Inside the warm, wine-color walls of Madison, Wisconsin’s Vintage Brewing Company, servers sate anticipation with pints and plates. Visitors slide into black-leather booths to sip on an oaky-hoppy Woodshed India Pale Ale or a coppery, smooth McLovin Irish Red Ale before ordering a bacon-wrapped meat loaf sandwich.
Throughout the Midwest, having a cold one increasingly means reaching for a drink brewed by a neighbor. More than 530 craft breweries call the Midwest home, and Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, Missouri and Minnesota rank among the nation’s top 20 craft-beer producers, according to Michael Bergman, publisher of Midwestmicrobrews.com. “Much as you see in gastronomy, where the ‘eat local’ ethos has taken hold, we’re now seeing a concerted effort among many to also ‘drink local,’ ” Michael says. Some of the most influential brands in craft beer hail from the Heartland, including Bell’s Brewing in Michigan, Indiana’s 3 Floyds Brewing and Minnesota’s Surly Brewing. And our region, he says, leads the way in sour and other Belgian-style beers.
Though this may feel like a modern trend, brewpubs reflect a bygone era. Before Prohibition, community breweries were the norm. To us, the lesson is clear: Great meals and carefully crafted brews have timeless appeal. Click ahead for some of the ones we love.
These breweries draw on area flavors to inspire meals, beers or brew names.
Founders Brewing Company Peanut shells litter the floor of this Grand Rapids, Michigan, brewpub, where the vibe leans toward casual bar, not polished pub. Sample the popular, hoppy Centennial IPA or the seasonal Cerise, made with tart Michigan cherries. A deli menu includes dips, French-bread pizzas and sandwiches (ordered at the kitchen window). Live music on many nights completes the festive atmosphere. (616) 776-1195; foundersbrewing.com
Goose Island Brew Pub Twenty-five-year-old Goose Island brewery provides a cozy, quiet oasis in Chicago (the original in Lincoln Park, a newer one in Wrigleyville). The casual, wood and brick dining room surrounds an elegant bar where patrons find nationally recognized classics like mildly hoppy Green Line Pale Ale and the fruity 312 Urban Wheat Ale. Balance a flight of four 3-ounce beers with the amazing Stilton burger, topped with roasted garlic. (312) 915-0071; gooseisland.com
Great Dane Pub and Brewing Company At five locations in Wisconsin (including Madison and Wausau), Great Dane built a reputation for food that’s as delicious as its beer—perhaps because they often combine the two. Start dinner with beer bread slathered with honey butter, then dive into a plate of Wisconsin Style Cheddar Mac, made with the brewery’s own golden Peck’s Pilsner. But it’s OK to simply sip on a brew here, too. The malty, smooth—and heavy—Emerald Isle Stout may leave you too full for dinner. (608) 284-0000; greatdanepub.com
Little Apple Brewing Company Since 1995, this humble Manhattan, Kansas, steer and beer spot has prided itself on handcrafted brews and Certified Angus beef. But these days, the owners offer two menus: the standard, full of burgers, steaks and pizzas, and the white menu, a seasonal wonder showcasing small-batch producers, as in Ducktrap River of Maine smoked salmon atop potato cakes and goat cheese mousse—a fine addition to a night out. (785) 539-5500; littleapplebrewery.com
With live music and polka-laced parties, these pubs host a great party.
Fitger’s Brewhouse You’ve gotta love a place that feels hipster-cool but has patrons of all ages taking in live music nightly. This Duluth landmark balances its storied history (brewing began in 1857) with small-batch wonders reflecting up-north culture. Orange peel and coriander flavor the Breakwater White; specialties include a wrap stuffed with Lake Superior trout and wild rice. (218) 279-2739; fitgersbrewhouse.com
Lakefront Brewery Ready for a beer-a-thon? At Milwaukee’s Lakefront Brewery, production facility tours start with a draught of beer, include samples along the way and end with an extended stop in a tasting room, where visitors can sample a hoppy IPA, smooth Wheat Monkey ale or even some sweet maple root beer. You won’t find a regular food menu here, but on Friday nights, the special-events space hosts Captain Rusty’s Fish Fry, complete with several dinner options, a live polka band and, of course, plenty of beer. (414) 372-8800; lakefrontbrewery.com
Try something new at these breweries, where specialty beers contain ingredients like flowers, marshmallows and chipotle peppers.
Brugge Brasserie Belgians developed a reputation for brewing amazing beers, and Brugge highlights the best of them. The Indianapolis restaurant serves a few house beers and a handful of guest brews—many of them Belgian-style. The warehouselike exterior hides a warm, cozy interior, where guests linger over mussels (sauces include red curry, tomato-lemon cream and Cajun), crepes stuffed with duck, and steak frites. The food is superb, especially paired with a glass of Tripel de Ripple, a strong, blond beer. (317) 255-0978; bruggebrasserie.com
Nebraska Brewing Company Beer aged in wine barrels has a delicious edge over competitors when the owners of Nebraska Brewing Company in Papillion (12 miles southwest of Omaha) take their Melange A Trois to competitions. The thin-crust cherry barbecue chicken pizza shows off a sweet house-made sauce. (402) 934-7100; nebraskabrewingco.com
Pizza & beer
At these stops, experts present the classic combo with creative twists.
Columbus Brewing Company You won’t stumble across this spot in Columbus’ off-the-beaten-path Brewery District, but seeking it out is worth the effort. Beer lovers flock to this brewpub, which takes its food as seriously as its beer, for popular dishes such as pizzas and pulled-pork sandwiches (smothered with pale ale Key lime BBQ sauce). Pair it with a seasonal brew, such as the caramel-malt-flavored Winter Warmer. (614) 464-2739; columbusbrewingco.com
New Holland Brewing Company A copper fermentation kettle anchors this Holland, Michigan, brewpub, where creaky wooden floors and tin ceilings create an old-fashioned ambience. But the pizzas feature modern flavors: the bacon and potato or the artichoke, chicken and rosemary, to name two. Excellent beers include the beautiful and balanced Sundog amber, and specialty offerings, including a Dragon’s Milk Ale aged in oak barrels. (616) 355-6422; newhollandbrew.com
Springfield Brewing Company Springfield, Missouri’s favorite place for pizza is also a brewery, making this hip, urban-feeling pub a true destination. Sip a seasonal Doppel Bock after you order a crisp-crusted chicken Florentine pizza, or try one of a rotating selection of dark Black Sheep beers with traditional London fish and chips coated with wheat ale batter. Whatever you try, you’ll feel good supporting a business working to breathe life into its community. (417) 832-8277; springfieldbrewingco.com
(A version of this story appeared in Midwest Living® January/February 2013. Prices and other details are subject to change, so please check specifics before making travel plans.)