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Local brewery wins national championship and creates windfall for local charities

Sawmill Brewery and Hop Passport staff show off the National Championship trophies

The humane society erupted in woofs and meows as Hop Passport announced the recipient of their March Brewsanity charity contest.

MERRILL, WI – Fans of Sawmill Brewing Company gathered at the brewery on April 27th to celebrate winning Hop Passport’s 1st Annual March Brewsanity contest.

“You’ve got the amazing bonfire, live music, everyone’s in shorts and t-shirts and we’re out here enjoying this weather,” Matt Love, founder of Hop Passport, said.

Matt Love, founder of Hop Passport, speaking at the event | Photo by Erik Pfantz

March Brewsanity is a March-Madness style bracket contest which pitted breweries across the state of Wisconsin and across the nation against each other in an online popularity contest.

Hop Passport advertises for craft “breweries, distilleries, meaderies, and cideries” across 30 states, according to their website.

“My money was on Minnesota,” Love said. “Minnesota is our most popular book that we sell. Wisconsin is like our third or fourth most popular.”

Merrill’s Sawmill Brewing Company overcame twelve matchups against breweries across the country including Jacob Leinenkugel’s Brewing Company, Copper State Brewing Co. and, ultimately, Common John Brewing Co. of Tennessee in the Championship round.

Local charities benefit from event

As part of the contest winnings, Hop Passport donated $1000 towards a charity of the brewery’s choice. Another online poll selected the Lincoln County Humane Society to receive the donation.

“Almost every penny goes for basics: food, shelter and medical attention for the animals,” Diane Brunelle said, a volunteer at the animal shelter. “They are all in different shapes when they come in and we never really know what to expect.”

Lincoln County Humane Society primarily serves animals found in Lincoln County but they may find themselves here from anywhere. “We had a dog tied up to the door the other morning. We don’t know what the story is but we’ll take what’s ever there,” Brunelle said.

Sawmill Brewery's outdoor seating area during the event
Sawmill Brewery’s outdoor seating area during the event | Photo by Erik Pfantz

The brewery matched Hop Passport’s $1000 and also raised over $800 during Saturday’s event and split the total between the charities not chosen in the online poll, which included NAMI Northwoods, Food For Kids Merrill, Ice Age Trail Alliance, HAVEN, Inc. and Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northcentral Wisconsin.

“I think it’s great that people are donating to your local charities,” Carrie Samson said. She and her husband, John, were visiting from the Appleton area. “NAMI was our choice. Anytime there’s mental health stuff we vote for that,” she said.

Community-building through unique craft breweries

Carrie and John are self-described craft beer fans and two-time winners of Hop Passport’s Amazing Brewery Race. Their second win came earlier this year after visiting 99 participating Wisconsin breweries in 50 days and sharing photos to their public Instagram page, @barleystillhoppin.

“We literally will come here out of our way,” Carrie said. “We voted [for Sawmill] over Appleton breweries that are local to us because we love Sawmill that much.” Carrie also shared that A Walk in the Woods is her favorite beer.

“What really appeals to me is a lot of breweries set up in older buildings, like a bank building or a school building, some old farms,” John said. “Most of the breweries started out in a college dorm or dad’s garage.”

Love also mentioned the uniqueness of Sawmill Brewing Company’s building, “I’ve been to over 600 breweries and this is the most unique building. I bet this building weighs more than any building I’ve ever been to at this size. I mean it’s pure granite.”

Hop Passport’s modified ambulance was parked near the event tent | Photo by Erik Pfantz

Sawmill Brewing Company has established itself a fixture for events in the Merrill community.

“Breweries do that,” Love said. “They create community and they do that by events. And look at this: there’s a big tent out here. There’s about to be live music. There was a celebration today but you look on their calendar there’s almost an event every single day here at Sawmill.”

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