STATE 8 - WISCONSIN
11/19/2010 - 11/21/2010 20 °F
Eager to take a trip before the winter holidays, Megan and I decided to spend a weekend away. Where did we decide to go to escape the North Carolina cold? To a place WAY colder, Wisconsin!
When I think of Wisconsin, I think of 3 things: beer, cheese, and the Green Bay Packers. Milwaukee was once the home to four of the world's largest breweries (Schlitz, Blatz, Pabst, and Miller), and was the number one beer producing city in the world for many years. Wisconsin produces more cheese than any other state. When it comes to football, Wisconsin has one of the most popular and successful teams, the Green Bay Packers. The chance to have a fresh brewed PBR or High Life, eat some tasty cheese, and talk about football was enough for me to brave the frigid temperatures.
We didn't waste much time to cross the first item off the list. As soon as the rental car had been acquired, we headed off to the Miller Brewing Company for our first beer tour!
Arriving in Miller Valley, I drove straight into the heart of the brewing complex. My eyes were eagerly scanning the buildings we passed (which included the original Plank Road Brewery) when I almost got smashed between 2 tractor trailers leaving a distribution center. Megan suggested that we find the visitor center before our tiny rental car played chicken with a truck again. We checked in at the front desk of the visitor center to sign up for the next available tour. The tour was free, and the next one started immediately!
After a short video (which was similar to the Coke entrance video, a 10 minute advertisement on why their product was the greatest on the planet) we left the visitor center and walked to one of the bottling and packaging warehouses. Unlike the tour of the coke factory, we got to see the actual equipment and workers preparing the beer. The tour guide was very informative on everything that was happening in front of us, including what each piece of equipment was doing. The line foreman even took the time to come over and answer any questions we had. All the sugar coating and advertising seemed to have remained in the visitor center, as our guide and the foreman gave us honest and straight forward answers about the beer process here at Miller (which was refreshing and said a lot about the culture at Miller).
Next we walked over to the brewing complex, where we had to walk up 5 flights of stairs to see the tops of the kettles where the beer process was started. Giant copper tanks stood in rows (we could only see the tops). Chatting with the tour guide when walking back down the steps, I found out that Miller employees are given free beer and have beer in their break room. What a great place to work!
From there we walked into the distribution warehouse. It was enormous. In fact, it covered the area of 5 football fields, and it was completely filled with beer (over 500,000 cases). Every case in this building would be shipped out in the next 24 hours. I was surprised to find out that the majority of this beer would be going to Chicago alone. That's a thirsty city!
The coolest part of the tour was next. We were led down into the caves beneath the Miller Brewery. It was here that the beer was originally stored. It had an old, authentic feel. Original tools from 100 years ago lined the wall and Fredrick Miller's personal beer collection was displayed in a case towards the back of the cave.
We left the cave and walked into the tasting room, which was set up like an old pub. A waitress brought us 3 different beers (Miller Lite, Miller High Life, and Leinenkugel's Seasonal). Megan and I made friends with two Milwaukee natives currently living in California who were back in town visiting relatives. After explaining why we would choose to come to Wisconsin in late November, we got the low down on how to make the most of our Wisconsin trip. After finishing our beers, we headed back to the visitor center to pick up the car and leave Miller Valley.
After checking into the hotel, Megan and I headed down to the Milwaukee River to walk along the river walk. Our next destination was Lakefront Brewery for another beer tour. Lakefront Brewery supposedly had the best brewery tour in Milwaukee, and it was conveniently located right off the Milwaukee River (not the lake like the name suggested).
While we waited for the tour to start, we hung out in a heated outdoor seating area sampling some of Lakefront's beers. Our tour guide was certainly more animated than the Miller tour guide had been, and the tour was definitely geared more towards entertainment (the Miller tour guide also hadn't been drinking). We shuffled around the brewery as the tour guides joked with one another. We didn't learn as much about the beer making process or see any of the equipment in action, but our sample glasses were filled up at several points throughout the tour (a nice bonus). They also had some souvenirs from the old Brewers ballpark. It was obvious that the brewery had a passion for Milwaukee and for beer. The tour concluded with a French woman from our tour group singing along to the Laverne and Shirley theme song.
We walked upstairs above the brewery to take part in another Milwaukee tradition, the Friday Fish Fry. Stemming from the city's strong Catholic heritage (an older Catholic tradition was to abstain from meat on Fridays, especially during Lent), most restaurants offer a fish special on Friday night. We chose a fish fry that had live polka music and encouraged dancing. We sat at a table with some locals, ate some delicious fish, drank some more Lakefront beer, and then began to walk back to the hotel. Our walk back to the hotel presented a good view of downtown lit up at night.
We woke up early the next morning to get a good start on our road trip. We were headed north along Lake Michigan to visit Green Bay, home of the Green Bay Packers! Farms spread out on both sides of the road once we left Milwaukee. It started to feel like we were actually in "America's Dairyland" just like all the license plates advertised.
After about two hours, we arrived in Green Bay. I exited the little highway and started to make my way through town, blindly following the directions I had printed off Google Maps. When the directions told me to turn into a neighborhood, I figured that I used the wrong address. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a gigantic stadium loomed over the houses. We had arrived at Lambeau Field.
One side of Lambeau Field is enclosed in an area called The Atrium. The gift shop, Packers Hall of Fame, and various restaurants were located here. It was also the starting point for our tour.
Our guide was a Green Bay native who had been a season ticket holder for forty years, and he had a strong passion for the Packers. He knew everything there was to know about the team, and he proceeded to pass all the knowledge to us. We walked around the Atrium, took in the view from the luxury box, and then headed down to the field level. We walked around the corner of the locker room to the tunnel that lead to the field. The guide lined us up, and then told us to run down the tunnel and out towards the field. As you made your way through the tunnel, speakers hidden in the wall simulated crowd noise and the PA announcer. "WELCOME TO THE FIELD....YOUR....GREEN BAY....PACKERS!!!" Just as you exited the tunnel, the stadium burst in thundering cheers. It felt like you were running out of the tunnel to a full stadium and everyone was cheering for you. It was awesome.
After walking around the edge of the field, we made our way back into the warmth of The Atrium. From here Megan and I headed down the steps to check out the Packers Hall of Fame. There was a ton of Packers stuff down here, but it was definitely geared towards diehard Packer fans. We watched a film about the history of the Packers (much of it was a repeat from the tour), and then walked through room after room of Packer memorabilia.
One part of the Hall of Fame was especially entertaining. They had a portion of the wall surrounding the field set up to simulate the famous Lambeau Leap. We each did several leaps pretending we had just scored the winning touchdown, and some attempts were better than others. Here is one of Megan's leaps:
After walking through the Hall of Fame, we started to make our way back to the car. We stopped for one last photo opp to mimic two of the greatest coaches in Green Bay History, Curly Lambeau and Vince Lombardi. I also added a picture of how close the stadium is to the neighborhoods. Just across the street are family homes, many with encouraging messages painted on their fences (such as "In McCarthy We Trust" and "Go Packers").
After a quick lunch at Chili John's (supposedly the place where John Madden frequents when he is in Green Bay), we were on the road again to Sheboygan. My coworker with family in Wisconsin told me that Sheboygan was the place to get the best brat in Wisconsin. Having roots in Cincinnati, I can certainly appreciate a good brat. An hour's drive south brought us to the "Brat Capital of the World".
When I mentioned it was cold in Wisconsin, I wasn't kidding. It was a cool 30° F in Milwaukee the first day, and even chillier that night. However, when we arrived in Green Bay, the bank thermometers displayed 12° F, in the middle of the day! When we got out of the car in Sheboygan, the frigid temperature was emphasized by the strong wind coming off Lake Michigan. Megan covered up as much as possible before she agreed to take a walk along the water. On a sunny Saturday afternoon, we were the ONLY people walking around the city. I guess most people had the sense to stay indoors.
We walked along the Sheboygan river, then cut through town to get to a park on Lake Michigan. Several signs were spread along the trail to tell the story of Sheboygan's shipping past. At one point, Sheboygan was expected to be the next Chicago or New York since so many immigrants arrived through its port. That never came to fruition as people started traveling by train. Eventually the ship building industry and fishing industries died down as well. A ship recovered from Sheboygan's heyday was displayed along the walk, and the empty marina reinforced the fact that no one in their right mind was out in this weather.
After completing a circuit on the trail, we headed back towards the car. Conveniently located across the street from where we parked was a local bar. Deciding to rest our legs and get something to drink, we moseyed on in and took a seat at the bar. I realized why no one was outside, Wisconsin football was on TV. Megan and I had hoped to catch a glimpse of the NC State vs. UNC football game on back home, but there was no way I was going to ask the TV to be turned away from the Wisconsin game (despite Wisconsin being up by 4 touchdowns). We each tried a couple of the local beers, and then we decided it was time to head to dinner.
We had picked a German restaurant in Sheboygan, Al & Al's Stein Haus, to get some authentic food for dinner. The place got great reviews, but was not very crowded when we sat down. We ordered an appetizer of fried cheese curds (a recommendation from our friends at the Miller tour). When the chef brought them out, he recognized us as being from out-of-town (I have no clue how). He chit-chatted about his knowledge of Raleigh, and then recommended we get the Bavarian platter. I opted for a brat sandwich, but Megan couldn't resist the temptation of a sample of nearly everything the restaurant offered.
It was delicious. After taking our time through dinner, we begrudgingly left the warmth of the restaurant and headed to the car to begin the drive back into Milwaukee. A dash light I had never seen before blared for the entire drive back. I think it was the indicator for "it is too cold outside to be doing anything."
The next morning we had a couple of hours to kill before our flight left town. We drove through downtown to take in some of the sights (it was drizzling, and we had enough walking the day before). We saw where the Bucks play, and we saw the tall buildings at the heart of downtown. We still had time to kill, so we decided to drive out past Miller Field (where the Brewers play) to see The Domes.
Arriving at The Domes, I definitely had a flashback of the Pauly Shore movie BioDome.
The Domes are three large structures that support different biomes. One of the domes had a Christmas theme, and several people were inside taking Christmas card pictures. Another dome had a desert climate and was filled a variety of cacti and other desert plant life. Megan said that the Latin names made little sense (and she took Latin for 4 years) and decided to start giving more logical names, such as "Curly, Spiky Cactus" and "Long, Hairy Cactus". Thankfully that little game ended quickly when she ran out of adjectives to describe cacti. The last biome was the rain forest.
The Domes were a good way to kill an hour, but I secretly wished that the Miller Tours operated on Sundays. We left The Domes and headed back to the airport to catch our flight home. Our trip through Wisconsin was over, but it had been a great time.