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See what's brewing just north of the Illinois border

A trip to a local brewery is on tap for many Wisconsin visitors
A trip to a local brewery is on tap for many Wisconsin visitors
Robin Zimmerman

While many slogans might sound a bit trite or hackneyed, the essence of the Badger State is captured perfectly in three little words—Escape to Wisconsin. Thanks to its proximity to Illinois, this state makes a great weekend getaway for “FIPS” seeking a little R & R just north of the border.

Some may head up I-94 for brats, Brewers games or beautiful Door County. Others might go the I-90 route for water parks, University of Wisconsin visits and what not.

Although it might be a little dicey navigating the 35-mile stretch of I-90 under construction on the Illinois side, there’s a whole world of wonders awaiting you once you arrive safely in “in the land of sky blue waters,” —an old slogan that conjures up images of a big bear clamoring for Hamm’s beer. These words also hint at Wisconsin’s long and storied brewing tradition.

The first of the great beer barons to settle in Wisconsin was Jacob Best Sr., who established the Pabst Brewing Company back in 1844. From humble origins, this brewery became America’s largest from the late 1800s until 1946. The brewery closed in 1996 but is currently undergoing a renaissance as Best Place at the historic Pabst brewery. Here, visitors can step back into a “Blue Ribbon Hall” that’s been restored to its early glory.

Beer history tours are also offered throughout the week that feature early kitschy commercials, photo ops with a Frederick Pabst statue and a walk around the many historic buildings on the ground. The tour concludes with a complimentary 16 ounce Pabst, Schlitz or root beer. Tours are $8.00 per person with a $2.00 discount for military personnel. Visit http://www.bestplacemilwaukee.com/tours.html for more details.

Another granddaddy of Badger State breweries is the behemoth Miller Brewing Company, which was founded in 1855 by Frederick Miller. Today, MillerCoors brewing remains at the forefront of the beer-making industry and offers free tours on the original tract of land. The hour-long tours include a look back at Miller’s rich history as well as an overview of the many technological advances in brewing. Guests also receive beer samples and complimentary postcards. http://www.millercoors.com/milwaukee-brewery-tour/tour-information.aspx

A relative newcomer on the Milwaukee brewing scene is Lakefront Brewing, which is located on the Milwaukee River. Founded in 1987, these microbrewery tours have gained acclaim for a low-key atmosphere and humorous guides. Tours are offered at different times every week and sell out quickly. The $7 tour fee includes a souvenir glass, four 6-ounce beer samples and other highlights. Get more details at http://www.lakefrontbrewery.com/

But if the hustle and bustle of Milwaukee is too much to handle, then a trip to New Glarus and its namesake brewery is highly encouraged. As you drive down the verdant side roads, you’ll see dairy cows at every turn and a decidedly European flavor throughout the region. This is not surprising since Swiss settlers founded New Glarus more than 150 years ago and the town plays up its “little Switzerland” heritage.

The town currently has its own version of Chicago’s popular “Cows on Parade” and imported several fiberglass cows from Zurich to be adorned by local artists. There are a total of 15 cows dotting the charming streetscapes with designs ranging from a snoozing cow by the Swiss-Aire Motel to one in full Chef’s regalia.

There’s a master chef of another sort down State Highway 69 at the New Glarus Brewing company. This family run brewery is managed by President Deborah Carey along with her husband Dan Carey, a Diploma Master Brewer. Founded in 1993, New Glarus has been steadily gaining converts and racking up awards since its inception.

The New Glarus free self-guided brewery tours are equally popular. Offered throughout the week, the tour begins (or ends) with a stop in the Hilltop Brewery Beer Depot where visitors can enjoy a tasting room sample for $3.50. Included in the cost are three-3 ounce samples of New Glarus’ ever-changing beer menu and a commemorative glass. Military personnel get a free tasting with valid ID. http://www.newglarusbrewing.com/index.cfm/tour.

This is just a small sampling of the many brewery tours offered in Wisconsin. Visit http://www.wisconsinbrewerytours.com/ for more options or strike out on your own to see what sort of suds you’ll discover.