It’s a frustrating thing: You’re jamming to a great concert at Summerfest and you need another beer. You spend 10 minutes working your way through the crowds to finally find a bar and <womp womp> there’s nothing you like there. Wasted time at Summerfest is measured in missed songs; do you spend another three songs trying to find something better, or suffer through your subpar beverage?
That dilemma, friend, is an indignity you do not deserve. And I’m going to help you avoid it.
After years of just accepting whatever beer was convenient at Summerfest, this year I went on opening day with the sole purpose of taking a complete inventory of the beer (and, fine, some other adult beverage) options. Through this lens, it’s much clearer that there is a rhyme and reason to the mix, like pour size, can vs. draft, and “craft” vs. macro.
MillerCoors has a near-monopoly on the taps and coolers of Summerfest, with the only independent craft beers being poured by Lakefront Brewery and Water Street Brewery. The other “craft” and import brands scattered around the grounds – Leinenkugel’s, Blue Moon, Terrapin, Peroni and Sol – are all under the MillerCoors umbrella.
Price-wise, the lowest price per ounce is the biggest (20-ounce cups) draft pours of the macro lagers: Miller Lite, High Life, Coors Light and Coors Banquet. Those are $7.75, while same-size pours of craft are $9. Some bars have 16-ounce draft pours for $6.50 macro and $7.50 craft – only slightly higher price per ounce. If you’re going to be bouncing at your concert and need a tallboy (16-ounce can) to prevent sloshage, those will run you $8 or $9.25. A handful of bars offer 12-ounce cans of the nonalcoholic Sharp’s for $6. Value-hunters will want to get through the gates early to take advantage of the happy hour specials offering two-for-one beers at certain bars from 4-5 p.m. most days of the ’Fest.
One thing I noticed a lot more of this year – though it may have been because I was looking – is flavored malt beverages like hard sodas and wine cooler sand spritzers. All but the smallest bars have one of these offerings, and many have multiple options among. The “malternatives” are Arnold Palmer Spiked Half & Half, Henry’s Hard Sparkling Water in lemon-lime and passion fruit flavors and the gluten-free Cape Line Hard Strawberry Lemonade – all 12-ounce cans for $9.25.
And while “wine snob” Kristine Hansen – her words! – has the scoop on where to find fancier wine at the ’Fest, I’ll include the basic wines and wine-based cocktails available at the beer bars. The most plentiful of these – nearly all poured over ice – are Barefoot Summer Red and Moscato spritzers (8.5-ounce cans, $9.25), a draft “Summerfest Wine Cooler” in red or white ($8.50) and Yellowtail red and white sangrias ($8.50).
But before we get to where to get your beers, I must share the best places to drink them if you’re in between sets. One is a little beer garden near the Summerfest Landing, along the Lake Michigan shoreline behind the American Family Insurance House. It offers comfortable seating, lake breezes, its own tiny, tiki-themed stage and lots of trees providing the precious Summerfest commodity of shade. But you’ll have to bring your drinks there as there isn’t a bar nearby. Further north along the same waterfront stretch off the main drag is a similar tree-shaded beer garden that does have beer service adjacent, in the form of a small Terrapin tent.
OK, here’s the official lay of the land, starting from the north gate and working south. (Bad at directions? Remember, the lake is east.) Staff tell me the drink menus will remain fixed throughout the run of the ’Fest.
Two Miller Lite-branded bars service this stage, both offering cans only. The bar out front has Miller Lite, Miller High Life, Leinenkugel’s Summer Shandy, Terrapin Hopsecutioner IPA, Cape Line Strawberry Lemonade and the Barefoot wine spritzers. Adjacent to the stage to the south is a smaller bar with Miller Lite, Miller High Life, Blue Moon, Terrapin Luau Krunkles (an IPA brewed with passion fruit, orange and guava), and Henry’s Lemon Lime and Passion Fruit (by my tally, the only place in Summerfest to get this flavor).
Klement’s Sausage & Beer Garden
This is the only Summerfest food place where you can also get a beer, and there’s a nice little grassy area out back to sit down and enjoy both. For sale among the grilled meats are tallboys of Miller Lite, Miller High Life, Summer Shandy, Blue Moon, Peroni (an Italian import), Terrapin RecrationAle (a 4.7% ABV session IPA).
US Cellular Connection Stage
This is the Leinie’s zone, with a bar flanking each side of the stage entrance. The north bar has tallboy offerings of Miller Lite, Miller High Life, Summer Shandy, Terrapin Hopsecutioner IPA (at 7.3% ABV, the heaviest hitter among Summerfest’s regular beers), Arnold Palmer, Cape Line and the Barefoot spritzers. The south bar is all drafts and loaded with Leinie’s: Original (a macro-style lager), Summer Shandy, Honey Weiss, Canoe Paddler (a kölsch-style ale with rye), Northwoods Lager and Creamy Dark. These are poured in 16-ounce cups. Nearby, across the main drag, is a Leinie’s merch kiosk, in case you left your koozie or Summer Shandy lip balm at home.
Johnson Controls World Sound Stage
Two Coors Light-branded bars serve this stage, and it’s where you’ll find the most wine options on the north end of the festival grounds. The north bar offers tallboys of Coors Light, Coors Banquet, Summer Shandy, Blue Moon, Sol (a Mexican light lager), Peroni and Henry’s Lemon Lime. For wine, there’s Yellowtail red and white sangrias over ice and pours (from bottles!) of Yellowtail Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio and Big Bold Red ($8.50 for a 9-ounce tumbler). On the south side of the stage is a draft bar with 20-ounce pours of Coors Light, Blue Moon, Terrapin’s Luau Krunkles and Up-Hi (a 5.9% ABV West Coast-style IPA), Crispin hard cider and the Summerfest red and white wine coolers. Sharp’s cans also are available here, making the only Miller brand at an entire Summerfest stage a nonalcoholic one!
Miller Lite Oasis
The highlight around this big, high-traffic stage near the main entrance is the Miller Lite Brew House, a pavilion featuring games – cornhole and giant Jenga you can play on your own, plus shuffleboard and mini golf hole-in-one challenges – restrooms and a few tables. The bar on its corner offers 20-ounce drafts of Miller Lite, Miller High Life, Leinie’s Northwoods Lager and Summer Shandy, and Terrapin’s Luau Krunkles and Up-Hi. The malternative option is a tallboy of Arnold Palmer.
Three other can-only bars flank the stage. Beneath the Oasis viewing deck (invitation-only) northeast of the stage you’ll find Miller Lite, Summer Shandy, Blue Moon and Cape Line. On offer to the southeast, in front of the stage, are Miller Lite, Miller High Life, Summer Shandy and Up-Hi. Along the south side of the stage are Miller Lite, Miller High Life, Summer Shandy and Sharp’s.
This smallest and most isolated of beer venues – along the lakefront to the north of the kids area across from the main entrance – might be a good spot to check if lines elsewhere are long. Only here will you find cans of Terrapin Watermelon Gose (a slightly salty, slightly tangy wheat ale) and Hoppin Bubbly (a brut IPA brewed with inspiration from MillerCoors labelmate Miller High Life). There are also cans of RecreationAle, Luau Krunkles, Hopsecutioner and, because Milwaukee, Miller Lite.
This little stand along the main drag just north of the Harley-Davidson Roadhouse offers 20-ounce pours of Summer Shandy, Canoe Paddler, Northwoods Lager and Creamy Dark, as well as the Summerfest wine coolers and Yellowtail sangrias.
Four small bars, all emblazoned in Miller High Life branding and offering cans only, serve this big stage. Along the north side are Miller Lite, Miller High Life and Summer Shandy. Northeast of the stage is the biggest bar here, with Miller Lite, Miller High Life, Coors Light, Sol, Summer Shandy, RecreationAle and Henry’s Lemon Lime. To the southeast is Miller Lite, Miller High Life, Blue Moon, and on the south side of the stage is a bar with Miller Lite, Miller High Life, Arnold Palmer Spiked and Henry’s Lemon Lime.
Here begins the indie-beer district of Summerfest. Lakefront’s tent is located along the east side of the main drag just north of the H-D Roadhouse. And there’s some good stuff in here, starting with a daily cask beer (read: more lightly carbonated than usual) infused with extra ingredients. Some of these types of beers are very unusual at festivals like this; I tried the July 2 offering – New Grist Gose with cherry and lime – at Firkin Fest earlier this month and quite enjoyed it – light, fruity and refreshing. Dan Murphy has more – including the complete cask lineup – here.
The standard Lakefront offerings are nothing to snort at, either, with 20-ounce drafts of Riverwest Stein amber lager, Lakefront IPA, Lakefront Lager (this might be my Summerfest go-to this year), the gluten-free New Grist Gose, Hazy Rabbit IPA, Eastside Dark and Citrica, a Mexican-style ale with orange peel and lime. Dancers may prefer the tallboys of Riverwest Stein or IPA for $9.75.
Briggs & Stratton Big Backyard
Two Miller Lite-branded bars serve this stage. East of (behind) the seating area is a draft bar pouring the smaller cups of Coors Light, Miller Lite, Blue Moon, Summer Shandy, Hopsecutioner and the wine coolers. The tallboy bar on the north side of the stage offers Miller Lite, Coors Banquet, Miller High Life, Summer Shandy, Blue Moon, RecreationAle, Crispin and Sharp’s.
Water Street Brewery
The only beer venue to get a letter on the Summerfest map, Water Street Brewery’s outpost pours five house-made beers: Honey Lager Light, Bavarian Weiss, Oktoberfest (first of the season!), Punch You in the IPA, and the new-to-Summerfest Sporten Euro Lager (a helles). Drinkers have pour options of 16 ($7.50) or 20 ounces ($9).
For beer drinkers, this small tent south of BelAir Cantina and Major Goolsby’s is the Summerfest equivalent of a “Next gas 75 miles” sign out in the boonies. Between this point and the bars of the BMO Harris Pavilion lies a beer desert, with only a Corkscrew wine bar and the options serving the American Family Insurance Amphitheater, though you’ll need a headliner ticket to get there. At this Sol tent, though, you can stock up on cans of Sol (natch), Miller Lite, Cape Line Strawberry Lemonade, Henry’s Lemon Lime and Yellowtail sangrias.
JoJo’s Martini Lounge
This enormous area with its own covered stage and plaza filled with games is focused on cocktails, though there are canned beers and malternatives available, too. There’s a full bar to the northeast, facing the BMO Harris Pavilion plaza, where you can get actual mixed drinks, though they’ll cost you. Depending on your booze and mixers, it’ll be $12 to $18 per drink. The bread and butter of this area are the premixed cocktails: Maragritatini, chocolate martini, Summertimetini, orange cream martini, Electric Lemonade, Long Island martini, Bloody Mary and Vitamin C. Other options include cans of Miller Lite, Miller High Life, Coors Light, Sol, Summer Shandy, Henry’s Lemon Lime and Cape Line Strawberry Lemonade.
BMO Harris Pavilion
This stage at the end of the line is a bit of an underserved area, if you ask me. Twin bars flanking the stage entrance to the north and south offer cans only, and both stock only Miller Lite, Blue Moon, Summer Shandy and the Barefoot spritzers. The nearest draft offering is Water Street Brewery, which is a bit of a hike.