By Brian Goldstein and Theresa McCulla
As a family of historians who study the city, we are hardly unusual in the way we travel: we like to experience places new and old through food and drink. Less typical, however, is that one of us gets paid to do this. Theresa, as the historian of the American Brewing History Initiative at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, is building a collection around beer and brewing, especially related to the homebrewing and craft beer movements that began in the 1960s. This means visiting brewers, maltsters, growers, purveyors, and others, all to conduct oral histories and gather objects that can tell their stories. As of mid-2018, the United States had more than 6,500 breweries, so one can do this work in nearly any corner of the country. But this summer we visited Milwaukee and Madison, the two biggest cities in the appropriately (if vaguely) heart-shaped heart of American brewing history, Wisconsin.
We don’t usually go on work trips together, but made this a joint venture (with our willing, if not deeply underage, one-year-old in tow) to also visit family and friends in our onetime home state, and to bask in the unique loveliness of Wisconsin summer nights. Lake Michigan, Lake Mendota, and beer: these are the ingredients for doing June in Wisconsin right. Milwaukee and Madison, our destinations are ideal sites for historians who value city streets as much as long docks, adaptive reuse as much as beautiful sunsets. We have close relatives in Milwaukee, resident there for more than a decade now, and family roots in the badger state that go back to the mid-twentieth century. And we spent a wonderful year in Madison while Brian was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Wisconsin in 2013-14.
What was notable in returning to places we hadn’t been in several years was the extent to which we could see changes in each city — and the coexistent layers of urban transformation — in the beer-glass-shaped lens that we brought to this trip. Brewing history is often urban history; urban history is easily experienced through brewing history. This is as true in Milwaukee as it is in New York, New Orleans, and elsewhere. In each Wisconsin city, we found places that we liked and enjoyed, but that were also interesting for reasons beyond what you can imbibe (or eat) there. Places of beer production and consumption revealed the old and new superimposed–in going back to Milwaukee and Madison, we found each to be a palimpsest where amid many changes, brewing is a mainstay. Highlighted below are some spots that our fellow urban historians might like to see (drink?) when they find themselves in these two great destinations of the upper Midwest. What better way to learn the urban history of a place than through a cold one, some fried cheese curds, and maybe a donut or two?
Most striking about Milwaukee is the degree to which a postindustrial city — maybe even the postindustrial city, a place that has never quite gotten back on its feet after the mass shuttering of factories during the last half-century — has nevertheless maintained its identity as a capital of beer. When machinery and equipment manufacturers closed or departed, beer companies like Schlitz and Pabst followed. But they didn’t bring the implosion of Milwaukee brewing, which evolved — if in fewer hands — and then was joined in recent decades by upstarts drawing from local history. For us, the history of Milwaukee old and new, and beer old and new, was best seen in two places that take very different approaches to water, yeast, hops, and grain.
First, and inevitably, is the sprawling campus west of downtown over which a red rounded-rectangular sign offers a familiar name: Miller. For more than 150 years, Miller has been churning out pleasurable, easy drinking experiences on these streets. Whether or not you are a Miller Lite fan, a tour of the factory and a visit to the tasting room are a necessary stop for anyone interested in architectural history, labor history, and the history of technology, or just the curious urban historian who wants to experience a beer factory that is itself the size of a small city (“Miller Valley,” they call it). In seeing buildings born over decades, one might find oneself thinking that these bottling lines have churned on, unaffected by the history around them. But of course, Miller is now actually MillerCoors, owned by the multinational corporation MolsonCoors. With offices in Chicago, enough plants across the U.S. that you need two hands to count them, and markets around the world, this is as much a story of globalization as one of the local history of German immigrants like Frederick Miller. If Miller’s arrival here helped give rise to Milwaukee’s industrial ascent, the plant today is a reminder that cities like this one can function as nodes in a worldwide economy while continuing to struggle with trenchant poverty and severe segregation.
Miller’s archives tell a story more than a century old, of Milwaukeeans and others who looked to “Miller Valley” to find the high life. Photograph by Theresa McCulla.
Amid Miller’s persistence, one major change in the cultural and brewing landscape of Milwaukee, as in many cities, has been a new wave of smaller breweries that have emerged in the last few decades. Very often, these draw from the brewing history of the city; likewise, they sometimes take advantage of the industrial architecture that remains. Some have specifically asked how they might be part of addressing the challenges Milwaukeeans still navigate. One that we visited, Good City Brewing, suggests this interest in its very name. Founder David Dupee (a high school classmate of Brian’s, originally from Cincinnati, Ohio), recalled a past conversation with his wife and friends in which they decided to commit to Milwaukee: to stay, make the city their home, and contribute to their neighborhood. Constructing a brewery in a former bicycle shop, Dupee and his business partners chose the slogan “Seek the Good” and the logo of a key to encourage their customers to imagine that they hold a key to the city and the ability to help those around them. Frequently, Good City staff venture outside the brewery’s walls, participating in a different volunteer activity each month. The brewery also invites the community in; when we visited on a weekday afternoon, the taproom’s bar stools were nearly full. A shelf of board games kept even the youngest visitors entertained.
Good City Brewing, in an old bike shop, imagines a Milwaukee where modern towers, sheaves of barley, hops, and glasses of locally-brewed beer together make up the city’s skyline. Photograph by Theresa McCulla.
The stories of Miller and Good City show how, in different ways and different eras, breweries change the urban fabric around them, whether in employing thousands with steady manufacturing jobs, enabling them to buy homes and plant roots in the city, or in creating a new kind of third place: craft beer’s taproom.
Though only 90 minutes away, Madison is experiencing a markedly different moment in its history than its bigger sibling to the east. When we left in the summer of 2014, broad East Washington Avenue was already in the midst of a transition from car dealers and brownfields into apartment buildings with high rents and commercial tenants like Google. But four years saw urban development reach a fever pitch here and throughout Madison, where a city that has always balanced between blue-collar jobs and white-collar jobs has tipped more toward the latter. The city’s Oscar Mayer plant closed in 2018 after a century on the east side. State government and the university, long major employers here, have seen startups, social networks, and search engines increasingly fill space both in and around the city: homegrown Epic and ShopBop as well as offices from companies like Microsoft, Zendesk, the aforementioned Google, and Amazon (now ShopBop’s owner).
Serious questions about affordability, equity, and access surround the kind of transition that many mayors envy, and this is no exception in Madison where housing prices have risen markedly as more working-class bungalows find BMWs in their driveways. Yet if it is harder to find a factory-manufactured hotdog in the City of Four Lakes, it is ever easier to find beer, both brewed and served, in spaces old and new, most of which tap into the city’s long history even as they symbolize its more recent transitions.
In a changing Madison, Memorial Union Terrace has remained a space where students, faculty, staff, residents, and visitors all find a seat in the famous Sunburst chairs, a cold drink, a warm brat, and a stunning view of Lake Mendota. Photographs by Theresa McCulla and Brian Goldstein.
That said, the best place to have a glass or a pitcher in Madison is not new — though newly redone — and is notably democratic. Is there a better public space in the United States than the Memorial Union Terrace at the University of Wisconsin-Madison? We haven’t found one. On the day we visited, alumni, students, and other visitors filled the Terrace’s famous Sunburst chairs as the sun lowered over Lake Mendota. The air smelled like grilled corn and brats, student-made ice cream from the Daily Scoop melted from cones onto sticky knuckles, and multiple taps at the outdoor bars pulled Wisconsin-made beer. UW is a land- grant university whose agricultural heritage is still strongly felt. Undergraduate employees at Bucky’s Butchery, an on-campus operation, craft lamb chorizo and beef jerky from animals raised on UW land. Others turn out cheese in curds and blocks, as well as that famous ice cream, at the school’s Babcock Hall Dairy Plant. Part of the same history, the Terrace has functioned for nearly a century as an urban oasis: a lakefront patio just a two-minute walk from State Street, this Big Ten college town’s main drag. An oral history that Theresa recorded with a Wisconsin Historical Society historian and the student president of the Wisconsin Union captured the ways in which beer — served at the Union since the 1930s — has been central (though not essential, especially for underage undergrads) to the Terrace experience for decades. Here is a place where grain, hops, dairy, meat, and a stunning landscape unite Wisconsin’s rural and urban histories in a uniquely sensory way.
Once a nanobrewery, One Barrel has graduated to a bigger scale but remains a neighborhood mainstay at the corner of Winnebago and Atwood. Photograph by Theresa McCulla.
The Union Terrace sits on the west end of Madison’s picturesque isthmus. Drive — or, if you’re a true Madisonian, bike — three miles to its east end to find yourself in a much smaller space that speaks to newer histories of brewing in the Midwest and the United States. One Barrel Brewing Company, formerly an ultra-small batch “nanobrewery,” opened in 2012 under the leadership of UW grad Peter Gentry. Installed in a former grocery — barrel-aging beer now rests in the grocer’s cellar storage rooms — One Barrel caught the wave of explosive growth in craft beer that made Gentry’s business one of hundreds to open that year across the country. Like Milwaukee’s Good City, Madison’s One Barrel shows a firm focus on its surrounding neighborhood and its very local customer base. The brewery opened on a shoestring budget and was a labor of love for Gentry’s friends and family. His father, a woodworker, even built the beautiful, horseshoe-shaped bar that dominates the taproom. These days, local drinkers’ allegiance to this new-ish neighborhood mainstay can be seen in the blue and white mugs of One Barrel’s Mug Club. They stand behind the bar, waiting to be filled with the likes of Commuter Kolsch, Penguin Pale Ale, and 5th Element Rye IPA.
One Barrel was part of a larger retail trend in the Schenk-Atwood-Starkweather-Yahara neighborhood (or just Schenk-Atwood), whose early 20th century streets have embodied the transition from factory workers to knowledge workers. Though you can still find bars that serve those who work the lines in the last of the factories on the city’s Near East Side, more likely you will notice home stores, creative chocolatiers (the wonderful Gail Ambrosius Chocolatier), and a cool coffee shop or two. Similar stories have unfolded elsewhere in Madison, and a trip to One Barrel doesn’t come without reminders (at least for the hungry) of this history of neighborhood change: behind the bar you can find charcuterie from Underground Food Collective, one of the most decorated of the recent chef-driven enterprises that have made this a nationally-recognized food city, as well as pizza from Fraboni’s, an Italian grocer and deli that has stood south of the university since the early 1970s. Fraboni’s is one of the last of the businesses in its neighborhood to remind visitors that the intersection of Park and Regent Streets was once known as Spaghetti Corners (the nearby Italian Workmen’s Club, opened in the 1910s and with still-excellent pizza, is an original vestige of those days).
What happened to Spaghetti Corners is a story very familiar to most any urban historian: this area, known as the “Triangle” or Greenbush, was largely cleared in the city’s campaign of urban renewal in the 1960s. New housing and hospitals, and the ongoing expansion of nearby UW, foreshadowed the Madison that was to emerge in the later 20th and early 21st centuries. But amidst the large modernist constructions of that mid-century era, other traces remain to remind eaters that this was not just a community of Italian Americans (many of whom worked on the construction of the nearby state capitol building) but also African American and Jewish migrants. One of those came later but still advertises Kosher wares with a neon window sign: Greenbush Donuts started in the mid-1990s and keeps the old neighborhood’s name alive. A required stop, its wonderful plain and blueberry old-fashioned donuts are an excellent morning prelude to evening beers (or you could, we suppose, eat them together?).
Greenbush Bakery looks back to the old neighborhood in its name and in the glowing “Kosher” sign, a reminder of the multiethnic community that stood on these streets pre-urban renewal. Donuts and beer: the perfect combination whether or not you are Homer Simpson. Photograph by Brian Goldstein.
People look back on Greenbush nostalgically now, appreciative of what a multi-ethnic neighborhood of dense streets would have offered; nostalgia for Madison and Wisconsin’s even older past shows up in one of the newest additions to the beer landscape too. Not far from One Barrel and on the banks of Lake Monona, Madisonians have since 2017 been able to find the Olbrich Biergarten in one of the city’s public parks, Olbrich Park. The very name (“garten” not “garden”) is an allusion to the German beermakers who were central to the state’s brewing history; on its taps — serving Karben4, AltBrew, Next Door, One Barrel, and even Good City (among other local breweries) — are the names that have written a new chapter in this history. It seems very fitting that in a public park, in a changing city, one can enjoy a not-too-hot summer evening in a space that joins the 19th century and the 21st. Of course, you don’t have to be an urban historian to enjoy beer and brats in a nice place like this, though we venture to say that a historical perspective allows one to better read the multiple landscapes superimposed on the isthmus.
With brewing history in mind and heart during our June visit to Wisconsin, we had to make one more stop: New Glarus, about 40 minutes southwest of Madison, and particularly the New Glarus Brewing Company, an institution so beloved that while it only — and famously — sells beer in the state of Wisconsin, it is nonetheless the 16th largest craft brewery in the nation. One might ask why a brewery in the middle of rural Wisconsin dairy country surfaces on an urban history blog. Yet the newly built home of Spotted Cow (the brewery’s best-selling beerer) is quite literally the model of a small town, with a little of the Germany that birthed the state’s famous brewers (and some of the brewery’s equipment), more of the Switzerland that was the birthplace of many early residents of New Glarus (the nearby town, itself constructed to look Swiss), and even a re-created Gothic ruin, embracing picnic tables instead of church pews. Architectural consistency aside, the effect is a postmodern stage set in which rural Wisconsinites and hipster bachelor and bachelorette parties all find a little gemütlichkeit. The brewery is famous for good reason and here you can go well beyond Spotted Cow to a broad range of brews, many experiments only found on these “streets.”
The center of the New Glarus Brewing Company is a city plaza, quaint even on a hot summer day in June. With alpenhorns playing, a cold one in hand, and gentle farmlands beyond, you might soon forget you aren’t in Switzerland. Photograph by Brian Goldstein.
When you are in a fake city plaza in the state’s glacier-free Driftless area, surrounded by beer taps and, yes, even two gentleman playing alpenhorns, it seems best to not ask too many questions about how you got there. Enjoy — moderately — a few tastes, then admire the rolling hills on your way back to the cities that beer helped build–and continues to rebuild. We certainly did.
Theresa McCulla is the historian of the American Brewing History Initiative at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Her book-in-progress, Consumable City: Food and Race in New Orleans, shows how the pleasurable sensory experiences associated with New Orleans’s culinary world made food a uniquely powerful tool in the exclusion of people of color.
Brian Goldstein is a historian of the American built environment and an assistant professor at Swarthmore College. He is the author of The Roots of Urban Renaissance: Gentrification and the Struggle Over Harlem.