Sunday, August 19th, 2012

image of B&O at Brewer's gameMy Darling B and I took a little trip to Milwaukee yesterday afternoon to see our first Brewer’s game ever, courtesy of the good folks at Hop Head Beer Tours, who provided transportation and plenty of beer, which was not only freshly-brewed in the kettles at the Vintage Brewing Company but was poured by one of the brewers at Vintage! Sweet!

What I know about baseball is limited to a gist. If the guy hits the ball with the bat, he tries to run around the bases. There’s some other stuff that tumbles around in my head like trivia, but that’s about it, really. When other people start talking baseball, they might as well be talking about particle physics. Actually, I may know more about particle physics than baseball, but I don’t find myself in those conversations ever, and Hop Head Beer Tours won’t be tailgating at the next conference of particle physicists, so never mind.

On top of that, we knew that our seats were going to be somewhere between the sky and the clouds, and when we got there we discovered that our section seemed to be where they stuck all the drunk people and loud kids (check out the kid photobombing us in the snapshot). But we’d never been to a Brewer’s game and we’d been to Milwaukee just once before, and we really, really needed to take a day off, get out of Madison and to unwind as much as possible, and this sounded like a great way to do it.

image of Blatz beer signThe tour began at the Vintage brewpub, just off the beltline on the west side of town. I was already in such a relaxed mode that I wasn’t bothered in the least by the guy in the truck behind me who got all bunched up when I wouldn’t turn onto Whitney Way because the traffic light was still red. He honked his horn, he squealed his tires as he weaved around me, and he flipped me off as he left me in a cloud of his dust, but he didn’t push a single one of my buttons. I was in the zone.

We arrived at Vintage about forty minutes before the bus was scheduled to depart. B doesn’t like to be late for events like this, so when she asked, “When do you want to go?” I suggested that twelve-thirty ought to give us more than enough time to get across town, find a parking spot, check in and maybe even relax with a beer, and never feel rushed about it. I did not expect her to believe this would be the case, and she did not fail to meet my expectation. I then revised my suggestion: Noon. She was fully satisfied with that, and we left almost spot-on time. Ten minutes after backing out of the driveway of Our Humble O’Bode, we were exiting the beltway onto Whitney Way. Three minutes to park, five minutes to check in, two minutes to stop and say, “Well, what do you want to do now?” left us forty minutes to spare.

Since we had the time, and the idea had already been broached, we went into Vintage, settled onto a couple of comfortable bar stools and ordered beers to nurse until the bus started loading. I don’t know enough about Vintage to have learned the story about how they gathered up all the beer-themed kitsch from the 60s and 70s they could get their hands on. It’s everywhere, and the furnishings play up the time warp feeling to make the pub a very comfortable place to relax. I felt as though I was in the sort of Wisconsin supper club that my mom and dad used to take us to when we went out to eat dinner with friends.

I wasn’t quite finished with my beer when the bus began to load up, but no worries. We weren’t more than ten or fifteen minutes outside the city limits when Filipe pried the top off the cooler and Jeff, our helpful host from Vintage, began making his way down the aisle pouring samples of the brewery’s beer from a growler under his arm. It takes a lot of skill to pour beer into a teensy-tiny cup while rolling down the highway on a moving bus, and I’m happy to say that Jeff managed to keep all of the beer out of my lap until we were rolling through the streets of Milwaukee, where even a Shaolin monk wouldn’t have had enough self-control to pour beer without spilling.

image of B at Wisconsin Cheese MartOn our arrival in Milwaukee we made a short stop at the Wisconsin Cheese Mart. I’m not sure but I think that every time we’ve gone along on one of the Hop Head Beer Tours they stopped at a cheese store. I’m not sure why. Maybe they just like cheese a whole lot, or maybe they figure that, since we’re in Wisconsin, they should make sure they include cheese as part of the tour. I’m not complaining, and B is not only not complaining, she enjoys it very much. She brought a cooler along on this trip just to keep cheese in, and she filled it up with her favorite hard-to-find cheeses. We almost spent as much on cheese as we did for one of us to go on the tour! The girl does love her cheeses.

image of beer poster at Wisconsin Cheese MartWisconsin Cheese Mart serves beer as well as cheese, but we did not partake. B wanted to spend her time there shopping, and I didn’t want to chug a beer in the short time we had, so I wandered around looking at the architecture and the memorabilia on the walls. The cheese mart was in a gentrified section of Milwaukee where lots of buildings from the 1800s had been restored, and there were lots of photos on the walls depicting the neighborhood as it appeared back in the old days, but one of the most eye-catching, and not incidentally the most relevant mementos was a framed print of what looked like a page out of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel depicting 99 bottles of Wisconsin beers. Almost nobody took any notice of it, but B and I studied the old bottles for a while, and wondered where we could get a copy of it for ourselves. I’m still wondering. I must’ve wasted an hour and a half this morning poking around on the internet trying to find that thing and, although I found a low-rez reproduction of it on the designer’s web site, I can’t find it for sale anywhere! Great. Now I’ll have to make it my life’s purpose to track down that print.

image of tour at Lakefront BreweryOur last stop before the ball game was Lakefront Brewing for a tour, because it’s a Hop Head Beer Tours tour, so they should probably get at least one tour of a brewery into each trip, right? B and I have visited Lakefront once before and it was so much fun that we really didn’t mind going on the tour once again, although our time there did seem a little rushed. If we’d had maybe twenty minutes more to relax and soak up some suds after the tour it would’ve made for a slightly more enjoyable stop. Traffic conspired to make us about fifteen minutes late, though, and had to get to the game early enough to do the tailgating that the Hop Head guys promised us, so we had only enough time to grab some souvenirs before we got back on the bus and headed to Miller Field.

As I said before, I know nothing about baseball, but it seems to me that tailgating is just as important, maybe even more important, as watching the game. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised to learn that a lot of people tailgating in the parking lots around the stadium never even enter the stadium to watch the game. In fact, on the way back from the game we passed a group sitting around a radio, listening to the play-by-play with beers in their hands. I didn’t ask, but I’m pretty sure they never got any closer to the game than that.

A very essential part of tailgating appears to be trying to make more noise and/or drink more beer, or both, than the people around you. Several busloads of people had set up high-powered stereo sound systems that blasted rock music loud enough to shatter granite. I swear I could feel the ground shake while I ate my dinner, but maybe that was just the power of suggestion. And they left behind garbage bags full of empty beer cans, but it was all crappy beer so, in the contest to drink more beer, I’m pretty sure we won. I didn’t drink much beer myself, but I’m a firm believer that quality trumps quantity.

We schlepped ourselves over to the stadium after we finished our dinner and slowly made our way up to the nosebleed section. The stadium is a steel and concrete contraption that looks a lot more like a factory or a blimp hangar than a stadium. Yeah, there’s a baseball diamond right in the middle of it, but that sort of looks accidental, or at least it did to me. The arched roof was open to the sky and a cool breeze played across the stands, even in the rarefied air of the stratosphere where we were seated. I kid. I thought we had pretty good seats, really. We weren’t right behind home plate or anything, but I could see everything that was going on, even if I couldn’t understand a lot of it.

Watching the game does not seem to be something that most people go to the park to do, however. There were quite a lot of people around us who didn’t go there to watch the game. The five young ladies in the row right below ours in particular appeared to be doing nothing but updating their Facebook status and texting their friends. The only time they might have noticed there was a baseball game going on was when they took pictures of each other. The stadium and some of the game could possibly have been in the background. I can’t say for certain that they knew it was there, though. so it’s only conjecture that they saw it.

We didn’t stay to the end. We left at the end of the seventh inning because a) the Brewers were losing 4-1, b) the game was boring, and c) I didn’t want to walk back in the middle of a throng of drunken people. B was with me on all three counts. It was a good call: The Brewers couldn’t pull it out at the last minute, so we didn’t miss anything.

Brewers vs Phillies | 4:40 pm CST
Category: beer, daily drivel, entertainment, food & drink, My Darling B, O'Folks, play, travel | Tags: , ,
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Saturday, May 12th, 2012

I’m pretty sure My Darling B would agree with me when I say that Wednesday night we had the most fun during Madison Craft Beer Week, starting with our visit to Natt Spil for dinner and a couple glasses of beer from New Belgium Brewery. From there, we went up Pinckney Street to The Old Fashioned to try the brews they were serving from Three Sheeps Brewing, the newest brewery in Wisconsin. B tried the Black Wheat, and I tried the IPA; both were very relaxed, mild beers that reminded me of home brews.

The highlight of our Wednesday night was undoubtedly the hour or so we spent at Cooper’s Tavern talking with Page Buchanan about beer. In particular, the five beers he made that were on tap at Cooper’s – and they were, if memory serves, a stout, an amber, an extra special bitter, an ale and a wheat. The ESB was my favorite. It tasted more like the bitter ales I used to drink while I was stationed in the United Kingdom. But My Darling B preferred the stout. The smokier the beer, the more she likes it.

Page seemed to be having as good a time sampling his beers as we were. He came along to our end of the bar while we were trying out a flight of all the brews and asked us what we thought of them, then stuck around for a while to talk about brewing beer. Page hopes to make House of Brews the first community-supported brewery in the region, modeled after the CSAs (community-supported agriculture) that brought farm-fresh vegetables to urban areas. I hope he can make it happen, because I want to be one of the first in line to subscribe.

When Pepper Stebbins showed up at Cooper’s, we knew it was time to jump on the free shuttle bus that Hop Head Beer Tours was running between the cap square area and the near-east side of Madison. We got off at Glass Nickel not because we had the munchies, but because the Glass Nickel on Atwood has a basement bar and we were hoping to sample a few of the brews that Founder’s Brewing was supposed to have dropped off there. It was a little too late to get the stuff we wanted – B was looking forward to a glass of Better Half, a brew that doesn’t seem to be on the brewery’s web page, so I can’t tell you about it because there wasn’t any left at Glass Nickel by the time we got there. We settled for a glass of Breakfast Stout between us and nursed it while we chatted up the bartender, who knew as much or more about beer as some of the brewers I’ve talked to.

bus route | 4:10 pm CST
Category: beer, festivals, food & drink, Madison Craft Beer Week, My Darling B, O'Folks, play, restaurants | Tags: , , , , , , , ,
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Thursday, May 10th, 2012

I used to work on cap square so I must have walked I don’t know how many times past Natt Spil and wondered what was in there. It looked like maybe it was a restaurant, or it could have been a bar, but then again for all I could tell from the minimal signage and ornamentation out front it could have been a stationery store, or the headquarters of a ninja clan.

It took an embarrassingly long time for us to finally get around to visiting, but My Darling B and I finally stopped by last night, when Natt Spil took part in Madison Craft Beer Week, hosting a tap takeover of New Belgium brews. We wanted to take advantage of the free shuttle bus that Hop Head Beer Tours was running between downtown taverns and the bars on the east end of town, so we planned to hit the town right after work, and that plan called for a place that would not only be taking part in Craft Beer Week, but which served food as well. And so, Natt Spil.

We liked the place the moment we walked in the door. Except for the sandblasted brick wall that is apparently required by Dane county ordinance to be in every restaurant in Madison, there is wood just about everywhere: On the floor, on the walls, on the ceiling. The booths are darkly stained panels, while the tables glow in what appear to be their natural colors, glazed over with plenty of urethane sealant. And across the ceiling, Asian mandalas filled the panels above the paper lanterns.

The table we chose at the front of the shop still had its rough, undressed edges, as did many of the seat backs in the booths along the wall. We didn’t get it by accident. A couple of young ladies were finishing off their drinks and offered it to us as we looked around the room, wondering where we would be able to shoehorn ourselves into the crowd. That was nice.

There appeared to be just one guy waiting on tables, and even though he was running his legs off, he was friendly and always smiling. He was also wearing a pair of shorts that were at least six inches too big in the waist for him. Every time he came back to the bar to pick up an order, he had to hook a thumb into the waist band and drag them back up to somewhere in the vicinity of his butt. As soon as he grabbed whatever drinks or food was waiting for him, they’d fall right back down to his knees again. Somehow, he never fell flat on his face after getting his legs tangled up in them.

To quiet our growling tummies, we ordered copiously from a menu of what we thought was going to be snacks. My Darling B asked for a bowl of Duck Duck Soup, which turned out to be a very generously-laden bowl of what looked like ramen noodles topped with slices of duck meat, swimming in broth so yummy that B did her best to scoop up every last drop of it.

I ordered dim sum: spring rolls, dumplings, shrimp cakes and a salad of picked vegetables. The spring rolls were HUGE and could have been a meal in themselves. The dumplings were stuffed with shrimp, sausage and water chestnuts and drizzled with a very morish sauce that we rubbed the dumplings in to get every bit of it down our necks. The shrimp cakes were stuffed with shrimp – what’s not to like about that? And about the pickled salad I can say that even the most dedicated cook can mistake a big chunk of ginger for a potato. “I’ve never had pickled potato before!” B proclaimed, popping it into her mouth with glee. Five seconds of chewing later, her face was red and her eyes were brimming with tears. Beware.

Even though it appears to be an enormously popular place, we can’t wait to go back.

Natt Spil | 9:53 pm CST
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Sunday, December 12th, 2010

image of me with beerI might possibly have drunk a little too much beer yesterday.

I was having dinner with My Darling B about two weeks ago at the Alchemy cafe, where I saw a poster for an upcoming tour of several breweries in the Milwaukee area. It was their first-ever attempt at putting together a tour like this, and we like supporting local business people who show this kind of initiative, so we signed up to go.

And it was my birthday this weekend, so it made a nice present.

So yesterday morning at eight-thirty we climbed into a taxi and headed into town. The bus was already waiting in front of Alchemy when we got there and the guy who organized the tour, Justin, was checking people in, which consisted of giving us a button with “Hop Head Beer Tour” on it and making us sign a waiver that said, and I’m sort of gisting it here, “You might get drunk and do stupid things that we don’t want to be responsible for, so sign here.”

They started getting us into the spirit of the tour right off the bat by handing out samples at the bar where B and I settled down for a cup of coffee. B sipped at a splash of a seasonal beer that I don’t recall the name of and I’m pretty sure she wouldn’t, either, so I’m not even going to bother asking. I ended up with a snort of cherry brandy the bartender makes his own darned self in a huge glass flask that was sitting in plain view on the bar, and like a big dummy I asked him what it was. That’s how I ended up with a dram in a shot glass.

We all loaded on to the bus and left town at about quarter past nine, hitting the interstate by nine-thirty and hitting the sauce just five minutes or so after that. Justin brought along one of his friends, Nate, a brewer from the Great Dane Pub & Brewing, and they both brought several growlers of their favorite beers, passed out Dixie cups and started pouring samples for us to enjoy. The hour and a half drive gave us just enough time to enjoy a pour of each of the growlers and even get a taste of the pony keg they brought along. These guys went all-out to maximize our beer enjoyment on this trip.

image of a hundred swilling santasOur first stop was the Lakefront Brewery where we had the surreal experience of walking into the middle of an annual migration of bicycling santas who stop at Lakefront to refill their hydration bottles and load up on carbs before continuing on their cold, snowy trip.

I have to say that Lakefront was probably our best stop of the day, not just because it was the first one and I can remember most of it, but because they seemed to be having so goddamn much fun there, particularly our tour guide, Oliver, who had quite a schtick worked up to explain the history of the brewery and the making of beer. The tour began at the mash tuns, exported from Germany and still labeled with lots of little placards in German that said “Achtung!” and so on, and ended up at the bottling machine, also a bargain-basement piece of equipment from a soda factory. When we got there, Oliver switched on a tape player and led us through a chorus of the theme from “Laverne and Shirley” and switched on the machine so a bottle with a glove on top came around the track on the machine. Don’t even tell me you don’t know what that’s about.

One of the most interesting parts of the tour was stopping to see the giant beer stein that used to be in the baseball stadium where the Brewers played. That stadium was torn down and the guys at Lakefront managed to snag the stein and set it up in the back corner of the brewery. Oliver tells us the Brewers tried to buy it back from them for a truckload of money. The brewery owners said, “You can have it back if you leave our name on the side.” They didn’t go for that, and the giant beer stein still sits in the back of the brewery.

After buying some souvenir beers at Lakefront, we loaded up the bus and went downtown to the Milwaukee Ale House to get some lunch. It was like pretty much every other downtown brewpub I’ve ever been to, and yet they did have the most amazingly delicious potato chips I think I’ve ever eaten in my whole life, period. I could have eaten one great big plate of those all by themselves, loaded up another great big plate and eaten myself to death on them. Truly, they were dangerously good. Oh, and beer. They served pretty good beer there, too. We especially liked an ale aged in bourbon barrels. I usually don’t go for that, but this was exceptionally well-made.

Just a few blocks down the road from the brew pub we pulled up to the Milwaukee Brewing Company where they made the beer served at the pub in a plain cinderblock building. It couldn’t have looked more like a public utility if it had been made of poured concrete, inside or out. The able staff gathered us around the bar, tore open a box filled with pint glasses, filled us up and took us on a tour of the brewing plant, which once again could have been the inside of a brewery, or a gas-fired electric power plant. It would have been impossible to tell without a tour guide to point and tell us where the water went in and the beer came out, especially as they took some liberties with labeling the controls. I found a set of dials labeled “flux capacitor” and after that I kept looking for other easter eggs, but never did locate a continuum transfunctioner.

By the time we left I was feeling a bit tipsy and I fell asleep on the ride to the Delafield Brewhaus. They set us up with a flight of tasters; I think there was a porter, and I definitely remember a weiss, or maybe it was a Belgian style, but to tell the truth I wasn’t hitting on all cylinders by then and what I really needed was something to eat, so I ordered their combo plate. What they brought me was a huge platter heaped with chunks of brown food-like substances: onion rings, cheese and chicken fingers, all breaded and deep-fried to the point of unrecognizability. And just in case that wasn’t enough, it was served with a side of french fries, more than we could ever normally eat if we didn’t have the munchies from drinking beer all afternoon. We polished off every last bit of it, got our complimentary pint glass filled on the way out and climbed aboard the bus for the trip home.

I remember virtually nothing of the trip home. Loaded up with beer and fried foods, I fell asleep almost instantly and didn’t wake up until we began winding through the streets of Madison, where thick, heavy snow was falling. Naturally, we couldn’t get a cab. This seems to happen to us every time we try to do the responsible thing and take a cab when we know we’ll be coming home late after drinking a lot of beer. It’s like the universe wants us to drink and drive. Well, lucky for us Tim not only answered his phone, he was also willing to pick us up and take us home on the snow-covered, slippery streets. What a guy.

Hop Head Beer Tour | 3:58 pm CST
Category: beer, daily drivel, food & drink, My Darling B, O'Folks, play, restaurants, T-Dawg | Tags: , , , ,
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Friday, December 10th, 2010

I had a picture to post for you, but my google profile has merged with my Picasa profile and although I’m sure it was all for my own convenience and pleasure, it seems they haven’t worked all the bugs out because I can’t link to photos right now, I can’t even see any of my photos on Picasa right now, so I’ll just have to rely upon the awesome power of the English language to describe what I was going to show you a picture of: Beer. It was a bottle of beer. There. Pretty evocative, eh?

It was a bottle of pale ale from the Hinterland brewery of Green Bay, Wisconsin. It’s terrific beer, but their bottles are plain as a glass of milk. Chocolate milk, in this case, because the labels are black with a big white “H” in the middle of a yellow circle with the word “Hinterland” in white block letters underneath. There’s also a smaller label on the neck of the bottle, also black, that says “Pale Ale,” also in white block letters.

It reminds me of those white cans of generic beer they used to sell back in the 80s. Each can had the word “BEER” on it in black capital letters. It was awful stuff, completely unlike Hinterland pale ale except that the labeling sort of sparks a memory. You probably can’t get any Hinterland beer outside of Wisconsin and, if so, too bad for you because it’s just delicious, pure ambrosia. I’d drink it all day long if I could retain the motor skills necessary to keep hoisting the bottle to my lips, so it’s probably a good thing I can’t.

I’m thinking of beer because My Darling B and I will depart for Milwaukee, the Wisconsin city that used to be known as Cream City because they made so much beer there that it, uh, looked like cream? I don’t know. My guess is, it had something to do with a creamy head of beer. Anyway, my birthday is this weekend and we’re celebrating with a trip to Milwaukee to tour some of the pubs there, a tour we found out about while dining at one of our favorite Madison taverns, the Alchemy cafe. We bought the tickets on impulse, I tucked them into my wallet and I entirely forgot about them until this afternoon when I was rooting around in there for a dollar. Oh shit, I thought to myself, I have to get up early tomorrow! But that’s okay, I’ll be able to nap on the bus because the pretty girl sitting next to me will let me put my head on her shoulder.

Beer | 10:23 pm CST
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