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Olson bids farewell to 'sleepy little brewery'
Gary Olson, former president of brewery operations at Minhas Craft Brewery, reads a card given to him during his retirement party Monday at Minhas Kitchen + Wine + Spirits. (Times photo: Marissa Weiher)
MONROE - After a career he describes as "42 years of playing with beverages," including 15 years in Monroe, Gary Olson has retired as president of brewery operations at the Minhas Craft Brewery.

His last day was Sept. 1, although he'll continue in a part-time, remote capacity as a consultant to the brewery. Meanwhile, Minhas isn't filling his position as president.

"We have so many great senior managers that we don't feel we need to replace Gary," founder Ravinder Minhas said. The terms of the retirement, with Olson continuing as consultant, will help the transition.

"We're sad to see him go. He was an amazing president," Minhas said.

Olson started in Monroe in 2002, after several decades in the soda business with Coca Cola and then Pepsi. His three daughters with his wife, Sue, had graduated from high school by then, and he was "looking for something out of that fast-paced corporate world."

When an opportunity came up at the historic brewery in downtown Monroe, then known as Joseph Huber Brewing, he remembers thinking, "Good, a sleepy little brewery."

He chuckles now at that assessment. Since the Minhas family bought the brewery in 2006, it has done nothing but expand.

When Olson started, he managed 30 people. Just before he retired, he was managing 100.

"All the sudden, we were doubling production, year to year," he said. It was rewarding to see upgrades to equipment and facilities while still maintaining the "charm" of the brewery's 172-year history.

"It has wonderful smells, a nice interaction of people and machines," he said.

In the course of spending "several, several million dollars in capital improvements," the company purchased a lot of equipment used, adding to the charm of old and new together, he said. Equipment like tanks, fermenters and filters came from Barbados, England, Germany, Minnesota and elsewhere.

"It's a lot easier to go buy new. It's a lot more expensive. There are a lot of breweries that are sparkling and new. But I find it more interesting to comingle the old and new and make it work. And it saves a lot of money. We continue to grow because we're smart with our money," he said.

When he started the job in Monroe, Olson was already familiar with a lot of brewery equipment because it's similar to the equipment used to make soda.

"All I had to learn is brewing. I graduated to beer," he said. Later, as Minhas added a distillery and winery, "I graduated to distilled spirits and wine."

His beer education when he was hired at Huber in 2002 included a daylong crash course with a 90-year-old German-American brewmaster from Milwaukee, Karl Strauss, who despite his advanced age was still consulting for Huber.

"We just spent the day together going through things," Olson said.

Next, Olson took a two-week brewing and malting science course at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where Strauss was on the judging panel for Olson's final project, a proposal for a hypothetical brew pub.

A visit to Green County four decades ago foreshadowed Olson's late-career entry to the beer business. He majored in sociology and minored in statistics at the University of Minnesota, then went to work for Coca Cola in Chicago before moving back to Minnesota to work at PepsiCo.

Sometime in the mid-1970s while he and Sue were still living in Chicago, he remembers an excursion they took through the New Glarus Woods. They loved it.

"If a guy could just figure out a way to make a living, he could stay here forever," he remembers thinking on that trip.

"It's funny because we ended up living about a mile west of New Glarus Woods. It's just bizarre how that ended up," he said.

He and Sue have already sold that house and are in the process of moving to northern Wisconsin. They're looking at houses between Hudson and Hayward, to be closer to their daughter in Hudson. Another daughter lives in Monroe and a third in San Diego.

"My last birthday surprised me," said Olson, 67. "Now, that's getting up there. My wife suggested I start disengaging."

He still plans to return to Monroe to visit. During his time here, he served six years on the boards of United Way of Green County and the Monroe Chamber of Commerce.

He also "hooked up with some guys for an ice hockey league" at Monroe's ice arena, SLICE. They stuck together 13 or 14 years, "punishing ourselves on the ice," as he put it.

"I'll miss that," he said.

The Minhas family, coworkers and former employees gathered for a farewell party for Olson Monday afternoon at the new Minhas Kitchen, 1408 13th St.

Steve Jorenby, a barley grinder who worked at the brewery 44 years - long enough to remember a succession of owners at Huber, including the time "Pabst sold everything but the paint on the walls" -came with his former coworkers to Olson's farewell party. He worked under Olson until his own retirement in 2015.

"Beautiful," he said when asked what Olson was like as a boss. "He's the best. He took care of things proper. If there was a problem, he always got it smoothed out."

And, he added, "every time you ask Gary a question, he always listens with respect."

Another partygoer, Louis Armstrong, general manager of production at Minhas (and mayor of Monroe), praised Olson's "ability to keep sanity while we keep growing."

Olson is "our refreshing sanity check," Armstrong said.

As for Olson, he has a lot of fond memories associated with the people and historic buildings and streets around Minhas: "I know I'll miss being there and talking with people, especially when visitors come in from all over."

In 2003, for example, the John Kerry presidential campaign came through and Olson gave Kerry a tour of the brewery - along with at least a dozen Secret Service agents stationed all over the brewery.

"He and his wife liked our beer. It was a hot summer day, and he and his wife sampled the beers out on 14th Avenue," Olson said.

Olson ended up chasing after their tour bus to give Kerry's wife a six-pack of her favorite beer during the tour, a Berghoff Solstice Wit.

Olson said he hopes the brewery continues to expand and become more flexible, while remaining in downtown Monroe. The tight downtown streets present challenges, like the "gymnastics" truck drivers have to perform to back in and out, but "it's been on the same site since 1845."

"It's kind of neat that Joseph Huber turned into an international company," he said.