The 4 Bs of Wisconsin foods

In the category of classic regional food, we must first address the obvious Wisconsin food groups: beer, brats, bloodies and brandy Old-Fashioned sweets.
From left to right: Next Door Brewing Co.’s Bubbler, Capital Brewery’s Supper Club, One Barrel Brewing Co.’s The Commuter and ALT Brew’s gluten-free Rustic Badger.
Many local brewers show their state pride with the names and labels of their beer. Pictured are a few you’ll find in the Madison area that have distinct Wisconsin connections. From left to right: Next Door Brewing Co.’s Bubbler, Capital Brewery’s Supper Club, One Barrel Brewing Co.’s The Commuter and ALT Brew’s gluten-free Rustic Badger. (Photo by Nikki Hansen)

In the category of classic regional food, we must first address the obvious Wisconsin food groups: beer, brats, bloodies and brandy Old-Fashioned sweets. Whether at a restaurant or chilling at a Wisconsin Badgers football tailgate, you’ll likely see most people with one of these items in their hands.

Madison Brews

When visitors arrive, one of the first places you’re bound to take them is the Memorial Union Terrace. As soon as you step onto the terrace in the summer, there’s one thing you’re guaranteed to see on almost every table: a pitcher of beer. Having pitchers of beer on the terrace is a rite of passage that many newly 21-year-old college students or new Madison residents look forward to. There’s nothing quite like pulling up terrace chairs, grabbing a brat, watching the sunset on Lake Mendota and drinking a cold one.

Wisconsin’s proud beermaking history goes back to German immigrants’ arrival in the state. Wisconsin is home to more than 190 craft breweries, and Dane County and its contiguous counties have more than 30 of them. In 2018, Wisconsin produced 1,007,123 barrels of craft beer, or about 7.1 gallons per adult (21 and older), according to the Brewers Association. Our state’s love of beer and its beer-brewing tradition are reflected in the name of its Major League Baseball team, the Milwaukee Brewers. Here in Madison, we’re proud to host the annual Great Taste of the Midwest, which gathers more than 190 Midwest brewers.close up of supper club beer glass

While some Madison breweries have been distributing for years, others have only recently come on the scene. Breweries like Delta Beer Lab, Full Mile Beer Co. & Kitchen, Funk Factory Geuzeria, Giant Jones Brewing Co., Right Bauer Brewing, Union Corners Brewery and Working Draft Beer Co. have opened in the last three years and have been warmly welcomed by the Madison community. Not only can you find local brews at the taprooms themselves, local restaurants and bars also support local brewers by offering tap menus that largely feature Wisconsin-made beer. We also can’t forget to mention nearby New Glarus Brewing Co.’s popularity not only in Madison, but across the state as well. The brewery, which was ranked 16th in the top 50 craft brewing companies by sales volume in 2018 by the Brewers Association, still only distributes in Wisconsin. –MI

Home of Brat Fest

split red brat from state street brats with cheese curds

The Red Brat from State Street Brats (Courtesy of State Street Brats)

Chicagoans can keep their hot dogs. We Madisonians prefer a more substantial sausage. Even Illinois-based Portillo’s knew to offer a brat on the menu as a specialty item when its Madison location first opened. The restaurant even had enough sense to use Milwaukee-made Usinger’s sausage.

Many brats served in Wisconsin come topped with sauerkraut and stone-ground mustard, but no one in the state can truly agree on the right way to prepare and top a brat. Stop at almost any backyard barbecue in the summer and you’ll find different preparations and topping selections at each. Is it boiled in beer before hitting the grill? Is it better to use a brat filled with cheese? Is a hot dog bun acceptable or should it be in a hard roll? Raw onions, grilled onions, sauerkraut or a combination? Mustard and/or ketchup? We’ll let you know if we ever reach a consensus.

One thing is certain, though —Madisonians know good brats. And we eat a lot of them, especially at the annual World’s Largest Brat Fest. The festival has sold more than 3.8 million brats since 1983, with proceeds helping local charities.

two people enjoying their brats at Brat Fest

Courtesy of Brat Fest

While brats are often thought of as tailgate food — which is the case during Badgers football season as thousands pack into Regent Street bars and parking lots to enjoy brats, beers and camaraderie — restaurants in the area serve brats daily. Even when it’s not gameday, Sweet Home Wisconsin on Regent Street has a Tailgate Beer Brat using smoked bratwurst from local Bavaria Sausage Inc. that’s topped with sauerkraut or whiskey-braised onions. At The Old Fashioned, order No. 32. This dish features Sheboygan’s grand champion Miesfeld Market double brat with raw onions, pickles and brown mustard on a Highway Bakery hard roll.

When the word “brats” is in your name and your tagline is “The Best Brats Ever,” you better deliver, and State Street Brats has since 1989. The Red Brat, the “world-famous” sausage served at State Street Brats, was first made by Madison butcher George Bishop in the 1950s. It was made exclusively for Brathaus at 603 State St., where State Street Brats is today. Since then, the Red Brat, which is split and made of beef and pork, has been a staple. While State Street Brats also offers White Brats — the traditional Sheboygan-style brats most people know — the Red Brat is the go-to. –MI

Yes, I’d Like a Shorty With That

bloody mary with toppings and a miller high life next to it

Bloody Mary from Everly (Courtesy of Food Fight Inc.)

Go ahead, try ordering a “chaser” or a “shorty” with your bloody mary in Washington, D.C., New Orleans or San Diego and see how quickly the bartender’s congeniality turns into confusion. It’s just not a thing in other places. Here in Madison, it’s assumed a bloody mary comes with a small glass of an easy-drinking beer to chase down the heavy drink. And because Wisconsinites don’t shy away from over-the-top add-ons, we’ve become known for making bloody marys with accoutrement that literally towers over the glass’s rim.

A seemingly simple concoction of tomato juice, vodka and some spices is interpreted a hundred different ways with the addition of vegetables, pickled items, cured meats, extra-spicy seasonings and the like. When ordering a bloody mary in Wisconsin, be prepared for an entire meal, with no two bloody marys tasting exactly the same. At Short Stack Eatery, you’ll find a bloody with a whopping 25 ingredients including a Sriracha salt rim, beets, serranos and shallots. Sardine makes a beet bloody mary with house-infused beet vodka, while The Nitty Gritty serves the “Brunchzilla,” a bloody with a mini Gritty Burger on top. Everly created a “Bacon + Eggs” bloody with bacon-infused Tito’s Handmade Vodka plus bacon, a deviled egg and a cheese curd. Cafe Hollander has six different bloody marys, but Spicy Badger is a standout for those who love a good kick. It features Sriracha-, jalapeño- and habanero-infused State Line Distillery vodka, a Sriracha beef stick, a spicy garlic pickle spear, a spicy pickled carrot, Southwest jack cheese and red pepper. Places like DLUX or Vintage Spirits and Grill have bloody mary bars where you can add almost any topping. –AB & MI

Wisconsin’s Drink

person putting in a garnish of an Old-Fashioned cocktail

An Old-Fashioned from Quivey’s Grove (Photo by Nikki Hansen)

To an out-of-towner, it’s an odd sight. On a Friday night, the bar is packed at Quivey’s Grove as people wait for tables in the Stable Grill. Everyone’s eager to devour their Friday fish fry with a side of Parmesan potatoes, but the collective mood is not one of impatience. Everyone’s unwinding from the workday, unfurrowing their brows and letting their shoulders relax as the weekend sets in.

This isn’t unlike the atmosphere at the average bar, but one glance around the room and you’ll notice something that gives the bar an unmistakable regionality. Nearly every hand is clutching a lowball glass. One finger is curled around a wooden spear holding an orange slice and a long-stemmed Maraschino cherry. A cinnamon stick is swimming in the rose-colored drink, ice cubes bobbing and sloshing as people lean in to have conversations as the volume rises. The bartender lines up glasses as the identical orders come in — “four brandy Old-Fashioned sweets, please.”

“I don’t get it,” the out-of-towner might ask. “What’s so great about this drink?”

There’s not much to it — sugar cube, bitters, orange, ice, cherries, brandy and lemon-lime soda. It’s not grandiose; it’s not fancy. It’s a sweet indulgence without pretense or implication. It sheds all status symbols. It’s friendly and communal.

It’s kind of like a Wisconsinite.

And we’d be glad to clink glasses with any out-of-towner looking to experience a bit of the magic. –AB