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Fifth Ward Brewing Co. raises a glass to growing business

Founders credit its 50% business growth over the last year to its distribution agreements

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April 2, 2024

OSHKOSH — Nearly seven years after its inception in a college house basement, Fifth Ward Brewing Co. in Oshkosh is making a name for itself in the Wisconsin craft beer market.

The business — located at 1009 S. Main St. — saw a 50% growth from 2022-23, a jump its owners credit to distribution agreements that allow them to get their products into the hands of thirsty customers around the state.

The brewery was co-founded by Zach Clark and Ian Wenger — with financial assistance from Maurice “Mo” Berglund.

Clark said the first five years of business focused on perfecting beer recipes and self-distributing their product.

“It was hard, but it allowed us to get out and build our brand,” he said.

That brand, he said, includes a different philosophy from how other brewers approach the craft brew space.

The Brewers Association defines a craft brewer as a small and independent brewer.

According to the association, “overall U.S. beer volume sales were down 3% in 2022, while craft brewer volume sales remained on par with 2021, raising small and independent brewers’ share of the U.S. beer market by volume to 13.2%.”

It also states that retail dollar sales of craft beer account for 24.6% of the $115 billion U.S. beer market, primarily due to price increases and the continued shift back in beer volume to bars and restaurants from packaged sales.

“We came into it with a new mindset,” Clark said, pointing out that many brewers offer a handful of beers, often focused on seasonality. “We came in and said we’re not going to make the same thing twice, ever.”

Clark said Fifth Ward offers craft beers that range from pale ales to stouts.

In 2023, Fifth Ward produced 80 different beers. This year, Zach Clark said they are aiming for 40-50 offerings. Photo Courtesy of Fifth Ward Brewing Co.

Its hazy IPA is offered year-round, as well as a variety of seasonal releases.

In 2023, Fifth Ward produced 80 different beers.

This year, Clark said they are aiming for a more reasonable 40-50 offerings.

“As we were writing our business plan, we had a vision of where we thought the craft beer industry was going to go,” he said. “Everybody thought we were crazy. But the rotation keeps the customer interested in what’s next, what’s new. Everyone wants the new stuff.”

Clark said they will occasionally revisit specific brews when popularity demands — for example, the brewery’s Buffalo Plaid, a rye scotch ale made with Wisconsin maple syrup, is a constant each fall.

“We make it every year,” he said. “People would riot if we didn’t make it.”

To keep up with demand, Clark said Fifth Ward was able to invest in a $350,000 expansion in summer of 2022, which allowed them to take on bigger commitments — which included signing with Triangle Distribution in November 2022 to represent them in Manitowoc, Kewaunee, Shawano, Brown, Door, Oconto and Marinette counties.

Then, in February 2023, Clark said Fifth Ward signed with Lee Beverage of Wisconsin, who took over their local accounts and was able to expand the brewery’s reach to central, northern and western Wisconsin counties.

“They have territory and warehouses around the state, which helped us saturate markets,” he said.

Homebrew beginnings
Clark and Wenger met as students while attending the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, both working part-time at a local eatery known for its tap beer selections.

Clark said they decided to try brewing themselves — using $10,000 he had saved to buy the equipment needed to get started.
Over time, he said they honed their skills one half barrel at a time.

At the time, the brewing duo called it the Fifth Ward Brewing Project, named for the location of their home near campus, and an homage to the original Fifth Ward Brewing Co., which was in operation in the mid-1800s.

“All the guys who worked at the Paine Lumber Company would go to the Fifth Ward Brewing Company, and it was a block away from my college house,” Clark said.

Clark and Wenger are still both involved in the brewing aspect of the job — which they both said is still a favorite part of the daily to-do list.

Clark said he also focuses on accounting and business management, while Wenger focuses on the creative side, including naming beer and designing labels, among other tasks, even teaching himself how to use Adobe Illustrator.

“Sometimes, I’ll find things I want to use for labels like pictures or patterns or I reference different things in pop culture,” Wenger said. “I like to have fun and not take it too seriously.”

For example, he said, an amber ale called Nordheim is named after an old “rough and tumble” neighborhood on the north side of Oshkosh.

While the 842 Pale Ale refers to the address of their college house.

And Groot Beer was named after Groot, the winner of the NEW Top Dog fall 2022 contest.

A look ahead
As for the future, the pair said business growth is definitely on their minds.

In recent months, Clark said they’ve focused more on events in the taproom, including trivia and game nights, meat raffles and other special activities, as well as collaborating with other like-minded local businesses.

Fifth Ward is again participating with three other breweries to collaboratively craft an IPA for Oshkosh Craft Beer Week which runs through April 14.

To keep up with demand, Fifth Ward underwent a $350,000 expansion in summer of 2022, which allowed them to take on bigger commitments. Photo Courtesy of Fifth Ward Brewing Co.

Wenger said he appreciates how far they’ve come from their humble, college basement beginnings.

From working 90 hours a week for the first three years without a vacation, to now employing 15 people and seeing success, he said, is gratifying.

“Watching it grow and building the business from where it started to where it is now is cool,” he said. “The customers are great, and we’ve built a good team, and I do feel like we’re doing something good for Oshkosh as well.”

Clark said when he looks back at what he thought he knew then, compared to what he knows now, “it blows my mind.”

“As an entrepreneur, you always want to be farther ahead than where you are, but for the most part, we’re on schedule as far as our growth, so I feel good,” he said. “I’ve learned a lot and grown a lot.”

For more on Fifth Ward Brewing Co., visit

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