Wisconsin lost its unofficial beer capital designation when large brewers moved away decades ago, but the state's reputation remains strong among beer lovers as brewpubs and microbreweries have taken the reins — with nearly 70 around the state.
With that in mind, the Wisconsin Department of Tourism has posted itineraries of brewery tours for those who want to learn all about barley, hops, yeast, wheat, fermentation and pasteurization for all their favorite craft beers. And of course, sample some at the end.
The support from the Department of Tourism means "it's not just regarded as beer — but this is artisanal craft beer," said Anne Sprecher, spokeswoman for Glendale-based Sprecher Brewing Co. It brews 17 year-round beers and four seasonal beers, and distributes to 14 states.
Breweries and brewpubs in the state include Capital Brewery in Middleton near Madison, Lakefront Brewery in Milwaukee, Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Co. in Chippewa Falls in northwestern Wisconsin, Hinterland Brewery in Green Bay and Central Waters Brewing Co. in Amherst in the central Wisconsin.
Paul Gatza, director of the Boulder, Colo.-based Brewers Association, said more governmental agencies have started promoting beer and related activities over the past six or seven years. Denver promotes its breweries through its convention and visitor bureau, and the Washington State legislature created the Washington Beer Commission to promote brewers.
The trade association representing most U.S. brewing companies reported in August that craft brewers were still growing despite the economic downturn. It noted barrels sold in the first half of 2009 increased 5 percent over last year.
He expects governmental promotion to continue, with interest in craft beers growing.
"It's a lot more unusual (now) than it will be in a few years," he said.
Gatza said beer lovers' reviews posted on the Internet have helped spread the word about brewers and tours. Also, craft beer popularity is being fueled by people who want to buy from local independent companies and those who have been educating themselves over the past 20 years on beer styles and tastes.
Wisconsin lost megabrewers Schlitz, Pabst and Blatz in the past half-century as beer-makers consolidated, but it's now seventh in the nation for craft breweries — boasting 66 in 2008. California had the most with 221, but Gatza said Wisconsin's number is "pretty healthy" for a state with just fewer than 6 million people.
The Department of Tourism's marketing director Janet DesChenes said promoting the tours celebrates Wisconsin's brewing heritage. After all, Milwaukee's major league baseball team is named the Brewers.
"In true Wisconsin spirit people have brought a new and modern twist to it, and you see the local ingredients and some of the personality coming through in the names and some of the newer techniques they've brought to it," she said.
Stacey McGinnis, front operations manager for Tyranena Brewing Co. in Lake Mills and secretary of the Wisconsin Brewers Guild, said what helps one brewery helps them all.
"If somebody tries Capital's amber or Sprecher's stout and they like it, they are more than likely or going to be more open to trying our amber or our porters or stouts," she said. "It's friendly competition."
The Tyranena brewery started in 1999 and now brews six year-round bears, six specialty beers and seasonal beers, and distributes to Wisconsin, Illinois and Minnesota. They have beers like "The Devil Made Me Do It!" and "Dirty Old Man Imperial Rye Porter" from its series of "Brewers Gone Wild" beers. Their small staff gives free tours when schedules permit, usually two Saturdays a month. The tasting room is open Wednesday through Sunday.
Way before Tyranena, Stevens Point Brewery in central Wisconsin provided beer to Union troops during the Civil War and is the fifth-oldest privately owned brewery in the nation. Brewery spokeswoman Julie Birrenkott said it has been at the same location since it was founded in 1857. It was one of the first breweries in the state to offer tours 35 years ago but Birrenkott said there are still locals who don't realize they have tours, so the state's promotion will help.
"I think it's a great opportunity for us to show people what we do," Birrenkott said.
Other microbreweries and brewpubs in the state include:
- New Glarus Brewery is in the southern Wisconsin village of New Glarus, which calls itself America's "Little Switzerland." It makes Spotted Cow, Wisconsin Belgian Red and other award-winning brews and was listed by Rate Beer magazine as one of 2009's "Best Breweries to Visit." Both New Glarus' production facilities offer free tours and a visit to the tasting room is $3.50.
- Minhas Craft Brewery in Monroe is the second-longest continuously operating brewery in America. It was founded in 1845 as the Blumer Brewery. Known for decades for its Berghoff and Huber brands, the Minhas Craft Brewery makes a variety of brands, including several Canadian labels and Lazy Mutt Farmhouse Ale. Tours are offered Fridays and Saturdays for $10.
- Northwoods Brewpub and Grill in Eau Claire bills itself as the first microbrewery/brewpub in west central Wisconsin. Its seven-barrel brewing system produces craft beers and sodas and its menu has a Northwoods theme, including bison burgers, elk steaks and fried bluegill.
McGinnis said Tyranena, in southern Wisconsin, has a small staff and spends no money on advertising, so she is grateful for the promotional help. She said people are starting to realize there is more out there than "mass-produced lagers."
"They are exploring and I think that it's great for Department of Tourism to help promote us in that way," she said.