Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Bar Review: Sugar Maple, Milwaukee, WI

As I mentioned yesterday, I was in Milwaukee for Sprecher's 25th Anniversary over the weekend. After checking out the party and enjoying some fine beer, Mrs. MBR and I headed out for some food and to check out one of the better-known beer bars in Milwaukee, the Sugar Maple. We discovered rather quickly that there is no food there, so after getting some food we came back, to what I have to admit was a rather mixed experience.

First, the good: the band in the back. I didn't even know there was a band in back until a gentleman from Chicago asked if I like jazzy avant-garde classical quartets. Hot damn, do I!

Playing guitar, stand-up bass, cello, and xylophone (vibrophone?) was the (a) Jason Seed Ensemble that I found a compelling mix of complex, entrancing, and intricate. Clean arrangements with space for movement, it was at once intellectually stimulating and relaxing. It was unfortunate that they were tucked into a closed back room with little notice to anyone that they were even there. The 7 other people in the room and I really enjoyed it.

On the other hand, for such a great reputation, I found the bar itself to be rather lackluster. While the taplist was extensive, it was hardly unique or original, filled with year-round and seasonals of generally available craft breweries from around the US. Southern Tier's 2x IPA was on cask. Otherwise, it was a fairly predictable mix of Goose Island, Bells, Victory, New Holland, and Sierra Nevada with an occasional throw to Upland or Grand Teton. A handful of Wisconsin breweries rounded out what is otherwise a decentish mix of larger national and regional craft breweries.

But what really got my hackles up was the listing of Furthermore's Oscura as a "coffee stout". And, my generally favorable impressions of Furthermore notwithstanding, it is this kind of stuff that really peeves me. When I questioned the bartender about it he said "Yeah, we've been getting a lot of returns of that, it's not very good." A) way to sell your product. B) it's not a coffee stout, maybe that's why you get a lot of returns. As a coffee stout, Oscura is, admittedly, a disappointment; it would be too thin, with a distinct lack of malt backbone and hoppiness, not to mention a clear failing with regard to alcohol and color. But it's not a stout. It's a California Common, a beer more like Anchor Steam than Peruvian Morning.

How many customers do you think Sugar Maple turned off of Furthermore because of this simple mistake? Do you think Bell's would be happy if it had label Consecrator a porter? Or Three Floyds would be happy if Dreadnaught were labeled a Maibock? These seemingly innocuous descriptions set a customer's expectation. Otherwise unfamiliar with a brand, if I see and expect a coffee stout and get a California Common, I'm going to wonder why in the hell the brewery can't make a proper stout.

So, I suppose as a neighborhood bar serving locals The Sugar Maple is probably a good bar. But would I recommend people to search it out? Not really. If I happen to be near it, I'll probably duck back in and hope to get a properly described beer. But, I wouldn't go out of my way for it.


  1. what's sad is a beer bar that doesn't have a staff knowledgeable enough to correct the mistake.

  2. Anonymous - that was the part that drove me nuts! He was surprised to hear that it isn't a stout even though he admitted it didn't look like one when he served it. Please. You never considered checking as to what the heck was "wrong" with that beer? Ugh. The Crispin cider was good though!

  3. Hey, Everybody! Chris from Furthermore here. Thanks for jumping to Oscura's defense - Nice of you Homies to represent ;)

    I know how sometimes high expectations and marginal service can result in an unsatisfying experience. But don't be too hard on 'em: While it is the responsibility of the bar to educate its staff and, if they choose to have a huge selection, accurately communicate the menu, let's also keep some perspective: Sugar Maple does way more good for the craft beer enthusiast and producer than it does bad. If they miscommunicate Oscura's nature or don't have the patience to pour a carbonation-intensive keg of Thermo Refur, we live with that because we are grateful for the attention they bring to what American brewers are doing all the time.

    Also, Adrienne and Bruno are some of the finest people and biggest beer evangelists you will ever meet. Spend some time at The Palm and Sugar Maple, let the little stuff slide, and you'll see what I mean.

    But seriously, thanks for looking out for us. We really do appreciate it.

  4. Admittedly my reaction was probably over-snob-ish because, in the grand scheme of things, it's a pretty decent bar (though, in my opinion, not a great one) that does a good job of showcasing the diversity of craft beer in an approachable setting.

    As a relatively "high profile" beer bar in a relatively "high profile" beer city, I wanted to highlight the problems that such a mistake can have and how that problem directly impacts both consumers and breweries. So, while it's a fair point that they do far more good than harm, and this mistake is probably an anomoly, highlighting the issue hopefully makes everyone better off.

  5. Beware of first impressions! True, as with the first sampling of a new beer, it leaves an impression, but I must stand up for Sugar Maple (and The Palm) as rightfully deserving of a second chance by Mr. & Mrs. MBR. The barkeep made an unfortunate error, but I'm sure the suave Mr. MBR tactfully and eloquently explained the Oscura style so the error would be corrected in the future. Also, Sugar Maple rotates many beers that are tough to find, in addition to the "predictable mix" of brews found elsewhere. It's still a damn good line-up! As a non-Milwaukeean, whenever I get to Brew City, I check out Sugar Maple. It's a "plain" but fun old bar (which also serves some great soups!). Come back and relax again, Jeff--I'll buy ya a beer Oct. 8 on my next venture to the City!

  6. I am surprised that they made this mistake. I've heard of worse; a friend of mine works for Surly in Minnesota, and once found a bar had accidentally put Summit Winter Ale (a brown ale) on their Bender (also a brown ale) tap handle. Not so bad, except that the tap labeled Summit Winter Ale had a keg of Coors Light hooked up to it!
    Looking at their tap list, I have to say it looks pretty good. A fair amount of "expected" stuff, but also stuff like Goose Island Imperial White Ale, Grand Teton Lost Continent, Jolly Pumpkin Wisen Bam, Left Hand DIPA, and Sierra Nevada 30th Anniversary Barleywine. Quite a lot of stuff I haven't had and would love to try.

  7. I wish we had a bar as "bad" as Sugar Maple in Madison - we just aren't quite there yet.

  8. Hmmm...I have to disagree. I see your point, Madison can't quite support a "huge" tapline like Milwaukee or Denver can. But I would say Old Fashioned and Malt House are on a similar line and make better use of their more limited taps. Coopers is, in my opinion, quite similar to Sugar Maple (as far as taps, etc., with mostly national and regionals - or globals - with a few specialities thrown in). But I see your point and I'd love to have a 80 tapline bar like the big boys have and maybe once Old Fashioned expands we'll have one. Brickhouse is close. In the meantime, I'll settle for a lot of high quality taplines. Keep in mind, though, Madison is 1/4 the size of Milwaukee, 1/5 the size of Denver, 1/3 the size of Portland, and 1/20 the size of Chicago and we compete very, very well with those cities in terms of tap quality (and quantity, frankly).

  9. Mr. MBR did do a nice job of pointing out the mistake and explaining what Oscura was. There was no big deal made of it. And the bartenders were nice and helpful (great suggestions for food). My frustration was that apparently there were several complaints about the "stout," and they admitted it looked wrong, but nothing was done about it. I don't have issues with a mistake happening; I have issues with them not fixing their mistake. The bartender said, "Well, we only have a quarter barrel so it probably wasn't worth fixing the menu." OK, but fix it in person when someone orders it.

    I was also disappointed when another bartender was asked by a customer if he should get "another Victory" or try Proper, and the bartender said to go with Victory again. The customer wasn't sold on Victory and was wanting to try new stuff. (I know 'cuz I talked to him. I'm a talkative sort.) It just was a little frustrating to see.

    That being said, I liked my Crispin Cider (on ice). The people were nice; the bar was pretty. And I would go back if I were around there, but I wouldn't go out of my way to get there.

  10. Malt House for a good craft selection but also for hangin' out with the homebrew/craftbrew community in Madison

  11. Agreed! My experience was far from stellar. They ought to choose fewer beers and get them right. Also, I didn't dig the atmosphere. The place is cavernous and feels cold -- not what I expected from a place with such a cozy-sounding name. Though there were probably 50 people there, it seemed empty.

  12. You were so close to Roman's Pub and you didn't stop in? While I've enjoyed the Sugar Maple a couple of times; Roman's is a Milwaukee wonder.


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