Pils-grimage: Meet Your Wisconsin Brewers

I roll into Ashland, Wisconsin just around quitting time and head straight to Deep Water Grille just a block off the highway, a stone’s throw from Lake Superior. The restaurant is also home to South Shore Brewery and at the end of the bar, having one of his own ales before heading home, is Bo Belanger, the brewmaster.

I join him for a pint and hear about what he’s got brewing. He’s busy, as always, and plans are underway to find a larger space to keep up with the demand. His Nut Brown Ale alone could keep him in business, he says. As his beer goes farther afield via distributors, ironically his ingredients are becoming more local. “All of the base malt used in South Shore’s beers is grown right here in the Chequamegon Bay / Bayfield Peninsula area,” he says, sipping a cold one. “Essentially we’re paying the farmer to grow his own feed. I just borrow it for a moment for the sugars.”

I’m lucky to catch Belanger, but like many brewers, he will often take a few minutes to chat with his clientele perhaps about the nitty gritty of brewing beer or maybe about the game that’s on at the bar. A visit to a brewery – what I like to call a pils-grimage – can be an enlightening experience, especially in the case of a small-town affair. And though a pils-grimage can be made in any season, summer just seems the most appropriate. So pack your growler (a refillable half-gallon glass jug, available at most brewpubs), a cooler, and maybe a tent and sleeping bag: It’s road trip time and the destination is Wisconsin beer.

A Land of Breweries

Wisconsin’s brewing history goes back even before 1848 when it was granted statehood. Though the German heritage is strong here, the first commercial brewer was John Phillips, a Welshman who started keeping the local miners sated in Mineral Point in 1835. An influx of Germans came soon after, turning their newly settled farms into self-sufficient breweries. From the many arose the few big shots such as Miller, Pabst, and Schlitz which gradually grew to push out the smaller competitors. Then Prohibition left all breweries for dead or soda production (Pabst actually made cheese for a while). After the dry days turned wet again, the competition was resumed. A few brewing giants swallowed up many of the small-town breweries until by about the mid-70s only those big boys remained: Schlitz, G. Heileman, Pabst, Miller and a few determined mid-sized places such as Leinenkugel, Point and Huber (now Minhas). Randy Sprecher, a victim of Pabst downsizing, struck out on his own to create Wisconsin’s first new original brewery in a very long time. What soon followed was a trickle of so-called microbreweries which led to what I consider today a statewide playground of brewers. I count 74. By the end of the year it will likely be 76 or 77.

Whether you are already in one corner or another of Wisconsin, or sneaking in for the weekend from over the border, Wisconsin’s got a brewery near you. Come up from Iowa and visit the Potosi Brewery along the Mississippi River. The original brewery for tiny-town Potosi opened in 1852 but closed its doors in 1972. A massive local effort and fundraising restored the old brick building, put in a nice restaurant and started up the brewing once again. Additionally, the National Brewery Museum, with several rooms full of classic antique brewer paraphernalia (known as breweriana) makes its home here as does a visitor center for the Great River Road.

Minnesota’s tap lines to Wisconsin include Potosi but coming in from Duluth, the first brewpub is right across the bridge in Superior: The Thirsty Pagan. Located in an old creamery, the Pagan hosts live music and serves its own pizza and more. Fill up a growler here and go have a picnic at one of the nearby Amnicon or Pattison State Parks where waterfalls tumble on toward Lake Superior. La Crosse still has the world’s largest six-pack over at City Brewery (once upon a time, the super-sized G. Heileman Brewery) as well as Pearl Street Brewery with its cool tasting room for sipping after a Saturday brewery tour (or also just for drinking during most weekday afternoons).

The bar at Titletown and someone who must spend a lot of time sitting at it.

Upper Peninsula Michigan is just over the border from Rail House in Marinette, a brewpub by the tracks with 11 of their own brews on tap. The antique wood back bar comes all the way from Bavaria. Drive a bit farther south to Green Bay and check out dueling brewpubs, Titletown and Hinterland right across Dousman Road from each other near the Fox River. Better spend a couple days between these two.

And Wisconsin’s neighbors to the south have the biggest selection. Milwaukee’s suds community continues to grow with 10 breweries, the most recent being Horny Goat Hideaway, and the Madison area’s 8 breweries (or more, depending where you draw the line) most recently include Vintage Brewing which filled the empty spot created by the demise of J.T. Whitney’s. Hey Chicago, watch for September’s two-day Great Lakes Brew Fest just up the highway in Racine.

The Heart of Brew Country

Brewery tours aren’t just for the adults. Kids like to see how things are made too, and many of the brewers make their own root beer or sodas. A good brewpub is often as much a family restaurant as any other eatery.

Blue Heron Brewpub in Marshfield

The wood-fired pizza at Red Eye Brewing in Wausau says “family” while the taps of superb brews by Kevin Eichelberger say “craft beer heaven.” Afterwards stop in at Bull Falls Brewery to find out how Red Bull went after them about their name similarity. To get the hat-trick, dine and drink at the latest incarnation of the inveterate Great Dane Pub and Restaurant right off the interstate.

While you can find Spotted Cow just about everywhere in Wisconsin now, there’s no substitute for stopping in at New Glarus Brewery’s recently opened expansion overlooking the little Swiss-themed town. Purchase some beer before you leave Wisconsin because distribution stops at the state line.

Corner Pub in Reedsburg makes a great refreshment stop for bikers on the “400” Trail. The food’s good and a pint of brewer Pete Peterson’s smoked porter shouldn’t be missed.

German heritage isn’t just a holdover from the 19th century. Robert Wilbur apprenticed in Bavaria before immigrating and settling down with his Wisconsin-born wife. Today he owns a Bavarian-style beer hall in Menomonie just steps from a campus of the University of Wisconsin called… Stout. You can’t make that stuff up.

If Beer’s What Floats Your Boat

Turn your road trip into a boat trip. In Madison, head out on Lakes Mendota and Monona for public and private boat tours all summer and into October with Betty Lou Cruises. On Thursday nights Middleton’s Capital Brewery joins local pizzeria Ian’s on board a Lake Monona cruise for an all you can eat and drink excursion. On Friday evenings you can sail Lake Mendota with some live music and again some Capital beer. Call 608-246-3138 or go to www.bettyloucruises.com

On weekends, the Brew City Queen II tours the Milwaukee River stopping at three breweries along the way. Lakefront Brewery, Rock Bottom, and the Milwaukee Ale House provide tastings and tours and the cruise offers a bit of sightseeing and history in between. Call 414-283-9999 for more information or go to cafevecchio.com
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Want to know where all the beer is? Consider Wisconsin’s Best Beer Guide (formerly The Wisconsin Beer Guide: A Travel Companion), a traveler’s manual to all of the brewers in Wisconsin which includes offers for a whole variety of freebies (yes, often free beer!), listings with directions to the brewpubs and breweries, nearby must-see attractions, a calendar of festivals and more.