A Round of Craft Beer Bars
List by Nick Rasmussen
Photography by Adam Horwitz
Beer bar. The term conjures images of snobbery, exclusivity and niche beer styles that are 11 syllables in length. Sure, there are places where accessibility and approachability are distant concepts. But the best beer bars are institutions that pour equal parts thoughtfulness and creativity into every glass. As soon as you hit the barstool, you feel the care and pride. And when you get your pint, tulip or mug, you wash down along with your beer a palpable sense of community. The list below is just a handful of establishments in the area serving up a great craft beer experience. Bottom’s up.
Bernie’s Tap Room
There’s something inherently casual and comfortable about the space that sits at the corners of Main and Clinton Streets in Waukesha. Bernie’s Tap Room perfectly combines Wisconsin colloquialness and Milwaukee urbanism. Throughout the open concept space, in the exposed brick, you find old and new, European and American, traditionalism and progressiveness.
The one consistent theme at Bernie’s is beer. 26 tap handles of good beer. Meticulously selected, aged if needed, seasonally allocated, beer. Owner and bar manager John Bernhardt and his bartenders know how to cater to their clientele, offering and suggesting varieties that taste familiar or push boundaries. Bernie’s also hosts events and tastings —an educational forum for those entering the labyrinthian land of craft beer—in a relaxed and accommodating environment.
351 W. Main St., Waukesha
You know that place of solace that you visit when you want things to feel familiar? Well, this is it. Maybe it’s the iconic beer memorabilia strewn about. Or it could be the gritty, vintage ambience. Or perhaps it’s the haloed glimmer of your favorite tap handle.
Whatever it is, there’s just an abstractness that is warm, inviting and just plain cool. It’s a bit like walking into an episode of Cheers, but instead of Sam grumbling about his relationship problems, there’s owner BJ Seidel and Cicerone Certified beer server Mic Makalinao chatting about the relationship between the Citra hops and the pale malts in Zombie Dust. And instead of Norm sipping that same ol’ beer from that same ol’ mug, it’s a girl you’ve never seen before sipping something you’ve never heard of from a glass that you didn’t even know existed.
Burnhearts is more than a corner bar—it’s a craft beer institution that curates one of the most diverse lists in the city with 24 constantly-rotating taps and casks. Whether you’re new to artisanal beer or a self-proclaimed craft connoisseur, you’ll find something that will soothe your beer-craving soul.
2599 S. Logan Ave., Bay View
Draft & Vessel
Unique and progressive business models are necessary in the saturated segment of craft beer. Not a single other place in Milwaukee is doing things quite like Shorewood’s Draft & Vessel. The premise is simple yet brilliant: a cozy beer destination that pours taps, fills growlers, and sells select 22-oz. bottles as retail carry-out with a few pieces of merchandise for good measure. That’s it. Well, not quite. There’s more. Much more, actually.
Draft & Vessel is really built upon the idea of conversation while sipping or waiting for a growler of one of their 16 tap beers. It’s about congregation, or discussing nuances of beer styles, or debating about how Milwaukee is doing things a bit differently in the craft scene, or any other topic that you can dream up. Just ask owner Nat Davauer or manager Eric Gutbrod what their recommendations are the next time you find yourself bellying up to the bar. After all, the beer lineup can be a tad daunting. While you’re taking that first sip of something decadent, strike up a chat with Nat or Eric, or with the person sitting next to you. Before you know it, you will have spent hours conversing with a few new friends over a few new favorite beers. And that is what the Milwaukee beer scene is all about.
4417 N. Oakland Ave., Shorewood
Sir James Pub
Most don’t consider the smallish city of Port Washington a beer mecca, which is precisely why Sir James Pub is such a surprising delight. Having been in business for over 30 years as a specialty beer bar—long before beer bars were a thing—this unassuming pub houses more than 700 varieties of craft beer with 18 circulating on draft. However, it’s not just the capacious beer list and approachable, charming and convivial atmosphere that gets Sir James Pub mentioned here.
Owner, manager, bartender and patron-dubbed “beer whisperer” Jason Rabus is a substantial part of the draw due to his beer acumen and ability to spin the sometimes-esoteric world of beer into something accessible and fun. Jason’s fervor towards beer as a topic of conversation, object of historical perspective and enhancement of community packs this quaint town.
316 N. Franklin St., Port Washington
If you’re unfamiliar with the burgeoning craft beer culture in Milwaukee, you may also be unaware of Bay View mainstays Sugar Maple and Palm Tavern, sister locations owned by husband and wife, Bruno Johnson and Adrienne Pierluissi. On the American craft beer side, Sugar Maple boasts 60 taps all devoted to beers brewed in the U.S. The interior is relaxed and aesthetic, with most of the wall art originating from the adroit hands and inventive mind of owner, Adrienne. There’s something cultured and intellectual in the way that Sugar Maple flows, from the winding bar top to the perpendicular benches. If you see Adrienne behind the bar or walking around, don’t hesitate to ask for her assistance with your next selection from their ever-changing list.
441 E. Lincoln Ave., Bay View
If a European beer style is more in your wheelhouse, then head over to Palm Tavern instead. Palm boasts 25 drafts and a hefty stash of bottles with a Belgian-leaning tilt, though they still offer an impressive array of American crafts. The diminutive Palm vastly differs from Sugar Maple. Beer signs, posters and metal plating adorn the walls, the lighting is basically nonexistent. Matt Tunnell, whose background is in both beer and spirits, and the bartenders at Palm, live and breathe craft beer, so lean in and ask questions.
2989 S. Kinnickinnic Ave., Bay View
Uncle Mike’s Pub
For the sake of this list, let’s strip away everything that makes Uncle Mike’s the adult amusement park it is—televisions, trivia, volleyball, food and spirits—and focus just on the beer. It’s evident from this bar’s 76 taps, with an obvious nod towards Wisconsin and Midwestern breweries, that Uncle Mike’s beer list rivals Tolstoy in its vastness.
But again, this isn’t about sheer volume. This is about details and customer experience. Whether your thing is a pilsner or an imperial stout, general manager Theresa Moon and the staff at this Kenosha landmark can assist you in selecting something viscous and chewy that can coat your tongue, something resiny and citrusy that will punish your palate, or any flavor profile in between.
6611 120th Avenue, Kenosha
Nick Rasmussen has been a self-proclaimed beer geek ever since he took his first sip of Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA back in 2009. Born in Stevens Point, WI and now residing in Milwaukee’s Bay View neighborhood, Nick is also a home brewer and a passionate food zealot, particularly with regard to organic, locally-sourced vegetarian and vegan food. When he’s not writing or brewing beer, you can find Nick either running or biking along the lakefront or out dining with his girlfriend, Katie.