Tap Into the Old Fashioned

uch more than mere nostalgia, the appeal of The Old Fashioned restaurant lies in its authentic commitment to the heritage foods and recipes that are part of this state’s culinary traditions.

In the convergence of heritage and local, co-owner Tami Lax has laid the foundation for the genuine article.

“It was part of our original business plan to represent as many Wisconsin products as possible,” says Lax.

Beer, she says, was a natural. Lax and general manager Jen De Bolt began a few years ago with a master list of beers, but time got in the way of reaching the level of representation they sought. Finally De Bolt decided she wanted to take it on. She contacted different Wisconsin producers and researched the beer market and how it had grown over the last three years. She gathered samples and recruited the staffs from both The Old Fashioned and Harvest for tastings.

In the meantime, Lax installed a new cooler so there’d be one for kegs and one for bottles, and added eighteen new beer lines, bringing the total number of taps to thirty, including one for root beer. The number of bottles had increased from forty-six to 121, bringing the total number available to an astonishing 150 Wisconsin beers.

Lax says customers are “wild about it.” The numbers prove it. In January of 2007 The Old Fashioned went through forty-one half barrels of beer. In 2008 that number increased to fifty-six. This past January they emptied seventy-nine half barrels. That’s a lot of glasses of beer. And they did it in just three weeks. The buzz, says De Bolt, has been incredible. “

The e-mails and phone calls I’ve been getting have just been outrageous (from) people I didn’t even know were into beer.”

De Bolt, Lax and Lax’s father drive to nine different breweries that don’t have a distribution system to personally pick up the beer they sell at The Old Fashioned, including the Potosi Brewing Company.

“They brew a great product,” says De Bolt. “Five incredible beers.”

Traveling to the brewery “is the fun of it,” says De Bolt, meeting the brewers face to face and getting to know their facilities, many of which are historic. And then the barrels have to be returned the next trip since the breweries don’t have enough. Lax says these small breweries are “knocking our socks off. For example the Calumet Brewing Company in Chilton is just world class.”

Keeping twenty-nine beer taps straight requires a little creativity. Lax and De Bolt went to Farm and Fleet and bought some of the identification tags farmers attach to the ears of sheep. One tag per line to a barrel keeps everything organized.

This is all leading to some serious tastings, with beer aficionados comparing different beers and taking notes. “It’s fun to be part if it,” says Lax, “because there is a whole new awareness of hand-crafted beer, sort of like what happened to cheese.”

And, of course, there is the economic reality of the times.

“Beer is still considered the common man’s drink,” says Lax, as opposed to wine, which she says is viewed differently in this country in part because the history of producing fine wines is relatively recent.

With that in mind Lax is offering a Beer Dinner at her other restaurant, Harvest. Four courses have been paired with four beers brewed by the Red Eye Brewing Company in Wausau. After the meal diners will go next door to The Old Fashioned to sample the fifth beer Red Eye brews. Eighty reservations are available for the March 8 dinner. (Call 255-6075 to reserve a spot.)

The work is not done. There are fifty-three different breweries and brew pubs in Wisconsin. The Old Fashioned serves beer from forty-six of them. The other seven don’t have licenses to serve outside their premises. Yet.

“We should hit the fifty mark by May,” says De Bolt.

Nancy Christy is the former owner of the Wilson Street Grill. She now runs the consulting firm Meaningful People, Places and Food. Neil Heinen is, among other things, her hungry husband. Comments? Questions? Please write to .