72 Hours in Milwaukee – Beer, Brats, Cheese. Repeat.
Day 1 – 72 Hours in Milwaukee
I take a seat in the balcony above the Milwaukee Public Market. Below me, a bustle of people go about doing their daily routine at the many stands selling everything from warm meals to fresh produce and meat, beer, wine, and coffee. It’s a flurry of activity that happily reminds me of the vibrancy I experienced at La Boqueria Market in Barcelona.
As I watch, I roll up my sleeves to dive into my first meal in Milwaukee – a Cheesy Joe from West Allis Cheese & Sausage Shoppe. The clerk asked what kind of cheese I wanted before preparing it, because Milwaukee. I opted for whatever she recommended. The grease dribbles down my beard as I giddily bite into the spicy, gooey concoction of cheddar and Sloppy Joe meat that’s melted between two slices of buttered toast. My side is a bag of beer flavored potato chips from Sprecher Brewery. While I’d prefer an actual beer, the yeasty chips suffice. There is plenty of beer to come.
As new craft brewers often gripe about the difficulties of opening a brewery with the tides of big beer working against them, it’s humbling to interview someone who has steered his brewery through far tougher times. Russ Klisch, co-founder of Lakefront Brewery, and I sit down together over a few pints of maibock. I listen in awe as he spins tales of converting dairy equipment into makeshift brewing equipment and attempting to sell Lakefront Brewery’s first kegs under the shadow of the big beer companies headquartered mere blocks away. Three decades later, the brewery is still brewing some of the tastiest beer in Milwaukee.
Closing Wolski’s – a Milwaukee drinking institution that’s been owned by the same family for over 100 years – is a rite of passage for locals, and a feat I wish to accomplish. Alas, I’m a parent of a toddler and midnight is already way past my bedtime. 2am is out of the question. Instead, I toast a shot of VO with the owner – I still can’t figure out how my dad drinks that stuff – and beg for a sticker. He relents and tosses in a hat for good measure. The bartender gives a pair of Wolski’s panties to my tour guide Katy and says they “smell fresh.” Our night is complete.
Day 2 – 72 Hours in Milwaukee
I stare into my steaming cup of coffee at Colectivo on the Lake – housed in the former Milwaukee River Flushing Station built in 1888 – having the great debate of many a hungover soul. Do I brave the potential third degree burns to my tongue for the much-needed infusion of caffeine or do the reasonable thing and wait for it to cool down? I decide to wait and enjoy the lake views on one of autumn’s last warm days of the year.
I sit on one of the sales display motorcycles at the Harley-Davidson Museum and imagine the rumble of this fine Milwaukee machinery tingling up my spine. After a thorough tour of the museum, I’m convinced that I don’t want a Harley: I need a Harley. If only I wasn’t legally blind… Instead, I live vicariously through the many displays tracing everything from the very first Harley made to the infamous Hell’s Angels to the culture that celebrates the legendary motorcycle.
Traditionalists may disregard the brats – Milwaukee’s other fabled food – from the Vanguard. I say let them and not know what they’re missing. All sausages at the Vanguard are made in house, including classic European styles. I slam their bratwurst topped with cheese curds, cheddar cheese, and Cheez Wiz to my face along with a Duck BLT (duck and bacon sausage) topped with lettuce, aioli, and bacon. And because it’s lunch, I skip the beer and order a Milwaukee Old Fashioned (made with brandy, not bourbon), one of the Vanguard’s cocktails served on draft.
The craft beer enthusiast in me wants to balk at the notion of a Miller Brewery tour. However… I’m a student of history and the beer barons of Milwaukee – along with the current versions of their breweries – helped define American beer culture. Laugh as we may at watered down light beers, today’s craft breweries can learn from both the quality control measures big beer uses and the efficiency with which industrial breweries operate. Miller Brewery, for example, is a zero-waste brewery. The sample of Miller Lite at the end though? I sip with my mouth shut and a polite smile on my face.
The sales representative from MobCraft Beer jammers on about how his company determines what beers they produce via crowdsourcing. The business and beer nerd in my wants to listen intently, but this Hasenpfeffer Stew in front of me with rabbit, wild boar bacon, cipolini onions, and fried capers is commanding my attentions. It’s rich, earthy, gamey, and fatty all at once. Each bite dances on my tongue in primal ecstasy. The Hasenpfeffer Stew is course four in a five course Wild Game and Beer Pairing Dinner at MOTOR Bar & Restaurant, the Harley-Davidson Museum’s restaurant. The other courses included confit duck crostini, bison sliders, buttermilk breaded alligator bites, and an antelope steak. All paired with one of MobCraft’s creatively crowdsourced brews.
Mike Roman of Romans’ Pub – a Draft Magazine Top 100 Beer Bar – stands across the bar from me, smug and arrogant as he describes the process in which he curates his beer list. “I see beer reps from 11:00 am to 1:00pm on Wednesdays,” he says. “If they can’t make it, that’s their problem, not mine. Very few local breweries are good enough for my bar anyway.” Instead, he brags about how he shies away from the popular and selects beers he thinks are interesting. Most are from national craft breweries like New Holland, Victory, and Goose Island (which, last I checked, wasn’t craft). I’m not impressed.
Follow the rest of my craft beer journey in Milwaukee!
Day 3 – 72 Hours in Milwaukee
My cell phone wakes me. Someone is sobbing on the other end. My mom. She’s helping to watch my son while I’m in Milwaukee. Panic sets in. Is he okay?
“Mom? Mom?” I say. More sobs. “What happened?”
“Grandma died last night,” she says. I join her tears and cancel my morning plans.
After gathering my wits and discovering my only flight options home are either the last plane out of town tonight or my scheduled flight for tomorrow, I continue with my morning as scheduled, visiting two breweries – Brenner Brewing and Urban Harvest Brewery – all the while realizing my head isn’t in the game. The questions don’t come to me and their answers aren’t registering.
I’m trying to engage in a conversation about where to find the best pizza in Milwaukee – a topic I’m normally very interested in. But all I want to do is scream, “Quit talking! My grandma died this morning! Can’t you tell I’m not listening?” Instead, I work through my fourth slice of pizza from Transfer Pizzeria Café. It’s crazy good, and I skipped breakfast.
Maybe it’s the fact that I’ve been sampling beer since 11:00am, but I finally feel somewhat normal. It’s probably the beer talking though. I’m interviewing Jim McCabe, CEO and Founder of MKE Brewing. We work through multiple samples of his portfolio, including Gin Barrel Aged O-Gii (their imperial wheat brewed with green tea) and Louie’s Resurrection (a bourbon barrel aged amber ale). Mike Roman is an ass for not carrying them.
“Drop your drawers so I can sign your ass,” commands Marcy, the 90-plus year-old owner of Holler House, another fifth generation Milwaukee drinking institution.
“And you,” she says to Katy. “Take off your bra and sling it over the rafters.”
This is my kind of joint, I think to myself as I dodge Sharpie wielding Marcy and quickly plant my backside on a barstool before ordering a beer. I glance over at Katy who tightens up the grip on her rain coat. Embarrassing moment between colleagues avoided. Marcy offers us a bowl of chili. It’s family night at Holler House and she cooked up a batch in her kitchen, which the back of the bar opens to. Later, one of the regulars gives us a tour of the bowling alley downstairs – the oldest certified lanes in the country.
“You’re actually going to finish that, aren’t you?” says Katy, as she watches me tuck my napkin back under my collar. For the past five minutes, I’ve been eyeing what’s left of my bone-in ribeye. With a steak this good, the question isn’t whether I’m going to finish it, it’s whether I have the couth to pick it up and eat it off the bone. No, Five O’clock Steakhouse – one of Milwaukee’s infamous supper clubs – is too classy for that. I take a sip of my second Milwaukee Old Fashioned Sweet (these things are addictive) and dive in.
All of Five O’clock Steakhouse’s meats are from Wisconsin and wet aged for 30-days before getting the Five O’clock treatment. The steaks are seared on both sides and then removed from the grill to rest for ten minutes. The meat is then doused in the secret marinade and tossed back on the grill until cooked to temperature. It’s served with a nice char on the outside, whatever temperature you ordered on the inside, swimming in the au jus.
I kid you not that this was the best steak of my life.
Bryant’s Cocktail Lounge is a swanky, throwback joint where the ambiance is so dark, that you can barely see your hand in front of you. But, as David Wondrich, one the country’s foremost authorities on cocktails says, “Stay long enough and you’ll have no trouble seeing at all. Single or double.”
Bryant’s cocktail menu boasts over 450 cocktails. But here’s the catch, there’s no menu. You tell the bartender what your tastes are, and he’ll mix up something to please. Challenge taken.
I tell my bartender that my grandmother passed away this morning, I like rye, and need something to help me sleep. He mixes me a Frank’s Wild Eyes with rye, chartreuse, and… that’s all he tells me. It’s perfect.
Day 4 – 72 Hours in Milwaukee
I end my time in Milwaukee with an early lunch at Good City Brewing and a flight of their West Coast influenced ales. Each beer impresses more than the prior. Fresh, juicy, and delicately intricate. Finally, Mike Roman and I have something that we can agree on as Good City Brewing is a local brewery he wishes to serve in his bar.
Want to go on a similar trip?
As you can tell, Milwaukee is a fun town to spend the weekend in. I stayed at the Potawatomi Hotel & Casino. It was clean, comfortable, and very modern inside. Other unique Milwaukee Hotels include the Brewhouse Inn & Suites, which is housed in a former Pabst brewery, and the motorcycle themed Iron Horse Hotel. For things to do beyond food and beer, Milwaukee Bucket List is a fun guide book.
Visit Milwaukee sponsored my trip. As always, my opinions remain my own.
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