Minocqua Brewing Company loses operating permit in zoning fight owner calls a political vendetta

Owner Kirk Bangstad donates brewery proceeds to a liberal super PAC he runs that has targeted Republicans

beer, tap, brewery, brewing, bar

A Northwoods brewpub known for marketing beers named after Democratic politicians had its ability to operate revoked Wednesday after a yearslong battle over local zoning rules.

Under the decision by an Oneida County zoning committee, Minocqua Brewing Company would be forced to close its doors. Owner Kirk Bangstad has vowed to appeal the decision and remain open as long as possible.

The dispute involved parking regulations and a contested plan by Bangstad to open an outdoor beer garden. But in social media posts and statements to news media, Bangstad has repeatedly claimed that he is being targeted by a conservative board because of his liberal political views. Bangstad briefly ran for Congress as a Democrat in 2015, and he ran for state Assembly in 2020.

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In addition to the brewpub, Bangstad operates the Minocqua Brewing Company Super PAC, which has purchased billboard ads attacking Republican politicians. Among the beers its website advertises are Evers Ale, named for Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, a Tammy Shandy for U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, as well as WOKE Coffee and Democratic-themed T-shirts.

Wednesday’s public meeting followed a chaotic hearing last week that officials ended early after committee members said Bangstad refused to confine his statement to the relevant issues. On Wednesday, a small group of protesters gathered outside the hearing, and a succession of Bangstad’s supporters read a lengthy statement ahead of the board’s decision describing what they called an unfair application of local rules.

Bangstad told the committee he had been the subject of a political vendetta and other local businesses were not subject to the same scrutiny as his.

“I’m arguing that the reasons being used to shut my business down today should be nullified, because these violations the county’s accusing me of are a direct result of a complete, and I feel malicious, breakdown of due process intended to hurt my business,” Bangstad said.

Committee chair Scott Holewinski said he believed Bangstad was provoking the action with plans to file a lawsuit.

“We have been fair to you,” Holewinski said. “There’s nothing political (between) me and you. … You keep (saying) we’re after you because you’re a liberal, because you’re a Democrat. You make this all up against us.”

Minocqua is a Northwoods tourism destination, and Bangstad said in a social media post that losing the ability to operate in August, one of the busiest months of the year, would be devastating to the business. On Tuesday, he filed a temporary restraining order against Oneida County in hopes of delaying the hearing. On Thursday morning, he sent an email to supporters and posted a statement on the business’s Facebook page calling the decision the “worst-case scenario.” In both messages, he asked for donations to his super PAC to “offset what I believe will be some very hefty legal fees.”

According to federal campaign finance data available at OpenSecrets.org, the Minocqua Brewing Company Super PAC raised more than $1 million and spent about $950,000 during the 2022 campaign cycle. The data do not include detailed information about its expenditures. A post on the super PAC’s website said it has spent donations on “billboards, radio ads, phone calls, and podcasts to shine a light on the lies that the Trump Cult are telling voters in Northern Wisconsin, our state, and the rest of the country.”

Bangstad’s activism has made him a target for conservative individuals and groups in the past. In 2021, he was the subject of a complaint by GOP party official Jordan Moskowitz to the Federal Elections Commission claiming that the donation of 5 percent of Minocqua Brewing Company’s profits to the super PAC and Bangstad’s decision to hang a large “Biden-Harris” banner on the building both constituted illegal campaign activity. In July 2022, the Commission voted unanimously to dismiss all charges in the complaint.

Bangstad was also behind a 2021 class action lawsuit that he said at the time would force Wisconsin schools to require students to wear masks as a public health measure. That lawsuit was dismissed without prejudice in March 2022 after a federal court found it lacked subject-matter jurisdiction over the issue.