- Associated Press - Saturday, June 25, 2016

RANDOM LAKE, Wis. (AP) - Near the southern border of Sheboygan County, a small but fast-growing manufacturing shop now stands as the epicenter for what’s become one of the beer industry’s more creative marketing tools - the tap handle.

Over the past decade, AJS and Associates has been rolling out increasingly elaborate tap handles as brewers seek new ways to stand out in an increasingly crowded marketplace.

The Sheboygan Press (https://shebpr.es/28MFgWp ) reports that the plant now manufactures upwards of a half-million custom-made tap handles a year.

“Everyone is looking for something unique, something more eye-popping,” said Mark Steinhardt, the company’s general manager. “There’s that much more competition for them in the bar, so they definitely want to stand out.”

The privately held company, which is owned by Reedsburg-based Hankscraft, recently began construction on a 16,500-square-foot expansion in Random Lake, where it was founded in 1987 and now employs about 45 people.

Steinhardt said the expansion comes as they’ve essentially run out of space for what remains a labor-intensive process involving a woodworking shop, plastic molding equipment and painting stations.

The company’s customer list now encompasses some of the biggest players in the brewing industry, including national brands such as MillerCoors, Boston Brewing Co., Lagunitas and Ballast Point, and regional ones, such as New Glarus and 3 Sheeps.

The tap handles are sold directly to brewers, who then sell the handles to distributors along with kegs of beer.

“We always like to say the tap handle can sell the first beer. Of course, the beer itself needs to sell the second one,” Steinhardt said.

Most of the handles are designed in-house and crafted out of hard maple using saws, planers, sanders, routers and lathes. The company also makes handles using acrylics, metals and polyurethane that’s hand-poured into silicone molds.

From the design stage to a finished product can take weeks or months, depending on the complexity. About 85 percent of their products are made in Random Lake, with the most labor-intensive produced in China.

Steinhardt said the process has seen little automation because of the custom nature and artistry in what they do, combined with their small production runs.

“It’s a cross between manufacturing and art,” Steinhardt said. “We get designs that are really out in left field, and we have to scratch our heads and figure out how to make it manufacture-able and cost-effective.”

The business has seen rapid growth as the number of brewers has doubled in the U.S. in the past five years. At bars, what was once a handful of draft beers has exploded into dozens and in some cases hundreds.

“You used to go into a bar and they’d have three, maybe four tap handles,” Steinhardt said. “Now, it’s this big thing, with all kinds of variety and turnover of that variety.”

Steinhardt said what used to be the big two - what was then Miller Brewing Co. and Anheuser Busch - once accounted for about three quarter of their business. Today, tap handles sales are split evenly between big brewers and the still-growing craft market.

Of course, none of it has caught him by surprise.

“I’ve been pleased by it, maybe not so much surprised,” he said. “It’s definitely helped our business.”

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Information from: Sheboygan Press Media, https://www.sheboygan-press.com

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