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‘We are definitely the community’s brewery’

Sawmill Brewing is in the middle of Merrill, central to the region’s culture

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March 4, 2024

MERRILL – Reclaimed and refurbished wood; local ingredients; crowd-sourced taste preferences; homegrown musical talent; surrounding white pine trees.

With all the “natural resources” utilized by Merrill’s Sawmill Brewing Company, it seems fitting the brewery is based out of a former Department of Natural Resources (DNR) headquarters.

In retrospect, all the pieces were in place and the timing was right, General Manager and Co-owner Zach Kubichek said.

But when Sawmill first opened in 2016, Kubichek said the success of a craft brewery was hardly a “natural” assumption.

“We definitely heard, ‘what are you doing? It’s not going to work out; people want Busch Light – they don’t want some craft beer type of thing,’” he said. “But the community showed us something completely different.”

As Sawmill approaches its eighth anniversary, Kubichek said the ties between the brewery and its city have never been stronger.


Kubichek said he’s been with Sawmill from the beginning when the idea was brewed up by local investors looking to bolster Merrill’s culture, entertainment and tourism.

He said they agreed to name the company as a nod to the industry that put Merrill on the map.

“Merrill’s history was built on sawmills,” he said. “I think we had nine active sawmills in town here dating back to 1883.”

The co-owners of the brewery, Kubichek said, initially sought property near the Wisconsin River, until they were drawn to a vacant building “that the city was going to condemn.”

“We found an old building that used to be a DNR ranger station in town built in 1940,” he said. “It was not in good shape at all.”

Yet, Kubichek said, the location – 1110 East 10th St. – was as favorable as it was unique: right in the center of the city and surrounded by three acres of white pines.

“While the building wasn’t perfect and needed a lot of work, the outside area gave us a lot of options for things we could do,” he said, “As well as being a historical building, there’s something about this place when you’re sitting in here. It’s got 16-inch-thick granite blocks. They can’t make a building like this anymore. Kind of an old-school thing, and it fit with our sawmill theme and taking Merrill back to its roots.”

As renovation and decoration progressed, Kubichek said they found even more ways to naturally tie the building to the region and its history – specifically the flooring, which is made of 14 types of wood reclaimed from old local buildings.

A number of the tables in the brewery, he said, are made from joists removed during the remodeling of the building’s mezzanine.

Other repurposed wood, Kubichek said, helped bring positivity from a destructive tornado that hit Merrill in 2011. 

“There were a lot of white pine trees that went down, and our bar top, as well as tables on our main floor, are all made out of white pine that fell on one of our good customers’ houses,” he said. “I always say they get the last laugh when they come here and have a beer on top of the tree that fell on top of their house.” 

Sawmill would later help turn an even more profound tragedy into a positive, Kubichek said, when the brewery named a beer in honor of a local soldier who had died serving in Iraq.

He said proceeds from the beer and related promotional events helped to fund a new, badly needed VFW.

“We are definitely the community’s brewery, and our most important thing is helping out our community, donating when we can give back, using our space for different events and charity fundraisers,” he said. “The community’s been a huge support of us. They’ve been fantastic.”

Kubichek said Sawmill has helped raise funds and donated event space for local animal shelters, church groups, sports teams and chapters of the Lions Club and Rotary Club.

“I love when somebody comes to me and says, ‘hey, I’ve got this crazy idea. Let’s see if we can make it work,’” he said. “There’s nothing where we say, ‘oh, no we can’t do that.’ We always try to make things work and are willing to be flexible.”

Kubichek said being located in Merrill puts a decent distance between Sawmill and other craft breweries in Wausau, Medford and Rhinelander – which makes it a destination for craft beer enthusiasts, as well as a popular pit stop for passers-by picking up beer on their way up north.

The customers Sawmill draws, Kubichek said, help to patronize other businesses in Merrill as a result of the beer’s highly limited distribution.

Other than Kubichek personally delivering crowlers (32-ounce cans of beer) to a few area grocery and liquor stores, and kegs to select bars, he said Sawmill beer is primarily available from the brewery itself.

“Our main focus is always getting people to our taproom to try our beer,” he said. “We try to get people to come here to get most of that experience in person.”


To enhance the Sawmill experience beyond the beer itself, Kubichek said much of the credit for the brewery’s year-round entertainment goes to Event Manager Maria Schmelling and Open Mic Night Host Travis Burrow.

Schmelling, Kubichek said, ensures Sawmill’s calendar is stocked with a variety of happenings for guests to enjoy throughout the seasons – which include trivia and music bingo, fly tying nights for fishers, team jigsaw puzzle competitions, Easter egg hunts and weekly live music.

Burrow is indispensable to the latter, Kubichek said, helping to run live sound for Sawmill’s performers Fridays and Saturdays, as well as hosting the brewery’s open mic night every Thursday, which has been around for seven years.

Performers add their names to a list upon arrival and play three songs each, Kubichek said, though on occasion, acts recite poetry or perform standup comedy.

“If somebody’s got a talent they want to show off, we’re all for it,” he said. “It’s a cool space to try things out.”

Kubichek said performers of all ages and talent levels participate, including teenagers accompanied by parents.

He said Bryce Thomaschefsky is one such musician who gained early experience playing at Sawmill and is now “over in the La Crosse area chasing his music dream.”

Kubichek said one of his favorite parts about Thursdays is when the performers play together at the end of the night, forming a temporary “hodgepodge open mic band.”

Thursdays, he said, also represent an opportunity for performers to audition for their own set on weekends – as well as earn a chance to play for an hour during Sawmill’s day-long anniversary party.

Held in May as an unofficial kickoff to summer, as well as a formal opening of Sawmill’s tented outdoor area, Kubichek said these annual parties also entail headlining music, plus food trucks and raffles every 30 minutes.

Kubichek said raffle tickets are included with each beer purchased, with prizes from not only Sawmill but items he’s bought from other Merrill businesses.

“It’s a fun day of giving back and thanking everybody for all the stuff they’ve done for us over the year, and putting us in the position where we’re at,” he said.

Kubichek said Sawmill’s beer garden – which feels like an inadequate term for a three-acre plot – is where most of the action happens.

“It’s like having a state park that happens to have good beer,” he said. “We have a serving window right out of our back bar, so when we’re out in summer, you don’t have to come inside. We have treats for the dogs and beer for the humans, so it works out nice.”

The setup, Kubichek said, is increasingly amiable for patrons’ kids, too, with different games, toys, sandboxes and complimentary freezie pops.

“It’s a fun thing for the whole family, especially in summer,” he said. “It’s like you’re at a park; kids are running around playing and parents can enjoy a beer and some conversation with other adults.”


The connection between Sawmill and the Merrill community, Kubichek said, began with patrons influencing the brewery’s flagship lines of beer.

“When we opened in 2016, we were still working on getting our federal permit, so for the first six months or so, we were a taproom where we served other Wisconsin craft beers – which was good because we could see what people wanted and craft our recipes based on that,” he said. “It was helpful to say, ‘hey, we need some light beers, some dark beers and figure it out from there.”

Kubichek said Sawmill started with four flagship beers: Birch Bark Blonde Ale, Boom Decker Becker IPA, Rip Saw Irish Ale (which he said is the bestseller) and River Hog Oatmeal Stout.

Now, he said, Sawmill can offer 16 original beers on tap at a time, thanks to the hard work and creativity of Head Brewer Ben Osness.

“(Osness) has been with us since day one,” he said. “He started as a bartender and ended up helping in the brewery. He has taken it over for the last six-plus years – he is phenomenal.”

Kubichek said Osness has mastered a range of brews, “anything from light to dark to hoppy to sour to fruity.” 

The goal, Kubichek said, is “to have a beer for everybody,” and he said Sawmill’s bartenders are skilled at finding an ideal match for different tastes.

“We rotate seasonally,” he said. “It’s fun because Ben’s able to show off his skill and brew some different beers,” he said. “We brew a batch, we have it for a couple of months and then move on to the next one. It’s not the same six beers at all times. We want something new and fresh for people’s palates.”

Kubichek said the timing of Sawmill’s opening happened to coincide with the booming of craft beer fandom – which prompted a variety of events, including Hop Passport’s March Brewsanity competition. 

Thanks to the support of Merrill, he said, Sawmill won last year’s championship over 1,200 other breweries.

“You could vote once per day,” he said. “So, if I were going to the gas station or whatever, I’d see somebody and they’d say, ‘hey, I voted today, and l’ll make sure I vote again tomorrow.’ Another cool thing the community did to help us and get behind us and win that honor.”

Kubichek said he has immense gratitude for Merrill’s immediate and endless enthusiasm for Sawmill.

“They supported us from the start,” he said. “We’ve had loyal customers from day one who are still great customers here.”

Cheers to eight years 

Kubichek said between Osness’ constantly changing beer offerings, an openness to hosting new types of events and the unexpectable nature of open mic nights, all the ingredients are in place for a bright future at Sawmill.

“We’ve seen some different places that bite off more than they could chew, and we want to focus and keep doing our thing,” he said. 

Kubichek said Sawmill intends to continue selling its beer via crowlers, howlers (32-ounce glass jars) and growlers (64-ounce glass jugs), rather than canning or bottling for distribution.

“We’re maxed out on our space right now,” he said, “But that’s not necessarily a bad thing for what we want to care about and take care of.”

Primarily, Kubichek said, that focus has always been on the people who hang out at Sawmill.

“It’s an awesome setup here,” he said. “It’s been a great going-on-eight years, and we couldn’t be asking for anything more.”

Visit for hours of operation, upcoming events and an up-to-date beer menu.

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