Milwaukee is still the brew city, and there's so much more than Miller. If you're here to visit the kids at college, to watch the Bucks, Brewers, Admirals, or Wave, for a trip to the Calatrava, or a concert at the Pabst, it is essential that you get here early or stay a little late to imbibe the convivial atmosphere of the city's riverfront breweries and brewpubs. These places fill a completely different niche than the macro-breweries that put more resources into their advertising than into their beers. They're located along Milwaukee's Riverfront, which is coming alive after so many years as an afterthought, or less, they make beers with flavorful ingredients and no preservatives, and they attract an uncannily merry crowd.
The best of the bunch, in my opinion, is Lakefront Brewery, which serves up award-winning beers for the best price in the universe (5 bucks for a Lakefront Brewery pint glass and tokens to fill it four times). In the summer, visiting baseball fans toast their teams while falling in love with our city. Winter warriors warm their wares in Lakefront's cavernous (but well heated!) "palm garden" - a misnomer if there ever was one - waiting for the afternoon's entertainment: a comfortable and often hilarious brewery tour that is incredibly informative while being about as serious as a feline in a field of catnip. EVERY beer is good, so try them all, and remember: no empty glasses on the tour!
I recently kept warm on a wet day in January by bopping from brewpub to brewpub using another new downtown attraction - an extensive network of bike trails and bike lanes. Slightly toasty after sampling Lakefront's savory libations, I donned my trusty helmet (and hat and gloves and coat and scarf), rode across the street, up an incline gradual enough to conquer without disembarking from my two-wheeler but steep enough to really get the blood flowing, and over the beautiful wood-paneled and well-lit 'marsupial' bridge to Brady Street. Brady Street west turns into Water Street, and I was already just five minutes from the Downtown Riverwalk and at least three more microbreweries. On this particularly drizzly and surprisingly balmy day (at 35 degrees), I found myself, inexplicably, alone in the newly-painted, delightfully wide bicycle express lane to the heart of the city.
I continued down to Kilbourn Street and hung a right to the bridge, where there is access to the Riverwalk. I was the only person out strolling that day, carrying a bicycle and admiring the swirly patterns coursing through the river of pure ice below me. Shortly, I arrived at the picturesque Rock Bottom Brewery.
Picturesque-ness is Rock Bottom's strongest asset. Its beers are good, but surely different from the home-grown Lakefront specialties. The atmosphere is pleasant and lively, but in a more big-box, big-chain sort of way. My suggestion: stop by Rock Bottom Brewery's riverfront seating area during a summer stroll to enjoy the refreshments, the crowd, and the city's revival.
New portions of the Riverwalk have made it remarkably extensive and, with a little searching for each new extension (which sometimes requires crossing to the other side of the river) one can make his or her way beneath freeways and warehouses that have recently been converted into jealousy-evoking lofts. The Riverwalk here is wood-plank and suspended above the water. It ends conveniently at the Milwaukee Ale House. By bike, I got from Rock Bottom to the Ale House on Water Street. The bike lane ends at Mason Street, but traffic is usually slow-moving enough that a cyclist can take his place among those other vehicles that exist out there.
Ah, the Milwaukee Ale House. This is another place with a jovial crowd, and the bar tables with high stools are a wonderful spot to take in local live music and meet some very affable fellow beer connoisseurs. Try the Louie's Demise beer - hands down, the Ale House's best. The food is suspiciously Friday's-esque, but hey, it's a brewpub. For the best experience, go when a local band is scheduled to perform (I recommend Frogwater and King Solomon), arrive early to avoid the cover charge and make an evening of it.
Thankfully, Louie's Demise didn't cause my own demise as I headed home after my afternoon winter biking brewery tour along the Milwaukee River. Speaking of the way home, we will be passing Lakefront Brewery again . . .