Getting a Handle on Tap Beer

Photo courtesy of AJS Tap Handles

Photo courtesy of AJS Tap Handles

As the nation’s largest producer of its kind, AJS Tap Handles is taking America’s bars by storm

Words by Sarah Mattes

America is in the middle of a beer tsunami. According to the Brewers Association, a trade group for craft brewers, there were 4,225 breweries in the U.S. at the end of 2015. In 2010, there were just 1,995. That’s a 212 percent increase in just five years.

And while that’s great for hop heads around the country, it’s really good news for AJS Tap Handles. See, every one of those breweries wants custom beer tap handles for each of its favorite beers. And as one of the largest beer tap handle producers in the country, AJS, located in Random Lake, Wisconsin, just 45 minutes north of Milwaukee, is more than happy to make them. Want a custom painted tap that features a growling dragon? They can do it. A classy string of wood uniform handles for each of your signature styles? They’ve been doing that since 1987. A hand-carved panda dressed as a motorcycle cop? That’s absolutely ridiculous, but also totally doable.

We chatted with General Manager Mark Steinhardt about the company, growth in the beer industry and how beer tap handles went from simple logos to works of art.

Urban Plains: How many handles do you sell each year?

Mark Steinhardt: I’m guessing we’re probably producing a half a million a year.

UP: A lot of those are really intricate, crafty handles. Where does the creativity come from?

MS: Well, the breweries are all looking for a little bit of an edge. Certainly I’m biased, but one of the first things I do when I walk into an establishment is look at the tap handles. It’s kind of a marquee for what they have on tap. So being that that’s what bar patrons first look at, (a good tap handle) is going to help sell the beer. We like to say that the tap handle will help sell the first beer; the beer has to sell the second one.

UP: What are a few of the most unique handles AJS has crafted?

MS: Well, we’ve done some illuminated handles over the years, where the handle lights up with LEDs—those tend to be pretty unique. We’ve done handles for a brewery here in Wisconsin, Stevens Point Brewery—a caricature that’s kind of a unique and fun handle. We do one right now for a brewery out of Texas, Revolver Brewing, so it’s an actual pistol. We’ve done so many that are unique. Every customer looks for something to stand out.

UP: Were tap handles always this elaborate?

MS: I think, you know, 30 years ago they were a little more understated, but the growth of the craft beer industry, some of the craft breweries want tap handles that are a little more whimsical than what the big guys might want to be. The big guys may want something that’s a little more iconic and not as off-the-wall, but a lot of the craft breweries are looking to stand out. They all have a different, unique story behind their brewery, behind their name, behind their beers. Subsequently, that translates to the design of their handles. So tap handles definitely have changed, evolved and gotten whimsical over the years.

UP: You have been coined America’s “largest tap handle manufacturer.” How does a business grow to that level?

MS: Well, we’ve been around a long time. I can’t say this off the top of my head with 100 percent correctness, but I believe if we’re not the oldest existing tap handle manufacturer, we’re one of the oldest. So that’s part of it. We do have competition that sell a lot of tap handles, but they produce everything offshore. We believe that here in the U.S. we are the largest tap handle manufacturer that produces domestically.

UP: Do you manufacture in Wisconsin or does that step take place somewhere else?

MS: Probably 80 to 85 percent of our sales we manufacture here at our plant in Wisconsin, [but] we do have an offshore facility that’s owned by our company. There’s handles, if it requires a lot of labor for hand-painting, maybe a cast handle that’s a figural handle, if it takes a half hour to an hour to hand-paint each individual handle, we won’t be competitive doing it here in Wisconsin.

UP: Does the majority of your business come from large or small breweries?

MS: We see a good share of our business from the large breweries, you know. We serve Miller, and Coors. We produce handles for Anheuser Busch. Then the boom in the craft beer industry definitely has fueled some of our growth. We’ve just completed an addition to our building because of the growth of the craft beer industry.

UP: is your Midwest location a disadvantage or an advantage when it comes to business?

MS: Well, it’s an advantage in that we’re kind of centrally located as far as being a shipping point; we can serve the Midwest or either coast. There’s obviously a lot of beer culture in Wisconsin and the Midwest, so that’s a good thing for us. So I would say that it’s an advantage.

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