OK, here’s the plan. You want to support local breweries – like you’re doing with restaurants, cultural organizations and other local businesses facing viral catastrophe.
But there’s only so much you can do. You need to triage your support. This is that: a bird’s-eye view of how to get the most business-sustaining bang for your buck. I don’t know if the breweries that follow are going to fail, but I think they’re obviously more at risk than the Lakefronts and Third Spaces and MKEs.
Some breweries are built big. They’re built to sell kegs (zap, gone) and six-packs to grocery stores (still open, and not closing), liquor stores (open, for now at least) and gas stations (open and probably not closing). Those breweries are … well, maybe they’re not going to be OK, but they’re at least best-positioned to weather a storm like this.
Some breweries are built small. The business model is selling beer right to the customer over their own bar. That livelihood is gone now, and for how long nobody really knows.
It’s entirely possible that small breweries – perhaps already most vulnerable to a slow month or a busted pipe or a tangle with the city – simply will not be able to wait out four to six weeks of zero receipts. The word “coronavirus” will be in many, many brewery obituaries written this year.
Still, there are a couple possible outlets that these small breweries have remaining. Some breweries small and large-ish are still selling to-go beer. I’m not going to list them here because the situation seems so tenuous that the info could be outdated within hours of this being published. Check your favorite brewery’s website or social media to see if they’re selling to-go beer. That’s the most direct way to support a brewery right now.
But some of these small breweries also package small amounts of their beer for sale in local bottle shops. For most of these breweries, short canning runs or hand-bottled beer is more icing than business-sustaining cake. But right now, they might be the only sales they’ve got.
Where can you get these beers? Think Ray’s Wine and Spirits in Wauwatosa, Discount Liquor on Oklahoma and in downtown Waukesha, the various Otto’s locations, Downer Wine and Spirits. I would not delay in this endeavor; it certainly seems possible, if not likely, that nonessential businesses could be closed soon. Beer would still be purchasable from grocery stores in that situation, but even in Wisconsin, it’s tough to make a case that liquor stores are life-sustaining.
OK, without further adieu, five locally made-beers from really small Milwaukee breweries that you can find in bottle shops. TODAY.
Black Husky Vain
The Northwoods theme of the taproom, where dogs skittered about in better days, is not remotely a put-on. Black Husky moved to Riverwest from the middle of nowhere near Pembine in 2017 so owners Tim and Toni Eichinger could be closer to their son’s young family and most of their beer customers.
Nearly all of Tim’s beers are big and brassy, and Vain – introduced after Black Husky’s arrival in MKE – fits that mold. Billed as a pale ale despite its decidedly IPA-like 7.2% ABV, Vain is a beautiful conveyance of the Citra hop – an orangey citrus character with a touch of pine evoking the brewery’s birthplace and a firm malt backbone that makes you think, hmm, maybe that actually is a pale ale.
Explorium Carver’s Peanut Butter Stout
Soon – hopefully – The Explorium Brewpub will no longer be known as the brewery in the mall. MilMag broke the news just last week (it feels like last month) that owner Mike Doble is planning a second location in the Pritzlaff Building on the edge of the Third Ward. (Mike’s was the last hand I shook before I got serious about social distancing.)
The Explorium has been doing limited canning and bottling runs of its beers for a while, most prominently its New England IPA, Lost in the Sauce. But my favorite genre of beers from Explorium is its big stouts, including this peanut butter-inflected creation. It’s loaded with the Reese’s cup formula: peanuts, cocoa nibs and lactose, but the key is that the big (9.5% ABV) base stout is bitter enough to balance all that sweetness.
Gathering Place Treffpunkt
There’s something about Riverwest’s Gathering Place that just makes me feel at home. Is it the dramatic rib-like entryway? The community focus? The owner, Joe Yeado, a former policy wonk? The brewer, Corey Blodgett, a well-traveled industry vet who goes by the handle @confucianbrewer on Twitter and is every bit as interesting to talk to as that sounds?
Oh, or the beer? Treffpunkt is the brewery’s cosmic center, a delightful beer I would call a kölsch and Corey would insist on calling a kölsch-style ale because true kölsch can only be brewed in Cologne (Köln), Germany. This is the beer – and probably the conversation with Corey, honestly – that turned me around on kölsch. It’s exquisite: delicate and nuanced in its interplay of gently spicy, herbal noble hops and a gently fruity malt sweetness. And in the true kölsch tradition, each glass empties oh so easily into the next.
You have to feel for a brewery that’s just hitting its stride as all this hits. Computer guys and homebrewers Chad Ostram and Eric Zunke bought the former Sweet Mullets Brewing space (RIP, best name in Wisconsin beer) in Oconomowoc in 2018. Last year they began sending cans of a few of their beers to MKE bottle shops.
My favorite Brewfinity beer is actually a holdover from the Sweet Mullets days: Jorge Jalapeno Lager. Chili beers are extremely difficult to do well, and this beer expertly captures the kinda fruity, kinda vegetal essence of the jalapeno without the heat that sinks so many of its brethren. It’s a beer that sounds very “whoa, no” but drinks a full “oh yeah.”
Company Poor Farm Pils
Company’s Riverwest brewpub is very many things to very many people, but to me, it’ll always be the place I saw Aaron Rodgers throw probably the best pass I’ve ever seen, a toe-tapping, third-and-forever completion to Jared Cook to set up a playoff-game-winning field goal against the Cowboys in 2017.
I was paying closer attention to the game than the beer, but I’m pretty sure I had a Poor Farm that night. And I’m pretty sure that beer was not as good as the current version of Poor Farm that’s been showing up in bottle shops for a while now. A good pilsner is a study in balance, simplicity and refreshment, a reminder why the style became the model, however adulterated, of the world’s most popular beers. And Poor Farm is a fantastic modern pilsner: crisp and interesting if you want to study it but eminently drinkable if you just want to watch the game. Not that there are any games now, but… Hmm.