Coffee, Hops, and Iron

In search of the best craft beer in southern Wisconsin

Wisconsin is full of classic farm houses like this one near Black River Falls.
Wisconsin is full of classic old farm houses like this one near Black River Falls.Lee Klancher

Brazil has the caipirinha—a generous pour of its harsh version of rum, cachaca, softened with lime, sugar and ice. Japan has sake, Bourdeaux has its wine, Polynesia has kava, and New Orleans claims the Sazerac.

Viewed properly, the world is a cocktail glass of concoctions cooked up by crazy locals searching for a new way to bend their brains out of harm’s way. Each local drink has its own distinct aura; drink it in a far-off land with some off-the-wall characters and the end result is bound to be memorable. At least the parts you can remember.

In Wisconsin, at least in the shotgun-and-pickup country of my youth, the signature drink is not sugared, spiced, or even poured over ice. The cocktail of the land is beer. Served authentically, the beverage is American-made, canned, cheap, cold and plentiful.

You could argue American beer was born in Wisconsin, as several of the nation’s largest breweries formed in Milwaukee. You could also argue beer died there, as the proliferation of light, clean lagers that, in modern times, defined American beer, were made popular by the Milwaukee breweries.

Beer, beer, and more beer.
Beer, beer, and more beer.Lee Klancher

Thankfully, beer has undergone a revolution in the past decade, thanks to the rise of craft breweries. Southern Wisconsin is dotted with dozens of these small breweries selling limited volumes of beer into local markets only. The beers have variety, personality, and most importantly, taste. For a Wisconsin-born and bred motorcycle travel junkie like myself, exploring these breweries—along with southern Wisconsin’s wonderful alphabet roads—is as natural as reciting Vince Lombardi quotes.

Two of my friends agreed to provide route consultation and taste-testing. Darrick Anderson, who also happens to be a midwest rep for Helmet House, knew the roads (and beer) well, due to years of dedication. His friend Al Silberstein, a wild-haired man who builds installations at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, brought a more refined palate and a similar depth of experience.

A plan was hashed out, drivers and cabs were booked for evening visits to the breweries, and bags were packed. Two Victory Visions and a Hammer were procured and pointed south. The gig was on.

Bringing the booze with real Wisconsin beer.
Bringing the booze with real Wisconsin beer.Lee Klancher

Bringing on the Hops
Our first stop was the Sand Creek Brewing Company in Black River Falls, Wisconsin. Built as a brewery in 1836, a variety of brewmasters have lived (and died) in the brick facility. Sand Creek owners Jim Wiesender and Todd Krueger like to say the place is haunted, and have stories of spine-tingling presences felt in the empty brewery late at night.

This dark history is something todd and Jim understand is an interesting part of their business. They have considered hosting a Wisconsin Death Trip- inspired Halloween party. They also considered naming one of their beers Boiling Charlie Red Ale.

Jim started brewing beer in an old barn and an abandoned semi trailer near Downing, Wisconsin. In 2004, he teamed up with award-winning brewmaster Todd Krueger from the Pioneer Brewing Company. The pair has been going great guns since, steadily increasing their distribution across the state.

Nothing like going on a long ride through Wisconsin and then getting to enjoy a nice beer.
Nothing like going on a long ride through Wisconsin and then getting to enjoy a nice beer.Lee Klancher

The next morning, we took to Wisconsin’s network of twisty two-lanes and headed south to La Crosse. Our next destination was the Pearl Street Brewery, a quick cab ride from our hotel in downtown La Crosse. We had an appointment to meet the owner, Joseph Katchever.

His brewery began in the basement of the Bodega, an infamous bar in downtown La Crosse. Incidentally, attaining the status of “infamous bar” is no small feat; in a town of 51,000 residents, La Crosse has more than 360 bars, and is often cited as Number One in the world for bars per capita.

We were visiting Pearl Street Brewery on Sunday, the last day of the town’s Oktoberfest. Katchever apparently took part in style, for when we arrived at the brewery, it was locked tight. After an hour of phone calls, Dillon Beyer (aka “Dilly Bar”), the distribution manager, told us the owner was not available but agreed to come show us around.

The beer we sampled was a mixed bag. The highly-awarded brews didn’t taste quite right—we suspected we got an off-batch. The Downtown Brown is a decent daily drinker a cut above the typical bar fare, as was the Pearl Street pale.

The next morning we headed across the state to the mecca of Wisconsin beer, Milwaukee. Our route rewarded us with twisty two-lane country roads punctuated with the smell of fresh-cut hay, cheese and rain-dewed green fields and trees sparkling in crisp sunshine. County roads Z and ZZ through Governor Dodge State Park twists and turns enough to do a California canyon proud.

The Victory Hammer at speed in farm country.
The Victory Hammer at speed in farm country.Lee Klancher

After a quick shower at the Iron Horse Hotel, we were shuttled off to the Lakefront Brewery, one of many fine beer establishments in Milwaukee. When we walked in, owners russ and Jim Klisch looked a little shell-shocked. They were thrilled to show us around, but had a limited amount of time. So, was it an important meeting? Well, no, Russ admitted. One of the oldest bars in Milwaukee was having a big bash to celebrate their last night in business.

We could respect that, so we took a quick tour with Jim, soaking in the malt and yeast-scented brewery air and gorgeous copper century brew kettle. The two men started brewing beer when Russ bought Jim a book about brewing as a birthday present. In December 1987, they sold their first barrel of beer to the Gorden Park Pub in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood.

When the tour was complete, we started frantically packing.

“There’s no hurry,” Jim said. “Don’t you want to taste the beer?”

Why yes, we did. But we didn’t think there was time.

“Oh, don’t worry about it,” Jim said. “The bar up front is well-stocked, and most of our beers are on tap. Taste whatever you like. Just lock the door behind you when you leave.”

The two men waved good-bye and headed out to their party. We were alone. In a brewery. Just three guys, and fourteen open taps. We poured, sipped, took notes, shot photos, and basked in the realization that, yes, Virginia, dreams do come true.

Pear Street Brewery began life in the basement of The Bodega bar in La Crosse. The place has a reasonable beer selection and a fantastic bratwurst sandwich.
Pear Street Brewery began life in the basement of The Bodega bar in La Crosse. The place has a reasonable beer selection and a fantastic bratwurst sandwich.Lee Klancher

We hit Water Street Brewery and a few other places that night. They probably stocked good beer but our palates were in no condition to judge that. Suffice it to say, despite our best efforts, we didn’t begin to scrape the surface of all the great beer destinations in Milwaukee.

The next day we headed back east to visit New Glarus Brewery. The New Glarus is new and stunning, part Italian villa and part suburban condominium complex. Walk the quarter mile or so to the bottling facility, and you’ll see thousands of bottles of beer careening through the machinery at breakneck speed.

New Glarus has so many beers it’s impossible to taste them all in a few days. The ones we tried were uniformly good, with interesting, subtle combinations.

Our last stop was at Minhas Brewery in Monroe. In a sturdy oak-trimmed office that has housed beer masters since 1845, we found President Gary Olson. He agreed to give us a tour.

The brewery itself is a battered old girl, a large industrial building wormholed with rusty stairways, vast cement coolers and a massive bottling and canning line. Updates have been done, but Olson visibly winced at some of the equipment still operating here.

Minhas has exploded in the past five years and sales were up more than 400 percent in this time period.

But Minhas is really not a craft brewery—they are the tenth-largest brewery in America—and the beer’s flavor simply doesn’t compare to the others we visited. Fully sated, we headed back to our hotel for the final task of the trip. earlier that day, we had filled the bath tub with ice and bottles of our favorite beers. our test subjects were lined up into groups by type, the cold bottles beaded with sweat and ready to go.

We tasted ales, wheat beers, porters and stouts. I sipped. Al sampled. Darrick pounded. The room spun. We scribbled ratings on note paper and drank water to try cleanse our palates. After the smoke cleared, four beers stood tall (see sidebar).

If the Holy Ghost cares one whit for beer and motorcycles—and if you read this far you know as well as I that he (or she) most certainly does—I’m quite certain he’s spending his weekends and off-duty evenings in southern Wisconsin, riding the roads all day and drinking locally-made heavenly-inspired beer all night long.