When I was a kid growing up in a small town in Massachusetts, the local football team was the Boston Patriots (the New England name came years later) of the AFL (yes, there were separate leagues back then). And the Patriots weren’t very exciting. So I rooted for a team in a place I’d never been, the Packers of Green Bay, Wisconsin. Why did I choose them? Simple - they were the best, a small town team performing at a world-class level. Which is an excellent metaphor for so many craft breweries. They’re small. They serve a local and devoted fan base. They do the hard work required to produce a first rate product. And they have a real respect for tradition.
That’s much of what I enjoyed so much (along with the beer, of course) when we visited Titletown Brewing Company in Green Bay. First off, their more-than-hundred-year-old building used to be the train station, back when long distance travel meant trains, not planes. Amid hugs from family and friends, this is where Green Bay folks departed to follow their dreams, take a first job in the big city of Milwaukee, or even Chicago, or head to military service during World Wars One and Two. And it’s where thousands of Packers fans from elsewhere in Wisconsin would arrive for every Packers home game. Which made it a gathering point at some time for just about everyone in town and many from miles away,
Today, it’s still a gathering point, a social center. The taproom and restaurant give off a homey vibe - clearly, many of the folks here know each other very well. After all, Green Bay is the smallest city in the NFL, the only one whose residents own shares in the football team, and a place where tradition is revered. In football - and in beer.
Commercial brewing in this state began at least as far back as 1840, according to the Wisconsin Historical Society. By 1860, there were nearly 200 breweries in the state, one in virtually every town (some towns even grew up around the breweries). Milwaukee alone had more than 40. Helping fuel it all was an influx of German immigrants, bringing their taste for lagers, and in many cases their experience as brewers.
Prohibition struck a fatal blow to much of the brewing industry here, as elsewhere. Most of the breweries that shut down never came back after the ban on alcohol was repealed. Milwaukee remained a brewing center, home to the major brands Pabst, Miller, Schlitz and Blatz, but it would take decades for small breweries to begin doing business in the state again. Still, the tradition is strong here, and while most of Milwaukee’s big breweries shut down over the years - Miller Coors is the only one left - there are now more than fifty craft breweries operating throughout the state.
And they are producing the whole spectrum of craft beer - not just the German lagers that started the industry here, but also Belgian Ales, IPAs, Stouts, barrel aged beers, specialty beers, and on and on. When we visited Titletown in Green Bay, Brewmaster David Oldenburg told us he was averaging thirty new beers a year – more than 200 at that point - and the list keeps growing. About half of his taps are dedicated to beers that are always available, the other half are constantly changing. And reverence for tradition does not mean simply repeating the past. It means honoring the past – producing spot-on versions of classic styles, but also taking risks to widen the spectrum with new and unique varieties, especially those with indigenous ingredients. At Titletown, after all, the beer we brewed was made with Wisconsin wild rice. And it was fabulous.
Check out more from Titletown Brewing Brewing Co. and Briess Malting by watching the episode!
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