As the old chestnut goes, a collection of buildings in Wisconsin doesn’t become a place worth naming until it has both a church and a tavern.
Plenty of books have been written about the history of religion in Wisconsin, so it’s about time that other important part of Wisconsin’s physical and social geography gets the historical treatment.
Historians Jim Draeger and Mark Speltz do just that in their new book “Bottoms Up: A Toast to Wisconsin’s Bars and Breweries” ($29.95, Wisconsin Historical Society Press). It coincides with a documentary of the same topic and name that debuts next week on Wisconsin Public Television and a Wisconsin Historical Museum exhibit that runs through March 23.
The book’s authors break their topic into two parts: a historical overview of about 160 years of tavernkeeping and brewing in Wisconsin, and profiles of 70 such bars or breweries that illustrate that history.
Near the close of that first section, Draeger and Speltz include a telling quote from Chuck Bigler, one of the owners of the nearly 130-year-old Puempel’s Tavern in New Glarus: “The history of the tavern is the history of America.”
The previous 70 pages back up that claim, touching on westward settlement, immigration issues, industrialization, postwar suburbanization, the women’s and civil rights movements and, of course, temperance and Prohibition.
The Wisconsin tavern’s evolution from stagecoach inn to saloon to speakeasy to cocktail lounge to brewpub is deeply intertwined with that of the state’s breweries.
A watershed moment for both came in the 1920s with Prohibition, an era Wisconsin barely abided with speakeasies, illicit homebrewing and other forms of scofflawery. “Bottoms Up” casts the bar, both then and now, as a battleground between the forces of temperance and “the social uses of alcohol,” or what German immigrants who reshaped Wisconsin’s demographics in the mid-19th century called “gemütlichkeit.”
The gemütlichkeit is alive and well documented in the book’s second section, a sort of Wisconsin barfly travelogue. The bars and breweries were selected for being historically intact and unchanged, places “where time seems suspended” and that demonstrate “the power of a historic space to evoke a deep understanding of the time and events that created it.” Each tavern gets a two-page spread, with Mark Fay’s photos embellishing each bar’s story.
The temptation will be to skim for familiar locales, and Madisonians will find a few they know, but I most enjoyed being transported to weird and wonderful establishments I’ve never been. Like Sisters Saloon, the former Peacock Lodge Tavern in St. Germain, where nearly every surface is made of log as an homage to the Northwoods’ timber history. Or B.J. Wentker’s Historic Fine Dining in Burlington, where original owner Wentker, a German emigrant, richly appointed his tavern and repeatedly ran afoul of Prohibition before its joyous repeal.
Some of the state’s many historic breweries are featured as well, including Stevens Point, Jacob Leinenkugel and the birthplace of this week’s beer.
Good Ol’ Potosi
Style: Blonde/golden ale
Brewed by: Potosi Brewing Co., Potosi.
What it’s like: Though it’s an ale, rather than the lagers poured nearly exclusively in Wisconsin’s taverns for decades in the 20th century, it’s no stretch to imagine this iteration of Good Old Potosi coming out of the tanks in Potosi in 1955.
Where, how much: Good Old Potosi is a year-round beer; my six-pack was $7.99 at Woodman’s East.
The beer: Good Old Potosi is an ale brewed to replicate a lager, and it succeeds at this. It’s the light straw color that just looks right in a tapper glass and moderately malt-forward, lightly hopped with distinctively German-tasting hops. Perhaps it’s that last bit that suggests the sharp crispness of a lager. Either way, Good Old Potosi finishes sparklingly clean, and a six-pack (or a few pints at the corner tavern) can go down very quickly.
Booze factor: Its modest 5 percent ABV is similar to most American macros.
The buzz: Potosi’s brewery, which dates to 1854, was once one of the largest in the state, kicking out some 75,000 barrels in 1945. But it was one of the many breweries in the state and nationwide to close in the ’60s and ’70s as the industry became dominated by massive brewers (of which Wisconsin had its share). Potosi shipped its last kegs in 1972 before reopening in 2007 as a nonprofit to fund the in-house National Brewery Museum. This makes Potosi a microcosm of brewing in the last century or so: It died as a victim of industry consolidation, unable to compete with Miller and Anheuser-Busch, and was reborn decades later as a craft brewer during the explosion in craft beer. That makes Good Old Potosi a tasty sip of history in a glass.
Bottom line: 3 stars (out of 4)