Something’s Brewing: Your Guide to Milwaukee’s Thriving Beer Scene

Something’s Brewing: Your Guide to Milwaukee’s Thriving Beer Scene

From beer made with squid (and quinoa made with beer) to growler bars and great locally made IPAs, our beer scene is bigger and better than ever.

A charcuterie-cheese board, including house-made beer mustard. A Central Waters Glacial Trail IPA atop a table at Wolf Peach. Photo by Adam Ryan Morris.
A charcuterie-cheese board, including house-made beer mustard. A Central Waters Glacial Trail IPA atop a table at Wolf Peach. Photo by Adam Ryan Morris.

At least 16 craft breweries – brew houses that produce fewer than 6 million barrels per year – have opened in Milwaukee since 2000. Heck, seven breweries have opened since we last put a tantalizing glass of the gold stuff on our cover in July 2012.

You, Milwaukee, clearly love to make beer as much as you love to drink it.

And our appreciation for the magical elixir – a potent love story that began in the 1840s – shows no sign of stopping. Indeed, our love of suds has bled into other areas of the city’s cultural fabric, and nowhere is that more apparent than in our dining scene. Gone are the days when wine held all the power as the beverage of choice for Milwaukee’s fine-dining establishments.

In fact, many beer aficionados think beer pairs better with food than wine does, and it evokes far less of the snobbery sometimes associated with wine. “There’s almost a rebellious spirit to drinking beer with a really good meal,” says Hinterland Brewery and Restaurant owner Bill Tressler. And the sort of edicts that apply to drinking wine with food most definitely don’t apply to beer, per Tressler, who says, “There are no rules.”

Photo by Adam Ryan Morris.
Photo by Adam Ryan Morris.

Best of the Freshman Class

Earning respect in the craft beer business isn’t easy with breweries booming. Look for these newer brewers to make some tasty, hoppy waves in the near future. By Dan Murphy

(M = Milwaukee brewery; W = Wisconsin brewery)

1. Brenner Brewing (M)
Brenner won the Big Firkin Award at Firkin Fest in 2012 with Bacon Bomb Rauchbier, two years before the brewery officially opened. The smoky brew (which isn’t actually made with bacon) isn’t the only standout. City Fox Pale Ale shows that Brenner isn’t a one-trick pony.

2. Biloba Brewing (M)
When Biloba opened in Brookfield in 2014, the small brewery already had a barrel-aging system in place. That’s foresight. Smokin’ Gramma Scotch Ale, a slightly smoky brew aged in rye barrels, is early evidence that barrel-aging at Biloba is a good idea.

3. Wisconsin Brewing Co. (W)
Talk about pressure. Wisconsin Brewing Co. opened in 2013 to much fanfare, largely due to enigmatic head brewer Kirby Nelson. The Verona brewery hit its stride with releases like the hoppy PsycHOPath Imperial IPA. Nelson has nearly 30 years of brewing experience, so expect more hits than misses.

4. 3 Sheeps (W)
Grant Pauly opened 3 Sheeps in Sheboygan just over three years ago. Brews like Baaad Boy Black Wheat Ale and Really Cool Waterslides IPA helped build a reputation around the state. But Pauly also deserves credit for experiments like Nimble Lips Noble Tongue Series IPA, brewed with squid ink (a beer that was surprisingly palatable). That type of brewing exploration makes 3 Sheeps one to watch.

5. Company Brewing (M)
It’s certainly early in the game to predict big things for Riverwest’s small brewery, which opened in May, but early returns are pretty good. Pomp and Pamplemousse Grapefruit IPA was a powerful example of what head brewer George Bregar can do. And Oaky Doke Red Ale had promise. The best news is that Bregar appears to want to experiment with his small brewing facility.

Goodkind's stout chocolate cake with a layer of chocolate mousse, topped with cocao nib brittle and chocolate syrup. Photo by Chris Kessler.
Goodkind’s stout chocolate cake with a layer of chocolate mousse, topped with cocao nib brittle and chocolate syrup. Photo by Chris Kessler.

Tapping Into the Culinary Arts

Frugality and inspiration guide chefs in their pursuit of brew-based cuisine. By Ann Christenson

The kitchen at Bay View’s Goodkind doesn’t work independently from the bar. When co-owner BJ Seidel switches out the taps of his seasonal beers, what’s left of that seasonal lands in the hands of chef/co-owner Paul Zerkel. Using extra stout is easy. The restaurant created the stout cake on the dessert menu as a vehicle for a profusion of the beverage.

It’s not just economy that makes beer a valuable cooking ingredient. It’s the flavor profile. Sanford’s Justin Aprahamian makes beer vinegars, including one with Berliner weisse, whose “nice sour notes and floral characteristics” play off the briny flavors of the foods he pairs with the vinegar.

Another simple, astute application of beer is in mustard – which the chefs at Hinterland, Morel and Wolf Peach all make in-house – for a sharp, tangy addition to charcuterie and cheese plates.

The beer used in Wolf Peach’s mustard varies, depending on what inspires the chef. The same can be said for the way beer is used to enhance a sauce or piece of meat, seasonal ingredients all playing a part.

There is no limit to the functions beer has in the culinary world, as shown by these dishes:

Try Now:

  • Stout chocolate cake with a layer of chocolate mousse, topped with cocao nib brittle and chocolate syrup. Goodkind
  • Beer-braised baby-back ribs with tamarind BBQ sauce and potato salad. Balzac
  • Spanish fish stew with green tomato sofrito and Modelo blanco beer. Buckley’s Restaurant and Bar
  • Oysters poached in Berliner weisse vinegar with foie gras, and fresh green and red strawberries. Sanford
  • Beer-braised brisket with root vegetables (or a variation thereof). Meritage
  • NY strip with house rub, garlic whipped potatoes, lemon arugula, and Sprecher Amber demi. Café at the Pfister
  • Fruit shortcake (using peaches, Door County cherries or apples) with a caramel sauce using Company Brewing’s Oaky Doke red ale. Company Brewing
  • Kale salad with beer-braised quinoa, toasted pine nuts, goat cheese, Kalamata olives and honey vinaigrette. Motor Bar & Restaurant
Click to enlarge.
Click to enlarge.


The Great Wisconsin IPA Taste Test

American brewers are becoming known worldwide for their zesty India pale ales, and Wisconsin brewers are pushing the style even further. We asked seven highly qualified (and very thirsty) beer drinkers to judge eight uber-fresh Wisco-born IPAs, but didn’t say which beers they were tasting. Scores were based on these categories: look, smell, taste and feel, then judges were asked to give each beer an overall score. The beer with the highest total score wears the coveted crown of hops – at least until the next taste test.

The Judges:

  • Orey Laev, co-owner of Ray’s Wine and Spirits
  • Dan Murphy, Milwaukee Magazine’s beer writer
  • Mike Romans, owner of Romans’ Pub, one of Draft Magazine‘s best beer bars in America
  • Tom Ciula, author of Grynder newsletter; BJCP certified judge
  • Patrick McHugh, BJCP national judge; homebrewer; Beer Barons board member
  • Beth Pickhard, member of Barley’s Angels; author of Brew City Biker blog
  • Mike Schwartz, BJCP national judge; World of Beer Festival coordinator; Beer Barons board member
  • Photos by Adam Ryan Morris.
    Photos by Adam Ryan Morris.

Pairing Beer & Food

Hinterland owner Bill Tressler combines the brewmaster’s training with the chef’s nuanced palate. By Ann Christenson

Bill Tressler with Hinterland’s Ever Green session IPA and bavette steak. Photo by Adam Ryan Morris.
Bill Tressler with Hinterland’s Ever Green session IPA and bavette steak. Photo by Adam Ryan Morris.

Before Bill Tressler started Hinterland Brewery in Green Bay in the mid-’90s, he edited a brewing industry trade magazine. Tressler hadn’t thought too much about beer’s relationship with food until he was at a party tossing back a dark beer with some Maytag blue cheese. The combination stopped him in his tracks. “This incredible salty, funky cheese [along] with the beer – it was a match made in heaven.” The brewing science and engineering program at the University of California-Davis was Tressler’s next stop. Then he returned to Wisconsin to open Hinterland, which now has restaurants in Green Bay and Milwaukee. Tressler’s statement, “Beer complements food in ways wine doesn’t,” made him our go-to for advice on marrying food and foam.

Beer to drink with…

Mexican food, or spicy Indian or Thai food: Pale ale or “one of the new session IPAs” served “really cold.”

Prime rib or other well-marbled beef: Red ale or nut brown ale.

Oily, meaty fish like salmon: A fruity, spicy saison.

Raw oysters: Any sour beer. Also, “the classic pairing – a good pint of stout.”

Steamed mussels with sausage: Oktoberfest.

Game: Nut brown ale or porter.

Delicate desserts like crème brûlée: A tart cherry or other fruit beer.

Chocolate cake or other rich dessert: Stout or porter.

Beer that goes with everything: Pilsner. “There’s a slight bitterness but a lot of malty sweetness. It’s just the easiest beer to grab.” 

Erin Anderson by Jessi Paetzke.
Erin Anderson by Jessi Paetzke.

Funky Brewster

Men outnumber women in the brewing industry by almost 3 to 1, according to a 2014 Auburn University study. Erin Anderson, who started the local chapter of female craft beer aficionados (and homebrewers) called Barley’s Angels, is trying to change that. By Alexa Grunwaldt

Take us back to the beginning.
I’ve been a homebrewer for eight to nine years now, and three years ago, I wanted to start a woman-focused, beer-related group. I ended up hooking up with Meagan O’Brien, who is now the local representative for New Holland Brewing Co. [founder of the Twin Cities chapter]; Natalie Coulthurst, who at the time was working at Northern Brewer; and [Joan LaRosa], who no longer lives in Milwaukee. The four of us got together, did some planning, and then in August 2012, we had our first meeting.

Are women excluded in the beer community?
Yeah, it long has been and currently is a very male-dominated space. It’s the brewing, it’s the operations, it’s the marketing, it’s the beer reps – it’s everything. There are more women involved now, and I love that. Historically, women were the first brewers. The term for a woman brewer is a “brewster.” It has just become a very male-dominated industry. I think it will continue to shift over time.

Please divulge the beer of your dreams.
The one that I keep coming back to and wish I could get here was Monkey Paw Brewery’s black IPA with coconut and Himalayan pink salt.

Favorite female-run brewery?
New Glarus. Even though Deb [Carey] is the brains behind the business and Dan [Carey] is the one who is brewing beer, their beer is amazing. [I] have to give some really mad props to Ashley Kinart at Capital Brewery. She’s been their head brewer for almost a year now. It’s really great to see a woman in that role in such a high-profile brewery in the state.

Has a Barley’s Angel considered opening her own brewery?
Oh, every homebrewer has that dream.

Photos by iStock. Click for full screen.
Photos by iStock. Click for full screen.

Whale Watching

An investigation into the world of rare kegs. By Dan Murphy

Illustration by Kyle Smart.
Illustration by Kyle Smart.

In 2012, Burnhearts hosted a Bell’s Brewery tapping that included a cask and barrel of Hopslam Ale and rare Black Note stout. The crowd was manageable. Today, that amazing lineup would likely include a long line of people waiting to get in the door.

Rare brews, the scarcest of which are called “whales,” draw beer geeks like moths to a hop-scented candle. In fact, they create an event when they go on tap. So who gets these crowd-pleasers? Bars that earn it.

“The bars that get the rare beers are those that support the brand’s core products,” said a representative from a Milwaukee beer distributor, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of alienating his bar clients. “Too many accounts want to cherry-pick,” he says. The clamor for rarities is also a side effect of an exploding craft beer market. And it’s changing the way bars operate.

“I used to stock [Goose Island’s] Bourbon County Stout and [Founders’] Kentucky Breakfast Stout, and mark them down after a couple months because no one was looking for them,” explains BJ Seidel, owner of Bay View’s Burnhearts. “Now all I have to do is put out a tweet about a keg or bottle, and the thing is gone in a couple of hours.”

Mike Romans, who owns Romans’ Pub, says the frenzy for rare suds wasn’t always the case, but there were drawbacks. “There was nowhere near the variety or inventory that’s available now,” he says. “It reflects the maturation of people’s palates.”

Romans’ has been serving craft beer since 1996, and Burnhearts isn’t new to the game, either. Both are bars known to distributors like Beechwood Sales and Service, and Beer Capitol, and have the clout to tap rarities. Bars without reputations as craft beer destinations earn their chops by selling plenty of beer and establishing relationships.

For nearly two years, “we quietly went about our business in order to earn the right to pour some magical beers,” says Tony Lewanovich, who has turned Champps Americana in Brookfield into a beer mecca, thanks largely to the ability to move a lot of beer.

Although the passion for rarities drums up bar business, it also can alienate beer drinkers who don’t get to try a limited brew when a brewery’s production falls well below demand. “Beers are only rare because there isn’t a lot of volume,” said Anello Mollica, co-owner of Central Waters Brewery. “We choose to sell in a smaller market, so our beers are more available.”

For Milwaukeeans, the chances of tracking down rare brews are pretty good. And local whale hunters should appreciate that they aren’t living in Chicago. “There may be less than 200 cases of [Goose Island] Proprietor’s BCS for the entire market,” says a Chicago-based beer representative. “That’s less than 10 percent of the accounts that buy Goose Island beers.”

Riverwest Filling Station. Photo by Jessi Paetzke.
Riverwest Filling Station. Photo by Jessi Paetzke.


The growler, an oddly named vessel that lets beer drinkers bring home fresh-from-the-tap brews, is enjoying big-time popularity. They’re available at breweries, brewpubs, bars and other places where suds are sold. We’re standing behind these local standouts. By Dan Murphy

Draft & Vessel
4417 N. Oakland Ave.

Growler Taps: 16
Sizes: 32 and 64 oz. Choose from glass or fancy MiiR-vacuum insulated stainless steel growlers that cost up to $59.
What They’re Pouring: Variety. Kegs don’t repeat, so even with 16 taps, the place goes through 100 different beers each month.
Reason to Go: Atmosphere. The cozy bar is made from reclaimed wood and is a tough place to leave once you sit down.
Extras: Forty or so quality bottle choices in case the taps don’t suit you.

Stubby’s Gastrogrub & Beer Bar
2060 N. Humboldt Blvd.

Growler Taps: Up to 53
Sizes: 64 oz.
What They’re Pouring: Plenty. A large selection of IPAs, Belgians, saisons, stouts and whatever style you’re looking for.
Reason to Go: Selection. The taps at Stubby’s are well-curated and, well, there are lots of them to choose from.
Extras: Carryout doesn’t get much better than a fresh growler and the mini meatloaf sammies.

Ray’s Growler Gallery
8930 W. North Ave., Wauwatosa

Growler Taps: 8
Sizes: 32 and 64 oz., 1 and 2 liters with reclosable lids
What They’re Pouring: A few proprietary beers you won’t find anywhere else, and plenty of locals like Karben4, Central Waters, Hinterland and 3 Sheeps.
Reason to Go: Dedication. The low-key gallery is devoted solely to tasting and filling. The servers know their stuff, which is nice.
Extras: You can get lost in the expansive craft beer selection at Ray’s Wine & Spirits below the Gallery.

Riverwest Filling Station
701 E. Keefe Ave.
Growler Taps: Up to 28
Sizes: 64 oz.
What They’re Pouring: A constantly rotating selection with a nod to locals and a worthy import or two.
Reason to Go: Freshness. A unique pressurized CO2 growler system keeps oxygen away from your precious cargo and keeps your beer fresh longer.
Extras: A burger called The Meatwad. Trust me.

The Malt Shoppe
813 N. Mayfair Rd., Wauwatosa

Growler Taps: 30
Sizes: 16, 32 and 64 oz.
What They’re Pouring:Rotating brews from all over the country and the world.
Reason to Go: Community. The Malt Shoppe adds events like bottle-shares to the mix. Beer geeks love solidarity.
Extras: If you’re not satisfied with what’s on tap, The Malt Shoppe also offers more than 1,000 bottles and cans of beer to choose from.

Photo by Adam Ryan Morris. Click for full screen.
Photo by Adam Ryan Morris. Click for full screen.

The Hall of Fame

Milwaukee and Wisconsin’s brewing reputation is built on beers like these. Don’t call yourself a beer-loving Wisconsinite without trying them. By Dan Murphy

1. Miller High Life
Craft beer? Nope. Well-balanced and complex? Not really. But without Miller Brewing and the Girl in the Moon, Milwaukee’s brewing heritage would be significantly diminished. Plus, a High Life makes plain sense on a hot summer day at Miller Park.

2. Central Waters Bourbon Barrel Stout
These guys in Amherst have perfected the art of barrel-aging, and they’ve had plenty of practice. Bourbon Barrel Stout was first made by Central Waters in 2001, long before most beer drinkers knew what barrel-aging was. The decadent brew is one of the best in Wisconsin.

3. Ale Asylum Hopalicious American Pale Ale
The beer that spawned the Ale Asylum empire. The flagship from Madison’s standout brewery has a piney citrus flavor and bitterness that isn’t overpowering. Ale Asylum now also brews amazing IPAs like Bedlam! and Velveteen Habit. But you should raise a glass to Hopalicious for making it all possible.

4. Lakefront Riverwest Stein
Modeled after Anchor Steam Beer, this amber lager won Milwaukeeans over when it debuted in 1987. It’s been a big part of the Lakefront portfolio ever since, thanks to its crisp, balanced and delicious flavor.

5. Sprecher Black Bavarian
Sprecher routinely wins awards at beer tastings with this dark lager that Randy Sprecher has been making since the brewery opened in 1985. The brew represents the amazing things that you can do with dark roasted malts and some hops.

6. New Glarus Wisconsin Belgian Red
How does New Glarus get a pound of Door County cherries into every bottle of Wisconsin Belgian Red? We’re not sure. All we care about is the amazingly delicious fruity flavor that pours out of these legendary bottles. Really, all of the world-class fruit beers from New Glarus fit on this list.

7. Milwaukee Brewing Pull Chain Pale Ale
Moderately hoppy, easy-drinkers like this one helped build the Milwaukee Ale House, and the Milwaukee Ale House built Milwaukee Brewing Co. We’re grateful for the entire Pull Chain of events.

‘Something’s Brewing’ appears in the September 2015 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.
The September 2015 issue is on newsstands August 31.

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