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Pour a glass and learn about Wisconsin's brewing and tavern history

Davide Angelini
Adobe Stock

It’s no secret that Wisconsin is known for brewing beer, but have you ever wondered how Wisconsin became a brewing state?

Joe Kapler, the lead curator and curator of cultural history at the Wisconsin Historical Society, shares our state’s brewing culture and history.

Wisconsin, or what would eventually become Wisconsin, got its start in brewing when an increase of European immigrants came to the state in the 1820s and 1830s, Kapler explains.

The first known, licensed tavern was approved in 1825 for the city of Green Bay, and the first known brewery was created in the 1830s. Often, the places served as community spaces for settlers.

"The tavern is a place for food and drink, and maybe even a night's lodging. A circuit court judge may have conducted business there, dances, balls, gatherings, lots of community type things taking place and these early taverns and breweries. So you see that these are some of the earliest structures in the state," says Kapler.

By 1860, Kapler says there were nearly 200 breweries in Wisconsin, and by 1890, there were nearly 300.

Wisconsin stood out in its status as a brewing state, and he points a myriad of factors — tremendous access to natural resources, lots of abundant fresh water, ground and climate suitable for barley and hops growing, all these things contributed to the success of Wisconsin's breweries and taverns.

"Being centrally located, and solid access to great natural resources, you would see Milwaukee becoming a real brewing center, heavily German city, in the late 1800s. With all that know-how, and plus all that thirst for beer and brewing, just the perfect place, it's no accident that Milwaukee became the country's largest producer of beer," Kapler says.

Although Wisconsin may have a staunch past with breweries and taverns, Kapler says it's important to remember the people who may not enjoy drinking as much as others. He also warns of the individual and public health costs associated with Wisconsin's high level of alcohol consumption.

"In Wisconsin, you know, an acceptance of a getting together for food and drink and in a festive atmosphere. Remember that, you know, that it doesn't appeal to everybody," says Kapler.

Tavern Tuesdays is in partnership with the Wisconsin Historical Society and Old World Wisconsin to bring you stories about beer and brewing in our state. We'll be sharing these histories with you leading up to the grand opening of Old World Wisconsin’s new brewing experience.

Mallory Cheng was a Lake Effect producer from 2021 to 2023.
Kobe Brown was WUWM's fifth Eric Von fellow.
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