Drink, Pray And Polka In Underrated Milwaukee

milwaukee brewing companyIt’s Friday night and I’m at a brewery tour in Milwaukee drinking beer. Good beer – not the mass-produced crap that Milwaukee is famous for. Tom Martin, our guide at the Milwaukee Brewing Company, takes a moment to state the obvious for the benefit of out-of-towners like us.

“We have a drinking culture here in Wisconsin in case you haven’t noticed,” he says, standing beside an imposing stack of 50-pound barley sacks. “You can get caught driving drunk with a child in your car and it’s still only a misdemeanor here.”
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He’s joking but the point registers. According to Trulia, Milwaukee has the second most bars per capita in the country, just a hair behind New Orleans, with 8.5 bars per 10,000 households. (And unlike the Big Easy, all the bars in Milwaukee cater to locals.) But Forbes named Milwaukee America’s drunkest city and, according to USA Today, the state of Wisconsin has the highest percentage of binge drinkers in the country and ranks fifth in total number of breweries with 112.


milwaukeePerhaps the good people at the Milwaukee Brewing Company had these statistics in mind when they created their brewery tour. Brewers ordinarily make patrons suffer through long, boring tours before they deign to offer a chance to taste their product and even then, they might serve just one full beer or a few tastes.



But tonight, our tour started with free beers, and then there were two beer breaks during our hour-long tour before we were sent back to the bar for a half-hour long open bar to cap the experience. And did I mention that our $10 ticket also entitled us to two tokens that are good for even more of their beer at area bars? Welcome to Milwaukee.

If you want to compile a short list of America’s most underrated cities, start with the places that have lost population over the last 50-100 years. Philadelphia, St. Louis, Buffalo and Cincinnati all had a larger population 100 years ago than they do now. And Milwaukee and Richmond were more populous in the 1950s and 1960s than they are now.



These are seen as declining cities – yesterday’s news – but I think these are six of the most underrated urban destinations in the country. All of these cities are brimming with history, culture and style but none are overwhelmed with tourists.

A year ago, I opined that Richmond might be the country’s most underrated city, but after a recent visit to Milwaukee, I might be ready to change my vote and not just because I like beer. In the winter, the place has a vacant, almost haunted vibe. It would be easy to conclude that the place is dead but keep looking. The city is synonymous with bad beer and the television shows “Happy Days” and “Laverne & Shirley,” but if you take the time to get to know this inviting city and the unpretentious people who live there, you’ll discover that it’s one of America’s best-kept secrets.

It’s a city where the Friday night fish fry is an institution, a place where sausage is elevated to an art form, a community where every neighborhood has a church that even an atheist would want to visit, a metropolis defined by its taverns and people who aren’t too cool to the do the Chicken Dance, and good, yes, good beer. Go ahead and tour the Miller and Pabst breweries if you must, but when you’re ready for the good stuff, check out the tours at Sprecher, Milwaukee Brewing Company, and Lakefront Brewery, which also has a killer Friday night fish fry complete with live polka music (see video below).




basilica of st josaphatStart your Milwaukee tour at the Basilica of St. Josaphat, which opened in 1901 to serve the largely ethnic Polish community in the Lincoln Village neighborhood. The basilica is modeled after St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and the interior is as beautiful as any place of worship in the country (see video below).

You can see the domed basilica from miles away but you could easily miss the St. Joan of Arc Chapel (see above), which dates to the 15th century but was moved to the campus of Marquette University in 1966. (The chapel was moved from near Lyon, France, to Long Island in the 1920s before its move to Milwaukee.) It’s worth the effort to find this place – as soon as you step through the big wooden doors and feel the bluish glow of stained glass, you’ll feel like you were visiting an ancient church in rural France.



If you want a flavor of old Milwaukee, the city, not the beer, take a stroll through the lobby of the Hilton City Center, which was built in 1927 and is still loaded with vintage charm. Check out the German bars and sausage shops on Old World Third Street and then, to get a feel for some of the outlying neighborhoods, cruise over to Brady Street or Murray Hill on the east side, or Bay View or Walker’s Point on the south side. Definitely have lunch at Milwaukee’s Public Market in the historic Third Ward and, if the weather is good, don’t miss the Estabrook Beer Garden. There are great neighborhood bars everywhere, but Wolski’s is one old-school watering hole that everyone washes up in at one time or another.


I think of Milwaukee as a venerable old town but the city’s premier attraction is modernity personified. The Milwaukee Art Museum has an impressive collection of art but the real attraction here is the Quadracci Pavilion, a stunning, futuristic annex built by the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava in 2001. Even if you don’t want to visit the museum, take a walk into the pavilion or dine at Café Calatrava downstairs for gourmet food and a sublime view. The building’s Brise Soleil wings open and close during the museum’s opening and closing hours and the wings also flap at noon each day.




milwaukeeEach time I visit Milwaukee from my home base in Chicago – which was once called a “pompous” Milwaukee – I feel like the city is a less expensive, more laid back, and more manageable version of the Windy City. And I think that Badger state residents have more pride in their state than any other place in the country, with the possible exception of Texas. There’s a cohesive culture in Wisconsin that revolves around beer, brats, cheese, the Packers, the Badgers, fish fry, supper clubs and 1,000 other things that make this state unique. Milwaukeeans will tell you that they are content to keep their hometown a well-kept secret, but there’s always an empty barstool somewhere in town, so stop by the next time you thirst for something different.



[Photo/video credits: Dave Seminara]


Queens, New York To Open First Brewery Since Prohibition

Queens brewery SinglecutNext week, the NYC borough of Queens is set to debut their first beer brewery in decades when Singlecut Beersmiths opens in Astoria. Most of their new brews will feature a high IBU (a bitterness measurement, putting IPAs and stouts in the middle to higher range) and a healthy amount of hops. Fitting for the first Queens brewery since Prohibition, the first beer on tap (if you’ll pardon the pun) will be called 1933, in honor of the year alcohol was made legal again, as well as a reference to their address at 19-33 37th Street. A “flagship” IPA to debut in December, with seasonal offerings planned as well. Check out the blog and Facebook page for details on the launch and special events. According to Thrillist, Singlecut plans to collaborate with such neighborhood establishments as Queens Kickshaw, increasing Astoria’s foodie street cred.

See Singlecut Beersmiths for details on brews and brewery tours. Hoppy travels!

[Photo credit: Flickr user chrisscott]

Quirky Hospitality In Ouray, Colorado

john wayne's hat There are many interesting cities to visit during a trip through Colorado. While Denver has excellent artisanal shops, you can find the world’s highest distillery in Breckenridge. If you’re looking for something out of the ordinary, the little known town of Ouray offers various ways to receive quirky hospitality.

Quirky Restaurant: The Outlaw

Located at 610 Main Street, The Outlaw is the oldest operating restaurant in Ouray, open since early 1969 with the same sign still hanging. It has a very “Old West” feel, with a pianist playing upbeat tunes in the corner, walls of cowboy hats and a dimly lit room littered with wooden tables. While the steaks are delicious and the cocktails strong, the biggest draw to this place is the fact you can wear one of John Wayne’s hats. It’s the one located behind the bar, above the beers. During the shooting for a film, Wayne was staying in Ouray. One day, he called up The Outlaw to order some food for pickup. The owner’s wife answered, and when he said it was John Wayne calling, she responded by saying “yea right” and hung up the phone. Wayne became so enamored with her crassness; he ended up eating there everyday during the entire movie shoot.cookieQuirky Dessert Shop: Mouse’s Chocolates & Coffee

Not only does Mouse’s Chocolates & Coffee have unusual chocolate flavors like bacon clusters with Chardonnay salt and coconut bark with pumpkin and sunflower, it’s also home of the locally-loved Scrap Cookie. After making their chocolates for the day, the staff takes the scraps and add them to their family recipe cookie batter. When customers order a Scrap Cookie, they won’t know what they’re getting until they take a bite. One thing is for sure, though, it’ll be delicious. Local tip: Buy two Scrap Cookies and have them make an ice-cream sandwich for you. While they’ll often say they don’t do it, tell them a local told you about it, and they most likely will.

ouray Quirky Brewery: Ourayle House

Also known as the “Mr. Grumpy Pants Brewing Company,” the Ourayle House is a bizarre experience. It resides in the garage of the cranky owner, Hutch, who takes pride in making snarky comments to customers. The place looks like it’s made of scrap wood – mainly because most of it is – and old and broken sports equipment and dirty board games litter the space. If you leave your business card you can expect a rude comment to be written on the back, and if you’re a beer snob you can expect any diva-esque quotes to be written on the board behind the bar. For example, when I was there, one customer made the mistake of saying, “I only drink IPAs and Coors Light.” Of course, this was quickly noted for all to see. Hutch even has a countdown for how many “days without a beer Madonna” have passed. It’s also fun to read the unfriendly and weird signs that adorn the walls, reading things like “Welcome to Mr. Grumpy Pants Brewing Company Cheers! ‘Welcome’ being a relative term,” and “It has always been out policy to accept game meat for beer, from good hunters and careless drivers.” Hutch makes all his beer on site, and rotates his drafts to keep things interesting. You can even order based on a brew’s “sq,” meaning “slamability quotient.”

christmas b&bQuirky Accommodation: The Christmas House Bed & Breakfast Inn

While most B&Bs have a certain unusual charm to them, Ouray’s The Christmas House Bed & Breakfast Inn is another animal. The old Victorian home has been around since 1889, although it officially became a bed and breakfast in 1998. For those who have read “The Painted Ladies,” the property was featured in the book. It’s a very quirky accommodation, as it’s Christmas all year long here. Along with the outside and common rooms being decorated with festive decor, each guest room features a Christmas tree with seasonal accents. Along with yuletide cheer, rooms also have saunas, Jacuzzis and cable television.

An Artisanal Taste Of Denver, Colorado

wine While it’s easy to find big-name chain restaurants and mass-produced foods, it’s always nice to get a more local experience. One city with excellent quality and craft tastes is Denver, Colorado. To help you navigate the artisanal flavors of the area, here are my top picks.

Wine: D’Vine Wines
1660 Champa Street

The only winery in downtown Colorado, D’Vine Wines, also known as the Wild Women Winery, imports grapes from California then ferments them and puts their own unique spin on the blends. It’s a boutique winery with a cozy and inviting atmosphere, as well as a friendly and knowledgeable staff who will help you learn about the art of wine tasting. For example, I learned that to aerate the wine you don’t softly move the glass around, but fervently spin it in quick circles while pushing the base of the glass down onto the table. Likewise, the drier the wine, the higher the alcohol content because it has only a small amount of residual sugar. You can do tastings for three for $5, seven for $10 or four for $12 with a souvenir wine glass. Some of the best wines I tasted included:

  • Sangiovese- Made with the grape used to create Chianti, it has a silky finish with flavors of strawberry and plum.
  • Zinfandel and Syrah Blend- While these two aggressively flavored grapes are not usually combined, the Zinfandel is so light it tastes better blended than alone. Together the two compose a spicy wine with a smooth fruit finish.
  • Green Apple Riesling- This wine tastes just like a sour apple Jolly Rancher, and smells like one, too. It’s a tart yet refreshing sweet white wine.
  • Chocolate Port- A unique desert wine, it is fermented to a higher alcohol content while using less brandy than most port wines. It’s smooth and sweet, with a dark chocolate finish.

A fun aspect of the wines is each variety has its own special bottle, complete with a sexy female character and story. You’ll get to know ladies like Miss Booty, Dusty Twilight and Royal Ruby, and how they relate to these delicious and rare wines. Moreover, the winery allows visitors to make their own wine with help from qualified vintners.

cheese Cheese And Meat: The Truffle Cheese Shop
2906 E. 6th Avenue

As soon as you walk into this gourmet cheese shop your nose will be in heaven. The Truffle Cheese Shop features hard to find specialty items and rare cheeses. They work under a sustainable philosophy, creating organic, free-range and all-natural products. What’s really great about the shop is they offer free cheese and meat tastings. Some of the best things I sampled include:

  • Memoire Truffle- This Dutch Gouda cheese is made with heady Italian truffles and packs an Earthy punch.
  • Goat Cheddar- This blended cheese has a sweet, mild flavor. It’s less aggressive than goat cheese, but still gives you that interesting flavor.
  • Charloe- This raw cow’s milk cheese has a delicate aroma, and a hint of roasted nuts.

This is the perfect place to plan for a picnic, as the shop also offers sweets, crackers, pickles, olive tapenades, hot sauces, jams, olive oils, vinegars and unique cured meats like venison and duck salami and traditional Spanish chorizo. Additionally, on weekends and certain weekdays, The Truffle Cheese Shop offers cheese classes and events.

olive oil Olive Oil And Balsamic: EVOO Marketplace
1338 15th Street

EVOO Marketplace is a truly one-of-a-kind shop, as it’s essentially a giant tasting bar of olive oils and balsamic vinegars. It was the first of its kind in Colorado, and is still family-owned and operated. The shop features over 50 products to sample in unique flavors. Moreover, you can basically travel without leaving the store, as the oils and balsamic vinegars come from all over the world like Italy, Chile, Australia, New Zealand, California and Tunisia.

In terms of olive oils, some of the unique flavors include Persian lime, wild mushroom and sage, black truffle, roasted almond, grape seed and arbequina. For the balsamic vinegars, visitors can sample blood orange, dark chocolate, blackberry-ginger, pumpkin pie spice, cinnamon pear and Vermont maple. Tip: Mix the blood orange balsamic with the dark chocolate. My friends and I were all in agreement that the blend was one of the best things we’d ever tasted.

beer Beer: Falling Rock Tap House
1919 Blake Street

While there are myriad breweries and brew pubs in Denver, the Falling Rock Tap House has something special about it. The boutique brewery just turned 15 years old, so they’re not new to the beer business. In fact, you can check out the wall of over 2,000 beer bottles lined up, most of which owner Chris Black drank himself. Additionally, they feature 88 beers on tap, making them one of the largest breweries in Denver. What I really love about this place, though, is how the bartenders are completely honest. For example, when I went to order a Redstone Meadery Sunshine Nectar, he answered, “I don’t think you should get that. It’s terrible.” He then suggested the Julian Apple Cider, which was delicious with a refreshing, crisp taste and a bit of tartness. I also sampled their Rockyard Hopyard, a lightly carbonated pale IPA that had a hoppy taste, with hints of oats and grain. Other popular choices on the menu include Dry Dock Double IPA, “Bull & Bush” Big Ben Brown, “Sandlot” Barmen and “Avery” White Rascal.

hot dogs Unique Delicacies: Biker Jim’s
2148 Larimer Street

Biker Jim’s is a unique hot dog eatery beloved by both locals and travelers. While they do serve beef, you’ll also find elk, rattlesnake, pheasant, reindeer, buffalo, wild boar and duck dogs. If you’re in the mood for something really juicy and fattening, their bat dog is made of bacon, and topped with bacon bits, avocado and tomato cream cheese. It’s also a great place to eat on a budget, as hot dogs start at $6 and cost $1.50 extra for unusual toppings like Harissa roasted cactus with Malaysian jam, scallions, cilantro and onions and cream cheese with caramelized onions. They’re open late on weekends, and also have a food cart across from the clock tower on the 16th Street Mall.

chocolate Chocolate: Dietrich’s Chocolate & Espresso
1734 E. Evans Avenue

Dietrich’s Chocolate & Espresso was opened in 1975 by a German man named Erich Dietrich. While growing up in Germany, he apprenticed under a master chocolatier, learning the craft of fine chocolate making. Walking into the shop, you’ll be amazed at the cases of flawless handmade chocolates. You can sample chocolates and truffles for $1.50 and up. Some interesting chocolate varieties include hot chili pepper, pomegranate truffle, French mint, blueberry pecan and creme brulee truffle. Additionally, the shop is the only place in Colorado where you can find chocolate made from the rare Peruvian cacao bean, Nacional. They also serve breakfast and lunch if you’re in the mood for food.