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.
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”
Sour beers, IPAs, session IPAs, barrel-aged, pumpkin beers—America has seen a variety of trends in the craft beer boom.
It makes me wonder: What’s next?
If I had it my way: lagers. Full, flavorful, easy-drinking lagers like New Glarus’ Two Women.
By in large, American lagers are still trying to shake off the legacy of the macrobrewers and their wet air they pass off as lager beer.
It’s time craft brewers leave their mark on this broad style. If as much attention was put into lagers as fruit-infused IPAs or chocolate/marshmallow/chili stouts, an enormous class of popular, tasty beers could emerge.
I’m not advocating for gimmicky adjuncts, of course, but rather flavorful, classic lagers that could show beer nerds the wonders of bottom-fermenting beers and divert Joe Sixpack away from all the bright red, white and blue packaging.
A blueprint for such lagers is Two Women–the name a nod to times past when most beer was made by women in their homes. This beer might pass as a red lager, Vienna lager or German Pilsner. New Glarus calls it a “Classic Country Lager brewed with Weyermann’s floor malted Bohemian malt and Hallertau Mittelfrueh hops.”
The brewery, which strictly distributes in Wisconsin, is known best course for its refreshing, easy-drinking fruit beers. But its year-round, seasonal and every-once-in-while offerings carry all the same characteristics: consistent, refreshing, go-to quality beers.
Two Women is a testament to the skill of brewmaster Dan Carey, who simply does not miss with classic styles. Carey apprenticed in Germany, a fact that shows particularly in this beer and other German-style lagers like Yokel, Totally Naked and Hometown Blonde. The Staghorn Oktoberfest is the best Märzen I’ve ever had. One of my favorite beer memories was during a visit to New Glarus when Dan himself served me the first pour of Staghorn from a wooden keg in the biergarten. He took great care to manage the foaminess and give me a full pour. Best beer I’ve ever had.
Anyway, I can’t get a fresh pour from Dan every day, so thankfully I can rely on finding Two Women in stores year-round. Two Women has smooth, bready maltiness paired perfectly with bright, earthy hops that leave a lasting tingle on the tongue. There’s distinct German character and a full body that is satisfying any time of year.
Makes me want to throw a couple bratwurst on the grill with fresh asparagus. Maybe some lemon cake for dessert.
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.
Today, Nov. 5, is International Stout Day, a celebration of one of the best loved beer styles in the world. The day is comes as the fields brown, the forests bare their branches and the nights grow longer and darker here in Wisconsin. Thankfully, this state’s breweries understand the yearning for a roasty, chocolaty treat. I drink dark beers all months of the year, but I definitely make a point to stock up on the black beauties for winter. Here’s what I’m reaching for today, tomorrow or in April because these dark ales are delicious.
South Shore Rhoades’ Scholar Stout
South Shore Brewery has served up this Wisconsin stout lover’s favorite for much of the Ashland brewery’s 20-year history. Coming in at 6.1% ABV, this beer carries a velvety mouthfeel and chocolaty sweetness. This is one of the oldest stout brands in Wisconsin, and few rival its flavor even today.
Stone Arch Vanilla Stout
If anything complements the roasty, chocolaty malt of a stout, it’s vanilla. This Appleton brewery uses natural vanilla to produce a 5% ABV oatmeal stout. Many vanilla stouts are too heavy on the vanilla, but this one is just right. The subtle vanilla melds with the caramely, chocolaty nature of this beauty.
Sand Creek Oscar’s Oatmeal Stout
Sand Creek Brewery’s oatmeal stout is true to form with this strong-bodied 4.5% brew. There’s a rich nutty, chocolaty taste and enough hop presence to balance the delightful sweetness. This is easily the best brew you’ll find in this Black River Falls brewery’s homey taproom or your hometown bottle shop.
Lucette Slowhand Stout
Stout is all about the malt. Lucette takes this notion to the next level with Slowhand. There’s little to no flash of hops in this beer. It’s all roasty coffee dryness on a creamy body, packing a modest 5.2% ABV. Like many of this Menomonie brewer’s creations, Slowhand is a distinct beer and a wonderful take on this iconic style.
Milwaukee Brewing Company Polish Moon
We can’t talk about stouts in Wisconsin without mentioning a milk stout. This Milkwaukee brewery makes a fine one. Brewed with a well-portioned dose of milk sugar, this dark, silky beer has extra sweetness yet remains quite drinkable at 4.5% ABV. Like the namesake clock on Milwaukee’s heavily-Polish south side, this stout is a landmark in Milwaukee.
Central Waters Brewers Reserve Bourbon Barrel Stout
There isn’t a style of beer that stands up better to the bite residing in the wood of a bourbon barrel. Amherst’s Central Waters harnessed the wonders of barrel aging a decade ago. It’s flagship in this project is this stout aged in oak barrels. At 9.5% ABV, it packs a punch but less of one than similar barrel-aged stouts. While boozy, the oak and vanilla flavors this beer produce a savory treat.
Whether its August or November, there’s no reason to stop drinking those crisp, amber Märzen lagers. There are too many festbiers both foreign and domestic to enjoy to stop downing them in Mid-October. Here’s five must-haves from my home state of rich German heritage. Grab ‘em off the shelves or at a taproom anytime you can.
Stevens Point Oktoberfest
Stevens Point is an old, traditional brewery dating back to 1857. Its Oktoberfest holds true to style. This beer is light and clean with caramel sweetness and a dry finish from its noble hops.
Bull Falls Oktoberfest
If you’re more of a maltster, relatively new and quick-growing Bull Falls offers an Oktoberfest heavier on the rich, sweet malts. Yet, there is some good balance with a floral hop finish.
Tommy A’s Oktoberfest
It’s not really a style, but I consider this a Northwoods Oktoberfestbier. Rich, earthy tones and clean feel all the way down. If you’re looking to make a trip in search of fall colors and a good Oktoberfest, head to Hayward.
Valkyrie Whispering Embers
Fall is as good a time as any to enjoy a beer around a campfire, and if you like a beer that tastes a little like a campfire this is it. After 21 years in business, Ann and Randy Lee are not ones to stick to classic flavor profiles. This beer is as bold as any in the Valkyrie lineup. Whispering embers comes off a little richer than most beers in the style but has a good hop presence, malt balance and a good whiff of smokey flavor from peat additives. If you’re looking for a little more flame in your festbier, Whispering Embers has it.
New Glarus Staghorn
When it comes to classic styles, New Glarus knocks it out of the park every time. Staghorn Oktoberfest is no exception. Aside from sporting a sharp name, this Märzen embodies the style. Copper color and balance in sweetness of the malt and earthy, spicy hops produces an incredibly crisp and flavorful Oktoberfest beer.