It was the most ordinary thing, but in a small city in southern Wisconsin, it seemed remarkable.
Two locally made dubbels.
Three breweries have opened in Kenosha during the last five years, and on a Wednesday evening, two of them had a version of the classic, malt-forward Belgian style on tap.
It would be nothing special in many places, but it was striking in the land of cheese, Packers and Miller Lite. It can also make for a challenge.
“We’re a real shot-and-a-beer kind of town, where light beer is the thing,” said Matt Geary, founder of Public Craft Brewing Co., one of the two breweries pouring dubbels that night. “It can be tough getting people’s attention.”
Like many small cities in the Midwest, this one on the southwestern shore of Lake Michigan is finding its footing in the early 21st century. Kenosha lost one of its largest employers when Chrysler shut down its engine plant in 2010. More than a handful of storefronts in the handsome downtown sit empty. It’s in enough flux that The Washington Post sent a reporter here to figure out how exactly Donald Trump won his bid for the White House.
But like much of the nation, where more than 5,000 breweries now operate, Kenosha’s craft beer scene has slowly toddled into existence. Both Public and Rustic Road Brewing Co., which sits four blocks away, opened in 2012. Last Labor Day weekend, the city of 100,000 got its third brewery, R’Noggin Brewing Co., located in a former automotive garage 7 miles west of downtown, opposite Interstate 41.
It’s a young scene, and the beers of Kenosha reflected that; there were some hits and some misses. But it’s a scene on its way, and it includes its own annual celebration: Kenosha Craft Beer Week, which will be held at restaurants, bars and breweries across the city May 13-21.
The standout during my visit was Public Craft Brewing Co. (716 58th St., www.publiccraftbrewing.com), which incorporated many familiar and comfortable elements of the modern industry: a landscape of brick, steel and wood, posters for Turntable Tuesdays (“Bring your newest finds, dust off your old albums or come dig through ours!”), the foosball-jenga-shuffleboard triumvirate and a cooler door pasted with dozens of stickers from others breweries.
“People from Kenosha are blown away by it,” Geary said about the taproom. “If they’re not into craft beer or haven’t traveled, it’s a new concept to a lot of them. It’s fun. We hope it earns us some loyalty with the people having their first real craft beer experience.”
Public had eight beers on tap, including many familiar styles — dry Irish stout, wee heavy Scotch ale, Belgian wit, that Belgian dubbel and, for the kids, a root beer. After ordering an 8-ounce pour of Bits & Pieces, a fresh, citrus-forward American pale ale — nothing could be finer after an hour in the car — I sipped through the rest of the lineup. The biggest surprise was a hybrid that could easily have flopped but didn’t: Pine-anas in Pajamas, a traditional hefeweizen (think: yeasty bananalike esters) that’s dry hopped with those citrus-forward American hops. It was like drinking a bready fruit bowl.
In other words, surprisingly delicious.
Brewer Mike Owens, who studied at Chicago’s Siebel Institute and previously worked at Three Floyds Brewing, walked around the bar pouring samples of the boozy ice bock (14.7 percent alcohol!) he was just finishing off and clearly quite proud of.
Public has no kitchen but encourages bringing in outside food. We ordered a sorely needed pizza from Sal’s Pizza, which was tasty but took nearly 90 minutes to show up. Hey, that’s one way to make a pizza taste profoundly delicious in a beer-filled belly.
Next it was on to Rustic Road (510 56th St., www.facebook.com/rusticroadbrewery), which calls itself “Kenosha’s oldest operating brewery” — which it is, by three months. It had nine beers of its own, also featuring inspiration spanning the globe: Czech pilsner, a dubbel, German-style schwarzbier and maibock, plus its take on contemporary American favorites like Kenosha Pale Ale and Oatie Oatmeal IPA. (The IPA unfortunately featured a noticeable degree of diacetyl, a buttery off-flavor). The dark beers held up best: an oatmeal stout carbonated with nitrogen and a robust porter.
The brewing setup was unlike any I’ve seen: It sits behind a rope just inside the front door, no walls or even a fence separating it from customers. Rustic Road plans a similar setup for its forthcoming operation, which will feature a full kitchen and will open later this year less than two blocks from the current brewery.
To educate locals, founder Greg York used to run a class called I Brewed It! which took four to six students through a brew day, along with a discussion of beer styles and ingredients.
“There are some extremely craft-aware folks in the area, but the preponderance are up-and-coming craft beer fans,” York said. “We have had an opportunity to share with them what constitutes good beer.”
The bonus of owning a brewery in Kenosha, he said, is helping revitalize a downtown in transition.
“It’s not where anyone wants it to be yet, but it’s heading in the right direction; there’s definitely been more openings than closings over the last few years,” York said. “Breweries are community-making-type businesses, unlike a laundromat or something like that.”
The last stop was R’Noggin (6521 120th Ave., www.rnogginbrewing.com), launched by brothers Kevin and Jeff Bridleman, who had enough people praise their homebrew to nudge them into the ranks of the professionals. The brewery had just three beers on tap — a strong red ale, an oatmeal stout and a wee heavy — but Kevin Bridleman said R’Noggin is using its first year to figure out which recipes work best.
“What’s fun is having people come in and say, ‘What’s new this week?’” Bridleman said. “It wasn’t our plan going in, but we’re taking this year to finalize recipes.”
While the thought of opening a brewery in a big-time beer market is fun, he’s proud to bring locally made beer to his hometown.
“In a perfect world, I’d love to have opened in Denver,” Bridleman said. “But Kenosha is where I’m from.”