Public Beer Gardens Are Great Fun
County now boasts four permanent and two traveling beer gardens.
History repeats itself and culture moves in cycles. In the mid-19th century German immigrants brought their beer brewing savvy to our Third Coast shores. One of the ways they distributed their products was through a circuit of biergartens (beer gardens). Many of them dotted the banks of the Milwaukee River, but they disappeared about a century ago. But in 2012, a new cycle began as Milwaukee County officials opened a beer garden along the river in Estabrook Park — the first public beer garden in America since Prohibition! Yet the flagship venue was soon a success, generating around $65,000 in revenue the first year and spawning three additional sites. The most recent opened last week and sits on Lake Michigan in South Shore Park.
The Humboldt Park Beer Garden, operated by Saint Francis Brewing Company, is the only one of the four permanent and two traveling Milwaukee County Parks Beer Gardens with a happy hour. It includes half-off all beer and wine from noon to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. They currently have kegs of Saint Francis Wrath Amber Ale, Oktoberfest and Maple Root Beer (N/A), Ale Asylum’s Unshadowed Wheat Ale and Demento Session IPA, Lakefront’s IPA, Potosi’s Tangerine IPA, and MKE Brewing Company’s Booyah. As with every Beer Garden, there is a $5 deposit on the glass and their steins run $5 for a half-liter and $10 for a liter, making the happy hour a hell of a deal. They also carry merlot ($8), chardonnay and riesling ($7), and bottles of Lakefront’s New Grist (gluten-free beer, both the Pilsner and Ginger flavored, $4).
The Estabrook Park Beer Garden was modeled after a modern day Munich Beer Garden and features Hofbräu München on tap, the old world brewery owned by the Bavarian state government. The iconic imported beer is slightly more expensive than the local craft beers at Humboldt Park, with Traditional Munich Styles (Original Lager, Dunkel and Hefe Weizen) at $6 for a half-liter and $11 for a liter, and seasonal brews (Maibock, Sommerbier and Oktoberfest) at $7 for a half-liter and $12 for a liter. Also on tap is Miller Lite (16oz $4), a rotating local craft (currently Lakefront’s Fixed Gear, 16oz $6), Point Root Beer (half-liter $5), plus bottles of New Grist ($6). For wine they carry sauvignon blanc, riesling, and pinot noir at $5 for 6oz and $30 for 1.5 liters.
The Landing at Hoyt Park was the second beer garden to open in the county parks system. It received some early criticism for being next to Hoyt Pool, but has since proven to be one of the most popular. They have the greatest diversity of drink offerings, featuring Crispin Cider, New Glarus Spotted Cow and Totally Naked, Lakefront Riverwest Stein, Point Cascade Pale Ale and Oktoberfest, MKE LittaBitta IPA, and Sprecher Special Amber on tap for $5/pint and $10/34oz. Hacker Pschorr Hefe Weisse and Spaten Optimator imports are $6/pint and $11/34oz. They also have bottles of domestics Miller Lite, High Life, Coors Light, craft bottles of New Belgium Fat Tire, Lakefront New Grist and Point Cider Boys First Press for $4, plus large format import bottles of Karmeliten for $6. They have three reds and three white wines at $5 for a 6oz glass and 187ml bottles of champagne for $6.
Beer gardens are about much more than frothy, intoxicating refreshment. There’s an abundance of nature and divertissements on hand. With nearby soccer, baseball, volleyball, disc golf, bag toss, horseshoes and lots of playgrounds, there’s plenty of places to work up a thirst and keep your kids busy. The spirit of the beer garden is community building in a relaxed atmosphere. Tables are meant to be shared. All of the gardens provide some sort of nourishment (baked pretzels being the most popular item among them), but you are encouraged to bring your own food, though grilling is not allowed. I spotted a number of tablecloths and hearty picnics during my visits to the beer gardens. Wednesday nights at Humboldt and Hoyt feature trivia from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. On Tuesday at Humboldt we could hear the soundcheck for the music at Chill on the Hill.
The Traveling Beer Garden added an additional outfit this year to their popular satellite operation. The final locations for 2015 are Root River Parkway South in Whitnall Park and Juneau Park on Prospect Avenue, open now through September 7. Operated by Sprecher Brewing Company, who like myself, turns 30 this year, will celebrate their birthday with a bash tonight and tomorrow at Juneau Park. Their signature red trucks have a dozen Sprecher products on tap, including their new Hard Apple Pie and Hard Ginger Ale malt beverages. Like the South Shore Terrace system, the first pint ($6.50) includes the glass and refills are $1 off. They also offer 32oz plastic boot ($15, $9 refill), 32oz dimple mug ($14, $9 refill), 64oz growler ($20, $18 refill), and 64oz glass boot ($60, $18 refill). Five 5oz sample flights are $9 or $15 paired with select cheeses. Wine and cider is $6.50 and $5.50 for a refill. Their award-winning draft Root Beer is $3 ($2.50 refills) and bottles of their sodas are $3.
It’s a far cry from the old days of beer garden entertainers lighting themselves on fire and jumping into the Milwaukee River, but Sprecher’s 30th Anniversary Party will feature free live music tonight by The Ladders, The Grovelers and X. Tomorrow’s lineup includes Christopher’s Project, Robert Allen, The Living Statues, and De La Buena. The Anniversary Party is also the only place to try Sprecher’s limited-edition 96.5 WKLH Hometown Rock beer. Make sure to bring cash if you visit a beer garden as only The Landing at Hoyt Park take credit cards, but all have an ATM machine. With parking limited and most of the beer gardens along the Oak Leaf Trail, bicycling is the preferred method of transport when visiting a biergarten. As summer comes to a close there’s no better time than now to get outside and savor the flavors and fun in our beautiful parks.