Pabst and Schlitz have left town. Blatz is just a small brand for Miller Brewing, the only big boy left. Yet Milwaukee still proudly calls itself “Beer City.” Few cities have more bars per capita: You can’t walk a couple of blocks anywhere without finding an inviting neon sign. Old drinking buddies like Get Get […]
Pabst and Schlitz have left town. Blatz is just a small brand for Miller Brewing, the only big boy left. Yet Milwaukee still proudly calls itself “Beer City.” Few cities have more bars per capita: You can’t walk a couple of blocks anywhere without finding an inviting neon sign. Old drinking buddies like Get Get Gettelman may be gone, but there are still breweries to tour, brewpubs to try, retail shops with great buys, microbrews to discover, and the $3 Pabst tallboy special at the Riverside and Pabst theaters (at that price, I’ll drink anything). So come with us on a sudsy tour of the real Beer City.
The Pub Crawl
Which bars offer the best variety of draft and bottled beer? I gathered an adventurous crew of eight (including designated driver) to search for local barley pop treasures.
What better way to start our tour than at the oldest tavern in Milwaukee, Landmark 1850 (5905 S. Howell Ave., 769-1850)? It was once a stagecoach stop, and the brick exterior, tin ceiling and predominantly wood interior (and lively crowd of South Siders) give it a rustic saloon vibe. You feel like bowing to the barroom shrine, a two-tiered tap system behind the long wooden bar that dispenses 36 different beers to throngs of bellied-up minions. In all, 48 tap beers are available (some are poured from smaller, less impressive tap banks). They include a large selection of domestic craft brews, and patrons get a stein if they try each one, an invitation to debauchery that would test anyone’s liver.
Romans’ Pub(3475 S. Kinnickinnic Ave., 481-3396) is the beer connoisseur’s neighborhood tap. A 4-foot-tall classic Gettelman beer sign hanging over a booth in the well-lit tavern greeted us, as did a pair of friendly fortysomething regulars hunkered down in front of several ornate tap handles at the short bar. They helped one of our novices pick a beer from 30 outstanding taps – rife with microbrews and hearty selections not intended for light beer drinkers. Crew member Tim proved the most courageous by ordering a Great Lakes Blackout Imperial Stout, a dark concoction that packs a 9 percent alcohol wallop. (Tim thus pulled ahead in the “likely to end the night first” category.)
The two-minute drive to Palm Tavern (2989 S. Kinnickinnic Ave., 744-0393) brought us to a place that is less corner bar and more lounge. The bar is virtually hidden in the first floor of a nondescript house, a small neon sign the only hint of what’s inside. The unassuming spot has more than 200 bottled beers. There are so many Belgian ales that Trappist monks are surely hiding in the cellar brewing the tasty concoctions. The tap selection was no slouch either, and as an added bonus, the friendly bartender allowed me to sample beer before I plunked down my hard-earned cash. I decided on Three Philosophers Belgian-Style Ale, a quadrupel brew served in a rounded glass made specifically for the beer (a practice also done at Romans’). We settled in at a pair of wooden tables surrounded by chairs and a wooden bench that hugged the wall, and tried to look laid back enough to blend in with the Bay View hipster regulars. “I want a Palm Tavern two blocks from home,” declared crew member Liza, a Shorewood resident. Who wouldn’t?
We left Bay View for Downtown and entered the Old German Beer Hall (1009 N. Old World Third St., 226-2728) with the subtlety of a marching band storming a library. Crew member Kara announced her arrival by yelling, “I love this bar!” and ringing a large decorative bell hanging on the wall. We were clearly heard over the din of conversation and likely over the polka band playing to scores of drinkers, who clinked glasses at large picnic tables (a la Munich) in the back room. I wanted to order the half-liter beer, but to preserve my manhood, I matched Kara’s choice of a one-liter heavy glass stein, opting for a festive Hofbrau Original. Kara defied the laws of physics by pouring two liters of Hofbrau Dunkel into her slim 5-foot-5 frame, and had to be escorted home. Germans 2, Kara 0.
We briefly mourned the loss of our friend, but continued (knowing that’s what she’d want us to do), staying with the German theme at Von Trier (2235 N. Farwell Ave., 272-1775). A good, not great, selection, but Hacker-Pschorr just tastes better when you’re surrounded by dark German décor, steins, and funky chandeliers made of antlers, in a bar whose mellow Bavarian ambience makes you forget you’re on the busy corner of North and Farwell. Our boisterous group, however, didn’t necessarily mesh with the intimacy of Von Trier (the scores of small tables here are a far place better to take a date than to find one).
Three remaining explorers managed a nightcap at Hooligan’s (2017 E. North Ave., 273-5230). The North Avenue staple had a crowd as eclectic as the rotating selection of more than two dozen taps. Young college types sat at Hooligan’s long bar next to grizzled drinking veterans, and I do mean grizzled. Hundreds of idle tap handles adorned the walls as proof of tap variety. But after a night filled with beer-tasting adventure, I chose an old standby. At the risk of losing credibility, I ordered a pint of good old High Life.
Logistics and rapidly fading coherence meant we couldn’t get to everywhere we planned. Other spots were visited later by smaller expeditions.
Benno’s Genuine Bar & Grill(7413 W. Greenfield Ave., 453-9094) gives citizens of ’Stallis 30 different taps of microbrew-heavy goodness and dozens of bottled beers. The menu says incredulously that Miller Lite is Benno’s top seller. But there’s comfort in knowing that locals at the popular hangout can always choose a Racer 5 IPA to give the taste buds a workout. Benno’s has a legendary fish fry, fried cheese curds on the menu, and bar stools for the everyman, along with a great beer selection.
Von Rothenburg Bier Stube (N116 W15841 Main St., Germantown, 262-250-0522) looks like a small chalet and has less than a dozen bar stools and just a few tables, but the cozy place boasts more than 200 bottled beers from around the globe. It does its part to promote the aspect of community by offering a two-liter glass boot or the scary five-liter stein of German tap beer. Germophobes be warned, the boot game (rules are written on the menu) will at one point involve a nasty mouthful of beer backwash.
Cafe Hollander (2608 N. Downer Ave., 963-6366) must be sharing the Trappist monks with Palm Tavern. The bottled selections and 20 or so beers on tap, served in brand-specific glassware, have a heavy Belgian influence. A spot for two in the back of the bar, dubbed the “penalty box” by members of my crew, is perfect for watching the crowd of well-heeled old and young East Side residents. It’s also far enough away from the crowd at the meandering bar to have an intimate conversation with your Kasteel Bruin
Belgian ale (but with 11 percent alcohol, don’t be surprised if it eventually talks back).
Best Stores for Beer
Murray’s Wine & Spirits(342 E. Silver Spring Dr.): In just two years, owner Chris Breyfogle has built quite a reputation. The 27-year-old beer aficionado collects new bottles as quickly as Paris Hilton collects bad publicity. His small store in Whitefish Bay stocks 780 beers, all of which can be purchased as a single. “I didn’t think it was going to get this out of control,” Breyfogle confesses.
His selection, knowledge and friendly nature earned his store the honor of 11th-Best Beer Retailer in the world by RateBeer.com, a Web site for beer enthusiasts. Breyfogle knows his suds and estimates he’s sampled 95 percent of his stock. That alone is worth commendation.
Ray’s Wine and Spirits (8930 W. North Ave.): The nice thing about Ray’s is its 300 or so singles are chilled. If you’re a fanatic and you can’t wait to try that St. Peter’s Golden Ale, you only have to wait until the parking lot to crack it open. Check Wauwatosa’s open intoxicant laws first, though.
Discount Liquor(5031 W. Oklahoma Ave. and 919 N. Barstow St., Waukesha): A long aisle of single beers at the Milwaukee branch provides a world tour of suds from 65 countries, ideal when craving a Taj Mahal Premium. If an import doesn’t do the trick, there has to be a microbrew you’ll like among a selection of more than 1,000. Really thirsty? Discount has more than 65 kegs.
Otto’s (Several locations, including Otto’s Wine Cask at 4600 W. Brown Deer Rd.): At the Brown Deer Road location, 400 choices include Sleeman Cream Ale – cheap, decent and Canadian. Customer service is outstanding and it’s not unusual to be told “nice choice” in the checkout line. Just don’t expect that kind of compliment when walking out with a case of Milwaukee’s Best.
Breeze-Thru Wine & Spirits(11108 W. Bluemound Rd.): Nondescript from the outside, but inside is a labyrinth of nearly 20 coolers randomly placed and filled with more than 700 beers, most of them singles. Home of the “Mix and Match,” whereby patrons can grab an empty six-pack box and fill it with as crazy a compilation of beer as they want.
Connoisseurs might sniff, but I like brewpubs, and have been there from the phenomenon’s beginning.
In the fall of 1988, while dropping me off as a freshman at Marquette, my father took me to Water Street Brewery (1101 N. Water St., 272-1195), when quiet Water Street included a couple of bars and vacant buildings. The 1990s Frat Boy Invasion hadn’t yet taken over the scene. Today, the street is anything but quiet, but Milwaukee’s brewpub pioneer is still here. Water Street offers a number of house beers, and this place remains a classic brewpub. (Water Street has a second brewpub in Delafield, at 3191 Golf Rd.)
I was skeptical of the Milwaukee Ale House (233 N. Water St., 226-BEER) when it opened in 1997. I thought that another brewpub just a few blocks from the original was unnecessary. Wrong. The Ale House’s massive cream city brick interior is an excellent place for live music, and the beers are worth trying. You’ve got to love a place that names a beer Louie’s Demise Ale, honoring “Uncle Louie,” killed in the late 1800s by a beer glass to the head.
Rock Bottom Restaurant and Brewery(740 N. Plankinton Ave., 276-3030) also joined the fray in 1997. The Colorado-based chain has a decent selection of beer, but the real star is the massive patio on the Milwaukee River. The outdoor spot in the heart of downtown is a popular destination when weather is warm.
Bohemia needs a brewpub too. Stonefly (735 E. Center St., 264-3630) opened as Onopa Brewing Company in 2001, and the large space in Riverwest features live music and some crazy wall art (check out the giant mouse trap). If you don’t care for one of Stonefly’s brews (highlighted in this nonexpert’s opinion by the Simon Bagley Stout), they also have a remarkable selection of cheap beers. Schlitz and Schaefer, anyone?
The cozy Silver Creek Brewing Company (N57 W6172 Portland Rd., Cedarburg, 262-375-4444) is perfect for the north ’burbs. The setting in the old Cedarburg Mill and the beer garden along Cedar Creek are almost too picturesque to be real, and they get even better with every Silver Creek Hefe Weiss you toss back.
During 12 of years of beertending at Miller Jazz Oasis, I witnessed everything from a pair of killer Widespread Panic concerts to the horror of ill-fitting tube tops to partial nudity I could have done without. And is there anywhere on earth where more beer gets drunk more quickly? Seen en masse, Summerfest beer drinkers can be counted on to do the same things over and over.
•Ask for a freebie. Yep, about 25 times a night. Nope, they never get one.
• Complain about the price of the beer. Then buy it anyway.
• Ask, heh heh, for a Budweiser. That was sort of funny the first time I heard it. Sorry, there’s no rice beer at Summerfest.
• Build a “Tower of Power.” In this popular display of beer-chugging prowess, the drinker places each full beer atop a column of previously consumed cups. We get it, you’re drunk.
• Demand of bartenders, “fill it up, I don’t want no head,” followed or preceded by a sexually explicit joke. Nice of you to ask.
If festgoers knew how often the above went on, they might consider a more courteous approach. Believe me, the bartenders would be ever so thankful. They also appreciate tips. Tip before the crowds roll in and savvy beertenders make sure you get priority when beer lines form.
What’s Milwaukee without a brewery tour? Unimaginable. You have three choices.
Sprecher Brewery(701 W. Glendale Ave., 964-BREW): A cheerful guide leads a 35-minute sprint through the brewing room, cooler and bottling room.
The tasting: Gets you a souvenir 8-ounce glass you can fill four separate times with one of 10 beers or five sodas. Post-tour festivities take place in a large room resembling a German beer hall. Bottom Line: The good folks at Sprecher know why you’re there and don’t bother you with much technical information. They also offer the widest sample selection. Fri. 4 p.m.; Sat. 1, 2 and 3 p.m. (times may vary). Cost: $3.
Miller Brewery (4251 W. State St., 931-BEER): A strange 15-minute propaganda video frequently asks, “What time is it?” and answers with the painful, “It’s Miller Time!” The walking-intensive, one-hour tour visits the packaging plant, shipping area, brew house and “The Caves” where good old Frederick Miller stored his beer.
The tasting: Three 12-ounce samples include Lite, Genuine Draft and a craft beer (aka: Leinenkugel’s). Bottom Line: Beer on a corporate scale. Groups number 50-plus, but friendly guides keep the mood light and invite questions – some rather dumb – from the throng. Mon.-Sat. 10:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. (every half-hour). Cost: Free.
Lakefront Brewery(1872 N. Commerce St., 372-8800): The one-hour tour starts with a visit to the taps and quickly explains the brewing process. It includes a visit inside Bernie Brewer’s old County Stadium chalet (rescued by Lakefront, it now overlooks the brewery’s interior) as well as an homage of sorts to Laverne and Shirley.
The tasting: The tour is one big tasting room, and you fill up at three stops. Bottom Line: Lakefront wrote the book on brewery tours. Guides are hilarious, usually off-color, and you can drink plenty of the four brews. You might learn something about brewing, but you’re guaranteed to leave with a pint glass and a buzz. Mon.-Thurs. 3 p.m.; Fri. 5:30-7:30 p.m. (every half-hour); Sat. 1-3 p.m. (every half-hour). Cost: $5; $10 on Friday (includes a $5-off fish fry coupon).
Milwaukee Magazine contributor Dan Murphy has been known to frequent some of the city’s finest watering holes.
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