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]


Connecticut Beer Trail holds second official “Bikes and Beers” tour in Granby July 31st

connecticut beerFar be it from the People to not abide by the Constitution. On July 31st, Granby is holding its second “Bikes & Beers” tour along the Connecticut Beer Trail (it’s the Constitution State, FYI. Yeah, I didn’t know, either).

Connecticut seems obsessed with food and drink-themed pathways: there’s the new Hot Dog Trail, the Ice cream and Sundae Drive (cute), and the Wine Trail. Why the fixation? Who cares? It’s a cool idea, especially when partnered with pedaling.

Bikes & Beers is a collaboration with Connecticut’s Pedal Power bike shops. Riders will get to enjoy beautiful views along the 17.2-mile loop, as well as some cold ones at the Cambridge House Brew Pub, an award-winning producer of craft beer. It’s just one of 10 craft breweries featured on the Beer Trail, a social media organization dedicated to promoting local breweries, the craft beer community, and related tourism (how cool is that?) statewide.

Better look out, West Coast and Colorado–Connecticut’s craft brewers are gaining on you.

The Connecticut Beer Trail and Pedal Power are planning future rides; click here or go to Pedal Power’s site for updates.

[Photo credit: Flickr user roboppy]

The Right Way to Pour and Taste a Beer

Following the Lake Michigan Shore Wine Trail

Around an hour’s drive from Chicago (close to four hours from Detroit), the Lake Michigan Shore Wine Trail is located at the southwest border of Michigan, near the resort towns of New Buffalo, St. Joseph, and Saugatuk. The countryside in the area contains over 10,000 acres of grapes and twelve wineries. It’s easy to plan a weekend getaway (or even a day-trip from Chicago) to this beautiful wine region near the Lake.

Where to Drink
With a dozen wineries to chose from, it can hard to narrow down your choices. But you’ll need to limit yourself to four or five per day (those little tastes do add up!). Warner Vineyards, St. Julian, and Contessa Wine Cellars all offer free tastings. Free Run Cellars and the Round Barn Winery are owned by the same family. Buy a $5 souvenir wine glass at one, and it will cover your tasting fees at the other as well. At Round Barn, you can taste five wines, one dessert wine, and one of their made-onsite vodkas. There is also a beer-tasting room where you can sample some of the beers they brew. Tours of the wine cellar, cave, brewery and distillery are available for groups of 20 people at $10 each, and you can enjoy lunch at the picnic facilities that overlook the vineyards.

Where to Stay
You’ll find some hotel chains in the area, but for a little more character, check out the Oliver Inn Bed and Breakfast, a restored Victorian inn where rooms start at $100 per night. The Marina Grand in New Buffalo is a little swankier. Rooms run $140 to $200 per night, but feature luxury bedding, marina views, and the hotel has a fitness center and indoor and outdoor pools.

Where to Eat
New Buffalo and St. Joseph have the most options for dining. Here you’ll find everything from casual pub food at the Stray Dog Bar and Grill to fine dining at The Dining Room at Clearbrook. For a special occasion, try Tabor Hill, which serves meals made from local ingredients in a romantic setting. If you didn’t buy enough wine on your tasting tour, New Buffalo’s Vino 100 wine shop is the perfect place to stop. They have over 100 bottles that cost under $10.

What to Do
Other than staining your lips purple at the area’s wineries, you can take advantage of the Trail’s lakeside location with swimming, sailing, or relaxing on the beach near Saugatuk. You’ll also find several u-pick fruit farms, a cider mill, and your standard assortment of resort town stores – candy shops, ice cream parlors, and “resort wear” boutiques.

If you don’t have a designated driver and wish to have more than a few samples, there are several companies that offer transportation along the route. Fruitful Vine charges $50 per hour for transportation in a Suburban (which seats five) or offers four-hour hop-on bus tours for $39 per person in summer.

Great Lakes Brewing: Saving the planet one beer at a time

At a recent farm dinner I attended, a multi-course meal of farm-fresh, organic ingredients was paired with beers from Great Lakes Brewing. As we dined and drank, we were treated to an informal lesson on brewing from owner Pat Conway, who also gave us the lowdown on the many greet initiatives that Great Lakes has undertaken in an effort to be environmentally responsible while producing top-notch beer. It’s a philosophy that the company calls a “triple bottom line” – a mission to run an environmentally and socially responsible business while still turning a profit – and it seems to be paying off.

The Cleveland, Ohio, brewery opened in 1988 as the state’s first micro-brewery and has been growing, and racking up awards, ever since. The Dortmunder Gold, one of the brewery’s first beers, was originally called the Heisman. After it won a gold medal in the Dortmunder category at the Great American Beer Festival in 1990, the New York Athletic Club noticed that the Heisman name was be used and requested it be changed. Other beers are more fancifully named and reflect the brewery’s location in the Great Lakes Region. There’s Edmund Fitzgerald Porter, honoring the boat that famously sank in Lake Superior; Eliot Ness, named for the man rumored to be responsible for the bullet holes in the brewery’s bar; and Burning River, a nod to the infamous burning of the Cuyahoga River in 1969.

But what makes these beers so special, aside from the quirky names and indisputable quality (each has won numerous Gold Medals at competitions around the world), is that they are produced using so many green and sustainable methods. The owners, brothers Pat and Daniel Conway, say they take a full-circle approach to reduce waste and make the company more efficient. This approach has filtered down to all levels of staff, and dictates the methods used in all aspects of the business.

The brewery’s delivery truck and shuttle bus run on recycled restaurant vegetable oil, and they require that the trucks used by their distributors do the same. All cardboard, glass, aluminum, paper and brewer’s barley is recycled. Newsletters, napkins, and menus are printed on recycled paper, all beer packaging is done with unbleached “eco-carton” and Pat says they even go so far as to re-use the blank sides of printer paper for internal documents. The brewery cooler features skylights and sensors to reduce electricity used for lighting, and the cooling system brings in cold air from outside in the winter to reduce the amount of energy required to keep the temperature constant.

Great Lakes works with local organic farmers to serve only the freshest food in their restaurant. Currently, 60% of their food supply comes from local and organic sources, though Pat says they are striving for 100%. They recently contracted with an Amish farmer who will provide the kitchen with meat from animals that graze on the brewery’s own barley waste. Spent grain goes to a baker who makes pretzels and beer-bread served at the restaurant, and another local farm uses brewery grains to fertilize the organic mushrooms they grow and then sell back to Great Lakes for use in entrees. Other organic waste is fed to worms. In a process called vermicomposting, the worms turn the waste into fertilizer, which is used to grow herbs in the brewery’s garden. Even the low-fill beers (beers that aren’t quite filled to the top by the bottling machinery) are saved and used for sauces, salad dressings, and soups. The low-filled Edmund Fitzgerald Porter bottles are used by a local ice cream shop to make chocolate chunk ice cream.

The brewery’s outdoor beer garden is also eco-friendly. Rather than let the space go to waste during Cleveland’s bitterly-cold winters, the Conway brothers decided to cover it with a retractable canvas roofing, packed straw bales into the walls for insulation, and added a fireplace to warm the space. They were using wood logs for the fire, until one employee had a bright idea. Instead of composting the spent cinnamon sticks used to make the Christmas Ale, why not compress them into logs to fuel the beer garden fireplace? The result of all these features is that, even on the coldest days of winter, it costs just $8 per day to heat the beer garden.

The result of all these sustainable efforts is staggering. Great Lakes Brewing, a $25 million business, has zero waste bills. Pat says he looks at waste removal as “waste opportunity” and is always searching for new ways to make the business green, and keep it growing. But the brothers aren’t just pocketing all that profit. The company also contributes to the community. Every year they participate in the Great Lakes Burning River Festival, which raises awareness and funds for environmental cleanup in the Great Lakes Region. An environmentally responsible company that gives back to the community and makes delicious craft beer – I think we can all cheers to that.

If you can make it out the Cleveland brewery, in addition to dining in the brewpub or enjoying drinks in the beer garden, you can take a guided tour of the brewery facilities, attend “beer school” to learn all about the brewing process, or enjoy a multi-course Brewmaster’s dinner paired with beer. You can also find Great Lakes beers in Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, New York, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and West Virginia.

Brewery Tours and Wine Tasting: Free, or at least Cheap

Martha’s post on boozing for cheap reminded me of brewery tours. When I was a student at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark through the Danish International Student program (DIS), I was mostly broke and determined to have enough money for a month long trip through Europe before I headed back to the U.S. Most people in my program were in the same life of getting by on little cash. For fun and frolic, there was nothing like a Carlsburg or Tuborg Brewery tour in Copenhagen on a Friday.

I went to each brewery at least four times over the course of three months. There were so many people from my program that headed to Tuborg on a regular basis that the brewery gave us a huge party at the end of the semester. The catch was, we had to take the tour before the party. Some in my group were able to recite, word for word, the beer-making process and knew all the guides by name. For current review of Carlsburg, click here. The Tuborg Brewery bottling hall building I went to has been changed to the Experimentarium science museum.

Although there’s an Anheuser-Busch brewery in Columbus, this one doesn’t give tours. No free beer for me on a Friday. Of the 12 breweries in the U.S., you can see how Budweiser and other Anheuser-Busch products are made on a FREE tour at five on them: Fairfield, California; St. Louis, Missouri; Ft. Collins, Colorado; Merrimack, New Hampshire; and Jacksonville, Florida. At each you can drink FREE beer. At all but the Fairfield brewery, you can also see the horse stables of the Clydesdales, the brewery’s trademark.

Milwaukee, Wisconsin is a beer drinkers hot spot. There are three breweries that give tours. The Miller Brewing Company tour is FREE. I went on this slick tour the summer after I got out of the Peace Corps during my across the United States by bus sweep. I still remember the great time I had hanging out in the beer garden listening to music and visiting with my friends. Of, course, the beer garden isn’t open in the winter, but the Miller Inn is. At Lakefront Brewery the tour will cost you $5, unless you go on Friday. In that case, it’s $10. A fish fry is included in the price, so when you think of that, what a deal. You also get to keep the glass. This brewery is considered the most environmentally friendly in Wisconsin. The Sprecher Brewing Company tour is a chance to brush up on some beer brewing history at the Rathskeller museum before taking in the tour and the tasting. The tours cost $3 for adults and $2 for seniors. The $1 charge for the under 21 crowd is donated to charities. You get to take the souvenir glass home.

I haven’t been to Sarnac Brewery, but after discovering its Web site, I thought, this is appealing. The brewery has been making the good stuff since 1888. Personally, I love the labels and we do buy the beer, even in Ohio. Spending time in Utica, NY in the Adirondacks wouldn’t be a bad way to spend some time, either. Look at all there is to do in the city itself. I assume the tours are free since the Web site doesn’t say otherwise. You need to call for reservations, so ask.

I’ve also been on the Guinness brewery Storehouse tour in Dublin, Ireland. Even though I’m not too fond of heavy beer, the tour was great and I was more than happy to down the complimentary pint at the end of it.

Where ever your traveling, check out the brewery options. Maybe, you’ll find a local brewing company that offers tours and tastes. People who brew beer are passionate about it and it’s catching. Also, if you’re not a beer drinker and you have children along, these are kid-friendly places with soda options.

P.S. I noticed that I included wine-tasting in the title of this post, but didn’t included that. Stay-tuned.