Wisconsin’s history of brats, beer and beyond

The German influence on customs, culture and food
Wisconsin’s history of brats, beer and beyond

Our favorite sandwich and beverage are obvious examples of how German heritage influenced life in Wisconsin. It’s estimated that 43 percent of Badgerland residents are of German descent. Between 1820 and 1910, more than 5 million German immigrants came to the United States. Many settled in the Midwest–many right here. In 1848, the year Wisconsin became a state, rebellion ran rampant in Germany, then a conglomerate of independent states ruled by autocratic princes and barons. Many from the middle class fled to America, looking for a better life. The skills and values they brought with them from the fatherland thrived in this new homeland.

One of their special aptitudes was operating breweries. Schlitz claimed to be the beer that made Milwaukee famous, but competitors Pabst and Blatz also had a lot to do with it. In the early days, Madison had several breweries of its own, run by people named Fauerbach, Sprecher and Breckheimer.

Many of the new arrivals from Prussia, Bavaria, Saxony, Hanover and Hesse-Darmstadt settled along Lake Michigan’s western shore, but they ultimately populated every corner of the state. Up the road from Milwaukee in Hustisford, at least a quarter of the population–many of whom had been born in this country–spoke only German as late as 1910. A large Bavarian contingent made Sauk County its home. To this day, the small village of Plain celebrates its Germanic roots with Strassenfest, a street fair held the first Saturday in October.

It was German immigrants who advanced the concept of kindergarten in the U.S.–the first established in 1856 in Watertown. They shared with us Christmas trees, tubas and Albert Einstein. German Americans also brought with them the “Continental Sunday.” Unlike their stodgy neighbors who moved here from New England, they celebrated the Sabbath by listening to bands, dancing, playing 10-pin bowling and drinking.

Sausages and sauerkraut aside, the German impact on our cuisine can be a bit obscure.

However, it’s no coincidence that the frankfurter and hamburger, All-American favorites, bear the names of German cities. German restaurants still enjoy popularity statewide and locally. For many years, until it burned in 1946, the Heidelberg Hofbrau, located on the Square (where Cooper’s Tavern is now), was one of the city’s preferred supper clubs.

For more than 30 years, the Essen Haus has dispensed food and fun downtown. Every year on a Saturday in late September it puts on its Oktoberfest with live music and entertainment, a brat-eating contest and, of course, lots of beer. Taking part of its name from Madison’s sister city, Freiburg Gastropub on the near west side is a snug place that serves authentic German dishes cooked with care and conviction. Best known of all, though, is probably the Dorf Haus Supper Club in Roxbury, owned by the Maier family since 1959. Its menu covers all the classics. However, it’s venerated for its Friday-night fish fry (an innovation of German American Catholics) and twice-monthly (from June to October, once a month otherwise) Bavarian smorgasbord.

Best of all, the German gave us gemütlichkeit, or the feeling of coziness, contentedness and comfort. Prost!

Dan Curd is a Madison-based food writer who has written for the magazine for more than 20 years.