Beers Across Wisconsin
A weekend ride from the Mississippi River to Lake Michigan via trails and breweries.
To better convey the Wisconsin Bike Fed’s vision for an intrastate trail system, Dave Schlabowske thought it would be a good idea to ride one of the proposed networks of trails from one end to the other. By riding across the state, taking photographs, making notes on the gaps between the existing trails, and telling the story of the trip, he hoped to inspire others to join the Bike Fed in the push to create an intrastate trail plan and allocate the necessary resources to implement the plan by 2020.
As the map above shows, there are already a number of trails in Wisconsin that, when linked together, allow a person to ride for days without spending much time mixing it up with motor vehicle traffic. The most complete networks of trails with the fewest gaps are those from Chicago to Oostburg, Madison to La Crosse and Lake Michigan to the Mississippi.
Dave invited his old friend John, author of the book “Bars Across America: Drinking and Biking from Coast to Coast,” to join him on a cross-state bicycle tour from the big river to the great lake. The plan was to ride on trails as much as possible for the 225-mile journey as possible. This included pedaling from Dubuque, Iowa, where we arrived via Trailways bus from Chicago with our steeds, to Potosi, Wisconsin, our official starting point. We squeezed the trip into three days, which was a pretty tight schedule considering our route took us past a number of appealing craft breweries.
We’re not sure exactly what the symbiotic relationship is between bicycling and beer, but we knew there was no way we’d miss the chance to refuel at as many of the breweries as possible. While the Bike Fed proposal is to fill in the gaps between trails and designate these intrastate trails with numbered signs to make trip planning and wayfinding easier, based on our experiences, we think we can safely dub this route the Badger Brewery Trail.
When we reached Potosi, in the southwest corner of Wisconsin, three miles from the Mississippi, and pulled up to the historic brick-and-stone brewery, our real journey had just begun. Originally founded in 1852, the Potosi Brewery Company went out of business in 1972 but was revived by the nonprofit Potosi Brewery Foundation in 2000.
“I love the whole idea of Potosi,” Dave says. “I’m fond of the history of brewing in Wisconsin and over my lifetime it’s been sad to watch breweries close. Rather than going the usual route of converting a former brewery into some new mixed use development, they reopened the Potosi Brewery and started making beer there again. In addition creating jobs and bringing in tourism dollars to the community, it just feels like the right thing to do given our state’s great heritage of local breweries.”
We enter the cozy pub, with stone walls and dark wood accents, sidle up to the bar and refuel with pints of rich Gandy Dancer Porter and tasty hot pretzels with cheese sauce. Afterwards we check out the adjacent National Brewery Museum, with huge collection of kitschy advertising and beer memorabilia like vintage bottles and cans, glasses, ornamental trays, coasters, tap handles, foam knives and much more. There’s even an old photo of Groucho Marx performing on the PBR-sponsored weekly comedy-variety show Blue Ribbon Town.
Delicious brew and historic memorabilia behind us, we saddle up and shift into low gear to climb the steep road out of the Mississippi River valley. Until we can fulfill our intrastate trail vision with an off-street link between Potosi and the Pecatonica Trail in Belmont, this section of the Badger Brewery Trail involves riding on roads. But don’t let that stop you from making the trip to Potosi, since as the 25-mile on-street route is still a very pleasant cruise on classic Wisconsin paved country roads. And if you begin your cross-state ride in Potosi, you’re likely to benefit from the same tailwind that pushes us past old red barns, golden hay bales, corn and soy fields, and curious horses and cows.
After dinner in a tavern in tiny Belmont, we pick up the Pecatonica State Trail and ride that to the Cheese Country Trail. ATVs are allowed on both trails, so expect loose gravel and more of a rough-stuff experience than a typical rail trail that does not allow motorized users. With a medium-rough gravel surfaces, touring or dirt road bikes with very wide tires and lower air pressure are the vehicles of choice.
Dave is a big mountain biker, and he has an ear-to-ear grin riding his custom Waterford Precision Cycles all-rounder outfitted with mustache bars and 26×1.5” sneakers. John rides his Soma Double Cross touring bike with 28mm-wide road tires, and he finds these trails to be a bone-shaking experience. The railroad grade was a nice break from the roller-coaster hills of Western Wisconsin, but riding on the bumpy gravel trail in the dark is a bit frustrating for John. We hop onto moonlit roads for the last handful of miles into Darlington, then crash at a motel.
The next day we pick up the Badger State Trail in Darlington, a smoother crushed-limestone trail. Around lunchtime we pull into Monroe, an old Swiss town centered around a picturesque courthouse square and home to the Chalet Cheese Factory, probably the only facility in North America still making the pungent Limburger cheese. We take a break in the taproom of the Minhas Craft Brewery, the oldest brewery in Wisconsin and the second-oldest continuously operating brewery in the United States.
The good-natured lady behind the bar pours us pints of hearty Octoberfest and doesn’t mind at all when we pull out a Wisconsin-centric snack of landjager sausage and cheese curds. “I have fond memories of buying cheap cases of Huber Bock during my college days,” Dave says. “Minhas still brews Huber but they’ve continued to reinvent what they do and stay interesting as a brewery.”
Next we headed north on the Badger State Trail to New Glarus, another Swiss settlement that’s famous as the home of the New Glarus Brewing Company. The brewery is closed when we arrive but there are plenty of comfortable old Swiss taverns where one can enjoy the local brew on tap. “This would be a great town to spend an evening and soak in the antique atmosphere of the traditional pubs,” Dave says. “You could add a tour of the brewery if you like.” We settled into Puemple’s Olde Tavern, an inviting space with murals of scenes from Glarus, Switzerland, and dozens of rolled up dollar bills stuck to the ceiling with thumbtacks. We order a Fat Squirrel English brown ale and rest our weary bones for a spell.
As we head north from New Glarus, the Badger State Trail turns into a smooth, fast twelve-foot-wide paved trail. It leads us directly to Madison’s trail network, one of the best urban trail systems in the country, with paths that really lead you where you need to go. Wisconsin’s capital city is also home to the Great Dane brewpub (with two locations) and the Ale Asylum, and Capital Brewery is located in nearby Middleton.
On our way into town we stop by a bustling bicycle-themed art show at Machinery Row Bicycles with suds provided by several home brewers, a perfect example of the synergy between cycling and beer. Afterwards we tuck into tasty fish fry plates at the downtown Great Dane, a stone’s throw from the state capital rotunda, then spent the night at the home of Dave’s friend’s Chuck Strawser, a former Bike Fed staffer and current bicycle/pedestrian coordinator for the University of Wisconsin.
In the morning we ride east out of town on County Road Bb, a 55 MPH highway that most casual cyclists would probably find unpleasant to ride on, in order to connect with the Glacial Drumland Trail. It would be great if this stretch of highway could be improved with a wider shoulder or a protected bike lane, or perhaps right-of-way could be found to extend the Glacial Drumland Trail west.
The trail itself is a very pleasant crushed limestone path, a relaxing way for us to access the town of Lake Mills and the Tyranena Brewery. By coincidence they’re hosting their annual Octoberfest Ride and there were hundreds of cyclists in windbreakers and tights hanging around outside the brewery in the chilly weather enjoying beer, pulled-pork sandwiches and music by the blues-rock band Aaron Williams and the Hoodoo.
We duck into the taproom to warm up with glasses of Bitter Woman barrel-aged stout and strike up a conversation with fellow cyclist Helen Dimonte from Middleton. I ask her about the connection between beer and biking. “It’s a way to get the carbs back into my body after a ride,” she says. “I love the camaraderie between cyclists at the end of a ride when you stop and have a beer afterwards and share stories.”
Afterwards Dave and I continue east on the Glacial Drumland Trail. We take on-street route, signed with tiny, round, faded signs through Waukesha to the paved New Berlin Recreational Trail. Waukesha recently completed a bike master plan, which includes improving the connection between the trails, so hopefully there will be better signage soon. [http://bike-waukesha.blogspot.com/2012/08/waukesha-bicycle-and-pedestrian-plan.html]
We continue east on the New Berlin Recreational Trail for a few miles until it ends in Milwaukee’s Greenfield Park, where we jog north on the Oak Leaf Trail to the Hank Aaron Trail, which takes us all the way to the center of town. We end our ride at 7 pm at the Milwaukee Brewing Company, which is hosting a packed open house
When we pull up with our loaded bikes, an employee asks, “What are you delivering?” “We just rode our bikes all the way from Potosi to get a beer,” Dave says “Well I’m the brewmaster here and I think you need a double IPA,” the man responds. “I think you’re right!” Dave happily replies. The brewer leads us inside with our bikes, explaining that the employees are all bike commuters and they had indoor bike parking.
In addition to making sure we get properly rehydrated, the brewer gives us a personal tour of the small but growing brewery. We aren’t able to buy beers the entire time we’re there because the staff keeps handing us fresh pints. “This is just one more example of the synergy between biking and beer,” Dave says. “They just go so well together.”
Entire route is on low traffic roads or trails.
Start of route is in the hilly Driftless region for those who like to climb.
More great breweries along the route that were not even mentioned in the story.
Darlington Inn, 201 Christensen Dr, Darlington, WI 53530 –inexpensive but nice rooms, pool.
Mansion Hill Inn, 424 N Pinckney St
Madison, WI 53703 – owned by Trek Bicycle, this converted mansion is the height of luxury and decrorated with a cycling theme.
HI Madison Hostel, 141 South Butler St
Madison, Wisconsin 53703 – Inexpensive, conveniently located and has some private two-person rooms.
Cream City Hostel, 500 E. Center Street
Milwaukee, WI 53212 – Owned by an avid cyclists and located in the hip Riverwest Neighborhood, with the highest percentage of people who bike for transportation in Milwaukee!
Iron Horse Hotel, 500 W Florida St, Milwaukee, WI 53204 – Motorcycle themed (but super bicycle friendly) boutique hotel just down the street from Milwaukee Brewing Company and right off the Hank Aaron State Trail.
Potosi Brewery Brew Pub, 209 South Main Street
Potosi, WI 53820 – Has a full menu of great food.
Puempel’s Olde Tavern, 18 6th Ave, New Glarus, WI 53574 – Historic Swiss tavern with great sandwiches and cheese flights.
Capital Brewery, 7734 Terrace Ave, Middleton, WI 53562 –Great beer, big bike club, but no food.
Tyrenena Brewing Company, 1025 Owen St, Lake Mills, WI 53551 – Amazing beer, great jerseys, host a really fun Oktoberfest Bike Ride.