With our headquarters in Washington DC and the bulk of our correspondents found near America’s top producing craft beer regions on the coasts, it only makes sense for us to start a new series giving all the states their due, featuring breweries large and small, plus the histories behind them.
After nearly 3 years into the series, we’ve made it all the way to #50 on the list and since the next edition will be the final one in the series, it must be Miller Time. Of course it’s The Badger State and America’s Dairyland, Wisconsin. You can’t throw a rock in Wisconsin without hitting either a badger (the state coat of arms, the seal, the flag, the University mascot and their fight song) or a dairy product (1st in cheese production and 2nd in milk & butter production) so the state’s nicknames speak for themselves.
Wisconsin ranks 20th in total population (roughly 5.8 million residents) and ranks 23rd in population density and houses 138 craft breweries as of 2016 (an increase of 65 since 2011) who are represented by the Wisconsin Brewers Guild. The state ranks 14th in total breweries (including D.C.) and 12th in breweries per capita as of 2016, according to the Brewers Association.
Having come this far in the series, I think it’s safe to say that there isn’t likely another state in the union that has as deep, as wide reaching, or as successful a brewing history as does the state of Wisconsin. This one state alone saw the rise of Miller, Pabst, Blatz, Schlitz, G. Heileman and Gettelman – all breweries that dominated regional, national and some even international distribution at one point or another.
Considered by many to be the first production brewery in the state, Owens Brewery opened in Milwaukee in 1840. There are also accounts of breweries opening in Mineral Point and Elk Grove, on the state’s western flank. They were claimed to have been opened in the mid-1830’s, though there are few details about how extensive these operations were.
Milwaukee proved to be a hot bed of brewery growth for a number of reasons. First and foremost, the large German population that settled there craved beer styles from the homeland, especially lagers. Having access to the fresh waters of the Milwaukee River, not to mention the ice needed to chill and lager ferment the style, made the region
ideal. Then take into account the area’s subterranean caves to store the barrels in, strong local industry, plus shipping, then train transit, all contributing to what became the brewing capital of the world for quite some time.
In fact, by as soon as 1860, the state housed roughly 200 breweries, with 40 located in Milwaukee alone. That twenty years of explosive growth saw the opening of the following breweries, including some highlights over the past 150+ years:
Pabst Brewing: 1841 – also The Empire Brewery, Best and Company, Philip Best Brewing; the nation’s largest brewery in 1874; made cheese during Prohibition (Pabst-ett Cheese, later solid to Kraft to become Velveeta); bought by S&P Co. with brewing contracted to Stroh, G. Heileman and Miller, then purchased by various holding companies; now based in Los Angeles.
Joseph Schlitz Brewing: 1849 – originally August Krug Brewery; the nations largest brewery at one million barrels in 1902; “The Beer that Made Milwaukee Famous” – later bought by Stroh, then Pabst.
Valentin Blatz Brewing: 1851 – originally City Brewing; the first bottled Milwaukee beer in 1874; later bought by Pabst, G. Heileman, Stroh, Pabst again, then Miller.
Miller Brewing: 1855 – originally Plank Road Brewery; “The Girl In the Moon”; first nationally distributed low-calorie beer, Miller Lite; winner of 64 medals at GABF (most in WI); bought by Phillip Morris, South African Breweries (SAB); merged with Molson Coors; SABMiller sold off share of MillerCoors during AB-InBev buyout to Molson Coors.
A. Gettelman: 1856 – originally George Schweickhart’s Menomonee Brewery; designed first practical steel keg and helped develop first “keg-lined” can; known for Milwaukee’s “Best” brand; bought by Miller.
G. Heileman Brewing: 1858 in La Crosse – originally The City Brewery; at one time peaked as the fourth largest brewer in the US; brewed each of the following brands at one time – Black Label, Blatz, Blitz-Weinhard, Drewry’s, Falls City, Grain Belt, Gluek, National Bohemian, Olympia, Rainier, Schmidt and Wiedemann; bought by Stroh, then Pabst.
The most notable thing about all the breweries above is that they all started far before Prohibition and all lived through it. Most of them stayed independent through the 70’s, and while a number of them no longer brew, their brands continue to be made by the brewers that acquired them.
And wouldn’t you know that the oldest active brewery in the state opened it’s doors in 1845 – Minhas Brewing, in Monroe. While the name and ownership has changed many times, it’s almost always been family owned and lays claim to being the oldest brewery in the Mid-West. It’s also the largest craft brewer in the state and second in total production to only Miller.
Since 1985, Wisconsin’s brewers have taken home 281 medals from GABF.
8 Wisconsin Breweries We Recommend and You Should Check Out
3 Sheeps Brewing (Sheboygan) – Opening up shop in 2012, founder Grant Pauly took over the only brewpub in town after the previous tenants went out of business. Focused on the idea of brewing with “Heart & Science” at the forefront, they strive to always push the boundaries of beer styles and the results speak for themselves. In their first year they earned a RateBeer Award for Best New Brewery in Wisconsin and are known for their First Kiss DIPA, Hello, My Name is Joe Dark Wheat and a wide variety of ales for every palate.
Central Waters Brewing (Amherst) – About to celebrate their 20th anniversary in a few weeks, Central Waters is one of the most respected craft brewers in the state. Originally founded by Mike McElwain and Jerome Ebel, it’s been helmed by Paul Graham and Anello Molica since 2006. Known for some of the best barrel aged imperial stouts in the country with their Brewers Reserve series, and their expanded product line of 18 styles annually, they’ve also conceived over 110 different brands since their founded. The three GABF medals they’ve captured since 2006 have all been gold.
Funk Factory Guezeria (Madison) – It’s not everyday that you come across a brewery denoted as Méthode Traditionnelle, much less one found in a Mid-West college town. Funk Factory focuses exclusively on Wild and “Lambic inspired” ales – not technically Lambic as they aren’t spontaneously fermented by the flora of Belgium. The resulting 30 or so beers they’ve created since their opening in 2014 have put them on the map as one of the best rated brewers in the state and their delicious fruited sours and wild ales are not to be missed.
Karben4 Brewing (Madison) – Founded as a start-up brewpub on the East side of Madison in December of 2012, Karben4 has grown to the point of distributing throughout the state. Known for their comedic art work often including unicorns and funny brand names – see Boom! Taco Central IPA, there’s a deliberate intent to have as much fun as possible, while also making great beer. Another of the top rated brewers in the state, they now have the capacity to produce 15,000 bbls annually and are certainly making a name for themselves.
Lakefront Brewing (Milwaukee) – The longest established brewery on this list, Lakefront was founded by Russ and Kim Klisch in 1987. Putting together their brew system with what they could find including 55 gallon stainless steel drums and used dairy equipment (common in the early days of craft brewing), they’ve been innovating ever since. One of the first in the nation to bottle a pumpkin beer and a fruit beer (since prohibition), they also became the first to brew a certified organic beer in 1996 and were the first federally approved brewer of a gluten free beer. They’ve garned 7 GABF medals in their history and are a must-visit in Milwaukee.
New Glarus Brewing (New Glarus) – Truly established with the farmhouse ethos in mind, Daniel and Deborah Carey started New Glarus in 1993. They’re especially known for their fruited sour and classic German styles. Established with flagships like their Moon Man No Coast Pale Ale and Spotted Cow Cream Ale, they’ve built a stable of unique, uncommon offerings in excess of 90 styles. If you get a chance to try anything from their Thumbprint series, the Wisconsin Belgian Red or Serendipity (a wild tart with apples, cherries & cranberries) definitely don’t miss the chance. They’re also the most awarded craft brewer in the state at GABF, winning 33 medals.
O’so Brewing (Plover) – Open now for over ten years, O’so was founded by Marc and Katina Buttera. Their 40 line taproom features not only their beers, but those of brewers throughout the state. The brewery is decidedly known for their adventurous barrel-aged wild and sour offerings, doing a number of collaborations with the aforementioned Funk Factory Guezeria as well. And you can tell they’re passionate about experimentation and innovation considering the 150 plus brands they’ve created over time. Most recently winning their first GABF medal in 2015, O’so is one to seek out in Central Wisconsin.
Tyranena Brewing (Lake Mills) – Pronounced Tie-rah-nee-nah, and residing in a small town between Madison and Milwaukee, the brewery has been creating a wide-variety of offerings since 1998. Running a 30 bbl system with a capacity of 45,000 barrels, they also keep things interesting having created over 90 different brands through the years. They too are one of the best rated brewers in the state featuring excellent American IPAs, Porters, Scotch Ales and Stouts. Definitely stop in the next time you’re travelling between Milwaukee and Madison – you’ll thank me later!
To find more breweries in the state, check out this map of breweries throughout Wisconsin.