Destinations by | Jul 2010 | Issue #42

History is a funny thing to wrestle with—especially when it collides with modern-day reality. Scores of German and Eastern European immigrants built Milwaukee up into the biggest beer-producing city in the US. Thirsty industrial workers also turned it into one of the hardest-drinking. Consolidation and competition eventually left four breweries to dominate the area—Pabst, Schlitz, Blatz and Miller. For decades, their names were synonymous with this city.

Then, one by one, they succumbed to the same sort of consolidation and competition that had built them into giants, leaving behind only Bernie Brewer, Laverne and Shirley reruns and Miller. (Pabst, now headquartered across the border in Illinois, has done a wonderful job of reviving the old recipes behind Schlitz and its own flagship brew; as far as Milwaukee’s brewing scene goes, though, they’re just two more names on a can.) As far as American lager-focused mega-breweries, then, Milwaukee has gone from world-beater to also-ran. Its connection to those days lies only in dusty advertising slogans.

Milwaukee’s beer scene is far from dead, though. You just have to quit looking for an old guard whose days are gone, and start paying attention to Milwaukee’s neighborhoods, where good beer is thriving quietly. Sprecher, Lakefront and the Milwaukee Ale House all brew tasty, high-quality beers in the shadow of Milwaukee’s last remaining beer conglomerate. And the city’s neighborhoods are friendly, with unpretentious pubs that stock craft brews from the Great Lakes region’s powerhouse craft breweries, and beyond. In short, this city is still a great place to have a drink—just not in the way it used to be. In our book, that’s not bad at all.

Who needs Schlitz to get famous anyway?

Sprecher Brewing Company
Sprecher’s beers run the gamut of stylistic influences, though the brewery is at its best when sticking close to its German knitting. Skip right to Sprecher’s Schwarzbier, Hefeweizen, Doppelbock, Maibock and Märzen.

Tyranena Brewing Company
Tyranena’s location, an hour’s drive west of Milwaukee proper, makes it a bit of a stretch for a roundup like this. The reward for this drive—an unreal lineup of creative, assertive craft brews—should turn this detour into a habit.

Water Street Brewery
The menu at Water Street leans toward German influences, though the beers are styled along the same lines they were when the brewpub first opened its doors. Their Pale Ale and Irish Stout are BeerFly favorites.

Lakefront Brewery
Lakefront scores high marks for their Cream City Pale, Riverwest Stein Beer, IPA, ESB, Coffee Stout and Eastside Dark. And their brewhouse tours have a well-earned reputation for being incredibly fun, social and boozy affairs.

Cafe Hollander
This bicycle-friendly pub is one of your best bets in town for Belgians; they’ve got 24 on tap and several dozen more in the bottle. Affordable tasting flights let you breeze through a really solid beer lineup.

Silver Creek Brewing Company
A historic mill building houses this great little brewpub, although the big draw here is Silver Creek’s creekside beer garden. That, and the highly sought-after house beers. Don’t leave without tasting their IPA and Porter.

Three Cellars
Milwaukee’s mightiest beer bar isn’t in Milwaukee, and it’s only half a bar, and none of that matters: Part bar, part bottle shop, Three Cellars boasts the biggest, baddest selection (500-odd bottles) for miles around.

Von Trier
Von Trier’s heritage stretches back to 1978. Recently, the German beer cave traded hands and received a makeover. Some BMC schlock has found its way onto a beer list that has nice nods toward German classics and American craft standards, but it’s still as fun a drinking hall as you’ll find.

Sugar Maple
Sugar Maple, one of Milwaukee’s preeminent beer bars, pours 60 stellar taps and two beer engines from Great Lakes region A-listers, as well as from some West Coast heavyweights you’ll find in few other barrooms in town.

Romans’ Pub
What can we say about Romans’ that a stream of A-plus reviews on BeerFly can’t? This little pub doesn’t pack a hundred taps. What it does is assemble 32 peerless taps in one well-loved barroom.

Old German Beer Hall
Hofbrau’s Milwaukee outpost takes cues from the Munich mothership—communal tables, a brewery-centric tap lineup, liters and liters of lagers—and adapts them to an American setting. Which is to say, there are also flat-screen TVs.

Comet Cafe
Part high-end greasy spoon, part coffee shop and part beer bar, the Comet pairs breakfast, comfort food and sandwiches with over 150 craft beers from the likes of Lakefront, Bell’s and 3 Floyds.

The Bomb Shelter [closed]
Three-hundred-twenty-eight beers. That’s what the Bomb Shelter’s hitting you with. Take cover. This could take a while.

Von Rothenburg Bier Stube
There’s a gorgeous Munich feel to the exterior of Von Rothenburg’s. Once you get in—hey, are those 2-liter boots? And 5-liter mugs? Um, yes, please!

Nessun Dorma
A great little Italian spot in Riverwest, serving eight taps and over 70 quality bottles.

Milwaukee Ale House
One of the best brewpubs in town doesn’t trade in Imperial anything. Instead, it rocks the classic styles, and rocks them hard.

Palm Tavern
The Palm, then, is your other best bet for Belgians—the owners of Sugar Maple have stocked this warm little dive with a stellar bottle selection that runs several hundred deep.