Friday, July 19, 2013

A Trip to the Sprecher Micro Brewery

Very Interesting Places…

Sprecher Micro Brewery
Hmmmmm.  My partner Bruce’s son is on the western side of the Atlantic puddle with us for six weeks, a little summer vacation from France.  I’m wondering about things to do with a teenager who focuses on computer games, eating, and sometimes practicing his flute.  My oldest and smallest cat Brika won’t let Noel play with her as much as he wants--she gets tired of lying on her back with ears, nose, tail, and paws in the air, eventually righting herself with a dismissive “Trrrrurrr!” and a through shake, and stalks off beyond his reach.  She is NOT a toy, even though she looks like one.  There’s only so much television to watch, especially considering the amount of repetitive ads between shorter and shorter plot segments.  Going out would be good to get Noel some fresh air, but there has to be a goal—where, what…

Aha, eureka, a tour to see/hear about/taste one of Noel’s favorite things, Sprecher Root Beer!

Bruce called the company, and found that they offer several tours per day for a small per-person fee.  So we left Burlington with the car air-conditioner blasting, in the middle of a torrential thunderstorm, for north Milwaukee.  The trip took nearly an hour and twenty minutes.

Sprecher has moved from the industrial complex near the landmark Rockwell clock tower to a one-story building confronting a residential neighborhood in Glendale.  It was, according to our tour guide, once an elevator factory.  (They must have had quite a basement to test their product, or a trans-dimensional tower!)  We arrived early.  That was good, because parking was at a premium.  The small lot holds 12-15 visitor’s cars; otherwise, street parking is available.  One vehicle left just as we got there, and Bruce pulled in.

Sprecher Griffin Griffon Milwaukee Beer Brewery
The rain had stopped by that time. Two black Sprecher griffins guarded the entrance, allowing the precipitation to drip from their beaks and wings.  We walked between them into the gift shop, which resembles an aging area for kegged beer.  Around the walls were things to buy:  clothing, caps, and glasses featuring Sprecher’s black and yellow logo.  And case after case of soda, including something none of us had ever seen before:  hard root beer.  Bruce checked us in at the register, where we received odd-looking fluorescent orange wristbands.  We adults fingered the tabs on ours, marked in black “Beer Sample Stub Void if Detached”, and compared them with Noel’s plain one.  He could sample all flavors of Sprecher soda:  Bruce and I could get four tastes each of fire-brewed beer.  (Being the designated driver, Bruce intended to limit his choices.)  And oddly enough, the place doesn’t smell like a brewery:  only a slight tangle in the conditioned air belied we were within rock throwing distance of major beer production.

We soon found out that the company doesn’t run on Greenwich Mean Time, but instead follows Sprecher time:  our watches, compared with the clock on the wall, showed the tour started six minutes late.  A blond young man who appeared to be in his twenties finally loped into the room carrying a glass mug half full of water, and encouraged “You guys” should gather near the double door leading to the brewing area.  Us guys formed a full tour:  there were between 30-40 grown-ups and children following him.  I half expected the guide to pull out an instrument and begin playing like a Pied Piper as we trailed him into the next room.

Sprecher Beer Brewery Milwaukee
Owner and Master Brewer Randy Sprecher learned to love European style beer while stationed in the military in Germany.  After his mustering out, Randy returned home to the Milwaukee area, and began experimenting to try and produce his version of German beer.  He was successful, and the Sprecher brewery was born in 1985, the first microbrewery established in Milwaukee since Prohibition.  It is growing, and is moving into several new markets with both root beer and beer.

Several large tanks sat on the concrete floor of the brewing area, with pipes connecting them both overhead and under foot.  We were warned to watch our steps.  There were fewer vats than I expected.  Except for the group, only one man was in the room, caretaking whatever filled the fermenting vat at the moment.  It was also somewhat noisy.  Our guide had to yell his spiel, and often partook of his water.  He passed around mugs of malted barley and pelleted hops so we could feel and smell them.  Some brave individuals even tasted them.  Not very flavorful at this stage.  They needed some encouragement.

Sprecher Beer Brewery Milwaukee
Sprecher products begin with boiling water in a huge vat.  This proves their proud claim to “fire-brewing”.  Little additional carbonation is forced into the beverage just before finishing, which is one of the major differences between European and American beers.  (This is good for me:  many New World-style beers and most sodas give me carbonation hiccups, which I manage to retain between 4-12 hours each time.)  The majority of beer ingredients, except for the more exotic flavorings such as California orange peel, come from Wisconsin.  The main sweetener is local honey.  Members of the tour laughed when our guide reported that Sprecher sells its used malted barley (called mash) after brewing to local farmers for cattle feed.  He claimed this is why Wisconsin cows are so much happier than California cows.  Several tour members applauded their appreciation.

Sprecher Beer Brewery Milwaukee
We paced through the aging room, where vats of beer are allowed to rest and gain character.  It was cold:  exhalations from individuals hurrying through painted pale clouds in the atmosphere.  Felt good to me!  The tour gathered again in the bottling and labeling section, which was MUCH louder than the brewing area.  Our poor guide had to strain to be heard over the constant clink of bottles racked in humming machinery.  He told us the production line itself is an old one from a Coca-Cola bottler.  We noticed three or four loops of things happening:  beer (or soda) funneled into brown glass receptacles, caps affixed, labels slapped on one, sometimes two, sides depending on the beverage, and the bottles slipping gently into cardboard boxes, ready for distribution.  Again, there seemed to be only one person working here.  Fully automated.  The noise from the bottles was oddly sweet, somehow mixing well with the artist-painted mural on one wall representing Randy Sprecher’s memories of Bavaria.

Sprecher Beer Brewery Milwaukee
The tour was released into the tasting room.  We formed a line, consulting our brochure as well as the lists near the bar, to make the best selection.  Of course, Noel chose root beer.  I got a Mai Bock, which is a light spring lager that tastes of flowers and has a long, complicated finish.  Bruce chose the hard root beer, which was exceptional.  We returned to the line for more tastes:  the sodas are served in a paper cup, but the beers are presented in etched Sprecher tasting glasses, which we got to keep.  Not being fond of dark beers, I didn’t favor the Russian Imperial Stout.  The Hefe Weiss was okay, but not quite to my taste.  Noel decided that the Cola flavor was fairly standard, and didn’t like the cherry cola combination.  He’s going to stick with straight root beer, which is one of Sprecher’s top sellers.

One can spend a very pleasant afternoon at Sprecher.  This was both fun and informative.  If you haven't tried it yet, I’d say it’s one of Milwaukee’s Very Interesting Places

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