Beer is central to many Wisconsinites, but many of them don’t think of central Wisconsin as a hub for it. That’s a misconception worth changing. The heart of our state features a variety of breweries new and old, some highly acclaimed and others little known outside their communities.
If you find yourself wandering around the central part of Wisconsin, here are some places to stop in for a cool one or two.
The first brewery on our list also is the oldest. Founded in 1857, Stevens Point Brewery is the fifth oldest brewery in the United States. It even provided beer to Union troops during the Civil War.
The little brewery survived Prohibition, the Depression and other historic milestones under the oversight of a variety of brewers/owners. In 2002, the brewery was purchased by Milwaukee real estate developers Joe Martino and Jim Wiechmann. The pair has continued and expanded on the brewery’s 158-year-old traditions.
Point beers have enjoyed some long-term popularity, including being named the best beer in America in 1973 by the late Chicago newspaper columnist Mike Royko. Since then the brewery has widened its variety of brews, including the higher-alcohol Whole Hog Ltd. specialty series, seasonal brews and gourmet sodas. The entertaining brewery tour always includes samples.
A growing number of beer geeks have discovered and are reveling in the beers from O’so Brewing Co., located in the Stevens Point suburb of Plover. Brewers James Vokoun and Mark Spilker specialize in the unexpected and their dedication to the craft of craft brewing shows.
Based in the Village Park strip mall off of Interstate 39, just south of Stevens Point, O’so boasts one of the nicest tasting rooms of any craft brewer in the state. The more than 20 tap lines feature nan extensive array of O’so’s well-known, seasonal and one-off brew and a rich cross-section of some of the state’s best craft beers, assuring that there is something for every taste.
If you’re stopping by, make sure you bring your designated driver so you can tap into some of O’so’s extreme offerings, including Grandpa’s Got a Gun (brandy barrel-aged American strong ale), Wheat You Talkin’ ’bout, Willis? (brandy barrel-aged wheat wine) and Spike’s Maple (an American strong ale made with 100 percent maple sap rather than water). At 10 percent ABV, this last beer is sure to “spike” your blood alcohol content.
Travel 20 minutes east of Plover and you will hit the tiny community of Amherst. Within an even tinier industrial park you will find Central Waters Brewing Co., which, along with O’so, has helped make central Wisconsin a craft beer mecca.
Owners Paul Graham and Anello Mollica have expanded on the brewery, first founded in Junction City in 1995, to embrace a wide array of craft beers that have established Central Waters’ reputation statewide. The small tasting room that fronts the brewing tanks offers a comfortable atmosphere and a wide array of interesting brews.
Known for beers like Mudpuppy Porter, Hop Rise Session Ale and Satin Solitude Imperial Stout, all featuring a heron on the label and available in area bottle shops, Central Waters’ Brewers Reserve series is capturing the public’s palates. Our personal favorite is the Great American Beer Festival Gold Medal Award Winner Bourbon Barrel Cherry Stout. Produced with 75 pounds of tart Door County cherries added to each barrel, the resulting beer is richly textured, sublimely flavorful and deceptively strong.
The brewery’s Space Ghost Imperial Stout, brewed with Anaheim chiles and Ghost peppers, also got top marks. Buy it if you can find it.
Central Waters isn’t the only brewery to festoon their labels with a heron. The Blue Heron Brewpub in Marshfield — which actually has a white heron in its logo — differs from the previous breweries in also being a full-service restaurant. The beers are balanced by a menu of pub standards and a few out-of-the-ordinary dishes, which received top marks on TripAdvisor and other sites.
Blue Heron regularly features three standards: Honey Blonde Ale, Tiger’s Eye Mild English Ale and Hop Heart IPA. But the brewery also produces interesting seasonals on a revolving schedule.
This month you will find Fainting Goat Maibock and Hip Wader Pale Ale on tap. Tappers Tripel Ale promises to have a little more kick than the rest of the lineup, while Rauch ‘Em Sock ‘Em Smoked Ale and Thunder Echo White Stout are varieties rarely seen. Couple either with the brewpub’s elk burger or “Grown Up Mac and Cheese” and the results will be more than satisfactory.
The Marathon County community of Wausau was originally known as Big Bull Falls when it was founded in 1836, owing largely to the particular bend of the Wisconsin River on which it is located. The name is carried on with Bull Falls Brewery, one of three craft breweries in Wausau. Brewmaster Mike Zamzow has created a variety of brews, some emblematic of the craft brew market and others a little more unusual.
Zamzow comes with a distinct brewing legacy. His great uncle Walter Zamzow was the secretary at Marathon City Brewery in Wausau, which closed in 1966 after operating for 75 years. Bull Falls’ signature beer, Marathon Lager, is based on the original Marathon Superfine recipe. The premium beer, lightly hopped, recreates an area favorite from an earlier time.
Zamzow also brews a Bock Lager, Bourbon Barrel Stout and Hefeweizen in addition to Holzhacker Lager (a Munich-style Helles beer). Midnight Star (a German-style schwarzbier) and Hop Worthy, the brewery’s IPA. The emphasis on lagers, which are more difficult and more costly to produce, sets Bull Falls apart from much of the competition.
Red Eye Brewing Co., also located in Wausau, is another brewpub, this one with a menu emphasizing wood-fired pizza. The menu also lists burgers, paninis and wraps, as well as sides, salads and starters.
Brewer Kevin Eichelberger has taken his brewery a different direction than Bull Falls, with an emphasis on IPAs, Belgian-style brews and other creative fare. Eichelberger’s current tap list includes Bloom (a Belgian wheat beer), Thrust (an American-style IPA), Scarlet 7 (a Belgian-style “dubbel”) and Charlatan (an imperial stout.)
Wausau also is home to one of five Great Dane Pub & Brewing Co. locations, the northernmost and the only one outside the Madison metro area. Those familiar with the Madison locations will recognize the beer menu, which includes Crop Circle Wheat, Emerald Isle Stout, Stone of Scone Scotch Ale and other favorites developed by Madison brewmaster Rob LoBreglio.
The Wausau Great Dane also offers a full service food menu much like its Madison cousins.
Stevens Point Brewery
2617 Water St., Stevens Point
O’so Brewing Co.
3028 Village Park, Plover
Central Waters Brewing Co.
351 Allen St., Amherst
Blue Heron Brewpub
108 W. 9th St., Marshfield
Bull Falls Brewery
901 E. Thomas St., Wausau
Red Eye Brewing Co.
612 Washington St., Wausau
Great Dane Pub & Brewing Co.
2305 Sherman St., Wausau