MidwestWeekends.com — Your Travel Guide to the Upper Midwest

Breweries & vineyards

Best brew fests

Quaff craft beer to your heart's content at these sampling parties.

At last, Americans are realizing that life is too short to drink cheap beer.

The tasteless factory lagers of our youth look awfully pathetic next to the beers now being turned out by craft brewers: sweet cream stouts, lip-smacking India pale ales, chocolatey porters, Belgian wheats flavored by coriander and orange.

In fact, it's getting hard to keep up with all the new brews, some of them wildly creative. That's where brew festivals come in.

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Great grape stomps

At winery harvest festivals, compete with your feet.

During harvest time in a vineyard, turning purple has nothing to do with the Minnesota Vikings.

Purple is what you'll be if you get into a wooden tub of grapes and try to turn them into juice with your bare feet.

Vineyards don't get their juice that way anymore, but many still offer a grape stomp, and there's nothing goofier to do on an autumn day.

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Pedaling for a pint

Thanks to mutual attraction, breweries are popping up along bike trails.

What pairs best with beer? These days, a bicycle.

Beer always has tasted best when you sweat for it. You can still drink a so-called lawnmower beer, but after a bike ride, most people want something flavorful — ambers, blondes or pale ales.

Craft beer and bicycles seem to go hand in handlebar. Some beers even are named for bikes, such as Fixed Gear IPA from Lakefront in Milwaukee.

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True brew in the Twin Cities

Craft breweries are popping up all over, offering taprooms, music and food trucks.

It used to be that rebellious young men started garage bands. Now, they start garage breweries.

Bud, Coors and Miller may rule the beer world, but craft brewers are its rock stars. At first, they made their own, getting supplies from St. Paul's Northern Brewer ("good beer is your right'').

Then, they started real breweries with names like Surly ("the anger fueled by the inability to find good beers'') and Flat Earth ("join the movement against the reign of watered-down domestics'').

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Exploring Chippewa Falls

Leinenkugel's brewery, the Old Abe bike trail and the Chippewa River draw tourists to this Wisconsin town.

In Chippewa Falls, people owe a debt to two kinds of folks: the bubbas and the geeks.

The first came to harvest the lumber and stayed to drink the beer, or so claims the brewery: "It takes a special beer to attract 2,500 men to a town with no women,'' says Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing, founded in 1867 and now the oldest business in town.

Then came the guys with slide rules. Seymour Cray, the son of the city engineer, spent his childhood in Chippewa Falls tinkering with radios, then went off to war and college.

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A German Mardi Gras

At New Ulm's Bock Fest, the good times roll in on a tide of beer.

Oh, the joy of being German.

There's no question that Germans know how to have a good time. After all, they've given the world Oktoberfest, half-gallon steins and "The Little Chicken Dance.''

And what else? Beer, of course, the enjoyment of which is a God-given right to Germans; their adage "Hopfen und Malz, Gott erhalts'' roughly translates as "Malt and hops, to God, are tops.''

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Following a wine trail

On winery tours, sample fruits of the harvest.

Across the Upper Midwest, vineyards are being planted and wine trails formed.

Vineyards tend to be in very scenic areas, and wine trails allow buyers to meander along pretty country roads, stopping here and there to quaff a glass of wine or have a picnic.

Of all the states, Michigan has been most active in forming winery trails. And why not? There have always been a lot of orchards in Michigan.

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Mad about brew

In the town that worships beer, brewery tours draw legions of fans.

For people who love beer, there’s no better place to drink it than in a brewery.

In 1880s, beer-loving Milwaukee had more than 80 of them. Three became national giants, giving Milwaukee the nicknames Beer Town and Suds City, but only one survived.

That’s Miller, acquired in 1969 by Philip Morris and now part of Molson Coors. Schlitz closed in 1981, and Pabst in 1997. 

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On the wine trail

In November, taste the fruits of the harvest on winery road trips.

As fall winds down on forest trails, the season is just gearing up on wine trails, where groups of wineries invite folks to take a little drive, sample the wares and maybe take home a few bottles.

Since wineries tend to be in very scenic areas, that’s not such a bad idea. And in late autumn, many offer special events to put buyers in the holiday spirit.

Here are wine trails in Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. There are no in-person events in 2020, but most wineries still welcome visitors.

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Wine walks on the Wisconsin

On a fall girlfriend getaway, we hike, eat and sip our way along the river valley.

For some people, “Wisconsin wine” is a puzzling concept, like “New York nice.’’

But grapes do grow in Wisconsin, primarily on the high ridges of the Wisconsin River, near its confluence with the Mississippi. There, vines bask in sunlight and frosts sink into valleys.

What vintners can’t grow they truck in from other states, adding a Wisconsin je ne sais quoi  to the grapes during blending, fermentation and aging.

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A vintage vineyard

More than 175 years after its founding by a Hungarian hustler, Wollersheim is basking in success.

In the wooded bluffs across the Wisconsin River from Prairie du Sac, the Saturday before Thanksgiving is a red-letter day for wine drinkers.

That's when Wollersheim Winery releases its Ruby Nouveau and throws open its doors for a tasting party that always draws hordes of loyal fans.

The wine is good — better than good, according to judges at international competitions. But visitors also come for the atmospheric setting, on a hillside wrapped by massive oaks and frequented by bald eagles, and for the vineyard's colorful history.

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Chilling at an ice bar

Enjoy life on the rocks at these pop-up canteens.

You think you hate the cold, but maybe you just need more ice in your life.

Ice as in ice bar, where you can sip a White Russian from an ice glass or eat a snow cone made with passionfruit vodka.

It's the kind of fad any winter-hater can get behind. Ice bars are popping up all over, complete with ice sculptures, warming fires and fur-clad servers.

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Road trip: Breweries of southern Wisconsin

A beer-lover's tour taps into Old World flavors.

Fat Squirrel. Spotted Cow. Lazy Mutt. Uff-da.

Uff-da? In Wisconsin, say that and you get a great glass of beer. Anywhere else you get . . . a funny look.

Wisconsin may be full of cheeseheads. It may be a party state. But boy, are they drinking a lot of good beer there.

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Hopping onto the ale trail

On pub and brewery crawls, you'll travel by trolley, bus, bike or boat.

These days, it seems as if all the world wants to go on a pub crawl. 

Even the Chicago Architecture Foundation has hopped onto the beer bandwagon, offering walking tours of pubs in four neighborhoods.

Beer and history go hand in hand in the Windy City, where the Chicago History Museum keeps coming up with new theme crawls. Trolleys take history tourists on tours of British pubs as well as Chicago's "greatest dives'' and Prohibition-era  Chicago.

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Quaffing with a crowd

At craft-brew festivals, fans converge to try the latest concoctions.

Twenty years ago, most beer drinkers thought porters work on the railroad, blondes have more fun and a craft requires popsicle sticks and yarn.

My, how things have changed.

In the United States, craft beer still claims only 11 percent of sales. But each year, more and more drinkers cross over from the lite side, and hundreds of new craft breweries spring up to serve them.

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