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Milwaukee County Parks beer gardens are rated among the best in the world

Photos by Matt Haas

June 2015

Quaffing beer is among Milwaukee’s most popular sports each warm summer. Brewskis have been taken seriously here since at least the 1830s, and they’ve solidified this position since the community’s earliest days as a Teutonic stronghold. Folks gathered in numerous beer gardens, many operated by the city’s major breweries, from the 19th century until Prohibition pulled the plug on having such fun.

But now, "Gemütlichkeit" still says it all. Milwaukeeans don’t really need to know how to spell this little bit of German, a philosophy that means "good times." Yet it’s the perfect word to describe the wonders of a comfortable seasonal eve with a foaming mug, a picnic lunch or supper, and shared table seating. This latter plus is perhaps the best part of the beer garden ethos, where one can sip and chat with new drinking buddies.

According to Milwaukee County Parks Director John Dargle, "This concept has really brought the community together. We at the parks tend to look at it as a family style picnic that just happens to offer beer and great food."

In addition to the overwhelming participation by everyone who comes out and supports the parks’ efforts, Dargle attributes much of the beer garden success to the partners who committed to the concept and invested monetarily and through their staffs’ hard work to make the beer gardens a family-oriented experience.

The father of the Milwaukee County beer garden concept is Hans Weissgerber of the Old German Beer Hall, who manages the Estabrook Park operations. County parks officials credit him with the vision and insight into what a world-class beer garden should be.

Permanent beer gardens are located at the scenic Estabrook and Humboldt Parks and the Landing at Hoyt Park. Despite January’s serious vandalism at Estabrook that damaged the bar there, the popular hangout was happily up and running in time for its much anticipated spring opening.

Estabrook Beer Garden, 4600 Estabrook Drive, is considered the first truly public beer garden in America in nearly a century. The park perches atop the banks of the Milwaukee River, on a bluff just above a waterfall. Arriving by foot, pedal-power or automobile, look for the breeze-billowing, diamond-blue-and-white flag at the park entrance or paddle in via kayak or canoe.

Parents can enjoy a beverage while kids cavort on nearby soccer fields and utilize the playground, skateboard area and a disc golf course. Generally, tables can’t be reserved. Beer is served in husky half- or full-liter glass mugs. A $5 refundable deposit is required for the use of a mug, or visitors can bring their own stein.

The Hoyt Park operation, with its views of the picturesque Menomonee River Parkway, is managed by the Friends of Hoyt Park and Pool, while the Humboldt Park Beer Garden is operated by St. Francis Brewing Company.

Milwaukee County Parks made a presentation at last year’s annual convention of the National Recreation and Park Association’s (NRPA), describing the success of such gardens. Subsequently, Milwaukee has received inquiries from Seattle, Atlanta, Cleveland and elsewhere about how these cities can launch such a successful program — one that brings in more than $500,000 a year to Milwaukee County coffers.

In addition, USA Today and other publications have ranked Milwaukee County’s beer garden operations as among the top in the world, along with those in Germany.

Spreading all this cheer again this year, the Milwaukee County Parks’ Traveling Beer Garden is also off to a gleefully sudsy start. Sixteen parks are currently on the tour, with each park stop featuring mugs of beer and related refreshments from Sprecher Brewing Co. New in 2015 is a menu of German food from Sprecher’s Restaurant & Pub, an independent licensee of the brewery’s name.

Sprecher won the county’s bid process for the traveling trucks, says brewery president Jeff Hamilton. "It’s been one of the most fun things we’ve done. The trucks are great ambassadors for us and a real success story for the company," he says proudly, adding that total traveling truck sales last year were around $250,000.

Sprecher now has four vintage firetrucks refitted to pump beer. One had originally been donated by noted musician Bruce Springsteen to his hometown of Asbury Park, N.J. In addition, four old ambulances have been redone as food purveyors, serving pizza, popcorn, root beer floats, cheese, beer flights and chips. One of the trucks is available for use by community groups and another is touring Wisconsin under the Discover Wisconsin Mobile Experience banner.

On the local scene, look for the easily-identifiable trucks June 3-14 (Froemming and Gordon Parks); June 17-28 (Grant and Doctors Parks); July 1-12 (Falk and Sheridan Parks); July 15-26 (Greenfield Park and the Mitchell Park Domes); July 29-Aug. 9 (Holler and Brown Deer Parks); Aug. 12-23 (Greene and Red Arrow Parks); and Aug. 26-Sept. 7 (Root River Parkway South and Juneau Park).

For more information on the beer gardens, contact Milwaukee County Parks golf office at (414) 257-8024.


This story ran in the June 2015 issue of: