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Chaos foams over in the Northwoods
Minocqua Brewing Company's progressive owner appeared in an Oneida County meeting that could have ended its business. Instead the meeting devolved into chaos and nothing was resolved
Before this thing is over, I’m going to run out of brewing puns. The foam has officially run over in Minocqua as a meeting around the brewery’s future devolved into chaos.
Minocqua Brewing Company, run by the bombastic progressive Kirk Bangstad, found itself in the fight of its life as the brewery faced violations of his administrative permit, which the county’s Planning and Development Committee was considering revoking.
It never got to that point, as the meeting devolved into a shouting match between Bangstad and the remaining committee members, who ultimately shut down the meeting as Bangstad attempted to continue his prepared speech (an already pared down version - he cut out the Biblical references he’d previously included).
For Bangstad, it means a temporary reprieve from the shutting down of Minocqua Brewing Company, which makes no bones about its progressive nature in a town balanced between largely conservative locals and Chicagoland tourists enjoying the vacation hot spot in the summer.
Bangstad says he’s being targeted for his progressive views. County officials point out that he’s been violating the terms of his permit, and one county official spent nearly 45 minutes listing each and every violation, on each and every specific date. Bangstad counters that other businesses didn’t receive the same attention, despite doing much of what he is accused of.
That’s on the backdrop of a history of conflict between Bangstad and county officials that goes back years.
Who is right? It’s complicated.
See our previous story about Minocqua Brewing Company here.
Bangstad, through Minocqua Brewing Company, is accused of three things:
Outdoor alcohol sales: These made up the bulk of his violations. Minocqua Brewing Company on dozens of occasions served alcohol to patrons outside, when those patrons were not supposed to drink outside the premise. Bangstad’s rebuttal: He was not allowed to have a biergarten because of parking issues, something he claims other similar businesses were allowed to have exemptions from. (It’s more complicated — more on that in a bit.)
Parking violations: MBC did not have the required parking spaces to hold outdoor events. At one point, Bangstad allegedly told county officials he was going to host a beer release party and they could go ahead and send him the fine he knew he’d be receiving. Bangstad’s rebuttal: A long and complicated Who’s on First routine that sent Bangstad going from government entity to government entity to obtain the approvals he needed.
Uncovered dumpster: County zoning apparently requires business’ dumpsters to be covered. MBC’s was not until recently. Volunteers built a “dumpster koozie” and decorated it to comply with the rule. Bangstad’s rebuttal: He says he counted 10 other nearby businesses whose dumpsters were not covered. That, he says, is part of the evidence that he’s being targeted for his political views.
Before getting into the meeting, it’s important to know the background of Minocqua Brewing Company. Bangstad had run for Congress against Sean Duffy on the Democratic Party ticket in 2015. Bangstad ultimately dropped out of the race after winning the primary.
Before that, Bangstad worked in Silicon Valley before and is a graduate of Harvard. He’s worked in tech, opera and worked as a speechwriter for former U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner. After his congressional campaign, Bangstad moved with his wife from New York City to Minocqua and bought Minocqua Brewing Company.
Bangstad clashed with area conservatives by openly displaying his liberal leanings. He clashed with the town around his large Biden sign during the 2020 presidential race, which county zoning officials said was larger than ordinances allowed. Minocqua Brewing Company ultimately closed its original location, with a beautiful dining room overlooking the lake that surrounds most of Minocqua. (It became Oakfire Pizzeria.) It then reopened in a smaller location across the street that once served as a bike shop.
There Bangstad racked up violations from the county’s zoning department while keeping an outdoor patio when he wasn’t licensed for off-premise serving (bars in Wausau routinely get in trouble if patrons take drinks outside the confines as it requires a separate permit).
Bangstad also started a SuperPAC called Minocqua Brewing Company SuperPAC in order to support progressive causes. Most recently Bangstad posted that his team of attorneys would be working on ending the state’s private voucher program, as the state’s supreme court is about to contain a liberal majority.
And beer names now bear the names of progressive politicians. Mandela Mash Malt (for lt. governor Mandela Barnes), Evers Ale which features a photo of Gov. Tony Evers in a facemask, and AOC IPA are some examples. He also features a line of coffee products bearing the moniker “Woke.”
His brewery has become a rally point for liberals, and a target for conservatives, who filed a complaint against his SuperPAC. (The Wausonian found some oddities in the SuperPAC’s reporting, and when asked questions received a volley of insults and instructions to investigate the Koch Brothers before he would grant any interviews.)
He is also being sued for defamation by the owner of the Lakeland Times, Minocqua’s newspaper, after Bangstad called him a crook and a misogynist.
Dozens gathered in the meeting room in Rhinelander, a little under 30 miles away from Minocqua, for the meeting. Another 100, some reporters, watched via Zoom. Following another controversial but less newsworthy issue around a proposed campground, a county official read off a list of Bangstad’s violations. The list was long and thorough, and highlighted every date on which patrons of Minocqua Brewing Company drank outside. It took roughly 45 minutes for the official to read all the violations, most of which were nearly identical. Those took place from summer of 2022 to the Monday before the meeting, July 25.
Bangstad started by questioning the legitimacy of the meeting, since two of the committee members were not present for it (though three did still meet quorum requirements) and that his lawyer was not able to enter the Zoom meeting. When told he was out of order, Bangstad responded “I’m already out of order. I’ve been out of order for two years!”
His attorney told the committee that he and his client, Bangstad, aimed to build a better relationship with the county and that they would be correcting the violations going forward.
Then came time for Bangstad’s testimony, which he began by briefly singing (Bangstad is a trained opera singer) before launching into a prepared speech. Bangstad, after repeating his agitation at some committee members not being present and explaining that nearly 400 people had emailed committee members and board members, aimed to tell the entire story from when he opened the brewery’s new location (within throwing distance from its previous location where the brewery also served food).
That’s when the chaos began. The person chairing the meeting stopped Bangstad, telling him he needed to stay on the specific topic of the violations. Bangstad continued, explaining that when he tried to get an outdoor permit, no one seemed to know who controlled the outside space, though eventually the town of Minocqua said they owned it. It later turned out, they did not, Bangstad says. The situation seemed to be a bureaucratic Who’s on First routine as one government entity pointed him to the next, and so on in a complete circle. But ultimately, he says, he worked with the town over the parking issue when it turned out the town had no jurisdiction in the first place.
That’s about as far as Bangstad got while the chair of the meeting spoke over him, directing him to stay on topic. Eventually the chair called a five minute break, which prompted Bangstad to say he didn’t beleive he would be physically let back into the meeting. More shouting ensued, with finally the chair shouting “this meeting is adjourned, this meeting is adjourned” before committee members vacated the room.
In a TV news clip after the meeting, Bangstad remarked “I just want to be treated fairly and not being able to speak to the public when there is a hearing to shut my business down I believe is not really fair.”
In nearly two decades of reporting, this reporter hasn’t seen a situation quite like that before.
On one hand, it is a committee chair’s prerogative to keep a speaker’s comments to the agenda item at hand. I’ve seen that enforced more or less stringently in various meetings. Typically, someone facing serious consequences is given a bit of leeway to say his piece.
That didn’t happen Wednesday. While Bangstad did wander into irrelevancy a bit (at one point he talked about how the building would soon be on the national registry of historic places, which really had nothing to do with the permit violations) it’s hard to argue his strange struggle with getting the parking exemptions he needed for an outdoor beer garden wasn’t relevant to a discussion about those same violations around parking and outdoor beer sales.
Added to the public perception that Bangstad was unfairly being targeted, it would have been wise to simply let Bangstad have his say, along with the others gathered. Instead, it helps foster the perception by many that the brewery isn’t getting a fair shake.
That said, while Bangstad is of course free to criticize the fact that two members weren’t present, only three of five members were needed for a quorum.
Bangstad claims he is being targeted because of his progressive views, which are not remotely hidden.
It’s hard to know for sure if he’s right, but the most likely explanation is that his antics tick off some people in town, who then are eager to point out any violations he makes to county officials. As one official said Wednesday, it’s a big county and we can only respond to the tips we receive. If you make yourself a polarizing figure, especially by espousing liberal views in a conservative place, that’s going to happen.
That’s still a little unclear. One official told a TV reporter after the meeting that there would be another meeting on Aug. 2. According to the current agenda, Bangstad is to appear before the same committee to request a conditional use permit for an outdoor beer garden and a rotating food truck. But the county could add the potential revocation to that meeting as well, as long as it meets requirements for notifications. (24 hours for posting the meeting in public, but there might be greater time requirements for notifying participants, including Bangstad.
The Wausonian reached out to the committee’s chair Scott Holewinski and Michael Timmons (who chaired the meeting Wednesday in Holewinski’s absence). But Karl Jennrich in the zoning department, who dealt with Bangstad since the Biden sign incident, said the item would be placed on the Aug. 2 agenda.
Watch it yourself
The audio quality is quite bad - Bangstad recorded a Facebook live on the brewery’s page that’s better but stops when he speaks himself. But here is the whole meeting if you want to see for yourself. (You might want to skip the campground bit, which is about 30 minutes.)