Music major to microbrewery owner
Wednesday, August 26, 2020
Craig Wensell graduated from Oklahoma State in 1998 with a music performance degree before embarking on a journey that included a master’s in music performance, teaching at both the high school and collegiate level, and a tour with the Army in Afghanistan. Upon returning from Afghanistan, Wensell decided to go into home-brewing and has since started two successful businesses.
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“Hard work is something that is inherent in the college experience. You need to be able to get up and do things, even when you don’t want to,” he said.
Wensell’s love of music started at a young age and he decided to pursue a career playing the double bass. He had a full ride to OSU for music performance and even got a full ride to Florida State University for his master’s. He has performed with various music groups including the Delaware Symphony, the Tulsa Philharmonic and the Argentine National Symphony, and even performed at Carnegie Hall.
“I’m a huge fan of world music. I had an opportunity to record with the Argentine National Symphony doing the music of Astor Piazzolla. That was one of the most rewarding recording sessions that I have done,” he said.
While still a junior at OSU, Wensell got his first teaching job at Stillwater High School, where he taught orchestra. He managed to get his teaching certificate while still attending school and playing for the Tulsa Philharmonic. He taught in Stillwater for a few years before pursuing his master’s at Florida State. He ended up teaching at both Florida State and Columbia State University where he taught everything from composition and arranging to pedagogy.
“What I tell people is that if you are focused on the subject you are learning in school, you are doing it wrong. What you really trying to do is learn how to teach yourself. You should know not just how to study it, but how to do research and how to develop critical opinions.”
Teaching had fallen into Wensell’s lap, but it was not something that he wanted to do forever. So, he decided to enlist in the Army National Guard. First, he became a licensed aircraft mechanic before serving a two-year tour in Afghanistan.
“It was the best worst job ever,” he said. “I got great experience. I got to see most of western Russia and eastern Europe.”
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Upon returning to the United States, Wensell continued to work on Blackhawk helicopters with the Delaware National Guard but he wanted to do something else. For Wensell, that meant being his own boss and starting his own company, Bellefonte Brewing Company.
“It started out as an unhealthy coping mechanism to deal with PTSD. I’d known how to homebrew for years and I was just trying to look at ways to make it cheaper and cheaper while staying at home. It was fun to make your own drinks to share with friends. Then I started running the numbers behind beer and trying to see how cheap I could make it. That’s where the beginning of the business started.”
Bellefonte Brewing Company was a whole supply business, which meant getting ingredients from wholesalers and then selling them to homebrewers.
“I had a crazy uncle who was also an OSU alum. He introduced the family to homebrewing back in the 80s when nobody did it. I thought it was the coolest thing ever,” he said.
Wensell then sold his company to start a second one, Wilmington Brew Works. This company was founded in 2017 and already has more than a few impressive accolades. This year Wilmington Brew Works won the fan-favorite championship belt at the annual Delaware Beer Drinker’s Choice awards. It was only the second year competing, but their Luau Punch was a hit.
“It is like Hawaiian Punch but with six percent alcohol and I don’t use red dye 40. Everybody went nuts for it and we ended up winning the competition.”
The competition occurred two weeks before the pandemic shut down the East Coast. Even with the closures, Wilmington Brew Works has continued to grow and make a name for itself. One of the biggest magazines in Delaware named them the state’s best microbrewery this year.
“It’s gratifying because we put a lot of time in here. It’s really rewarding for that effort to be recognized by people,” Wensell said.
Wensell’s journey has taken him far from OSU but he will always be a proud member of the Cowboy Family.
“The sports at Oklahoma State, the music at Oklahoma State, the general community there, that vibe was such an important part of the formation of who I am.”