"Beer in Colorado" is dedicated to that divine elixir born of the marriage of water, malt, hops, and yeast as interpreted
by those living in Colorado. Follow the author as he visits every brewery in the state, creates experimental homebrews,
attends beer festivals, tries interesting beers from around the world, and spreads the good word of beer. Prost!

Monday, August 25, 2014

Great Lake, Great Beer: Pt. 1

What a frenetic summer!  First, in early June, Nicole and I got hitched; all the planning and rehearsing and bachelor(ette) partying made for a whirlwind of a time.  Then, we had a week’s rest before jetting across the Atlantic for our fortnight-long honeymoon in Ireland and Scotland.  Flying back home to Colorado, we had 16 days (unless you count the weekend wedding we attended in Alamosa) before once again leaving town and hitting the road, this time heading to Lake Michigan for my parents’ seven-day 40th anniversary party.  As is our M.O., Nicole and I made a beercation of the journey.

One-and-a-half days of driving took us across the prairies of Nebraska and Iowa from Denver to Madison, Wisconsin and our first brewery of the trip: Vintage Brewing Co.  A standalone building in a shopping center, one expects a brewery in such a pedestrian location to serve anything but the unusual; how adventurous can the nearby suburbanites be?  Appearances can be deceiving.  How often is a sarsaparilla-spiked strong dark Belgian ale on the menu?  A root beer beer, if you will?  I’ve only seen it once and it was at Vintage.  A well-balanced beer, the sarsaparilla in Sarsaparilla Killa didn’t overpower yet still lent its unique flavor to the otherwise traditional ale defined by dark malts, dark fruit, and exceptionally high alcohol volume (9.8% ABV). 
Sarsaparilla Killa

Also, the chicken and waffles at Vintage were phenomenal!  Living in Colorado is the best, I’ll never move away, and I appreciate the fit and active lifestyle of its citizens but, once in a while, I need to get my hands on some downhome, fatty Midwestern comfort foods.  I’ve had fried chicken in the mountains and I’ve had fried chicken in the flatlands—the former’s got nothing on the latter.  Our meal at Vintage was a welcome reprieve from the healthy. 

The beer here's good but, dang, the building looks so contrived
Our next beer stop in The Badger State capital was The Great Dane Pub & Brewing Co.  Although the brewery has four locations around the Madison area (we were at the Hilldale one), not every beer is available at every location; to drink everything Great Dane makes, beer geeks must circulate through all four incarnations.  It’s a clever ruse ensuring each of the Great Danes is, if even by an iota, distinctive; a strategy preventing the feeling of homogenization.  It’s good they did that, too, because the ambiance at Great Dane was a little too cookie-cutter, too faceless for my liking; it didn’t appear as though blood, sweat, and tears went into its construction, it looked like somebody with a lot of money simply plopped it down in a shopping center, pre-built.  Instead of collecting curious taproom gewgaws by scouring garage sales and consignment stores, it looks like they randomly picked mass-produced faux-antiquities from the same catalog T.G.I. Fridays uses to adorn their trash heaps of walls.  That’s how it felt, at any rate.  Regardless, the German-style saison (an innovative idea, at the very least) and Tangerine Dream (a blast of fruity flavor like a whole orchard stuffed in your mouth) were decent.

The best Madison brewery we appropriately saved for last.  One Barrel Brewing Company, a nano-brewery (if you couldn’t surmise that fact by its name) with a glass cubicle for a brew room, is nestled in a space once belonging to the old neighborhood grocery store.  With exposed brick walls, dollar bills pinned to the ceiling, and trendy art adornments, One Barrel’s taproom is an authentic beer geek destination, nothing pre-fab here.  It has personality both in terms of atmosphere and clientele.  This isn’t the corporate brewpub where businessmen congregate for happy hour and guzzle training-wheel beers; it’s where the true disciples of craft go for suds of a more adventurous nature.  I ordered the tart and tingly Falcor blackberry sour and, before it was poured, I took a quick restroom break.  When I got back, the bartender told Nicole, “Yeah, I didn’t card him because no underage drinker would knowingly order a sour beer.”  That’s a pretty airtight policy, actually.
Inside One Barrel

Before moving on I’d like to note that, while Denver loves its bicycles, Madison has an even more passionate pedal-powered culture.  Sure, everybody in Denver rides a bike but where do they ride?  On the sides of busy streets, weaving through traffic, hopping the curb and riding the sidewalk, and thoroughly pissing off motorists and pedestrians alike.  This is not the case in Madison.  There, they have an extensive trail system, reaching from the center of town out to the rural outskirts, making the dangerous and fury-inducing practice of road biking completely unnecessary.  Half the bridges we drove under were bike overpasses and, as we cruised through neighborhoods, nearly every block sported a bike crossing that poked out from the woods behind people’s backyards.  The trails spider-web the entire city so only the most oblivious cyclists, unknowing of safer, more convenient options, can be found on the streets of Madison.  Share the road?  Pfft!  Get your own road!  In Madison, that’s a reasonable request.

Nicole and I bade adieu to Madison and continued eastward, allowing the fishy aromas of the Great Lakes to be our guide.  After an hour and a half on the interstate, we arrived at what was once the premier American beer city, the doyen of our nation’s brewing scene, the original slaker of the working man’s thirst.  It’s nicknamed Brew City, an appropriate appellation and perhaps the only municipal epithet cooler than Denver’s own Mile High City.  I speak of none other than Milwaukee.

I used to live in the Midwest and I don’t want to move back there but, if I’m forced to, I could stand to live in Milwaukee.  I predict that statement took a few Milwaukeeans aback; the people most disparaging of Milwaukee, it seems, are those who live there.  The locals had a difficult time assimilating the fact anybody’d choose to visit Milwaukee.  They had to make sense in the face of the illogic: Vacationing outsiders?  Does not compute.  They’re probably locals, too, beholden to Wisconsin by work, family,...etc.  They’re not actually here because they like it.  We met this frame of mind several times.  For example, when Nicole went to purchase the collectable Wisconsin mug from Starbucks, the man behind the counter supposed we bought it for a visiting relative, not for ourselves as a vacation keepsake.  Once, a bartender saw Nicole’s Colorado shirt and said something to the effect of, “Oh!  I love Colorado!  Do you get out there to visit much?”  No, we live there!  And we, like you, also love it there.  However, we’re travelers and we enjoy seeing the world—even Milwaukee. 

Don’t be so hard on yourself, Milwaukee; you’re a fine city.  You’re big but not too big, you’re alongside the majestic shores of Lake Michigan, and, heck, you got breweries!  Not just the Big Four of Miller, Pabst, Schlitz, and Blatz (yes, it still exists), either—just as smaller Colorado breweries eke out a niche in the shadow of Coors, so, too, do Wisconsin craft brewers in the town made famous by your granddad’s favorite domestic brands. 

Our flight at Water Street
Our first sudsy stop in Brew City was Water Street Brewery which, while adequate, didn’t stick out in my mind as exceptional.  We ordered a flight and most of the beers were decent enough; the Raspberry Weiss was tart and refreshing, the Old World Oktoberfest fit the style guidelines expertly, and the Belgian Peach Ale was loaded with the eponymous fruit.  There were certainly stand-outs but, in the end, most were neither bad nor good—only acceptable.  Pretty good jambalaya there, though.  I did like the curb appeal of the place with its brewing equipment situated up front in the picture windows near the entrance.  The process of making beer is on full display at Water Street and I’ve always applauded that sort of transparency in craft brewing.

I love Lakefront's riverside setting
The brewery that really impressed was Lakefront Brewery.  Lakefront is readily available in Colorado, I don’t need to explain their beers to you, merely go out and buy a six-pack for yourself.  It is exceptional beer, of course, but what makes Lakefront extraordinary is the building itself.  For one, it should be called “Riverfront” since it sits on the banks of the Milwaukee River, abutting a walkway that skirts the water for miles in both directions.  Furthermore, Lakefront is halfway under the Holton Bridge, an iron trestlework monster which, in a feat of clever engineering, has suspended under it a smaller bridge for bikes and pedestrians plus a bunch of swing sets using the sooty, crisscrossed, metal underbelly in ingenious ways (check out the pictures).  Lakefront was once a decrepit coal-fired power plant until the brew crew moved in and revitalized the space.  Signs of its former self are easy to spot; Milwaukee’s industrious past lives on in Lakefront.  The taproom is wide open with soaring ceilings and exposed HVAC, old brick walls cocoon drinkers in old-timey comfort, windows look out over the river and suspended walking bridge close enough to shout salutations at passing cyclists, and a stage set up and ready to host the next polka band—it’s the perfect beer hall for an Oktoberfest celebration or, really, any party.

The bridge under the bridge
Awesome swings under the bridge

Nicole and I didn’t get out to Glendale to visit Sprecher Brewing Co. but Sprecher was kind enough to visit us in Milwaukee.  Red Arrow Park, a half-block of sod surrounded by pillars of glass, steel, and concrete, was a tour stop on Sprecher’s Traveling Beer Garden, a German festival on wheels.  The brewery parks a blazing-red, old school, beer dispensing fire truck on the grass, sets out a couple of Porta Potties and benches, and lubes up local passersby for two weeks at each location.  When two weeks are up, Sprecher packs it up and drives to the next place. 

I have no idea what kind of permits needed to be pulled to make the Traveling Beer Garden a reality but more breweries should take Sprecher’s idea and run with it.  Who doesn’t love a beer garden?  The sun, the booze, the camaraderie—it’s everything that’s right in this world!  In Germany, in both the past and into present day, the beer garden is more than an outdoor pub, it’s where the community gathers to celebrate life and attain a sense of belonging.  In this ever-alienating world of technology, when we’ve all got our noses buried in smartphones, Sprecher transports us to a time before social media when people were plain social, a time when it wasn’t weird to prost a total stranger, it wasn’t uncouth to spill a few globules of beer on yourself and others, when the commonality of relishing the moment connected people with more strength than their differences could separate them.  I’m nostalgic for a time that, truthfully, passed before I was born but, all the same, I yearn for the good ol’ days.  Denver breweries?  City of Denver officials?  I put it on you; any one of the city’s 240 parks can be improved with a traveling beer garden.

Fire truck taps
We visited one more brewery on our way out of Milwaukee, St. Francis Brewery, and then pointed south on our reverse J-hook path to the other side of the lake.  Stay tuned for more on our Midwestern exploits.



Milwaukee Art Museum
Outside Lakefront's front entrance
Coors Field's brewery in the right field is better but Miller Park's level-to-level slide is cool, too
The Traveling Beer Garden in Red Arrow Park
A hearty prost from the beer garden

1 comment:

  1. We absolutely love your beer blog and find the majority of your post’s to be very informative. If you are interested in beer health, come visit www.beerandbody.com, they deal exclusively with weight loss for beer drinkers, pretty cool!