Monday, October 22nd, 2012

image of Art Smart's Dart Mart in Milwaukee WIWe went to Milwaukee to see a taping of one of our favorite radio shows, Says You! and then we almost didn’t make it to the show! It was an evening taping but we left Madison in the morning and got to Milwaukee around noon so we could have a wander around town. Then we went back to our room to clean up and catch a short nap. When we were ready to go, I called for a taxi to pick us up.

The driver called me from the curb outside the door of the inn when he got there and I very nearly didn’t answer because he had a New York phone number, so I assumed he was a telemarketer. I only decided to pick up so I could mess with him.

“Yessss?” I answered.

“Dave?”

That old dodge: Using my first name to get me to stay on the line. “Yessss?”

Pause. “Did you call a cab?”

“Oh! Yes, yes I did! Hang on, we’ll be right down!”

Then, as we stepped out the elevator into the lobby, a couple dressed to nines were looking out the window and saying something like, “I don’t know how he got here so quickly. Maybe it’s not ours.” But they went out anyway and stopped short of getting into the cab when we followed them as closely as a shadow all the way to the curb.

“Did you call a cab, too?” the woman asked me.

“Yes, I did,” I answered as My Darling B stuck her head in the door to make sure it was, in fact, our cab. It was. As I climbed in, B asked the driver to take us to the Helen Bader Theater on the UW-Milwaukee Campus, and then gave him the address: 2419 E. Kenwood Boulevard. “Right, right,” he said, and sped us to a faraway neighborhood of the city.

Let me just interrupt here to remind the reader that the only times we’ve been to Milwaukee before this have been on guided tours, or to pick someone up from the airport. We don’t know any of the streets or neighborhoods, but we assumed our driver did, and when he said, “Right, right,” and nodded, I don’t think we went out on a limb when we assumed he knew exactly where the Helen Bader theater was. Certainly, we expected him to know where the campus of the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee was.

So when he dropped us off at the intersection of what looked like a shopping district, we didn’t say, “Where the hell are we?” We assumed he’d dropped us off maybe around the corner from the theater and we only had to walk to the corner and we’d see it. Call me foolishly naive, I deserve it. When we walked down to the corner to get our bearings, though, we discovered that the driver had dropped us off on Kenilworth Street, not Kenwood Boulevard! I ran back to the taxi with B yelling, “Stop him! Stop him!” behind me. Thank dog it took him so long to get his dispatcher on the phone.

On the upside, he didn’t charge us for the ride to the correct address, and we got there in plenty of time.

I was trying to describe Says You! to a friend the other day and rather ironically found myself at a loss for words. Ironic, because Says You! is, as the show’s host, Richard Sher, describes it, a game of words played by two teams. It’s alrways played in five rounds, each with its own peculiar quirk. They played one of my favorite rounds last night, a game I can play without making my brain explode. Richard Sher gives the name of an actor and asks a panelist to guess the movie he’s thinking of. It’s usually an almost unknown actor in a supporting role. With just one name, the guess is at best wild, of course, although sometimes they actually get it on the first try. If so, ten points! If not, another actor’s name gets added to the list, this one a little more well-known than the first.

With the choices narrowed down a bit it’s not a coin toss any more, but still just barely an educated guess. Sometimes Richard will go with the most popular movie featuring the actors in question, sometimes the most recent, but sometimes he’ll go for the obscure title. You never know. The last name added to the list is a giveaway, the name of whoever got star billing, and when it gets that far its announcement is followed by a lot of facepalming and oh-I-shoulda-got-that groaning.

Two of the rounds are Bluffing Rounds: the host gives one team a word so obscure that it sounds as though he made it up on the spot. The words they used the other night, for instance, were “callithump” and “corf.” Don’t ask me what they mean; I forgot already. Each of the team members gets a card, but only one of the cards has the definition of the word on it; the other two cards say, “Please Bluff.” Those two team members try to make up a definition that sounds plausible enough to fool the other team into picking one of the made-up definitions.

There’s always a musical guest to play a song during the introductions, and to provide a musical interlude during the bluffing rounds, to give the panelists enough time to come up with a good bluff. The musical guest was probably the most delightful surprise of the evening: they were The Squeezettes, the power-polka band we just happened to see last month at the Monroe Cheese Fest. I described them then as an all-girl accordion band but there was a guy drumming and another guy playing a sousaphone, so obviously I wasn’t paying close attention. And although there are three women playing accordion, calling them an all-girl accordion band doesn’t do them justice. They describe their style as “power polka,” which comes much closer to capturing the feel of their art. Have you ever thought of “Wooly Booly” as a polka? Me, neither, but to hear them belt it out is to experience a whole new level of polka that I frankly wouldn’t have thought possible. I didn’t hesitate to buy a CD from the guy selling them in the lobby.

There was just one thing, and I mean only one thing, I would have changed about the evening: If I’d known the six people behind us were going to jabber and shout through the whole performance, I would’ve eaten a brick of cheese right before we were ushered in. I’ll have to keep one in my man purse from now on for emergencies.

How to see Milwaukee on just $500 a day – Part 2 | 8:59 pm CST
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Sunday, October 21st, 2012

image of My Darling B drinking beer from a boot in a Milwaukee tavernWe’re back from Milwaukee! We went there to watch a taping of one of our favorite radio shows, Says You!, and ended up doing a sightseeing tour of a small slice of Milwaukee while stopping off at a couple of our favorite places.

Even as the number of things we wanted to do mounted up, it seemed like a good idea each time. Tickets to the show cost just $17.00 each, but the taping was scheduled to end sometime after 10:30 pm. I didn’t want to drive back to Madison that late at night, so we reserved a room at the County Clare Inn. That tacked a hundred fifty bucks on to the cost of our trip right away, but seemed like not only a good idea but a good deal: We’d be smack dab in the middle of Milwaukee. That’s how we decided to do some sightseeing while we were there. We had the time. We were in a good location. Why not?

We left Madison as early as we could Saturday morning, by which I mean ten o’clock. We were going to shoot for a much earlier departure time until we realized it’s not like there was a great big hurry to get there. I made a pot of coffee and we slowly drained it while we passed a couple hours Googling for information about interesting places to go and fun things to do while in Milwaukee. Don’t laugh. There really are some. The last time we were in Milwaukee, for instance, we stopped at a place called the Wisconsin Cheese Mart. Guess what they sell there? And not only can you snack on a selection of great Wisconsin cheese, you can take your plate of cheese to the tap room where you can ask them for one of the two-dozen great Wisconsin beers they have on tap. Tell me that’s not a place you’d want to visit.

And it was within walking distance of the inn, along with other sights we’d never seen before just because we hadn’t taken the time. So we pulled into town shortly after noon and, with more than a few hours before the show was scheduled to begin, started wandering the streets in the warm sunshine of an gorgeous autumn day in Milwaukee.

How to see Milwaukee on just $500 a day | 8:02 pm CST
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Sunday, September 16th, 2012

image of trunk full of goodwill donationsWe paid a visit to the Monroe Cheese Fest yesterday, which, if they were honest, they would call the Monroe Standing In Lines Fest. Ten thousand people crowded the city square of Monroe, so there were lines for everything. There were even lines to get in lines. I’m not kidding. To buy cheese curds, or cheesecake on a stick, or a beer – anything – we had to stand in a line to buy tickets for it first. I didn’t find a vendor anywhere that would take my money in exchange for something deep-fried, or cool and refreshing. I should’ve pulled the race card on them. “Oh, I get it: No tickee, no beer, eh? What kind of racist organization is this, anyway?”

Of course, each vendor had their own tickets. We couldn’t buy a whole fistful of tickets, then redeem them anywhere we wanted. Beer tickets would not buy cheese curds, for instance. Luckily for our thirsty selves, the New Glarus beer tent had a crack staff that kept the lines moving pretty fast. I was okay with the tickets-for-beer crap so long as I had a cold cup of beer in my hand.

We were invited to the cheese fest by a couple we know, Bryan and Kris. Bryan grew up in Monroe, so he knew it like the back of his hand and could tell stories about every building in town. He knew, for instance, that we wouldn’t be able to park anywhere near the courthouse square. Taking his advice, we parked on the edge of town and rode in on one of the buses the festival organizers chartered to bring people into town. Bryan suggested we meet in front of Baumgartner’s, a tavern Bryan said anybody would be able to point us toward if we couldn’t find it. Good idea, but as it turned out, we didn’t have to ask. The bus dropped us off right behind Baumgartner’s, so we were right where we wanted to be almost as soon as we stepped off the bus.

Our timing was perfect. Bryan phoned My Darling B just minutes after we arrived and left a voice message for her, saying he was in front of Baumgartner’s waiting for us, but after scanning the twenty or so faces of the people standing outside Baumgartner’s, we were pretty sure he was pulling a Candid Camera stunt on us. “If you’re in front of Baumgartner’s, then you must be cloaked,” I texted to him. I tried calling, but the cumulative weight of ten thousand cell phone users must’ve been overwhelming the one tired cell phone tower near the center of this normally-sleepy berg, because I never connected with him no matter how many times I tried to dial his number, even while he was leaving me more voice messages.

We hooked up eventually. He and Kris were standing on the other side of the road, near the beer tent. How fortuitous. After grabbing a cold one, we set off to tour the vendors set up around the square. That’s when we found out there were an infinite number of lines waiting for tickets, food, tickets, and beer. When we were almost all the way around the square, Bryan volunteered to wait in line for tickets to buy some cheese curds if we would go on to the beer tent and have a freshly-pulled cold beer waiting for him when he caught up with us. We agreed, and on we went.

I caught only the outlines of this plan, however, because while we were working them out I overheard the familiar strains of La Vie En Rose, played by all-girl accordion band, The Squeezettes. I had never been prepared for a version of La Vie En Rose scored for four women on accordions. I’m more accustomed to versions like the one sung by Edith Piaf, although Louis Armstrong can turn out a pretty good rendition, too. Overcome by the, ah, unique rendition by the Squeezettes, I lost track of what was going on around me and almost didn’t notice when the rest of the group moved on to the beer tent.

We ended up at the corner where we started, just as my Auntie Sue and Uncle Jim arrived. There was much hugging and hellos, followed by a trip to the beer tent to make sure everyone had a cool, refreshing drink before we went on to the next thing. The Next Thing was supposed to be listening to a blues band at the stage behind the brewery, but unfortunately it turned out that they were scheduled to appear much later in the day than we thought they were, so we made our way back up to the square and, on the way, happened to meet some people we knew. There was much more hugging and hellos, more cool libations from the beer tent, and shortly afterward we found ourselves in the shade of the buildings along the side of the square, where we passed the rest of the afternoon, shooting the shit while polka bands played old pop tunes. And it was not at all bad way to pass the time, I might add.

We made one side trip to see what the tour of the distillery was like. I have to say that I was disappointed. It wasn’t much of a tour. They herded us into a room, showed us a brief Power Point slide show summarizing the history of the Minhaus Brewery, poured a few drinks, and that was it. There wasn’t even a distillery to look at. They had a mega-still installed in the room, but it looked like it wasn’t hooked up to anything and, if I heard them right, it hadn’t ever been fired up. It was a virgin still. Maybe the tour will be a bit more interesting after they’ve actually distilled something and have a few good stories to share. Couldn’t say.

We packed up and headed out of town kind of early because standing around all day in the sun sipping beer made me a little sleepy. I wanted to get back before it got dark.

Monroe Waiting In Line Festival | 8:55 pm CST
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Thursday, February 2nd, 2012

I have mailed cheese.

When my mother asked me to mail her some cheese I guessed that this was the thing least likely I would ever mail to someone, but then I remembered the time I mailed a hamburger to someone as a joke. Bought it at the Burger King drive-through, dropped it into a box while it was still steaming, taped it shut and slid it into a mailbox on the way out of town. So mailing cheese to my Mom wasn’t so much of a stretch, really.

Still, it’s not the sort of thing I ever expected anyone to ask me to mail to them, but my mother, who moved away from the frigid wastes of Wisconsin to live in warm, sunny Arkansas, was lamenting that she couldn’t find any good cheese down there. That’s what happens when you don’t do your research before picking the place you want to move to. Might end up in a backwater where the locals don’t know how to make cheese.

So I mailed her a five-pound brick of Hook’s 2-year cheddar. She asked for just one pound, but when I saw what a tiny little brick that was I thought, Heck, she’ll eat that all up in less than a week! So the next time we went to the store I asked the man behind the deli counter if he had a five-pound brick and he said, I don’t know, let me check, opened the door on a great big cooler and started rummaging around in there. Hey, you’re in luck! he shouted, emerging with a brick of cheese in his arms that was at least as big as a firehouse. Well, after making him carry that out I was more or less committed, so I bought it. And mailed it.

I had just bought something that came in a great big box, wrapped in lots of bubble wrap, which I thought would make a pretty good insulator, so I wrapped the cheese up in that, taped up the box real good and sent it on its way. Mom got it on the weekend and said it was just fine. I’m sure it didn’t hurt that the weather was pretty cold last week. Don’t know if I would try that in the middle of summer. Even after just a couple of days it might smell a bit. Not as much as a hamburger, but still.

cheddar | 6:00 am CST
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Sunday, November 13th, 2011

I have the teensie-weansiest little headachette this morning, just a little pressure at my temples that makes my eyelids squeak when I blink them, as if they’re on rusty hinges. I’m sure it’ll go away after a cup of coffee.

This is definitely not the fault of the beer I drank during our tour of breweries in the Fox Valley. That beer was just way too good to be the cause of any kind of hangover, no matter how slight. There’s no way I can accept that such lovingly crafted, drinkable brews could in any way be deleterious to my health.

There was that Bloody Mary I nursed at the bar in the morning while we were waiting for the bus to pull up. They’ve never given me a headache before, but there’s always a first time.

The bus left the curb in front of Alchemy, one of our favorite places to go have a bite to eat and tip a brew after a long, hard slog through the work week. It also happens to be the headquarters of Hop Head Beer Tours, run by a trio of guys (Justin, Pepper, and a third guy who wasn’t able to make the trip and I forgot the name of because I wasn’t taking notes. Mea culpa.) who have been slaving away to give ordinary people such as me and My Darling B the extraordinary privilege of visiting the most amazing breweries in Wisconsin and talking to the guys who love to make beer.

I just realized: In every brewery we’ve been to, the brewers have all been guys. Why don’t women brew? There are plenty of women who love to drink beer. Why would they leave the brewing to the guys? I might have to look into that.

Anyway, we called a cab for the trip to Alchemy at nine-fifteen, figuring that it would be prudent to assume that we would need a cab ride home when we returned. I called Union Cab because their cabs are yellow. I deeply believe that cabs should be yellow with a belt of black and white checks. Union Cabs don’t have the checks, but at least they’re the right color. Okay, I don’t believe any of that. I called Union because they made a catchy radio jingle out of their phone number that always pops into my head whenever I think of calling a cab. A yellow Prius pulled up at the driveway precisely at nine-fifteen and the driver, after saying hello and confirming the destination, switched on a episode of This American Life and we were treated to a story about interstellar space travel. Would this happen anywhere other than Madison?

When we signed in, we learned that our group that day would be very intimate, just eight people and Eric “Bruiser” Brusewitz, the head brewer at The Great Dane. Bruiser brought along a box of six growlers, gallon jugs of beer, from the Dane for us to sample during the bus ride to Appleton. The bus itself was not a typical coach: The front half had coach seating, but the back half had four big, comfy wing chairs and two tables with bench seating on either side. The tables let us sit together in a close little group, pass around the beer samples and ask Bruiser a lot of questions, which he was more than happy to answer in great detail. And there were a lot of questions: Bruce, one of the guys taking the trip, was a home brewer who was really into the chemistry of fermentation, and Bruiser had not only been to brewer’s school (yes, there really is such a thing), he’d also traveled to breweries in Britain and Germany to learn about their brewing techniques (and drink beer – that lucky guy’s got the most awesome job in the world). Not only did he answer every question we asked him, he also had lots of great stories about brewing beer that made the trip way more fun than if we had just sat around drinking beer. Not that drinking beer all by itself isn’t fun.

Our first stop was not at a brewery at all, but at Schultz’s Cheese Haus in Beaver Dam, because Justin, one of the trip organizers, wanted to pair the beer we were drinking with some cheese. He chose a cheddar and bleu cheese mashup that Bruiser paired with a porter. Everyone gobbled up the cheese and the porter was so good that everyone asked for more.

The first brewery we visited was The Stone Cellar Brewpub tucked away in a part of Appleton known as Between The Locks, quite a pleasant surprise because my brother and I used to hang out in a bar called Skyline on the top floor of the building. The bar’s still there and still called Skyline, but it’s known as a comedy club now. I popped in for a quick peek at this almost-forgotten corner of my misspent youth and it doesn’t look much different.

The Stone Cellar’s brewery is on the ground floor above the pub. Collin, the brewer on duty, gave us a quick and dirty explanation of how he turned water, barley and yeast into beer, moving from one giant stainless steel tub to the next, before we machine-gunned him with questions. Actually, I think we salvoed before he was finished. In either case, he was more than happy to answer all our questions in as much detail as Bruiser did. When we were done in the brewery we retired to the pub where we got a complimentary pint of whatever we wanted and a commemorative pint glass with the pub’s logo silk-screened across the side. Some day I’ll have to hang a shelf or two where we can put up all the pub glasses we’ve collected in just the past few years.

Our next stop was at Title Town Brewing Company in Green Bay, a total geek-out for me because not only was it a brewpub, it was a brewpub in a train station, the old Chicago Northwestern station on Dousman Street. Brent, one of the brewers and, I think, one of the owners, too (I wish I’d kept notes), was into the history of the place and not only had a lot of beer memorabilia, he also had lots of photos of the depot, of trains at the depot, of railroad heralds, and on and on and on. It was fantastic. I’m still geeking out about it. Oh, and the beer was delicious, too.

Our last stop was dinner at Hinterland Brewing’s Green Bay restaurant (there’s one in Milwaukee, too), which was literally right across the street from Title Town. Where Title Town was more like a pub, Hinterland came across as a tony high-end restaurant, very quietly lit and actually very quiet. We tucked into a scrumptious taco dinner on the top floor before trooping downstairs for a tour of the brewery. Almost all the breweries we’ve been to are packed tightly into small spaces, but I’ve never before seen mash tuns and fermenters packed so closely and efficiently together as they were at Hinterland. We had to walk single file between the fermenters in the cold room, weaving our line between the legs of the giant tanks.

And that was our glorious day out. We came back with all the usual bling: pint glasses, a six-pack and a bottle or two, some coasters we pocketed as keepsakes. Oddly, neither one of us bought a t-shirt this time. I slept on the way back and I don’t think I snored too loudly, not that anybody else on the bus was going to care. I’m pretty sure most of them slept on the way home, too.

Fox Valley Brewery Tour | 11:35 am CST
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