Thursday, March 20, 2014

Enjoying the Tavern Culture in Madison, Wisconsin


Bars, pubs, saloons, and taverns all names for places where somebody may know your name. In every culture these places are gathering spots. People tell stories, play cards, watch a game, or just enjoy a drink in a familiar setting. In Wisconsin these gathering spots are some of the most important social places in the state. The tavern culture dominates “America’s Dairyland” so much so that the Tavern League of Wisconsin is one of the most influential lobbying bodies connected with the state government.

In Madison, Wisconsin’s capital and the site of our recent Passports & Cocktails meetup, the tavern culture is thriving. The city offers every type of drinking environment from corner bar to college bar, so anyone and everyone can find a comfortable place to enjoy a local craft beer or a nice brandy cocktail. Because of this it is really easy—and highly recommended—to ditch the chain restaurants when visiting Madison and instead hit the local taverns and eateries. These are a few of the watering holes our group visited that we would love to return to and start another tab:

A beer lovers menu at The Malt House

The Malt House Tavern

Dubbed Madison’s craft beer oasis, The Malt House has a rotation of 18 craft beers/imports and over 150 crafts/imports in bottles. The Malt House is home to many Madison home brew competitions, so you know they support the local scene. I’m not going to lie, when we pulled up to this “East Side” establishment on our first night in town our group did not expect the beer goodness that awaited us inside. On the outside The Malt House looks like a really old and unassuming corner bar. But once you step through their screen door and take a gander at their extensive beer and whiskey menu it becomes clear that this tavern is special. Because of the highly knowledgeable staff who can tell you everything you need to know about beers you may never have heard of, and the extensive drink offerings, I recommend making a stop at this genuine and welcoming tavern on you next trip to Madison.

Porters and Lagers and Ales, OH MY!

The Great Dane

The Great Dane Pub and Brewing Co. is a Madison institution. Serving Madisonians tasty brews and great pub fare for 20 years, the Great Dane is a must when in Madison. We stopped there for our first drinks and dinner as a group when we arrived in Madison. The Great Dane offered us not only quality handcrafted beer on site, it also had a great relaxing setting for us to enjoy those beers. The Great Dane is set in a turn of the century hotel about 2 blocks off the Capitol Square, making the location prime to start or end your night out downtown. Their beer is full range from German and Czech Pils, to stouts and IPAs, and each are worth sampling. The main area is adorned by a full tavern bar and seating for cheese curd devouring, while the basement Rathskellar reminded me of some great underground stone walled bars in Europe. In a world where new brew pubs are opening on a seemingly daily basis, The Great Dane’s charm and true craft beer roots set it apart from the rest.


The Old Fashioned, classic Wisconsin

The Old Fashioned

Truth: Wisconsinites love their brandy. So much so that the state of Wisconsin consumes more brandy than every other state combined. One of the quintessential brandy cocktails of Wisconsin is the Old Fashioned, and in Madison one of the best places to grab this great cocktail is at, you guessed it, The Old Fashioned. Located right on the Capitol Square, The Old Fashioned offers awesome views in another perfect environment to start or end an evening out. We stopped in for their Friday fish fry (a Wisconsin tradition) and to sample some Old Fashioneds before a Badgers hockey game (another Wisconsin tradition). The combination of the fish fry and hockey crowd packed the place full, but as we experienced, the local beer and brandy selection makes even a significant wait at The Old Fashioned tolerable. If an Old Fashioned could be described as “fresh,” then the brandy, muddled cherries, and bitters mixed up here would be the barometer of freshness. Crisp, consistent, and full of flavor, our drinks were truly mixed with the care Wisconsin supper club patrons have come to expect over decades upon decades of consumption. There was nothing fancy, no new tricks or spins on this Wisconsin staple. They were just made the “old fashioned” way, and for us they were the perfect prelude to the evening. The Old Fashioned should be checked out for their Wisconsin fare (cheese curds, perch/walleye fish fry, Madison beers, and brandy drinks) and local accents, der hey!

A happy crew celebrating with a Vintage brew at The Vintage

The Vintage

Every trip to Madison should have an on campus bar included in the itinerary. For many that means hitting one (or more) of the bars on State street. For us it meant a stop at The Vintage, initially because it was an easy walk after the hockey game and it didn’t have a line to get inside. With its on campus location, signature craft beers under their own label, and more relaxed atmosphere The Vintage was the perfect location. This modest bar sits within walking distance of downtown and all the campus sites and arenas. The Vintage has a large bar and drink selection as well. Like at other bars in Madison, we were able to sample a variety of local craft beers including outstanding beer from the Vintage Brewery in Madison. Since it was after the game the crowd was heavy, but there was enough space to have some laughs and enjoy our beers without getting jostled or spilled on. When looking for a youthful atmosphere without plastic cups of Busch Light, The Vintage should be one of your on campus stops in Madison.

These are just four out of many places to enjoy a drink in the Mad City. Each one is distinct and that is the beauty of the tavern scene in Madison. Every neighborhood has its own identity and character. What they all offer are the unique flavors of the area. With a multitude of craft breweries, Madison is a beer drinker’s paradise. If you are a craft beer fan, check out the lineups at each of these establishments as they offer local beer for every palate. And don’t forget the cheese curds.



Steven Grams is a seeker of new knowledge. He lives for travel, for adventure, for a new story. He absorbs everything and never forgets where he has been, who he has met, what he has seen, and how he got there.