a collab with Pabst for our 5th Anniversary, which is a dream come true!

MR: Do you have any favorite non-beer beverages, such as cocktails, coffee, soda or non-alcoholic options?

MH: Coffee. I don’t leave home without it!

MR: What are some of your non-brewing hobbies or passions?

MH: I love building LEGO with my son. I try to get out on my bike whenever I can, so road cycling is a big one. Probably my biggest guilty pleasure or hobby is getting out west to go skiing. It lines up with the slow season for the brewery, so I can manage to get away and there’s nothing better than being in the mountains to clear one’s head. Traveling in general is a passion, but business ownership makes that hard.

MR: Who are some of your favorite musical artists?

MH: I like a wide range of music and I actually listen to WMSE most of the time at work. I love the variety and hearing something new. I grew up listening to a lot punk, so I am a sucker for The Refused, NOFX, Propaghandi, Small Brown Bike, Bad Religion, Pennywise, Anti-Flag, Operation Ivy, At The Drive-In, and so many more. I also love ’90s hip-hop, especially Wu-Tang. More recently, Run The Jewels. Some others are Thievery Corporation, Tool, Bob Marley, Rage Against The Machine, John Prine, and I cannot forget the amazing Townes Van Zandt.

MR: Any favorite TV shows or movies?

MH: The Wire is top notch. Six Feet Under, the first season of True Detective, Boardwalk Empire, Firefly, Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul. I love watching Cheers and The Golden Girls as well. The writing of those sitcoms just hits my funny bone. I’m sure there’s plenty I am forgetting. There’s too much TV to cover. I am a big Star Wars fan, except the recent trilogy, and like most of the animated series as well. I like most of Christopher Nolan’s movies. I watch plenty of movies, but not a lot are coming to mind at the moment.

MR: As you near the five-year mark with Sahale, what are some hopes or plans for the brewery in the next five years?

MH: Survival. We are at a tough point in the industry. Shrinking expendable incomes, increased competition, younger generations drinking less and not going out, expansion of cannabis products, not to mention rising costs, a less committed workforce, and a seemingly less bright economic outlook makes the future look uncertain for the brewing and hospitality industry. It’s not all doom and gloom, but I see breweries around the country dropping like flies. On top of that, I hear of plenty of inexperienced people still looking to start their own breweries, which I am not certain will help the industry as a whole. Follow your dreams kids, but make sure you do your homework first, which to me means working in the industry a while. It is not all drinking and fun.

I think we’ve done a great job doing what I set out to do, which was creating a place that is not only a community gathering spot, but also is an active and engaging member of the community. We host a lot of fundraisers for local causes and I think our impact is quite large for such a small business. We will continue to focus on and expand this, because not only is it good for our business, but it is great for our community as well.

MR: Any beer-related words of wisdom for our readers or misconceptions about the industry you’d like to use this platform to clear up?

MH: Oh man, where do I start? Owning a brewery is hard. There is not a lot of money in this industry for the producers and it’s even tough for the retailers. The distributors seem to have the advantage. Long story short, do not open a brewery right now. You won’t be printing money. If you survive five years in the current climate, I think you’re lucky, unless you have very deep pockets. Being good is not always enough.

Regarding drinkers and beer itself, I’d say explore new styles. You may be pleasantly surprised. And drink more than one sip. Our palettes take a minute to adjust and you don’t really start tasting the beer until the third sip. I recommend a whole pint before judging, unless you really cannot stand the flavor. Not every beer is for everybody, which is why we have so much variety. No other beverage type has the diversity of styles and flavor as beer, so if you say you don’t like beer, you just haven’t had the right one yet.

Most importantly, come visit the Sahale taproom. We have 12 beers on tap, with eight of them rotating constantly. This means a new beer or two is going on every week. It’s not that far from Milwaukee and you can make a fun day trip out of it by visiting Grafton, Cedarburg, and Port Washington. A lot cool stuff is just a short drive from the city.

MR: Are there any fellow brewers you’d like to shout out?

MH: I’d shout out all the people we will be collabing with for our 5th anniversary on July 20 and 21: Lakefront Brewery team, Grant Pauly from 3 Sheeps, Zak Krueger from Pabst, Clint Lohman from Working Draft, and all 6 of the Ozaukee County breweries—Inventors, Fermentorium, Water Street Brewery, Rebellion, and Foxtown.

MR: Is there anything else you’d like to say about brewing, beer, Sahale, Grafton, or anything else?

MH: Keep supporting your local Wisconsin breweries. There is a lot of great beer made in this state, and it pains me to see retailers and drinkers favoring so many out of state breweries—especially from neighboring states. Chicago is an easy day trip if I want to go drink their beer. When I travel, I notice tap lists at bars and restaurants feature far less out-of-state producers than we do in Wisconsin. Try and get to the breweries themselves, so you can try all they have to offer and likely meet the people connected to making the beer. There’s nothing wrong with these out-state breweries, but if you want great beer made locally, then you have to support it.

As for Sahale, I feel incredibly fortunate to have landed in such a supportive community, to have a great staff, awesome customers, and for the brewery to have done pretty well thus far despite very limited resources. We have such a nice space that is family- and dog-friendly. We have an awesome large patio and so many nice amenities nearby. We think it’s worth a visit, actually repeated visits, so we hope more people seek us out. We don’t distribute much, being on a three-barrel system, so the taproom is where to go to try our beer. Come up and try some fresh, handmade beers that range from the standards to some very unique creations. My goal is to curate a tap list where any beer drinker can come in and find at least one beer they want to drink and really appreciate.

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About The Author

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Co-Founder and Editor

Before co-founding Milwaukee Record, Tyler Maas wrote for virtually every Milwaukee publication (except Wassup! Magazine). He lives in Bay View and enjoys both stuff and things.