Old World Wisconsin brews it old school

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Neil Johnson
Sunday, September 17, 2017

EAGLE—On Saturday, poor John Barleycorn took quite a beating for the benefit of becoming a tasty, future brew.

Old World Wisconsin staff farmers surrounded a pile of barley stalks tied in shocks and laid out on the floor of a wood barn at the living history campus's German village. They slammed the pile over and over with hinged, hardwood sticks.

Bits of barley sprang from the pile, and the farmers raked together the loose cereal. The hand-pummeling of the barley, known as “flogging,” is the first step in readying one of the chief ingredients in beer.

A group of brewers and beer history enthusiasts have been demonstrating Old World-style beer making for visitors for the last two years through a historic brewing program.

Gary Luther, a brewmaster with the Milwaukee-based Museum of Beer and Brewing, said the barley threshed Saturday was grown at Old World Wisconsin, but it wouldn't be used for brewing until later. It must first age and be cured before it's ground up as malt.

Brewers at Old World Wisconsin brew a handful of weekends a year, and they plan to begin incorporating more ingredients grown on site, including barley and four different varieties of heritage hops.

Under a licensing plan and joint venture still being worked out between Old World Wisconsin, the beer museum and federal and state officials, the brewers would sell beer they brew at Old World Wisconsin using the methods of 1860s German-American brewers.

For now, Old World Wisconsin and the brewers who meet there a half-dozen times a year are perfecting their brewing of 19th-century beers. They're using methods that require hand grinding 25 pounds of barley and heating it into a slurry, using a huge copper kettle and water heated on a wood fire outside the barn-like brew house.

Saturday's process involved mixing barley in the copper kettle of water, which was heated to an exact temperature, and then moving it from the kettle to vats for settling.

Eventually, they would set the brew in wood fermenting barrels, where with a few handfuls of hops, yeast and a little luck, it would become beer.

The work took four hours, and the brewers would learn if their work was a success after about eight days of fermenting. Luther said the goal was a quality German-American lager—a hearty “Oktoberfest” beer that Wisconsin brewers of the past would have quaffed during cold weather.

Through a haze of wood smoke as the brewers waited for the kettle to boil, Luther summed up the day's work.

“We're emulating brewing beer as it would have been done in 1860,” said Luther, a beer maker trained in Germany's Bavaria region. “So there's no power equipment. We've got a circa-1860s scale (for weighing ingredients). Otherwise, this is beer making with no mechanized equipment. It's a by-hand process.

"Before instrumentation came in to tell the brewer what he was doing, this really was an art form.”

Dozens of visitors watched Luther and six other brewers clad in high-topped caps, wool pants and flannel shirts as they worked. In the shade near the brew house, event sponsor MobCraft Beer had its own beer on tap for people to sip.

Whitewater resident Chuck Schroeder had come to Old World Wisconsin on Saturday to walk the paths of the 600-acre campus for exercise. He stumbled across the brewing demonstration and stayed for a beer.

“It's pretty interesting. It sure looks like a hard, old way of doing things," Schroeder said. "But I guess if you look at how beer started, and where it's gone, the old brewers must have made it work for them.”

Nobody besides the brewers will ever taste the beer they brewed Saturday. Old World Wisconsin isn't licensed to sell or distribute the beer it makes on site. Not yet, anyway.

Luther said the brewing project could become a bigger feature at the historical campus. He said the Wisconsin Historical Society and the Museum of Beer and Brewing are seeking a federal license to brew and sell beer on site.

Luther said the group's goal is to build a full-sized brewery at Old World Wisconsin. That could create a crossroads where living history, beer tourism and a signature Wisconsin tradition—beer—meet.

For now, he said, brewers will continue demonstrations at the German village. The final brewing show this year is from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 7.

As for the small amount of beer the group made Saturday, it will simply be poured out. Luther cringed as he admitted that.

“As you can imagine, that really breaks my heart.”

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