Rob Novak
Rob Novak, director of the Brewing Experience at Old World Wisconsin shepherds the process of turning grain into beer. (Photo by Kevin Revolinski)

Half a century after opening, the state’s historical society site will open a working brewhouse to teach the many ways immigrants brought the craft to their new world.

Old World Wisconsin will finally offer what generations of harried field trip chaperones craved after chasing their charges across 600 acres of historic Waukesha County farmsteads: a tall, cold one.

The Brewing Experience at Old World Wisconsin opens June 18 with the tapping of the first keg of beer. Tickets to the event, which includes bratwurst, the oom-pah-pah music of the Freistadt Alte Kameraden band, and a souvenir koozie are available at the Old World Wisconsin event page. That’s also the place to book tickets to the summer series of seasonal Brewhouse to Farmhouse beer dinners.

Making Wisconsin’s beer tradition part of the Old World Wisconsin experience had been in the Wisconsin Historical Society’s plan since the venue near Eagle opened in 1976 to demonstrate the daily life of the state’s settlers in the 1800’s.

The beer will finally be tapped thanks to $2.6 million in private donations raised by the Historical Society Foundation. New Glarus Brewery’s charitable arm donated $50,000 of that, saying that the inspiration for its iconic Spotted Cow beer came when brewmaster Dan Carey visited the German homestead at Old World Wisconsin.

“The master plan from 50 years ago ago called for a working brewery and tavern,’’ Old World Wisconsin Director Dan Freas said. “It’s taken us this long.”

The Brewhouse—naturally constructed with the area’s Cream City brick—is so new you can still see the wheel marks from the construction trucks. It is the first of four parts of the “grain to glass” experience that will eventually greet visitors. The parts still on the drawing board include a hop garden, a renovation of Wittnebel’s Tavern, and an outdoor beer garden for enjoying the brews.

The new Brewhouse at Old World Wisconsin

This summer, visitors can stop off at the Brewhouse and watch Rob Novak, the Brewing Experience director, at work on the 6-hour process that turns grain into beer. He might be weighing hops, stirring the mash as it cooks in a kettle bubbling on the open hearth, or cooling the mixture with a copper “ice swimmer” before adding the yeast. 

You can see the whole process from start to finish in video display screens and an interactive display on brewing in Wisconsin.

Novak seems like the perfect man for the job. Raised in Eau Claire and steeped in the lore of the nearby Leinenkugel brewery, Novak has a background in theater and is a self-described “beer nerd.”

He’s able to weave in Wisconsin beer history while tending to his kettles and kegs.

“The immigrants brought their own traditions, but worked with what they had,’’ Novak said. The Belgians would brew using wild yeast, while the Scandinavians might flavor their beer with spruce tips rather than hops. The period covered in the Brewing Experience is from roughly statehood in 1848 to the end of the 19th Century, when the commercial breweries took over.

There’s a small bar in the Brewhouse where beers from various Wisconsin breweries will be served. Commercial brewers are already using the setup to test recipes and gain inspiration from the old ways of brewing, Novak said. A group of volunteers, “the brew crew,” from the Milwaukee Museum of Brew and Brewing advised the historical society on the brewhouse and ran outdoor brewing demonstrations as part of the Pomeranian farmstead exhibit.

Sadly, one of the most devoted members, Bob Heger, died this past March before the Brewhouse opened. 

But his legacy will live on in a uniquely Wisconsin way. His family owned the Heger Brewery in Jefferson, where it boasted of brewing, “The beer that made Milwaukee Jealous.”

“We have an unopened bottle of Heger beer from 1909,’’ Freas said. “We hope to analyze it and reproduce it.”

When more funds are raised, visitors will walk out of the Brewhouse and into Wittenebel’s Tavern. The tavern stood from 1906 to 2021 in Old Ashippun, a crossroads community about 30 miles north of Old World Wisconsin. After last call at the tavern, the historical society moved the building and its vintage fixtures, and is planning to restore it to its 1930s glory. There’s a vintage beer truck outside. Freas said 1930s music will play from an old radio or a drinker might hear a recording of a Cardinals-Cubs game from the era. (Sorry Brewers fans, you didn’t exist back then.) 

A vintage beer truck is parked outside the old Wittenebel’s Tavern, which operated from 1906 to 2017 in Old Ashippun and was later moved by the Wisconsin Historical Society to its current home at the Old World Wisconsin Brewing Experience. (Photo by Kevin Revolinski)

A crank telephone on the wall will jingle, and visitors will pick it up. It might be the brewery checking on the delivery or a cranky farm wife demanding that her husband be sent home for dinner. Women weren’t allowed in the tavern back then, but they were welcome in the dance hall upstairs for the Saturday evening dances, Freas said.

The original Lithia beer was produced by the West Bend Brewery until 1972. One of its cases can be seen at the Brewing Experience at Old World Wisconsin. (Photo by Kevin Revolinski)

When the restoration is complete, tavern visitors can take their beer outside to the beer garden.

On the side of the tavern, Freas said, the historical society is hanging a vintage sign that was common on Wisconsin taverns in the 1930s: Happy Days Are Here Again.

“It will be a sign to our visitors that they’re moving out of the dark days of Prohibition,” Freas said.

For visitors to Old World Wisconsin, happy days are here again, indeed.

Other places to learn about Wisconsin’s long, sudsy romance with beer include:

The Jefferson Historical Society, Jefferson, which recently opened a large interactive display on the history of brewing there, highlighting the Heger Brewery.

The Stanley Area Historical Society, 35 minutes east of Eau Claire, which has an “Around the World with Beer” exhibit of unique taps.

The Menomonee Falls Historical Society has a beer garden that is open on Saturdays until October 8.

The Port Exploreum in Port Washington is the place to view “Port Washington’s Brewing History,” a long tradition.

The Portage County Historical Society in Stevens Point is headed by a beer historian who wrote a book on the nearby Point Brewery and has lots of local beer lore. It offers tours of Point Brewery and local pub crawls.

The American Breweriana Association National Beer Museum, located in a hilly riverfront town of Potosi on the Mississippi River in far southwestern Wisconsin, has a Potosi Brewery tap room and restaurant and highlights national brew history.

The Museum of Beer and Brewing is a WHS local history affiliate that is mostly virtual, but its site contains lots of good info on history and Wisconsin’s current breweries.