Milwaukee may be steeped in brewing history, but travel about an hour west of the Brew City and you’ll find a farmstead where old brewing traditions are truly alive.
Old World Wisconsin, a historic site and museum administered by the Wisconsin Historical Society, has teamed up with the Museum of Beer & Brewing in Milwaukee to reconstruct the brewing traditions brought to Wisconsin by mid- to late-19th century immigrants. The goal of the program is to educate the public about traditional brewing techniques as well as showing how brewing began in Wisconsin and grew to become such an important part of the economy and culture.
Dan Freas, director of Old World Wisconsin, says of this first season, “the process has been very much experimental in nature.” Most of the brewing techniques and methods brought from Germany in the late 1800s were not specifically documented. Recreating the process requires a deep historical perspective and a bit of learning through trial and error.
Gary Luther, a brewer educated in Germany and former head of brewing at Miller, is a founding member and former president of the Museum of Beer & Brewing. According to Dan, throughout his career “Gary has become very knowledgeable regarding the history of brewing in Wisconsin and 19th century brewing practices. He has been the leader of the brewing team at Old World Wisconsin and primary interpreter of the process for the general public.”
In fact, most of the key members of the project are former master brewers and engineers from MillerCoors who have blended their technical knowledge with a love of history to reconstruct these 19th century brewing techniques.
The program is meant to show the entire brewing process beginning with the agricultural aspect. Recently, guests helped harvest heirloom variety hops and thresh barley by hand using a traditional wooden flail. As the program progresses, they hope to grow and harvest as much of the brewing ingredients on site as possible using historically accurate tools and methods during operating hours. In this first season of operation, they have brewed once monthly with plans to expand to twice monthly next season. Museum volunteers will help with the brewing in head-to-toe period attire.
Growing hops and barley is just one element of this brewing history lesson. Museum guests also learn about how practically every village in Wisconsin had a brewery, and how those breweries helped support other local industries—farmers that grew hops and grain, the timber industry that provided barrels and fuel for boiling, the ice harvest that made storage possible, and early drayage companies that shipped the final product. These supporting industries helped stimulate the early Wisconsin economy and paved the way for brewing to become a major economic force in the state.
The brewery team at Old World Wisconsin has thus far experimented with a few classic German styles that would have likely made their way to Wisconsin during the wave of immigration in the mid- to late-19th century.
The first beer brewed in spring was an altbier followed the next month by a weissbier. The style, which originated in Upper Bavaria, nearly became extinct in the 19th century. In 1890, there were two known wheat beer breweries operating in Wisconsin. In mid-August they brewed a Kölsch and in mid-September a märzen in keeping with the Oktoberfest tradition. The latest brewing session was on October 8 when they made a bock-style lager to finish the first season of the program.
The museum is open daily from June through October and brewing will take place the first and third Saturdays of each month from May through mid-October of 2017, but be sure to check their calendar before planning a visit. The program is a one-of-a-kind look at how far brewing has come from 19th century to modern day Wisconsin, with its 100-plus breweries.