Old School Brewing: Tapping the Past | wisconsinacademy.org
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Old School Brewing: Tapping the Past

You don’t have to be a beverage industry expert to know beer is big business, and you don’t have to be a historian to know Wisconsin is home to one of the country’s proudest beer brewing cultures. And while Wisconsin is often associated with legendary German names like Blatz, Schlitz, Pabst, and Fauerbach, it’s said that Milwaukee’s first brewery was actually started in 1840 by Welsh settlers. From Kenosha to Hudson, La Crosse to Rhinelander, and all throughout our great state, settlers of French, Polish, Swiss, English, Belgian, French, and Scandinavian descent were brewing beer across the Wisconsin landscape throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

Sadly, much of that diverse, ethnic brewing culture was wiped out by world wars, Prohibition, and the corporate consolidation of breweries. History and generational customs gave way to standardized flavors buoyed by glitzy advertising. As is so often the case with trades and traditions, the lessons that had been passed down from parents to children and owners to employees soon ended up as distant memories or lost to the winds of time. The modern craft beer movement is in part a repudiation of this corporate consolidation and also a desire to return to brewing as a local enterprise.

Brewing history enthusiasts are also working to keep the old traditions alive for future generations, with a new feature developed at Old World Wisconsin. In 2015, with the help of a team of volunteers from Milwaukee’s Museum of Beer & Brewing, Old World Wisconsin began crafting historically accurate German-inspired ales for thirsty visitors.

As these initial brewing demonstrations began gaining traction, so did the idea that the operation should move indoors to provide brewers, volunteers, and guests alike with a shelter that could better showcase these time-honored brewing practices while also protecting visitors from the unpredictable weather that can make its way through the beautiful tract of land Old World Wisconsin calls home.

Beermaking typically follows a few key steps that begin with malting (soaking grains such as raw wheat or barley in water). As the grains begin to germinate, enzymes are activated that convert stored starches into fermentable sugars. The germination is ultimately cut short and the grain is dried through kilning, which is where many of the malt’s caramelly or roasty flavors are derived. The malt, now in the hands of a brewer, is then milled, mixed with water in a mash tun (a large pot), and heated to about 150F till it forms an oatmeal-like consistency called mash. Within the pot, the malt’s starches once again begin an enzymatic process that creates a sugary liquid called wort. The wort is then transferred from the mash tun into a kettle, where hops and additional brewing spices may be added. This boiling process also sterilizes the product, making it safe for consumption. Following the boil, the wort is cooled down and transferred to a fermenter, where it’s introduced to an ale or lager yeast. The yeast will then feed on the sugary wort, producing alcohol, CO2, and the final product we know as beer.

After years of discussion, planning, and fundraising, Old World Wisconsin finally opened the doors to its Brewing Experience last summer, with Brewing Experience Coordinator Rob Novak shepherding in the brewing method of our ancestors.

Located just outside downtown Eagle, on the edge of the Kettle Moraine State Forest, Old World Wisconsin is the nation’s largest open air museum. Operated by the Wisconsin Historical Society, it features 600 acres of woodlands and over 60 restored historic buildings organized as villages and farms depicting life in Wisconsin from the mid-1800s to early 1900s.

The walk up to the 1,760 square foot Brewing Experience brewhouse immediately sets the mood for what is to come. The newly built brewhouse of wood and brick stands alongside two towering chimneys, but what is most impressive lies within. Anyone who has visited a modern brewery is familiar with stainless steel tanks and equipment, racks of barrels stacked about, and a general sense that, yes, you are in a modern American brewery. To tour the OWW Brewing Experience, however, is to enter a wholly different kind of scene.

A look around the room reveals that a great deal of research has gone into the Brewing Experience, that Rob Novak and his team of volunteers take great pride in honoring those who brewed before us. To the left of the side-by-side fireplaces, you notice two old world scales topped with copper pots used to weigh grain; a large oak cask that holds the bulk of Rob’s brewing water; oak serving vessels that act like kegs in the most basic manner possible and a rectangular copper pan about six inches deep—similar to pans called coolships that are commonly found in Belgium—used to cool the boiled wort. There are also open-top fermentors with copper pots capable of holding enough ice to cool down an active fermentation. Add in a bucolic stack of firewood and a handsome service bar, and you have all the ingredients for a unique and altogether inspiring Wisconsin brewing experience.

I spot Rob Novak across the main room, carrying a long pole with a metal bucket and heading towards the back of the brewhouse, a cloud of steam following him and soon blurring him from sight in the smaller quarters. A Wisconsin native who spent years in the beer industry in San Diego and Milwaukee, Rob brings years of front- and- back-of-house experience to his role. Couple that background with his passion for beer history, and you have the right man for this job.

photo collage from article on brewing at Old World Wisconsin

I am drawn to the rolling snap of the fire and a rack holding a pot full of water. I assume Rob’s boiling wort, the sugary malt water that eventually comingles with hops and yeast to become what we know as beer. But I discover he’s actually boiling water to rehydrate one of the oak mash tuns or barrels. He fills the barrel with boiling water and lets it sit for several hours to absorb water and to reveal any leaks that need attention. It’s all part of preparation for OWW’s 2023 brewing season.

The Brewing Experience will run until September 24 this year, after which Rob will enter an equally busy off-season. He uses this time to source ingredients from local maltsters and hop farms, promote the program and solicit donations, and meet with area breweries to compare notes and look for opportunities to collaborate. As a writer himself, Rob also used the winter months last year to write an article about the dynamic history of women in Wisconsin brewing.

As the wind whips through the brewhouse’s opposing barn doors and we huddle around the low-burning fire for warmth, Rob reminds me that during their busy season the temperature often climbs into the 80s and even the 90s, heightened by these brewing fires. The heat affects their daily planning and overall yeast activity. Ale yeasts thrive between 60-78°F and lager yeasts between 46-58 °F. Therefore, the brewers must rely solely on yeasts that can stand warm conditions.

Having previously focused largely on German ales, Rob and the team have recently begun expanding their brewing portfolio to include beers of the many aforementioned nationalities that have called Wisconsin home over the past couple centuries. Rob is working on ten different recipes this year, ranging from Belgian saisons and Bière de Gardes, to British pale ales and IPAs, to American cream ales and Scandinavian beers with a now well-known Kviek yeast that can ferment above 90°F without adversely affecting the flavor and quality of the final product. And it doesn’t end there. Rob is working on a beer inspired by Lithuanian communities that settled in Southeastern Wisconsin in the 1930s. Having scoured that area for information, Rob says “Lithuanian homebrewing has an interesting subculture, kind of like Scandinavian, and you’ll see pictures of huts with people brewing these beers. Some are raw beer that has never been boiled. Some use hops. Some do things like bread mashing to start your starch-to-sugar conversion process.”

On the agricultural front, Rob is working with local suppliers and farmers to procure heirloom corn, wild rice, and spruce tips, all in keeping with historical brewers who used the regional resources that were available. Old World Wisconsin is also home to roughly 40 poles supporting a variety of hop vines including East Kent Golding, Fuggle, and Cluster, as well as the famed Noble hop varieties of Hallertauer Mittelfrüh, Saaz, Spalt, and Tettnang. Farmhouse brewers typically used whatever was available, in terms of the grains and hops they put into the kettle, and often repurposed farming equipment for the brewing.

There were limitations as to what farmers in the 1800s could procure and accomplish with their ingredients and equipment. Consider that they did not have indoor plumbing or electricity. In these circumstances, in a natural setting, often exposed to the elements, creating a beer of good quality was a challenge. In fact, Rob tells me the initial idea for the Brewing Experience included plans for a deep lagering cave and the harvesting and storage of lake ice to keep the beer and surrounding cellar cool through summer, as the Miller Brewing Company’s famed lager caves did in Milwaukee. Rob credits the old-time brewers who endured these daily conditions: “It’s a lot of work. A lot of work. And it never stopped. But everything back then was a lot of work.”

Luckily for Rob, his team, and the loyal legions of history buffs and beer geeks who descend upon Old World Wisconsin, the equipment at the Brewing Experience has been custom crafted to invoke a rustic feeling while still allowing for consistent batches and quality products. The five-gallon copper kettle Rob uses was crafted by Caldwell Mountain Copper in Fincastle, Virginia. The company had previously created a 15-gallon version of the kettle for the Beer & Brewing crew years before. Beer & Brewing volunteers have donated wort chillers, vats, esoteric tools, and hundreds of years of combined brewing experience, which Rob knows is priceless.

In addition to collaborating with these amazing volunteers, Rob is also thrilled to work with nearby breweries to craft traditional OWW Brewing Experience-inspired recipes on far larger and more refined systems. One such partner is Duesterbeck's Brewing Company, a beautiful farm-brewing enterprise located in Elkhorn. Not only did Duesterbeck’s offer Rob the chance to work with an actual farmer-owned brewery, it also allowed him to scale up his recipe for a farmhouse ale—with orange peel, grains of paradise, black peppercorn, and ginger—from 5 gallons to 620 gallons. And where the Brewing Experience can only offer samples of their beer, Rob and his team are able to sell their collaboration beers to folks who want to support the program and enjoy a cold malt beverage as they walk the Old World grounds.

As much as Rob loves the creativity that comes from working with like-minded brewers, he’s been looking forward to opening his the OWW doors this season. The 10 am – 4 pm brewing schedule is the same every day that OWW is open. As would be the case on any professional brew day, Rob and his team mill the grain; mash, boil, and cool the wort; and transfer the sugary solution into fermenters. And again, much like any professional brewers, they spend a great deal of time prepping and cleaning, though Rob does acknowledge the distinct OWW difference: “All of Old World is fairly rustic,” Rob says. “As you can see in the fireplace, for example, it’s not going to be a pristine brewing environment like if you went to New Glarus [Brewing Company] where everything is absolutely spick and span,” he adds, referencing Wisconsin’s best-known craft brewery and one that has inspired Rob throughout his brewing career.

For folks who can’t stick around for the entire six-hour brewing process, Rob and his team host daily tours that offer an in-depth 20-minute walk through the process. And for those really in a hurry, the Brewing Experience also features a looped video highlighting the entire process in about three-and-a-half minutes. Beginning in June, Rob will be firing up the brewhouse every Wednesday through Sunday. And while no reservations are needed to enjoy the brewing experience, guests will need to grab a ticket online or on-site, just as they would to experience the myriad other adventures Old World Wisconsin has to offer. Visitors over the age of 21 can sample or buy these historic beers. Samples are poured from the bottle or out of their beautiful wooden casks, and the beers are for sale, such as their collaboration brew with Duesterbeck’s, in cans or bottles.

Old World Wisconsin elicits thoughts of earlier times, and the entire grounds and experience feel incredibly authentic and purposefully curated. The OWW brewhouse is no exception, as the Brewing Experience provides and accurate and enjoyable historic journey into Wisconsin’s past. At first glance, one would think only two fires burn daily within the Brewing Experience’s brewhouse, but after a day spent with Rob Novak, it’s abundantly clear a third fire burns within Old World Wisconsin’s head brewer as well. “My goal is to create a state repository of Wisconsin beer knowledge and history,” Rob says, “beer history in general, and institutional history that keeps us in touch with Wisconsin brewers.”

It's hard not to feel inspired by someone who can tend to a fire, rehydrate casks, sample a house-made altbier, and showcase numerous custom-crafted pieces of brewing equipment. All the while, Rob waxes poetic about everything from obscure Wisconsin beer history to our shared admiration for the farmhouse breweries and professional brewers who kept these beautiful traditions alive, often through simple conversation or hand-written notes. All of this has allowed Rob Novak to brew beer just as they used to back in the day. Cheers to that!

Altbier Recipe

Fermenting at cool ale temperatures develops the clean and smooth, yet rich malt character of this German-style beer.

Type: Ale
Style: Altbier
Batch Size: 5 gallons
Recipe Type: All grain


5.5 lbs   Pilsen Malt
3 lbs      Kilned Munich Malt
4 oz       Roasted Chocolate Malt 
1.5 oz    Hallertau Hops (6% AA)             Boil 90 min
1 oz       Saaz Hops (4% AA)                    Boil 30 min
1 vial     WLP036 Dusseldorf Alt Yeast

Mash at 148ºF for 90 minutes

Original Gravity: 1.046
Final Gravity: 1.008
ABV: 5%
IBU: 47
Color: 20 SRM

Recipe courtesy of Briess Malt & Ingredients, Chilton, Wisconsin.

All photos: Jesse Brookstein


Jesse Brookstein is a product of Clinton, New York and a current resident of Madison. He has long dabbled in various artistic endeavors, often for fun, occasionally for cash, and always with passion and purpose.

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