Mini-Micro Brews, or the Return of Tavern Beer

The craft beer revolution keeps getting smaller…and stronger. As the demand for great craft brews continues to grow, mini-micro breweries are popping up all over the Great Lakes region. And as with so many innovations, nothing in this process is that new at all. Massive, global breweries have been a fixture in so many of our lives, with SAB/Molson/Miller/Coors and Anheuser-Busch/InBev taking us ever closer to brewing hegemony. Yet nearly every brewing tradition in every culture around the world, started in the inns and taverns of settlement communities.

The Great Lakes region is a testimony to the tavern tradition. Immigrants flooded into the area, re-established Old World traditions, adapted to the new setting, and relaxed at the neighborhood tavern with a new version of their old brew. So the rise of small beer producers which offer their creations only at the source are hardly new, rather the are a return to a wonderfully long tradition. We documented a number of great micro-brewers in Grand Rapids, MI recently, and we’ve never been shy about our love for Hinterland Brewery’s offerings from Green Bay, WI. But the folks at Buckle Down Brewery in Lyons, IL are an even smaller version, a tavern-sized brewery, like those popping up all over the area. Often the beer is available for enjoyment at a bar located at the brewery and the only way to enjoy it anywhere else is by growler or keg. No bottling or canning operation, no corporate staff, no outside distribution. Just a brewer, a few committed souls, and the beer. Oh, and the beer!

Beer - Buckle Down Rye3

On the day we stopped by, the garage door was open to the sitting room, tables filled with loyal patrons at 3 in the afternoon. Vintage lights, wooden bar, and a blackboard with offerings created a very easy, casual vibe.  We enjoyed a KnowItAll Belgian Witbier and Reprehensible Imperial Red Rye.

Beer - Buckle Down Rye

The Witbier had the light, refreshing wheat aspect, but a touch of banana, maybe with just a little caramel, comes through in the end.  The Reprehensible Rye (shown above) was deep and complex, beautiful balance between the sweet roast of the grain and clean bitterness of the hops. It went down so smoothly.

Beer - Buckle Down Rye2

The folks at Summit Brewing Company in St. Paul, MN make a Frost Line Rye which is similar in style and flavor, though the offering from Buckle Down may have been a bit more robust.  Then again, part of that may have been the appeal of drinking the Reprehensible Rye right from the hand of the brewer.

Continuing the revolution, Justin Aprahamian, owner and chef of Sanford Restaurant in Milwaukee, WI has collaborated with the folks at Hinterland Brewing to make a number of highly creative offerings. A recent piece by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel detailed how Aprahamian wants to bring “his chef’s perspective to brewing, using seasonal — and perhaps unusual — ingredients. The next beer for summer will be a cucumber pilsner.”

Yes, the craft brew revolution goes on and Great Lakes Cuisine is the better for it.

Of Festivals and Fun

We will not often highlight current events, as the ambition of this website is to promote a larger understanding of an emergent culinary movement, not simply what is currently popular.  Yet a number of events occurring the next few weeks are great opportunities to get out and experience the ethno-culinary inspiration that underpins Great Lakes Cuisine. The passion of those who organize these type of events and the experience of the thousands that attend, help build the common experience, the common touchstone, for culinary expectations and innovations.

September 18th – 20th at Daley Plaza in Chicago – The Wurst Festival

The City of Chicago is sponsoring a festival dedicated to the appreciation of the humble sausage.  The European-influenced sausage making tradition in Chicago is not only incredibly strong, it is also deeply tied to the identity of the city itself. Of course, I cannot connect Chicago and the the sausage making tradition without recalling this classic scene from Ferris Beuller’s Day Off, but I was struck upon watching the movie again recently with my children that the restaurant they so cleverly lie their way into is French.  How I long for the day when a French child has to lie to get into a classic Great Lakes Cuisine restaurant in Paris.  Hey, a man can dream.  *Hat tip to our new contributor, Jason Halm, who brought this festival to my attention.

Every weekend in September at Bavarian Soccer Park – Oktoberfest

The Oktoberfest put on by the Bavarian Soccer Club in Milwaukee is about as authentic as it gets outside of Germany.  A classic beer-hall setting with 8 different imported German beers (and a classic version from Lakefront Brewing in Milwaukee), the full polka band experience and guests in lederhosen dancing. For me, this type of experience is all about understanding the traditions and then using those traditions as a launching point for innovation.  Of course, there is little in the world more inspirational than a spit of roasting pigs.  I’ve worked side-by-side with Gunther, the club’s pit boss, in stoking the fires with hardwood charcoal, testing the pigs for succulent completion, and hauling the roasted product into the onsite butchering room, before it goes out to waiting patrons.  A pig’s head is often available for sale later in the evening for those that are familiar with such wonders.  A wonderful experience, not to be missed.



September 22nd-28th – Milwaukee Cocktail Week

A new event in Milwaukee, centered around meals offered at local restaurants featuring pairings with cocktails.  A number of the restaurants have presented great pairings, including one which features my personal vice – bourbon, but the one most relevant to our concept is the intriguing dinner to be put on by one of my favorite local restaurants – Honeypie. Two aspects of this dinner resonate with our concept of Great Lakes Cuisine.  First, Honeypie has been doing an amazing job of playing with local offerings, while making all the components for the dishes in-house.  So the buns for their stunning hamburgers are made in-house, and glisten with the egg wash finish.  The flavors for each dish are clear and full, and innovation is at the service of taste.  What makes this a must attend event is a second component of Great Lakes Cuisine, pairing the dishes with cocktails featuring AeppelTreow Winery offerings.  AeppelTreow features apple and pear wines and brandies grown, picked, and fermented onsite at their farm in Burlington, WI. They are constantly innovating new offerings, while at the same time featuring the use of Heirloom varietals that they grow. Local ingredients, local craft, culinary traditions, and innovative ideas – the essence of Great Lakes Cuisine.

Go forth and festival.  Have fun and be inspired.