Beer Hunting in Greater Milwaukee
In Cedarburg, Wisconsin, at the corner of Portland and Columbia St, there’s a large old building, formerly the town’s grain mill, now the feedlot store. One-half block down Portland, you’ll see this sign for Silver Creek Brewery.
You might notice that there’s no building there. But if you walk down the hill on the nearby outdoor stairway, toward the creek, you’ll see a small blacktop path, which leads past a barn-red storage shed owned by the feedstock store next door. Following the path, eventually you’ll see a patio with some outdoor chairs and tables. Walking past the tables, you’ll see a large door – opening it, there’s a small indoor bridge over the part of the creek that had been diverted to operate the grain mill. Go through another door, and you’re in a friendly, welcoming brewpub in the basement of the feedlot store. (Although, the term “brewpub” is stretching things a bit. If you want food, they’ll hand you a menu from a local pizzeria that delivers. But they may have a few pretzels on hand.)
Unlike most brewpubs, Silver Creek has an impressive list of “guest beers” on tap. There’s no major ego here. (Conversation point: “Why don’t you make any Belgian-style beers?” “Because no one can do them as well as the Belgians.”) But for the most part, the guest beers, while very well-chosen, are usually available at some of Chicago’s better beer bars. Go for what they produce in-house.
Like the Hefe-Weiss (Silver Creek seems to have a real affinity for hyphenating its beer style descriptions). Crisp, with classic banana-clove flavors. Had the weather been better, this would have been a perfect quaff outside, next to picturesque Cedar Creek. Or go to the other extreme with the Imperial Mai-Bock; slowly savor its deep, rich, complex caramel flavor – at 10% ABV, it’s a true definition of a winter warmer. The Mai-Bock also has a first cousin in the Vintage Ale, made in the style of a British Old Ale, with citrusy flavor notes and 8% ABV. The IPA has an unusual sweet start and a bitter hoppy finish – not quite typical for the style, but tasty on its own. And the Porter (surprisingly, they don’t call it Por-Ter) is not as heavy as you might expect from such a dark beer, although it has good body and full, roasted flavors.
One other unusual concoction from Silver Creek – blonde root beer. It’s not unusual for breweries to also make root beer (Sprecher makes an exceptional one), but this rich brew has a true depth of rooty flavor, and one additional benefit. If you’re out drinking with the guys, the alcohol is hitting you a little hard, and you’re worried about the drive home, but you don’t want to look like a wuss who isn’t keeping up … blonde root beer in your mug looks exactly like a lager. No one needs to know you’re not getting further sloshed.
Another surprising find, for this Chicagoan at least, was St. Francis Brewery. This brand-new facility, which opened April 6, is just south of the City of Milwaukee, and even though there’s not much else in the neighborhood, it’s apparent that a lot of money has been spent on the place. A large, modern space, punctuated by heavy timber beams and some natural stone walls, it almost screams “We’re gonna be the P.F. Chang’s of brewpubs!” Don’t let the slickness fool you – there’s some serious beer here.
Consider their Mariner Nut Brown Ale. The caramel, slightly roasted malt character is much richer than the commonly available Newcastle version. Or the KK Weiss – appropriately cloudy, clovey aroma, and as crisp a version of a hefeweizen as you may ever taste. The Archbishop Amber is a well-balanced choice if the Brown is too much for you. But skip the bland South Shore Stout and the rather heavy Kitzinger Kölsch. They make a good root beer here, too.
back row, l to r: KK Weiss, Kitzinger Kölsch, South Shore Stout
front row: Archbishop Amber, Mariner Nut Brown Ale, 49 Maples Root Beer
West of Milwaukee, Delafield Brewhaus is another slick, modern operation, sitting up on a hill along a winding suburban road that includes all the usual big box stores and strip mall denizens.
Its No. 27 Barleywine is a brawny, malty, 12.5% ABV behemoth. You won’t need to read the description: one sip and you’ll know it was aged in old Bourbon barrels. Fruit beer lovers will be relieved to know that the guys at Delafield don’t make the usual raspberry beer. Their wheat-based Blackberry Weiss has a more interesting flavor than raspberry, and avoids the sweetness that sometimes causes fruit beers to be considered “girly,” or “a beer for people who don’t like beer.”
So, what would you expect from a brewpub named “Randy’s Funhunters”? Well, it’s not everything you’d expect, and less.
Randy’s suffered from the light-to-dark-beers-that-all-taste-about-the-same syndrome. But it did seem popular with the Whitewater, WI locals. And you have to admire the skill that goes into making something that’s normally rich, like an oatmeal stout, taste amazingly bland.
A bit of a drive north of Milwaukee brings you to the city of West Bend (almost as charming as Cedarburg, but without Cedarburg’s cutesiness). It’s home to Riverside Brewing, and although you’d never know from the street, it is actually alongside the Milwaukee River, with a small outdoor deck overlooking the river. Too bad the other side of the river looks a bit like an industrial wasteland.
Without a doubt, Riverside uses the best glassware I’ve ever seen for their samplers – mini-mugs. The beers were hit or miss – the Amber Ale and the Berry Weiss were both surprisingly – and not pleasantly – sweet, while Legacy Lager showed nice balance, and the Honey Ale grew on me after a few sips, with its good honey flavors.
back row, l to r: ‘Bee Home Soon’ Honey Ale, ‘Dizzy Blonde’ Weiss, West Bend Legacy Lager
front row: Wyndemere West Uncommon Pale Ale, ‘Main Street’ Amber Ale, ‘Feelin’ Lucky’ Irish Stout, ‘Bent River’ Berry Weiss
Water Street, in downtown Milwaukee, features two brewpubs. It’s a little less than a one-mile stumble to get from one to the other. In the Historic Third Ward, is the Milwaukee Ale House (slogan: “Ale’s What Cures Ya”). (There’s also a branch in Grafton.)
It’s a vast space, with several rooms, and two levels outdoors overlooking the Milwaukee River. (In fact, you can dock your boat at the Ale House while you’re imbibing.) And it’s a good place to imbibe. The Solomon Juneau Ale (named after one of Milwaukee’s founders) is a well-balanced beer with Saaz hop notes; the Sheepshead Stout (nitrogen-dispensed for an especially creamy head) had an especially complex roasted malt flavor. But the IPA could have used more hops. And the Honey Ale is apparently designed for people who consider Miller Lite to be an especially challenging beer.
Up the street, Water Street Brewery was Milwaukee’s first brewpub, started in 1987. (There’s a second location in Delafield.)
Given its history, I really wanted to like Water Street. And the Oktoberfest did have an interesting malty quality. The Black Lager had a nice balance, without being overwhelmed by the flavors of roasted malts. But the Honey Lager had a varnish flavor, and the Raspberry Weiss exemplified “fruit beer cliché.” According to my notes, the term “blah” came up frequently in describing the other beers. The pizza was okay, though. It’s as if the brewmaster here is just phoning it in. Maybe I was spoiled by some of the previous stops.
Of course, there are two other significant destinations that are true breweries rather than brewpubs – Sprecher and Lakefront.
Touring Sprecher in Glendale, just north of Milwaukee, it was heartening to see large sacks of Briess Malt throughout the plant. Briess is one of the world’s top artisanal maltsters, located not far up I-43, in Chilton. And it’s the backbone of all Sprecher beers.
I was surprised to learn that Sprecher does more business in soft drinks than it does in beer (as they explain it, there’s a lot less paperwork to do to distribute soda). And their root beer is well-known among aficionados of such products. But their beers are nothing to sneeze at – so please don’t sneeze at them when you see them in your local well-stocked liquor store.
The tour (nominal fee, nominal content, reservations recommended) is pretty basic, but it’s the only way to get to their indoor beer garden. There, you get a chance to experience up to four samples of their beers in a sampler glass you can take home. Among those we sampled: The IPA2 had good hop flavor, but was a bit light on hop aroma; the Abbey Triple was especially rich, and reminiscent of Chimay Grande Reserve; the Russian Imperial Stout (at 7.9% ABV, fairly low for the style) was particularly aromatic, and the Winter Brew had a nutty malt character (although, at 5.75% ABV, it could hardly be considered a “Winter Warmer”).
Milwaukee’s other brewery, Lakefront, is housed in a former power plant, upgraded to include a grand beer hall and a riverfront terrace. Tours (nominal fee) are on a first-come, first-serve basis. Arriving before the last sold-out tour on a Saturday afternoon, we were relegated to just tasting what was on tap. Which was pretty good.
The Cream City Pale Ale (named after the typical color of Milwaukee bricks – as you see on the building – not Wisconsin’s dairy heritage) is a good American version of this brewing stalwart – I’m guessing it uses Cascade or a related hop for its citrusy flavor. The Eye PA had a good dose of hops, and the Riverwest Stein Beer Amber Lager had a nice, clean flavor the truly emphasized the malt (and, as a lager, went easy on the esters and phenols).
Also, Lakefront isn’t really on the lakefront. Apparently Riverfront didn’t sound as romantic. But being on the riverfront does allow them one advantage. The riverfront dock is a jumping-off place for the Brew City Queen (414-283-9999), a pontoon boat that, on weekends, cruises the river, also making stops at Milwaukee Ale House and Rock Bottom Brewery.
There was one other brewery, but we skipped it, because it’s not really significant in producing good beers.
Breweries mentioned here:
Silver Creek Brewing
N57 W6172 Portland Road
at Columbia Road
Cedarburg WI 53012
St. Francis Brewery & Restaurant
3825 South Kinnickinnic Avenue
St. Francis WI 53235
3832 Hillside Dr.
Delafield WI 53018
Randy’s Funhunters Brewery and Restaurant
Hwy 12, 841 E Milwaukee St.
Whitewater WI 53190
Riverside Brewery & Restaurant
255 South Main Street
West Bend WI 53095
Milwaukee Ale House
223 N Water St.
Milwaukee WI 53202
Water Street Brewery
1101 N Water St
Milwaukee WI 53202
Sprecher Brewing Company
701 W Glendale Ave.
Glendale WI 53209
1872 N Commerce St.
Milwaukee WI 53212
Miller Brewing Company
42 …nah, I’m not supplying that address. If you insist, you can find it on your own.