By Mary Bergin | Photography by Holly Leitner (East Troy Brewery pictured above)
When done right, properly fermented beer produced in small batches goes beyond quenching the thirst. It piques the imagination, expands the palate and evokes a sense of place, too. In the area’s microbreweries, the flavor is truly local — from the beer recipes’ backstories to the unique character of the brewpubs themselves.
The popularity of microbreweries has grown quickly in southeastern Wisconsin and northern Illinois, and behind each new brew is a unique story. While it’s true that all beer contains grain, hops, yeast and water, what happens from there is a mix of skill, patience and ingenuity, often in a setting that encourages visitors to linger over a pint and return for more.
Beer names might be both playful and pertinent, enhanced with artistic label designs. Brewmasters might be self-taught or educated internationally (or a combination of the two). Taprooms are located anywhere beer lovers can find them — on farms or in downtowns, in strip malls or even industrial parks. At microbreweries, it’s the beer that is paramount, but some taprooms also offer snacks, a meal menu or live music to add to the experience.
TOPSY TURVY BREWERY, LAKE GENEVA
Dan Schuld of Topsy Turvy Brewery in downtown Lake Geneva balances fun with reverence for his microbrewery’s location: a century-old, Neo Gothic, former Baptist church that features the original stained-glass windows. Depending on the month, brewmaster Justin Kirsch’s 20 on-tap choices might include Sweet Jesus Zachi Stout (made with Ecuadorian chocolate) or Sinful Holy Water (a deep cherry seltzer).
“Justin approaches his work like an artist designing a stained-glass window,” Schuld says of his colleague’s brewing. “We craft our beer in small, precise batches with the finest ingredients.” Kirsch started as a home brewer before working at Chicagoland breweries and taking brewing classes in Belgium, eventually finding his way to Lake Geneva.
Why call the Lake Geneva endeavor Topsy Turvy? “It’s a 16th century expression and literally means upside down,” Schuld says. “That’s our philosophy: We are rooted in experimentation and pushing the boundaries.” As part of this philosophy, they develop new versions of beer weekly.
Look for brews (and their Dive line of hard seltzers) named after “local inventions, historical sites and tourist attractions.” Examples: Blonde ales Geneva Beach and Lake Path, and New England IPA Mailboat Hopper.
DUESTERBECK’S BREWING COMPANY, ELKHORN
Rare is the microbrewery that is based on a Wisconsin farm. Near Elkhorn, on a fifth-generation family farm, is Duesterbeck’s Brewing Company, open since 2019 in a gorgeously renovated red barn on the property.
“With the farm buildings deteriorating, we needed to redefine our terms of agriculture,” explains Laura Johnson, who co-owns Duesterbeck’s with her brewmaster husband Ben (he holds degrees in bacteriology and dentistry as well). In addition to the taproom/bar space, the family added a roomy outdoor patio, an outdoor stage for live music and an additional outdoor bar, completely rebuilding a former pig barn to use for events and additional outdoor seating.
“Ben’s specialty as a brewer is making such a wide variety of styles that there is always something for everyone,” Laura says. Their most popular beer? That’s a toss-up between Crop Duester (a cream ale) and Nutty Bill’s Peanut Butter Porter.
KISHWAUKEE BREWING COMPANY, WOODSTOCK, ILL.
Just across the state line in Woodstock, Illinois is the edgy, industrial vibe of Kishwaukee Brewing Company. Owner Dan Payson is an architect who began brewing beer professionally during the Great Recession of 2008.
Brewery construction began “on the day before the country shut down” due to COVID-19 in spring 2020. A few months later, the 10,000-square-foot building that fills much of an industrial park field opened for business. Next to the brewhouse, the property boasts an outdoor beer garden, the site of creative events like a Monday night yoga class that includes a pint of beer. Sometimes food trucks sell tacos, burgers, pastries or pasta, the perfect complements to Kishwaukee’s popular beers.
Less than one mile away is “The Kish” — the Kishwaukee River, a migration point for sandhill cranes and other regional birds. Payson is sensitive to the environmental impact of his work: the spent grain from the brewing process goes to local farms, where it is used to feed cattle and poultry. His asymmetrical design of the brewhouse roof will make it easier to add solar panels, a goal for the future.
And the beer? “We brew traditional beers, made as close to style as possible,” Payson says. Don’t expect flashy names: Lager, Pilsner, Gose (a sour German brew) and Marzen (a seasonal Bavarian lager) are among the choices.
“I call it what it is,” Payson says. Each beer bottle label features a crisp work of art that acknowledges local flora and fauna. “We want this to be a destination,” Payson says of his brewery. “It’s quiet, off the beaten path, a place to take a deep breath and relax.”
HOLZLAGER BREWING COMPANY, WOODSTOCK, ILL.
Experimentation is key at another Woodstock craft brewery, Holzlager Brewing Company, where three friends — all engineers — took over a former hardware store in a strip mall and gave it a new purpose in 2019. The vibe is fun and intense: Anchoring the company logo is an owl with piercing eyes and antlers.
The flagship beer is Clown Hammer, an IPA that was one of the first products the trio sold. According to co-owner Mario Cortez, El Heffe is their riff on a Mexican dark lager, served with a zesty Mexican Bloody Mary mix, made locally.
Customers bring their own food or munch on Champion Pizza (locals’ favorite) or Craft Beer Jerky (beef jerky marinated with craft beer). Last summer, the brewery began experimenting with
hard seltzers. Normally, traditional seltzers are clear, but not here: A new blueberry seltzer was deliberately made an eye- catching purple. Another flavor they’re working on, inspired by county fairs, is cotton candy.
Good news for homebodies: a recent addition of canning equipment means Holzlager beer is easier to find at grocery stores in northern Illinois and southeastern Wisconsin.
SECOND SALEM BREWING COMPANY, WHITEWATER
In Whitewater, Second Salem Brewing Company offers a small, artisanal approach to microbrewing. Brewmaster Christ Christon (he’s also a jiu jistu teacher and volunteer firefighter) explains it is technically a nanobrewery, producing one barrel of beer at a time.
Second Salem sets itself apart from many microbreweries by presenting a casual but robust food menu in addition to its beer, served on a patio overlooking Cravath Lake. Many of the menu items are rooted in local lore about witches, hauntings, mythical creatures and spooky events. One example is the Witch Hunter burger, dressed with gouda, bacon, greens, tomatoes, red onion, roasted red pepper and minced garlic.
Award-winning beers include Beast of Bray, an amber ale named after an Elkhorn road of the same name where a werewolf-like creature was allegedly spotted in the 1990s. On one wall of the taproom is an artist’s rendition of the mythical beast. Other beer names and labels play up Whitewater’s spookier side: Bone Orchard, an IPA; The Reaper, a pale wheat; and Witchtower Pale Ale.
EAST TROY BREWERY, EAST TROY
East Troy Brewery, located on East Troy’s village square, has been brewing since 2018, when Ann and Ted Zess converted an historic bank building into a brewpub. The project helped to reinvigorate the community while preserving East Troy’s history. That focus on the community extends to the beer itself: Brewmaster Shay Leamon has apprenticed with some of the best-trained brewmasters in Wisconsin and says she tries to use local and regional ingredients in her beers, including Wisconsin-grown malts, hops from providers including the Wisconsin Hop Exchange and Breiss in Chilton, Wisconsin and locally grown, organic corn.
East Troy Brewery chef Ashley Turner makes everything on the extensive menu from scratch, working with local farmers to source key ingredients for her dishes. Visitors enjoy a rotating assortment of beers on tap to pair with menu items like sweet chile pork tacos, white truffle pear pizza, and burrata with smoked peach and tomato salad. And the beers people can’t seem to get enough of? Leamon says three popular options are the Hippie Dippie Organic Golden Ale, Because… Dinosaurs Hazy IPA and Helles of Troy, a crisp lager.
THE HIVE TAPROOM, EAST TROY
Just outside of downtown East Troy is The Hive Taproom, where owners Tim and Ayla Guild specialize in brewing their own session mead. What is mead? Technically it is a honey wine, but it’s brewed like beer and tastes more like a cider or a champagne. Husband-and- wife team Tim (the brewer) and Ayla (the beekeeper) were inspired to open The Hive when they noticed a need for a high-quality, gluten-free beverage experience in the area.
The Hive Taproom combines the energy of a fun, laid-back craft brewery and the comforts of a winery. Visitors often stop by with kids and pets in tow, ready to choose from 14 different meads on tap, as well as house-made soda and a hopped honey kombucha on tap. Food options include snacks and small plates – gluten-free flatbreads sourced from Cranky Al’s in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin are a favorite. For mead connoisseurs, there’s a quarterly membership program that comes with a one-of-a-kind honey tumbler and an invitation to the Members’ Night mixer.
Need additional ideas? The Walworth County Beer and Wine Trail mobile passport will help you earn prizes as you explore the area’s tippling options. explore.visitwalworthcounty.com.