Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Breweries of Wisconsin

I have the privilege of living in southwest Wisconsin, an area described as the "Jewel of the Midwest" by one of my friends who does not have the good fortune to live here. Wisconsin has a venerable history of brewing. And it currently has some really outstanding breweries (none of which rhyme with "filler", by the way.) So I'd like to start a series on the breweries of Wisconsin and what better place to start than with the impressive book, Breweries of Wisconsin, by Jerry Apps?

Apps' book is a remarkable piece of research and a fascinating look into Wisconsin beer making's humble roots, its expansion throughout the state, the establishment of certain Wisconsin cities as major brewing centers, the massive decline brought about by Prohibition, and the on-going resurgence of commercial brewing in the state:

Wisconsin's brewery history began thirteen years before Wisconsin became a state and a year before it became a territory. By the late 1890s, when dairy cows began grazing in Wisconsin fields and dairy barns began gracing the rural countryside, nearly every Wisconsin community already had an operating brewery. Wisconsin was a beer state long before it became known as America's dairyland (p. xiv).
In an appendix, Apps enumerates a partial list of Wisconsin breweries he has catalogued in his own studies and, by a rough count, there are at least 325. But this list is mainly comprised of those large enough to be noticed and surely does not include inumerable smaller, local breweries. Today, according to the latest update at Wikipedia, the count of breweries in Wisconsin is around twenty five, with another few dozen brewpubs. This is actually a large increase from twenty or so years ago when the count would probably have been more like ten in total. What happened between then and now to cause this enormous decline? Prohibition, of course.

Apps hits the nail on the head with one of his chapter titles: "From Temperance to Prohibition". Indeed, the whole "Temperance Movement" is inaptly named. The Catholic Church teaches temperance, that is, moderation in all things including the consumption of alcohol. Certain elements of Protestantism manage to glom onto all of the passages of Scripture that condemn drunkenness, while weaving around all of those passages of Scripture that speak positively about the moderate consumption of alcohol. It's sometimes called "Puritan", but that is perhaps a bit unfair since many (most?) of the Puritans enjoyed a good pint of ale as much as anybody (although cf. the article "Puritans & Alcohol" for a slightly different view.)

Anyway, long and short of it is that the "Temperance Movement" was not about temperance at all but about total abstinence. And this movement finally had its way with the enactment of full-blown Prohibition in this country in 1919. One effect of this was to devastate the vast network of local Wisconsin breweries.

As in other parts of the country, a few mega-breweries were able to survive, by switching to products such as malt extract (as a nutritional supplement) or soda pop. One of the really fascinating parts of Apps' book is how a number of smaller Wisconsin breweriesmost notably Point and Leinenkugel'swere able to weather the storm.

Now, of course, the country has shaken off Prohibition (as a constitutional amendment, although not entirely as a mindset) and a certain renaissance of craft brewing, starting in the 1970s, has led to the establishment of a number of very fine new breweries in the state. In a series of upcoming posts I'd like to give my views and reviews of the many fine and certain not-so-fine brews that gush forth from the breweries of Wisconsin.

If you have a favorite Wisconsin brewery or Wisconsin brew, please share that with us in the comment box. And if there is one you're curious about, ask. I will do my best, as daunting as it may be, to secure a representative sampling of their products and report back here. ("What do I need with another six pack of beer? It's research, Honey, research! My readers are counting on me.......")


Robert said...

I will do my best, as daunting as it may be, to secure a representative sampling of their products and report back here. ("What do I need with another six pack of beer? It's research, Honey, research! My readers are counting on me.......")

I salute you, sir, and your dedication to duty.

Last Saturday I had a Victory Prima Pilsner, from Pennsylvania, at my local watering hole. Very tasty. I consider myself very lucky to live in the same town as Founder's Brewing. Last time I checked, a mix-and-match six pack purchased on site was $8 out the door.

Ron G said...

Yummy! I live in Los Angeles, but am a Wisconsinite by birth. I attended the beer sampling in Wisconsin Dells this past autumn. So many good beers! At risk of being pilloried, I love Goose Island (especially their IPA) from that southern suburb of Milwaukee. I'm waiting to try O'SO, from Plover, pepper beer. Good Luck on your quest!

ThePalmHQ said...

Robert, you are very lucky indeed to live near Founder's Brewing. You will find several reviews of their products here and there throughout the blog. That is an exceptionally good brewery and I wish like anything I could get their products here.

Ron G, no worries about Goose Island--their products are great and I too especially like the IPA. It made my Top Ten list of beers I go back to again and again:


ThePalmHQ said...

Hoooo yaaa! I just went to buy some research materials and it turns out that my favorite research facility does indeed have Founder's products. Badabingbadaboom!

Matt Korger said...

Thank you for your commitment to such a noble task! I have a friend in the Marines who came to appreciate the area beers alot more when stationed out in California.

Wisconsin I Wish said...

Just today, a Leinie Lodge friend was extolling the virtues of Leinenkugel brews, especially a creamy-dark one. If any of you Wisconsonians are heading west on I90, tuck an extra case in the trunk!