Dairy to doppelbock: Thiry brews the beer and makes the tanks

Jeff Bollier

PULASKI - Ed Thiry is showing Ullmer’s Dairy Equipment that one man’s bulk milk tank is another man’s mash tun.

Ullmer’s was founded just outside Pulaski in 1991 with a focus on fabricating equipment for the dairy and cheese industries in the state. The company’s custom fabrication skills and yard full of used and new equipment attracted Thiry’s attention when he co-founded Thumb Knuckle Brewing Co. in Walhain last year.

“We found Ullmer’s online when we went looking for Thumb Kunckle’s brew tanks,” Thiry said. “We saw the dairy equipment and the tanks everywhere and thought this was a great way to go. It meets the standards for food and beverages (production) and at a lot better price than most brewery equipment.”

Kyle Renel welds a joint on a piece of former dairy-making equipment that is being converted to brewing equipment at Ullmer’s Dairy Equipment in Pulaski.

At the time, Thiry cracked a joke with owner Paul Ullmer about being put to work at Ullmer's. Before long, he was commuting across Brown County, helping the diary equipment company move into a new market as Ullmer’s new engineer and brewery sales representative.

Thiry, an engineer as well as a brewmaster, guided the company in the conversion of heat exchangers into mash cooling systems and finishing tables into open fermenters called coolships.  

“We always knew there was a market, but (brewers) couldn’t get what they needed across to me and I didn’t know enough to bridge the gap," Ullmer said. "Eddy’s helped us out so much because he’s bridged that gap.”

Ed Thiry, co-owner of Thumbknuckle Brewing and engineer and brewery sales representative at Ullmer’s Dairy Equipment in Pulaski, stands next to a used 6,000-gallon dairy holding tank. Ullmer’s has started to convert used dairy tanks and other equipment into brewing equipment.

Ullmer bought the 26-year-old business from his father, Francis, four years ago and said it’s not just breweries that have contacted Ullmer’s. Distilleries, coffee brewers, maple syrup refineries, a cherry processor and brewers of kombucha, a sweetened fermented tea have all contacted the shop about equipment or custom work.

He said dairy equipment is still the dominant revenue generator, but craft brewery equipment sales have probably doubled as the company’s staff of 25 gained experience with different industries’ needs.

“I think it’s only going to grow as we get known more in the brewery industry,” Ullmer said. “We brought in some really good people in the last two years. You can sell anything, but you still have to produce it. The staff has been able to hold up their end of the bargain. I can’t say enough about the whole crew. They’re contributing to the success we’ve been having.”

"I think these guys are the de facto place to go in the Midwest," said Grant Pauly, brewmaster at 3 Sheeps Brewing in Sheboygan.

Wisconsin craft breweries actually have a history of drawing on their beverage brethren in the dairy industry. O’so Brewing Co., in Plover, uses repurposed dairy equipment and Lakefront Brewery, in Milwaukee, used repurposed dairy tanks when it began commercial brewing in the Riverwest neighborhood in 1987.

Grant Pauly, brewmaster at 3 Sheeps Brewing in Sheboygan, said Ullmer's is quick, convenient and cost-effective compared to buying new equipment. Pauly bought his first piece from Ullmer's almost four years ago. When 3 Sheeps started cold brewing coffee and working with Collectivo Coffee on a nitro coffee, it was brewed in horizontal dairy tanks from Ullmer's. He's expecting another piece of equipment to be delivered next week. 

Pauly said having an affordable equipment manufacturer near Sheboygan gives 3 Sheeps the ability to brew small batches of experimental beers without disrupting production of its staple beers. 

A rotor is shown inside a former dairy tank that has been converted to brewing equipment at Ullmer’s Dairy Equipment in Pulaski.

"Our normal processes keep going smoothly, but we can also have fun and experiment a little," Pauly said. "We're still not giving up any of our bread-and-butter beers but it is possible to have the best of both worlds." 

Tyler Falish, marketing director at Noble Roots Brewing Co., said the family-run brewery will likely use repurposed equipment as it grows.

“It’s definitely a good use of something that otherwise wouldn’t be put back to use,” Falish said. “If and when we look into expansion, we’ll definitely entertain the idea of using repurposed dairy equipment.”

Thiry is no amateur, either. He has two mechanical engineering degrees, one from Milwaukee School of Engineering, and a master of engineering degree from a university in Germany. He also spent 18 months as a brewmaster’s apprentice, installed wind farms and designed high-quality brewing equipment for a German designer during his time there.

“We are using optimized brewing and brewing equipment design principles that are used in the cutting-edge German-designed brewing equipment industry,” Thiry said. “We just use a combination of repurposed and new materials and equipment that takes these design principles into account while keeping costs down for our customers.”

Used dairy manufacturing equipment at Ullmer’s Dairy Equipment in Pulaski.

Thiry estimated that using repurposed dairy tanks can cut brewery equipment costs by as much as 20 percent compared to newly fabricated tanks and tuns.

“It’s a good way craft brewers can maybe expand their business and what they can offer a little bit more (quickly),” Thiry said.