Bottoms Up: A Toast to Wisconsin’s Historic Bars & Breweries

The “Bottoms Up” panel (L to R): Jim Draeger, Rob LoBreglio, and Robin Shepard. Photo by The Conscientious Omnivore (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

Over the weekend I headed to the UW–Madison campus for one of the many events at the second annual Wisconsin Science Festival. While lots of the programs were geared toward kids and families, I had something more grown-up on my mind: beer. On Saturday afternoon, I attended a session entitled “Bottoms Up: Book, Film and Discussion of the History of Wisconsin’s Bars and Breweries.” The program was inspired by a book from the Wisconsin Historical Society, a documentary from Wisconsin Public Television, and an exhibit at the Wisconsin Historical Museum.

The session started with a 17-minute excerpt (i.e., the first third) of the documentary, which was really wonderful. It took viewers to Wade House, a stagecoach inn built in 1850 where travelers waiting for coaches could get not only a meal or a bed for the night but also beer or spirits. As trains supplanted stagecoaches, drinking moved into store-front saloons, where decorative walls shielded children and womenfolk from the iniquity within … unless you were in a German tavern, in which case there was a separate “ladies’ lounge” in a back room for women, children, and families. We also learned that the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 played an important role in Wisconsin beer history: when Chicago breweries were destroyed in the conflagration, Milwaukee’s breweries grew to fill the void and established their regional and then national presence.

The documentary excerpt was followed with a really enjoyable panel discussion and Q&A with three beer aficionados: architectural historian and “Bottoms Up” co-author Jim Draeger, Great Dane Pub & Brewing Co. VP and executive brewmaster Rob LoBreglio, and author and Isthmus beer columnist Robin Shepard. I was too busy enjoying the conversation to take notes, and then I was too busy enjoying my beer to worry about not having taken notes. (LoBreglio poured generous samples of the Great Dane’s Scotch Ale and American Pale Ale.)

The book, with beautiful historic and contemporary photos, is currently available from fine booksellers everywhere. The documentary premiers at 8 pm on Monday, November 12, on Wisconsin Public Television; the DVD will soon be for sale, and the doc will almost certainly be re-aired on WPT following the premier and eventually posted to their website. Finally, if you’re in the Madison area, the exhibit is open now through through February 17, 2013, at the Wisconsin Historical Museum. As Draeger inscribed my copy of the book: Prosit!

Photo of Joe’s Bar, Stevens Point, Wisconsin, by Pete Zarria via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

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