Friday, May 22, 2009

36 Hours In Madison

So we bring your traveling weekend to close offering you some tips if you plan on sticking around town. Of course, you probably know all of this, but sometimes its fun to be reminded of what's in our backyard.

Welcome to lovely Madison, WI (photo by Luiz Castro)

You’ve successfully braved the traffic in Chicago, construction in Rockford, and you now find yourself in the capital of Wisconsin, where you can Live Like You Mean It (alternate state slogan: “Illinois’ Largest State Park”). Hold on to your hats, because there’s more beer here per capita than any other place East of the Rockies and West of Michigan. In the immediate area around Madison are 10 breweries and brewpubs, and countless more beer bars and gastropubs. We will assume for the moment that you are not here for The Great Taste of The Midwest (if you were, this article would be very short: “Go to Great Taste.”)

Before we get started, you'll want to know two things about getting around Madison. First, the public transport is terrible, so you'll have to drive or walk - this means that one of you will need to remain sober. Second, this town is impossible to drive in - you can print out directions, you can ask for directions, you can know exactly where you're going and you will still get turned around and diverted by one-way streets, streets that change names three times in five blocks, and roads that never run the same direction for more than half a mile. Just suck it up and do what I do: swear very loudly at the steering wheel.

While it's highly unlikely that you've gotten into town at 5pm on a Friday (Chicago traffic at 3pm on a Friday!? HA!), we'll pretend that you did:

Friday 5 p.m.

UW Memorial Union Terrace - While it's on-campus, it is open to the public and is a great place to start your evening. A large, diverse taplist of everything from a house amber to local offerings from Capital and New Glarus to more typical college fare like Labatt's and Miller. During the summer, you can sit on an iconic John Deere Green Sunburst Chair looking over Lake Mendota (one of four lakes in the Madison area) and plan your evening. This location makes for great people-watching and the bandstand is typically active. There are two things you'll need to know about the Terrace: 1) parking can be a challenge, during the summer the school ramps are typically open to the public and available and there is one right near the Terrace, though it can fill up quickly on nice evenings; 2) you need to be a member to buy a pitcher of beer (secret note: on busy Friday evenings, or really most evenings, it's rare that they ever check for your Membership ID).

Friday 8 p.m.

Friday Night Fish Fry - a Wisconsin tradition, fried cod and hash browns (with melted cheese and onions) is your number one bet. From the Terrace you have a number of options: 1) Walk up State Street to State Street Brats; 2) Walk all the way up State Street to the Capitol; 3) head over to the near-East Side.
      State Street Brats is a University landmark bar, with a decent taplist of macros and Leinenkugels, it's definitely more atmosphere than beer-geek friendly. Don't worry, if you want to hit Brats but want to front-load your evening with good beer, it's open late and you'll probably end your night on State Street anyway.
      Capitol - you have two options for Good Beer and Fish Fry on the Capitol. The Old Fashioned is a local quasi-gastropub with a phenomenal taplist of only Wisconsin beers; this summer they are featuring beer from every single brewery and brewpub in the state, so there is beer here that you can't get anywhere else in the state, let alone the world. You can also head over to The Great Dane Pub. The Great Dane is a world-renowned brewpub and this location is the original (there are three others). The food is great, the beer is better.
      East Side - if you're me, though, you get in your car and you head over to Madison's near-East Side, which is quietly turning into a beer mecca in the city. Get your fish on at Alchemy Cafe or Dexter's Pub - both terrific dive bars with great food and amazing taplists.

Friday 10 p.m.
(photo by ibm4381)

Hit A Beer Bar - There are four in the area that are all phenomenal. On the East Side and an easy walk from Dexters or Alchemy is The Malt House. The Malt House has a great taplist divided evenly between Belgian, Wisconsin, and "Pub Choice". The bottle list is extensive, and the scotch, bourbon and whiskey lists are equally compelling (it is the Malt House, after all). Maduro is downtown on the square. While the taplist at Maduro is usually Bells-heavy, it does feature a number of great selections from all over the world, in addition to a great wine selection and cocktails. One thing to beware of at Maduro: it is a cigar bar - if you like cigars, it has a pretty decent selection (though there are better cigar bars in town like Drackenburg's, also on the East Side and has a decent beer selection, and Hemingways, on the West Side, conveniently located near the Great Dane Fitchburg); if you don't like cigars or like smelling like cigars, it may not be your place. Two other beer bars worth heading to are Brasserie V and Monroe Street Bistro on the Near West Side. Both have excellent food, so you can grab a bite to eat there as well. Brasserie V has a selection that focuses on Belgian and American Belgian-like beer. You can find some great beer on tap here that you can't get anywhere else on tap. The staff at the Brasserie is probably the most knowledgeable in the city about great beer. Monroe Street Bistro is an unauthorized "spin-off" of Brasserie V and has a slightly more populist taplist as well as cocktails.

Friday Late Night

Most of the beer bars mentioned above, except Brasserie, are open until bar time (1am or so). Though, really, the action after about 11 pm is all on State Street. Hit up Paul's Bar, The Irish, and State Street wouldn't be complete with at least walking into the Kollege Klub. You can end your night with a brat at State Street Brats or a gyro or pizza from any number of local purveyors of drunk food.

Saturday - I hope you're up early and not too hung over, it's going to be a long day and you'll probably drink a fair amount of beer.

Saturday 7 a.m.

Start your day with a good breakfast and some coffee. It's not a Saturday morning in Madison without the Dane County Farmer's Market. One of the largest producer-only farmers markets in the country, the breadth of food available is astounding. Get there early, grab some coffee from any number of local roasters (Ancora on the square and Michaelangelo's just off the square on State are my preferred haunts), and cruise the baked goods and cheese or vegetables or meats (buffalo jerky anyone?). Grab a 6oz block of goat cheese from Fantome Farms or a 5-year aged block of Cheddar from Hook's and some fresh-baked bread or muffins and take your coffee down to Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Monona Terrace and relax for a minute or two to start your day off right.

Saturday (photo courtesy of Eating in Madison A to Z) - Ready for some brewery tours? You have plenty of options, not to mention brewpubs to stop and grab some lunch. Breweries within an easy drive include: Tyranena in Lake Mills, New Glarus in New Glarus, Capital in Middleton, and Ale Asylum on the Near East Side of Madison. If you're looking for an itinerary, let me suggest the following:
    10am - New Glarus Brewing Company - it's a self-guided tour and quick, the tasting at the end of the tour is reasonable ($4, I think?); the new brewery should be open by mid-summer and they'll have beer available for purchase at the brewery that isn't available anywhere else.
    12pm - Capital Brewery, Middleton, WI - a trip to Madison isn't complete without a beer at the traditional biergarten here. Known for its dopplebocks, Capital is a Madison institution.
    3pm - Tyranena, Lake Mills, WI - it's a forty-five minute trip from Capital to the far east side Madison suburbs; make sure you check what time the tour is on Saturdays (usually held in the early afternoon). Tyranena's tours are fun, and the beer is amazing; they typically have some stuff on tap at the taproom that is not available anywhere else.
    6pm - Ale Asylum, Madison, WI - last stop, Ale Asylum. Tours are by appointment only, but the taproom has plenty of beer that you can't buy around town including a full line of Belgian blondes, dubbels, tripels, and quads.

[ed note: an alternate itinerary would be to start at Tyranena and skip the tour there, but keep heading East to Milwaukee and check out some of the breweries there or hit up a Brewers game]

Want a brewpub for lunch or dinner? Check out The Grumpy Troll in Mount Horeb, Gray's Tiedhouse in Verona, the former-JT Whitneys on Madison's West Side (should be open mid-June), or The Great Dane in Madison (two locations - downtown and West Side) and Fitchburg. Head a little farther West to tourist-friendly Mineral Point for Brewery Creek, or head into Milwaukee (only an hour away) and stop at Delafield Brewhaus, Water Street Brewpub, Stonefly, or Milwaukee Ale House.

Saturday Night

For dinner take the twenty minute drive to Mount Horeb, WI and visit the award-winning Grumpy Troll. A pizza joint upstairs, a more formal dining experience downstairs, the beer is equally awesome both places. Head brewer Mark Duchow mixes up the taplines frequently with everything from an authentic, stone-heated steinbier to a flanders-style red. The Baltic Porter and IPA have won numerous awards.

(photo courtesy of Eating in Madison A to Z)

As you're dragging yourself awake, drive or walk over to Mickie's Dairy Bar near UW's Camp Randall. The breakfast-only diner serves a ton of pancakes, waffles, corned beef hash, and milkshakes. The menu is on the wall, and it's cash only. Oh, it's also a seat-yourself situation, so if all of the tables are full just hang around for a minute; servers may or may not point you in the right direction, but you'll get a table soon enough.

I hope you've found this tour of Madison interesting. Madison has more good food and good beer than anyone could ever possibly consume. If you're going to be in the area, please let Madison Beer Review know and we can always get you pointed in the right direction.


  1. I would rephrase the bit about public transportation. I would say it's terrible at night, adequate during the day. While not as extensive at the trains in a city like Chicago, I'd say the bus system does a pretty good job during the day; you can get from just about any point in the city to another in an hour or so. What sucks is they stop running mid-evening. Not a lot of help for the beer drinking crowd!
    Good itenerary. Did you hear the newest on the New Glarus R&D series? The first one is going to be a "real," spontaneously fermented lambic. It's been aging in oak for a while, and should be out "some time this summer" according to Dan. Road trip!

  2. Regarding the Memorial Union Terrace: you can get a free guest pass at the front desk which will allow you to buy beer all night. They are checking IDs and enforcing policy much more these days...

  3. As said above, you can get a 1-day guest pass for no charge and a signature that will let you buy beer all night. I believe this is a loophole for some obscure wisconsin beer laws.

    I also think bar time is 2am in wisconsin, right?

  4. Bartime is 2 am: Sunday through Thursday and 2:30 on Friday and Saturday.

  5. I don't know what the whole "UW Member" thing was about. I imagine it has something, nominally, to do with serving beer on campus? Didn't know about the guest pass.

    As for bar time. I guessed at 1am only because I don't think I've ever been in a bar past 1am here in town that's ever had anyone in it. Interesting about the 2:30 thing. Didn't know that. Weird. Is last call typically 30 minutes before bar time?

  6. I would suggest Natt Spil, but what do say: Head to the Capitol from Great Dane and stop at the place on the left without a name on it? And Maduro is pretty cigar-haze heavy. On that same street though is Argus. Had a 22 of Fat Tire for $7 last night without any of those pesky "other people" around.

  7. Strictly speaking, membership in UW Memorial Union is required for all activities in the Union, including simply being present on the property. UW students are automatically members of UW Memorial Union. UW faculty and staff are entitled to some benefits of membership, but need to purchase membership for full access. But you don't need to be affiliated with the university to become a member. Anyone can purchase an annual or lifetime membership (annual memberships accumulate toward lifetime membership, for a slightly higher total cost than buying lifetime membership outright).

    In practise, of course, you don't have the membership police checking everyone for Union membership cards, so it's generally open to the public if you behave yourself. (I imagine that if someone was causing problems, lack of membership would be convenient grounds for expulsion from the premises.) The myth that it has something to do with old beer laws probably arises from the fact that a person would be making a transaction that involves showing identification. But membership is also required to register for Mini-Courses, join Hoofers clubs, et cetera.

    The one-day guest pass is a convenient way to facilitate beer purchases, but may well also apply to participating in various events, who knows? You probably would be told to buy a membership if your face became too familiar to staff handing out the guest passes. If you don't want to buy a membership, make sure you're there with someone who is a member and have that person buy the beer. (And that would be legitimate anyway, because members are allowed to have guests; the pass is necessary when you are there NOT accompanied by a member.)

  8. ...what I meant to say about the beer law myth is that buying beer is probably the most common circumstance in which most people would be asked to prove membership (or guest pass), so maybe that's why people assume why the membership requirement is because of alcohol laws.


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