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Bottoms Up: Why Wisconsinites love beer

By LeAnn R. Ralph

COLFAX  —  It was the perfect storm, as they say.

A state with the agricultural land to grow the ingredients, plenty of fresh water — and people who were willing to drink it.

And that’s how Wisconsin ended up with so many breweries and taverns, according to a documentary titled “Bottoms Up” shown at the Colfax Municipal Building auditorium September 24 as part of the Colfax Public Library’s fall program series.

Taverns in Wisconsin started with stage coach inns, such as the Wade House in Greenbush.

The construction of a tavern was a key component of building a town. The tavern provided beverages, meals and overnight accommodations for stage coach passengers, according to the documentary.

Taverns also became gathering places for the local population and provided a space for dances, balls and cotillions.

As the state became more populated, neighborhood taverns began to be built and were typically 40 feet wide by about 100 feet deep.

The neighborhood taverns did not have bar stools, but instead, featured rails where patrons stood to consume their beverages.

In the 19th century, taverns were almost exclusively patronized by men, but in some areas with large German immigrant populations, women also patronized the taverns.

Many of the taverns had a “ladies lounge” where women and children could wait while the gentlemen patronized the main part of the tavern. The lounge often had its own separate entrance from the street.

Many of Wisconsin’s residents were German, Irish and Eastern European immigrants and came from a drinking culture in their homeland. Plenty of good clean water for brewing beer, the ag land to grow the ingredients and a population of people willing to drink the beer fueled the growth of the breweries.

Even though it may seem rather improbable, the Great Chicago Fire that burned from October 8 to October 10, 1871, and destroyed more than three square miles of Chicago also helped the Milwaukee breweries to grow and expand.

Workers who came into Chicago to rebuild the city after the fire wanted beer to drink, and the Milwaukee breweries were able to fill the need.

Taverns served as extended living rooms and were also places where people could discuss politics.

Eventually, breweries built their own taverns, known as “tied houses” because they were tied to a specific brewery.

At the time Prohibition started in the United States in 1920, breweries in Milwaukee were the fifth largest business in the city.

During Prohibition, the number of taverns started to decline. Later on, the implementation of zoning codes moved neighborhood taverns to commercial areas.

Before Prohibition, there were 70 breweries in Wisconsin.

In recent years, however, craft breweries have become increasingly popular, such as New Glarus Brewing, known for “Spotted Cow.”

From World War II until the 1970s, the number of bars in Wisconsin decreased by half, and the numbers are still declining.

In spite of the declines, the number of taverns in Wisconsin remains the highest in the country, according to the documentary.