Skip to main content

Farm-to-table approach serves ‘Stubborn Brothers’ well

Shawano brewery raises its own beef for restaurant, hops for brewing

share arrow printer bookmark flag

December 28, 2022

SHAWANO – With one brother thinking opening a brewery was a good idea and the other not so sure, two Shawano siblings – Aaron and Erik Gilling – have found a way to make it work.

“I was the one who never really wanted to open a brewery,” Aaron said. “A brewery requires tireless work and effort, and you have to wait almost a month to find out if your brew is successful. If your brew fails, you start over again and throw your hard work down the drain.”

Aaron said Erik was persistent about moving forward.

“Erik was unable to take on this venture alone because he was responsible for maintaining the crops on our local family dairy farm,” he said. “It became my mission to explore and learn about brewing beer. I learned a lot, and soon, curiosity killed the cat. I became obsessed with the art of brewing, the beauty of barrel aging, selecting seasonal fruits and ingredients and the artisanal challenges that make brewing an art more than a science.”

Eventually, Stubborn Brothers Brewery was born.

“Erik is somewhat limited in the brewing process, but he was integral in us selecting Shawano as our home base, choosing and sourcing our equipment and making this brewery a reality,” Aaron said. “Erik was also key in our farm-to-table approach and grew the first hop fields to determine what varieties grow successfully in the Shawano soil. He was also responsible for sourcing malt and brewing ingredients from local farmers. He continues to be actively involved in everyday brewing, recipe development and daily operations.”

Although the winter months are a bit less busy from a brewery standpoint, Aaron said the brothers aren’t less busy.

“Erik practices dentistry in the winter,” he said. “Because the warmer months are much busier, I use the winter to catch up on maintenance and other projects that need to be done.”

Growing up in Marion, Wisconsin, on the family’s dairy farm, the brothers eventually both attended Marquette University and earned doctorate degrees – Aaron in physical therapy (PT) and Erik in dental surgery.

“Growing up on a dairy farm taught us hard work and great values,” Aaron said. “My dad was also a dentist, so that was a natural fit as well.”

The brothers, two years apart in age – Aaron 32 and Erik 34 – said they fell in love with brewing while living in Milwaukee.

“I did a little stint in the medical world at Miller (Brewing Company), and that made my love for beer grow even more,” Aaron said. “And then, literally, as soon as I graduated from PT school, Erik and I went to brewing school in Colorado. When we came back, we were like, ‘Hey, we think this is a good idea. We should open this brewery, but where should we open it?’”

Aaron said they looked at their hometown, but they decided against that because Marion already had a brewery at the time.

“We decided on Shawano,” he said. “Upon talking with the city and seeing if they were interested in having a brewery, they were excited to have someone come into their town – it was a mutual decision. The city liked us, and we liked them.”
Sound business model
Because Erik still practices dentistry and Aaron did the same in physical therapy for about 10 years, the two had a good source of income to partially fund the brewery.

“We had to pay for this (brewery),” Aaron laughed. “It’s great to have dreams, but it’s another thing to execute those dreams. We didn’t want to go the route of taking a bunch of partners and building up value over time and then owing a bunch of people money before things sometimes go south.”

// Gilling

Aaron said he’s seen that happen with some breweries.

“People want their money back and a return on their investment,” he said. “We never wanted to be held to that pressure. We wanted to make sure we could grow the brewery the correct way – not the fastest way but the correct way.”

Instead, Aaron said they took no outside investment from private investors.

“We were able to grow our brewery and do it the way we wanted to,” he said.
What’s in a name?
Aaron said he or Erik can’t take credit for the brewery’s name – Stubborn Brothers.

“My wife, Amanda, needs to get the credit for that,” he said. “Erik wanted to name it Rivershore Brewing Company. I wanted the name Restless Heart Brewing Company. He thought my idea was horrible – the worst idea ever. ‘No one wants to talk about anatomy with beer,’ he said. I said, ‘Everyone talks about rivers or water with beer, so why do we have to be copycats of everyone else?’ Like classy brothers, we each said the other one sucked and fought about it for two days. My wife said, ‘You guys are just two stubborn brothers.’ The name was born.”

Aaron said his wife still takes credit for it.

Untapped business
Aaron said another reason he didn’t initially want to open a brewery was because he wanted to open an apple cider house.

“They are one of the fastest-growing segments of the liquor industry,” he said. “I still think if anyone would come to me and say, ‘I want to open a brewery,’ I’d say, ‘I think you should go into cider.’ I think it’s an unopened market opportunity, and there’s a huge value in craft cider, especially in Wisconsin – cider is a beautiful industry. If you look at Stevens Point Brewing Company, one of their largest growing areas is Ciderboys.”

Aaron said he was eventually won over by Erik’s desire to open a brewery, and the rest is history.

“We’re in the great state of Wisconsin, so you don’t hear people talking about cider and cheese,” he said. “You hear people talking about beer and cheese. Slowly over time, I fell in love with beer. Now, I brew every drop of beer. We won a gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival, and we’re doing well.”
COVID-19 pandemic
The timing of the brewery’s opening, Aaron said, is a story in itself.

As he said, “The brewery didn’t get off to a great start.”

“We were going to open March 18 (2020), but that’s the day Gov. Tony Evers locked everything down (because of the COVID-19 pandemic),” he said. “So, we never got to open. The first day I came in, I handed out 25 pink slips. I don’t wish that on my worst enemy. Everyone was excited to work, some people had quit their jobs from other locations to join us and you’re walking in saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to have to call it a day.’ We didn’t know – we had that fear (about COVID) and lack of knowledge. My first conversation was with my employees.”

Aaron said the brewery eventually opened June 3 – a few months later than anticipated.

// Brothers Brewery co-owner Aaron Gilling said the brewery has between 24-26 beers available. He said the brewery is known for its sour beers. Submitted Photo

“If my memory serves me correctly, I think the Tavern League of Wisconsin took it to the Supreme Court,” he said. “The Supreme Court ruled they couldn’t enforce the shutdown, or something along those lines. We were allowed to open sometime in May, but we wanted to take two or three weeks to lock in everything and get our staff back. I’m not going to lie – the hardest part was losing a lot of great people. Some went back to their other jobs, but we’ve been lucky to have maintained most of our staff.”

Even opening a few months later than expected, Aaron said that was “nothing compared to when they initially wanted to open.”

“We were aiming to start in about 2013,” he laughed. “I tell everyone, ‘Thank the world for young, ignorant men.’ I think everyone should genuinely thank them. They have a will, but sometimes have to figure out a way. We bought this old building in Shawano, the Crescent Pitcher Show – we thought it would take six months to a year to renovate it, but it took three and a half years.”
Farm-to-table approach
One thing the brothers said they take pride in is their farm-to-table approach with their beef/pork and products used in the beer-making process.

“As I said, Erik still actually runs the majority of our farm,” Aaron said. “He helps raise all the beef that is served at our restaurant. He also does a great job of running our agronomy, so he runs all our planting as well. We plant approximately 5,000 or 6,000 acres of land – he’s in charge of all that. Erik isn’t as involved as maybe he’d like to be with the brewery but is essential to keeping our clientele fed. We have some future expansions that involve the farm as well – we’re lucky.”

Aaron said the pandemic also “helped” with the farm-to-table approach.

“When the pandemic was raging, beef prices were through the roof,” he said. “Then, securing slaughter dates was incredibly hard. But luckily, we have a very good butcher who said they would slaughter our animals. We go through a lot of animals – sometimes 20 or 30 a year. In the end, it cost more to do this, but we didn’t run into supply-chain issues. Some places were running out of burgers. We have to charge a higher price – as we still do today – because we have to cover the cost of supporting local. But I’d rather spend more money for local than pay some giant manufacturer in Mexico we’ve never met.”

Aaron said because pigs are “a different animal,” they outsource the pork they use in the restaurant to a local farmer.
Go with the sours
At any given time, Aaron said there are between 24-26 beers available at the brewery.

“We’re well known for our sours, and we make every single one of them,” he said. “A sour beer is one where the pH has dropped below 3.5. As a result, you have a tart flavor – it’ll taste sour. It’s almost like lime juice or lemon juice. Maybe not that sour, but more like a tart orange juice.”

Aaron said there are a few popular sours customers always come back to.

“Blackberry Jam is probably our biggest seller,” he said. “Strawberry Rhubarb and Framboise Raspberry also sell well. We make so many, sometimes it’s hard to remember.”
Crescent Ballroom
It’s not all about beer and food at Stubborn Brothers – it’s also a place for entertainment.

“We have a beautiful, original ballroom from 1914 on our second floor,” Aaron said. “It’s utterly gorgeous. We had no idea any of that stuff was here when we bought the building. We started gutting the second floor thinking we’d turn it into a storage area.”
Aaron said he and his brother’s thoughts immediately changed.

“We realized there were no load-bearing walls,” he said. “This was an original space, and the historical society confirmed that. We also found an original ticket from 1914 you can see on our Facebook page. We’ve hosted about 50 or 60 weddings thus far – it’s been fun, and we’re lucky to have the extra space. It’s great for a small town to have a central location where they can have high-end parties.”

Stubborn Brothers is open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday and 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday.

The brewery is closed Monday and Tuesday.

For more information, visit

share arrow printer bookmark flag