I am proud of the brewing scene in Northwest Wisconsin. Breweries are relatively sparse over a large area spanning from the Chippewa River to Lake Superior, but most of the dozen or so make great beer. Some are among the oldest microbreweries in the Midwest—South Shore in Ashland and the one and only brewery in my county, Valkyrie. More recently, Hudson, Hayward, Superior, Menomonie, Somerset and other towns have become home to some skilled brewers serving beer in distinct spaces with great character. Oh, and there’s good old Leinenkugels.
Soon, the region may have its first mid-size craft brewer. After months of negotiating terms with the City of Eau Claire—without little evidence of progress—The Brewing Projekt reached an agreement to move into a larger, vacant space across the street from its current site in the heart of Eau Claire. The news came after a rally attended by more than 500 people, including myself. What a fun affair, with music, great weather and a dozen style-shifting, flavor-packed beers on tap.
It had been an extra-long time coming for these brewers, who had to cut through a considerable amount of red tape just to be licensed to brew, in large part because owner William Glass also owned Fire House bar in Eau Claire.
But where there’s a will there’s a way. Now, the Brewing Projekt envisions its new space as a destination brewery. It is my hope that the “Projekt” will be a stepping stone to making Eau Claire a destination city for beer lovers. Though much different than The Projekt, a block down Oxford Avenue, Lazy Monk Brewing makes superb representations of classic Central European styles—more about that here. Further, K Point Brewing is growing on the south side, Brewster Bros. and, of course, good old Leinenkugels up the road in Chippewa Falls. There are many more within 30 miles of Eau Claire, all serving beer on par in quality as that of most breweries in Madison, Milwaukee or the Twin Cities.
But let’s get back to the beer. My first from The Projekt, and a delight during the dog days of summer, WISCoast Pale Ale is a good introduction to the brewery’s distinct lineup.
First of all, having grown up on a Wisconsin dairy farm, I’ll drink anything with a cow on it. Citrusy hops and wheat make this an incredibly fruity, refreshing beer. The Brewing Projekt states, “Crafted to be wickedly crisp and totally refreshing.” Agreed.
Don’t wait for the expansion to visit The Brewing Projekt. Make a day or weekend of it. Eau Claire is very cool.
A rare summer day in Duluth–upper 70s balanced by a cool, gentle breeze off Lake Superior. This after quite literally 8 months of mainly cold weather.
Really a shame I wasn’t paddling a kayak, shredding trails on a mountain bike or hiking to an overlook of the Great Lake on the Superior Hiking Trail.
But I was doing the next best thing, sipping a few cold ones with friends in the taprooms of the Twin Ports. We were in town to celebrate the marriage of two good friends after all.
Home to eight breweries, Duluth has quality and variety that does not disappoint. There are distribution only Blacklist and Borealis Fermentery. Carmody and Dubh Linn add Irish pub options. Founded in 1990, Lake Superior harkens back to the early days of the craft beer boom.
In this most recent visit, I enjoyed quality food, beer and atmosphere at Fitgers (quirky, cool historic building) and Canal Park (beer around a campfire near the lake after dark).
The only better option might have been a deep dish pizza and any number of flavor-packed brews at Thirsty Pagan across the St. Louis River in Superior, Wisconsin.
But that’s a story for another post.
Given the recent expansion of distribution into my home state, I’m highlighting a Bent Paddle beer this week.
Set apart from other Twin Ports breweries, but following the no-food, taproom-first, distribute-second philosophy common to many breweries today, Bent Paddle frankly has a good thing going.
Tucked into a somewhat-shabby part of town in an unremarkable warehouse building, Bent Paddle’s street parking draws many a Jeep/Suburu with a kayaks/bikes on the rack. Inside, a mixed crowd gets into games of cribbage, marvels at a myriad of shiny tanks, all the while filling the ample industrial, yet rustic space with a dull roar of conversation.
The beers share the liveliness of the taproom and the bold, adventurous spirit of the North Shore—e.g. Roof Rack Lager, Harness IPA, Venture Pils and 14º ESB–a two-time medalist at the Great American Beer Festival.
The lineup is solid top to bottom. But needing some dark beer in the fridge as a contrast to many summer lagers and pale ales, I grabbed a sixer of the Black Ale on the way home.
Bent Paddle says, “This Black Ale drinks like a porter but is opaque like a stout. Brewed with a generous amount of oats to round out the flavor.”
I can’t describe it any other way. It seems neither a stout or porter. Black ale is a wholly appropriate title. The beer is jet black with an easy-drinking body, but full roasty, chocolaty flavor.
Such a satisfying beer, I’m going to burn through this six pack quick, maybe while enjoying a hobo dinner of sausage and root vegetables somewhere along the way.
We had such a great interview with Ryan Verdon of Real Deal Brewing that we couldn’t bear to cut the show down to a half hour. We talk about this Menomonie (WI) nanobrewery’s sessionable English-style beers, as opposed to “Barrel-aged barleywines of death.” Plus, Carl and I review a Porter all the way from Green Man Brewing in Asheville, North Carolina and look back at some classic beer commercials. “It works every time”
For those who love beer and love to travel, naturally, beercations are a must.
I’m heading to Asheville, North Carolina this week. I can only hope the trip is as good as the one I took last fall, visiting the Pacific Northwest. I spent most of my time in three legendary beer towns—Bend, Portland and Seattle.
I have many great beer memories from the trip. I watched the sun set behind the Three Sisters mountains—after climbing South Sister earlier that day—with a few hoppy ales and an amusingly drunk mother-daughter combo at Crux Fermentation Project in Bend. I talked politics with an odd duck of an old man at the hole-in-the-wall taproom of Wingman Brewers in Tacoma, Washington over a P-51 Porter.
But the best company I had in my travels was my cousin Bean—real name Jenny, short for Jelly Bean—who lives in Portland. After not seeing each other for 3-4 years, we reconnected in perhaps the best way possible—over beers. We had an absolute blast meeting other people’s pups at the Lucky Labrador, marveling at the $1,500 Dave at Hair of the Dog and enjoying a warm night from the comfort of the Bailey’s Taproom patio—so much in fact we swiped a couple glasses, either just for laughs or for a memento of the many laughs we had that night.
Perhaps the most distinct taproom we visited was that of Base Camp Brewery, themed to recreate the feel of a remote mountainside. Also distinct was the S’more Stout. I had high expectations, but did not expect my glass to have a perfectly roasted marshmallow as a garnish. Given a quick scorch from a blow torch, the marshmallow was a delightful touch on a great beer.
I feel a little strange about this review, having just found out about this incident, but I won’t hold it against the beer. It was also one of the few beers I had on my beercation that I could find in the Midwest—in a sleek, 22-ounce, aluminum, bottle-shaped can no less.
Despite the badass vessel, having it a second and third time does not compare to the first. Beer is always better in a taproom near where it was made, especially if enjoyed with good company and maybe a toasty garnish.
Regardless, this stout is rock-solid with plenty of roasty and chocolaty notes and a smooth, sweet finish. At 7.7% it is middle of the road for a stout and a good beer to stuff in a backpack on a hike out to quiet spot under towering trees and bright stars. I’ll build a fire and have a cold aluminum cup in one hand and a sticky s’more in the other.
The Upper Midwest is not short on diverse, fun beer scenes, whether it’s Madison, Chicago or the Twin Cities. But lesser-known gems shine in the outlying areas too. The beer enthusiast will be hard-pressed to find a better example of a diverse, fun selection of taprooms than those in Northwest Wisconsin.
This article offers a guide to the trendy and timeless taprooms of Northwest Wisconsin in the form of a 4-day tour. Hitting every single one in 4 days is, admittedly, a tall order. In fact, I’d recommend taking a little time away from the taprooms to enjoy Wisconsin’s great outdoors. Hit the brewpubs you missed on a second trip. With dozens charming small towns and miles of beautiful countryside, deep forests and shimmering waters, Wisconsin’s Northwest should be a destination for any beer enthusiast.
Start off at the man cave of a taproom at Oliphant Brewing, where a classic movie from the glory days of VHS will be playing on a TV the size of a baby pachyderm. Twelve beers on tap are as colorful as the lizardy mural outside this otherwise-unassuming building in Somerset. The often-rotating selections may include Milkman Manbaby Milk Stout, Mothra vs. Mothra Citra Lager, Eventacles Wee Heavy and other beers flamboyant in both name and flavor.
For dinner, head south to Pitchfork Brewing, where patrons can order in from Patty Ryan’s Irish Pub next-door. The building, located off I-94 Exit 4 west of Hudson is bland brick and mortar from the outside, but the Pitchfork taproom features American gothic charm and eight beers on tap, including a firkin. Beer styles are generally more down-to-Earth, well-made classics. Look for Cast Iron Oatmeal Stout, Barn Door Brown Ale and German Straw Pilsner.
Okay, it’s decision time. There’s two more breweries in this area, but four breweries in one night is perhaps overly-ambitious. Luckily, both distribute bottles (Rush River) or cans (Barley Johns). Pick one for a visit, pick a six-pack for the road from the other.
Rush River’s taproom is set alongside shiny tanks in the brewery itself. There’s 15 taps featuring a rock-solid regular lineup and some more limited offerings. Look for twists on Rush River favorites like Lost Arrow Porter with Raspberry, Boürbon Über Altbier or Nevermore Oatment Stout on Ancho Chili and Cinnamon.
Frustrated with growth-stifling brewpub laws, Barley John’s Brewpub hopped the border from Minnesota to Wisconsin last year. The 15-year-old brand is bigger and better than ever, offering a unique array of brews and canning many for distribution. Try favorites like Old Eight Porter, Amber’s Amber or Wild Brunette Brown Ale.
Friday, do lunch in Menomonie. The Raw Deal has small plates and desserts, Lucette has pizza. Eat at one brewery. Drink at two.
Raw Deal is a coffee shop that happens to brew a few beers too—a Scotch Ale, Raw Rye and Organic Pale Ale, to name a few.
Lucette, named for Paul Bunyan’s wife, is the biggest in town and known for its Farmer’s Daughter Blonde Ale, Ride Again Pale Ale, Hips Don’t Lie Hefeweizen and Slow Hand Stout.
Try not to get carried away in Menomonie. More great beers await in Eau Claire.
Start with a full half-liter of Czech Pilsner, Wheat Pivo or Baltic Porter at the Lazy Monk, which opened a new bier hall in January 2016. As the name implies, Lazy Monk offers a laid back atmosphere and well-made, easy-drinking beers like Czech Pilsner, Pivo Wheat and Baltic Porter served in 0.5-liter glasses. Among 14 taps, there’s a few guest taps from other Northwest Wisconsin breweries. Lazy Monk’s spacious taproom has the authentic flavor of Central European bier hall, complete with a brewmaster from the former Czechoslovakia. Leoš Frank moved from a country of cheap, delicious beer to the light adjunct lager-dominated beer scene of 1980s America. The beer sucked, so he didn’t drink any for 10 years. Lucky for him—and us—he discovered homebrewing. He went pro with his skills in 2010 and the rest is history. I think we can all drink to that.
If Lazy Monk is on one end of the brewery spectrum, The Brewing Projekt is on the other. While Lazy Monk does classic Old World styles, the Brewing Projekt embodies the modern American craft beer attitude of pushing the boundaries. Consider Gunpowder IPA with green tea and citra hops, Stolen Mile with lemon zest and basil, or East Meet West Tripel with candied ginger crystalized ginger and ginger root. Speaking of no boundaries, only rope separates this taproom from the shiny brewing tanks, creating an open, energetic atmosphere. This is a place to treat your taste buds.
Jacob Leinenkugel Brewery is, of course, king in Northwest Wisconsin. Leinie’s has some a solid lineup of classic award-winners like Honey Weiss, Sunset Wheat and Creamy Dark and some higher-ABV Big Eddy creations. But a modern craft beer drinker might find these offerings a little tame—surely one reason the brewery recently began offering hoppier options like India Pale Lager and Pale Ale. Leinie’s has been owned by Miller since 1988, but you wouldn’t know by visiting the brewery. The historical character of Leinenkugels, founded in 1867, is on full display during a $5 tour, which comes with four 4-ounce samples—you keep the glass. But you can’t keep drinking, as it is not a full-service taproom. It’s worth a visit, but optional on this tour. There are many more small town-town, big-character breweries down the road.
Twenty miles up Hwy. 53 is a quaint town called Bloomer, which has its own historic brewery. The Bloomer Brewery history goes back to the 1870s. The original brewery shuttered long ago. But the building remains and owner Dan Stolt has re-kindled life in it with some old-school beers. Beers are made with basic malts, hops and corn as an adjunct, producing some smooth, mellow classics like Cow-Bell Cream Ale, Weathered Brick White IPA and Rut Bock. The taproom is in fact several rooms, adorned with rustic features and old Bloomer breweriana. True to its rural Wisconsin roots, there’s even a room with about three dozen head mounts of whitetail bucks. For a strong taste of rural Wisconsin culture and old-school beer, Bloomer is where it’s at.
Speaking of old-school, your next must-stop is Valkyrie Brewery in Dallas. Founded as Viking Brewery 21 years ago, the brewery has survived in little Dallas, population 395 and surrounded by some of the prettiest farm country you’ll ever see. The Viking naming rights were sold to an Icelandic brewery 5 years ago, but fun and flavor never left this taproom. Owners Ann and Randy Lee picked the spot based on the quality of the water. The Lees are some of the nicest, most down-to-Earth folks you’ll ever meet. The beers, on the other hand, are also nice but sky high in unique flavor. There’s Raven Queen, a black wheat IPA with licorice, or Blaze Orange, a light lager with orange peel and spices, or Whispering Embers, a smoked Oktoberfest. Less-weird, but also big on flavor are the War Hammer Milk Coffee Porter, Night Wolf Schwarzbier, Big Swede Swedish Imperial Stout and many more. For $1 per 8 ounces, the prices in this Norse-themed taproom—complete with medieval weaponry–can’t be beat. The only bad time to visit is in the 2 months after Christmas, as the taproom is closed. The best time to visit is the first Saturday in October for Dallas Oktoberfest, highlighted by the 100-plus-foot Colossal Brat!
Save some time for a drive deep into the Northwoods and visit the Angry Minnow in Hayward. This brewpub has excellent “Up North cuisine,” making it a great pick for dinner. Wash down that steak or fish fry with a Vienna Lager, Charlie’s Rye IPA or McStuckie’s Scotch Ale. The best time to visit may be in late February when thousands of Nordic skiers attempt the 30-plus mile Birkebeiner race from Cable to downtown Hayward, made all the more grueling by “Bitch Hill” late in the race. For those who don’t like to suffer for fun, just drink the Bitch Hill Belgian instead.
The last two stops on this tour are in the northern extreme of Wisconsin on the shore of the Greatest Lake. Ashland’s South Shore Brewery offers two restaurants—The Alley and Deep Water Grille—for lunch or dinner. The Alley has pizza and the Grille has sandwiches, appetizers, entrées and more. With either option, diners can enjoy a brew from one the oldest brewpubs in the state, started in 1995. South Shore recently opened a second tasting room a few miles north in Washburn. At either location, visitors will find an excellent, low-ABV lineup with favorites like Nut Brown, Inland Sea Pilsner and Rhoades’ Scholar Stout. South Shore is no doubt one of the classic brewpubs in the state, and well-worth the drive up to Lake Superior.
Well, we’ve saved perhaps the best for last with Thirsty Pagan in Superior. Come hungry. With several sandwich and deep dish pizza options on the menu, you won’t leave that way. Beverage options are plentiful in this taproom brimming with charm of old-school breweriana. Highlights of seven year-round offerings include the Burntwood Black Ale, Velo Saison and Trouble-Maker Tripel. Thirsty Pagan also specializes in sour beers, keeping at least two on tap. But wait: there’s more! You’ll also find a handful of seasonal specialties like the Pinta Colada Coconut Stout, Mustache Wax Doppelbock or Bourbon Barrel Aged Barleywine. With live music every night, there’s no bad time to bring your appetite and your thirst.
Wisconsin’s Great Northwest is dotted with one-of-a-kind breweries, both old and new. The beers are just as distinct and enjoyable as the settings. Many have great amenities in food and entertainment. Plus, proximity to some of the most beautiful recreational lands in the country make this corner of the state well-worth a visit for any beer drinker. See for yourself.