New Glarus, where beer is born
A road trip to New Glarus, WI with TCD staff editor Brian Jacobson
A little over two hours outside of Milwaukee, due west as the crow flies if the crow took the I-94 corridor at 75 m.p.h., is a sleepy little southern Wisconsin village in a deep valley of Green County. The Swiss colonists who founded it in 1845 called it New Glarus after the Canton of Glarus in eastern Switzerland. Today, it’s almost frozen in time, and the inhabitants are fiercely proud of that — for tourism’s sake. And of course, a magically wonderful beer is created here, high on a mount.
The best way to get here is to skip the expressway. Once upon a time, people travelled on plain old highways and county roads. Driving down these lanes now is likely to find you exclaiming “whoa, look at that” or “hey, I didn’t know that was there.” In neighboring smaller towns such as quaint Monticello, gasoline is often 20 cents cheaper than the going rate. It’s the kind of area that loses a lot of radio signals and picks up a bunch of others — usually country and religious programming. National Public Radio becomes your best friend as rolling vales of farmland go by.
Although a visit to the just-opened-to-the-public New Glarus Hilltop Brewery was germane, the other point of this particular day jaunt was to hit up the Taste of New Glarus and Heidi Festival held in late June. It almost seems as if this village has a festival going on every weekend in the summer, from the ubiquitous Lions Barbeque to Polkafest to the crowning of the Dairy Queen. But the big Appenzeller for these folks is on August 2 — Swiss Independence Day — when they go all out for Volksfest.
However, a walk-through of the village during any season finds a great deal of architecture and ethnic flavor at the ready. Buildings are adorned with ornate stencils, heart-cut shutters, and coat-of-arms devoted to Switzerland.
It’s a bit strange to look around and see nobody of color walking around; blond mop-topped children abound and old men sport burly white mustaches. You get the feeling that the townsfolk here would be delighted if a person of Korean or African descent would move in: “Oh hi! Come on over and have some fondue while I break out the Alphorn!”
The main one-block street in a sloping downtown is the centerpiece for Taste of New Glarus, bordered on one side by the storied New Glarus Hotel and the Primrose Winery on the other. There are others involved, too; stores along the periphery like the lush Brenda’s Blumenladen and Mrs. Lackovich’s Christmas House. You may start to see a pattern here in the store naming; the Subway and Culver’s is on the outskirts of town, while other venues are called Glarner Stube and Swiss Lanes Bowling.
I went straight for Ruef’s Meat Market. At an outdoor tent there was a choice of Veal, Apple, and Beer/Onion Brats. While the offering of a commercial hot dog bun was questionable and the lack of spicy brown mustard unthinkable, the sauerkraut-coated sausage was pitch-perfect otherwise.
Saving the inevitable freshly-borne beer for later, I next stopped in at the Primrose Winery. It’s a quaint and clean little hovel, perfectly climate-controlled inside. Back in 2007, Wisconsin legislature made small wineries jump through fiery hoops to sell their wares. Like many others, Bob and Peg Borucki joined a co-op for better distribution abilities. I asked about their range; they confessed that they hope to make the Milwaukee market sometime next year.
What makes them great is their local flavor and unusual variety. I tried out five wines, ranging from a Riesling-like varietal called Fridolin White to a spicy, clove-hinted apple wine called Apfelmost. Their Summer Wine is infused with cherries, but the bottle I walked away with was a $13 Rhubarb Wine, which was culled from local produce. In fact, one Primrose sommelier told me that the owners put ads in the local newspapers to get citizens to harvest their rhubarb around this time of year. The grapes for other wines also comes from western Wisconsin villages like Highland. The end result is a better-than-table wine, with notes and tones that feel like Wisconsin.
Now a stop was in order to Maple Leaf Cheese and Chocolate Haus to pick up some Braun Suisse Kase cheese and store-made fudge. This small storefront is home to some award-winning cheeses, including several 2008 American Cheese Society top three finishers.
A center table is ringed with old-time pharmacy candy containers, and all the walls and shelves are old wood. The pickings at the fudge counter were starting to grow slim, as the ‘Rum Chocolate Walnut’ was gone already and others like ‘Creamsicle’ and ‘Coconut Creme’ were mostly cut up. I tried out several before deciding on ‘Blackberry and Raspberry’. Before the teenage counter help could cut into it, I spied one more in the corner — ‘Cassis Noir Brandy with Black Currant and Chocolate’. It was a prize on the tongue and I had to lean up against one of the town’s many Brown Swiss Cow statues.
I didn’t have any more time alotted for Swisstown highlights like the Chalet of the Golden Fleece, as the Heidi Festival was about to start about five blocks away. It’s as mind-blowing as it sounds. There was a nearly full house to watch the tale of (you guessed it) Heidi, a play adapted from Johanna Spyri’s book Heidi’s Years of Wandering and Learning.
It has been performed by local amateur enthusiast actors for decades now, apparently from the same costumes, sets and script. The lady that plays the young goatherder Peter’s blind grandmother has been playing the role for a long time, so much so that she now seems the part. The grandfather, who is supposed to be a hermit living on the Alm, is just a bit too irrascable and warm. Heidi and Peter are fine as child actors, but it’s the kid goat that really steals the show. He bleats and looks out into the imaginary landscape with a talent that would wow Stanislavski.
After the first curtain closed 20 minutes into it, I thought naively that a second act would wrap things up. I sat quietly in the cool, dark, and open auditorium listening to recorded yodeling music, knowing nothing of Heidi’s upcoming plight. After Heidi had been absconded away to Frankfurt and the curtain fell again, I grabbed a program. There were four acts, and the play was almost three hours long. It’s easier than you think to sneak out of a play, even one that says on the program “the audience is not allowed to leave during the performance.” My apologies to the great cast and crew, but I needed a beer.
It was somewhere on the long and winding gravel path up to the New Glarus Hilltop Brewery that I finally saw my first live Brown Swiss cow in the area. She looked at me as if to mutter “tourist.” When you emerge from the forest ridge, several large barn-like structures spring forth as if from a pop-up book. Daniel and Deb Carey have turned a cottage microbrew into a statewide favorite, with just about every bar in Milwaukee holding at least Spotted Cow in its inventory.
The new 75,000 sq. ft. facility first brewed in late 2008 but was not open to tourists until June 13, 2009. Giant quarry rocks mark the stairway to the Tasting Room and a mish-mosh of buildings, which are still kind of spotless all-around.
One of the hallmarks of the old brewery was a self-guided audio tour. Head workers hanging out that Saturday lament that it’s in the works, but who knows when it’ll be ready. With no tour guide or booklet, it’s a bit like walking into Willie Wonka’s lair unannounced. Industrial noises abound, but it was kind of eerie quiet at the same time — like walking through a new museum. Giant kettles work magic on hops and barley — sometimes wheat. Pipes run overhead everywhere, and the Spanish tile you walk on is actually the second floor, overlooking chasms of steel silos and containers. Each room is marked for purpose until you reach the end, where the Laverne and Shirley action happens. Normally, the line is running with bottles of Totally Naked, Stone Soup, Fat Squirrel or Uff-Da Bock. Today, steel kegs were being filled with beer-y goodness.
I’ve had New Glarus beer before, and I liked it. But as I told two men walking into the Tasting Room as I was walking out with a souvenir glass of cold Dancing Man Wheat, “it’s like going to the farm and getting milk straight from the cow.”
Out back there’s a metal bird fountain overlooking the valley as it cuts through Highway 69. In the future I could imagine a huge deck out there, with other blissful pilgrims sipping down a cold beer and perhaps yodeling down to that unamused cow. For now, there is a beer depot in a sort of milking parlor below one of the barns. Inside is a chance to pick up hard to find items like the Unplugged series, the sampler pack, and seasonal fruit beers like the Raspberry Tart Framboise. Somebody there let it slip that actually most of the products were available in town for a bit cheaper. But then again, another employee talked up the Carey’s recent partnership with Laboratory Manager Randy Thiel. It’s at the old facility that they’ll continue to work on unplugged, seasonal beer batches, and what’s being called “R&D.” This research and development line will only be offered at the brewery for tastings.
I actually took the advice of the unnamed worker and ventured back into town, where Roy’s Market stepped right out of my grocery store childhood memories. There in the back of the mart is what appears to be a house facade made out of New Glarus beer containers. I grabbed a few six-packs and made my exit. Where to go next?
I found an attached road called Kubly. It curved up a hill blanketed in trees and rocky cliffs. I drove up it, rolled the windows down, and turned off the GPS. The lined road turned into unmarked blacktop. Blacktop gave way to loose gravel. I kept going until rolling meadows turned into dramatic landscapes. There were no other cars on the road. It was perfect.