Drinking in Milwaukee
The pros and cons of the city's social life
I have enjoyed beer in a great many places: breweries, plazas and pubs in Europe; karaoke halls and outdoor restaurants in Southeast Asia; beaches, clubs and parades in South America; and cafes, festivals and ballparks coast to coast right here in the United States.
Nobody does beer like Milwaukee.
It begins with an utter lack of pretension; Milwaukeeans are true blue. What you see is what you get. And love it or hate it, drinking is what we do best. For better or worse, alcohol also brings out the best and worst of Milwaukee.
Alcohol in Milwaukee (like the city itself) is affordable and accessible. Miller's got free tours, and the Lakefront and Sprecher tours are better still. Outdoor festivals run all summer long, with live
music, sun and brew.
Certainly, there's no shortage of things to do while drinking. Do you bowl, dance, ice skate or sled? Ever tried it with beer? Softball, volleyball or kickball? Cards or dice? Even theaters and coffee shops offer beer these days. Expect nothing less from the people who turned tailgating into the municipal pastime.
Milwaukee has everything (except low taxes and decent modern public transportation). The nightlife is truly diverse-bars galore, of every shape, shade and style, where dollar beers aren't out of the norm.
Milwaukee's neighborhood pride is similarly reflected in its drinking options. Citywide, these are America's finest local neighborhood bars.
"Poles-Mex-Germans-Irish-Czechs. North Side-East-South-Bay View," my friend Tom opined. "There is great pride in each place; a great place in each to show that pride; and chances everywhere, always, to get drunk while full of pride, or drunk on pride while full of drink… Not many cities can boast such diversity."
It's not all positive, of course. You may find bottles and pint glasses in your bushes, or hear people conversing, playing Frisbee or yelling and crashing through the streets after bar time.
There are also very serious offenses, including mornings of regret, drugs and rape, deadly driving and needless violence.
Could we be too good at alcohol? Milwaukee's rep spreads further every year. Will we abandon the Summerfest grounds at Maier Festival Park, and cordon off the Third Ward the way New Orleans did Bourbon Street?
And sometimes neighborhood pride works against us. Why is it that Milwaukeeans only venture out into the bigger city and celebrate diversity in the summer? There is such a thing as being too provincial.
Sadder still, many neighborhoods feature corner after corner of the same bar. First, "you have to figure out which interest or lifestyle you fit into, before you can find a comfortable place to drink. Takes a lot of trial and error…then once you finally do, that bar's likely to go under," said my buddy Bill, who still mourns the loss of Reed Street Station.
"Milwaukee is big enough where you can find a niche comfortably in the middle, but too small for there to be much on the edge," my cousin James added.
At the same time, there is tremendous civic alcohol shortsightedness.
"Seriously. You can live in the Blatz, the theater is Pabst and the stadium is Miller, but you can't buy alcohol after 9 p.m.? And the whole city shuts down at 2?" my friend Alex said. "It's an outrage."
Truly. There is nothing more tragic in Milwaukee than closing time: so early, so final, so absolute.
Finally, which of the following statements is false?
1. America leads the free world.
2. Milwaukee is America's beer city.
3. Milwaukee has the world's premier beer festival.
I'll say the answer is three and then ask: Where's the civic leadership? Nobody thought to call a bunch of breweries and have them bring barrels to the same place at the same time? Too hard to find three guys willing to be propped up alongside Art Kumbalek, filled with beer, and still see (more or less) straight enough to award some ribbons at the end?
Where is the Midwest (or at least Wisconsin) brewery festival? An outdoor winter beer drinking
festival (like St. Paul's Winter Carnival, only done better, Milwaukee-style)? Point is: If we're truly Brew Town for the world's lone superpower, we need to start acting like it.
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