A Great Lakes paradise, Wisconsin has a penchant for cheese as strong as its affinity for beer and bratwurst – the three pillars of the state diet. It’s hard to go anywhere in the Badger State without being a stone’s throw from one of these delicacies, and a road trip is the perfect way to sample the best of what Wisconsin has to offer.
Our itinerary takes you from New Glarus to Milwaukee and covers more than 300 miles filled with culinary and scenic treats.
Beer, brats and cheese are the three pillars of Wisconsin cuisine © Heather Kerrigan / Lonely Planet
Sipping Spotted Cow in New Glarus
Beer has long been an industry in the Great Lakes, but the mega-brewers that put the state on the map have largely been replaced in popularity by craft breweries hidden in warehouses, power plants and strip malls.
In the village of New Glarus (population just more than 2,000), you’ll find a key example of this change in the town’s namesake brewery. Well known in beer-loving circles, New Glarus Brewing Company bottles beers by the name of Spotted Cow, Moon Man, Uff-da and Bubbler, a nod to what Wisconsinites call a drinking fountain.
The bucolic grounds of New Glarus Brewing © Heather Kerrigan / Lonely Planet
The brewery offers tours of its factory and an expansive outdoor patio for tastings. Be sure to stock up at the on-site store – New Glarus isn’t distributed anywhere outside the state, which adds to its cult-like appeal.
Brats and brews in Madison
Once you’ve had your fill, head northeast on County Road PB, passing through the Wisconsin you probably conjure up on your mind – red barns, grain silos, clapboard farmhouses and, if you go at the right time of year, rows upon rows of corn. You’ll come into the capital city of Madison along the shore of Lake Mendota, and enjoy a perfect view of the skyline.
The brats and curds at The Old Fashioned in Madison don't disappoint © Eugene Kim / CC by 2.0
If you’re hungry, grab a bite at The Old Fashioned, a casual, friendly restaurant styled after a Wisconsin supper club. They serve up hearty portions alongside 150 Wisconsin beers, more than 50 of which are on tap.The brat – available as a single or a double – is from the famed Miesfeld’s Market in Sheboygan, and comes with perfectly fried cheese curds alongside.
Fans of ales shouldn’t miss Ale Asylum. This microbrewery near the Dane County Regional Airport features a rotating selection of about a dozen beers. If you’re looking for something smaller, check out One Barrel Brewing Company, Madison’s first nanobrewery, located on the city’s East Side.
A dairy detour
There's a reason one of the state's nicknames is 'America's Dairyland': Wisconsin boasts the only master cheese-making program outside of Europe, and multigenerational cheese-making families bring home hundreds of national and international awards each year. So it’s worth taking an extra 30 minutes to drive west off your route to visit the small, tucked-away Union Star Cheese in Fremont. Established in 1911, the shop is famous for its small batch, handmade cheddar, muenster, Colby, curds (made fresh daily), and string cheese, which – unlike what you find at the grocery store – is whip-like when fresh. If you get there at the right time, you can even get a tour and watch the cheese makers in action.
At Union Star, you can get a backstage look at how cheese is made © Heather Kerrigan / Lonely Planet
From Fremont, head back east to Appleton, and stop at Simon’s Specialty Cheese Shop or Lamers Dairy, where you’ll find a plethora of local cheese to try alongside yellow foam molded into a variety of kitschy household items and headwear – from top hats to sombreros – styled to look like pieces of cheese.
Gorging in Green Bay
Continuing northeast from Appleton, you’ll land in Green Bay, home of the NFL's Packers and Lambeau Field (aka the Frozen Tundra), as well as a few paper mills and some amazing craft breweries. Copper State Brewing Co., which opened in mid-2017, boasts fantastic food and beer, with some drafts available on nitro. You won’t regret noshing on the grilled cheese with a side of beer cheese mac while sampling the Platinum Blonde Coffee, a sweet, full-bodied ale with a bold coffee aroma, or One Cent Wheat, a light, citrusy brew.
The grilled cheese at Copper State Brewing © Heather Kerrigan / Lonely Planet
From Copper State, you can walk up the block, toward the enormous statue of famed Packer Donald Driver, to Titletown Brewing Company, a restaurant and microbrewery housed in an old train station. It offers both flagship drafts and seasonal brews that you can pair with a Wisconsin cheese board.
On the outskirts of town, you’ll find Stillmank Brewing Co., an unassuming spot located in a strip of warehouses. Saddle up to the tap room’s bar, or park near the brewing equipment for a ringside seat to the magic that is beer making. The fruity beers are a hit here, including Tailgater, a smooth yet crisp beer/cider mix that, as the name suggests, makes it perfect for a tailgate.
Spend the night here and start your morning early to give yourself time to carbo-load before another day of brats and brews. Uncle Mike’s Bake Shoppe serves up the official state pastry: kringle, a flaky, Scandinavian delight filled with anything from almond paste to cheese to macerated fruits. If you’re in town on the weekend, get there early before they sell out.
The Wisconsin countryside boasts some beautiful scenery © Heather Kerrigan / Lonely Planet
Brats are king in Sheboygan
From Green Bay, head south to Sheboygan. In early fall, lush green-and-gold trees dot the landscape, as though even Mother Nature is a cheesehead-loving Packer fan. On your way into town, stop by 3 Sheeps Brewing, located inside an old Coca-Cola packaging plant. They offer a wide variety of beers, from pilsners to ales and lagers, stouts, and IPAs. The Wolf – with a 13.5% ABV – is one of the most popular. This bourbon barrel-aged imperial stout is surprisingly smooth, and fits in well with the laid-back vibe of the establishment, which also features games, couches and yoga every Tuesday.
A veteran of the brat scene in Sheboygan, Al & Al's exudes old-school charm © Heather Kerrigan / Lonely Planet
Sheboygan is all about the brat, made popular by the German immigrants who settled in the area and brought their favorite food along. Your options for finding a good one are plentiful, including Charcoal Inn, Rupp’s Downtown or Al & Al’s Steinhaus, a small, old-school German restaurant where the brats are served up with tangy sauerkraut and cheese nuggets, their version of the state’s famous cheese curds. After you fill up, head south again, this time toward Milwaukee. Along the way, pop into the Fermentorium Brewery and Tasting Room in Cedarburg, a casual establishment with custom flights of its various beer series.
Some old Milwaukee brewing
Once you’re in Milwaukee, the city made famous by Miller and Harley-Davidson, skip the big guys like Pabst and Miller and head to where the locals drink. The almost endless options include Good City Brewing, MobCraft Beer, Bavarian Bierhaus, Third Space and the Milwaukee Brewing Co. Many take their names from local history: City Lights Brewing Co. is located in a turn-of-the-century coal gasification plant.
A flight of beer at the Uber Taproom © Heather Kerrigan / Lonely Planet
If you’re on the hunt for another cheese snack, pop into the Uber Tap Room to fill up on Wisconsin's dairy delights while choosing from a selection of more than 30 local beers. If you try something you want to take home, chances are you can find it at the attached Wisconsin Cheese Mart, where knowledgeable salespeople can not only locate exactly what you’re looking for but also provide advice on beer pairings and traveling with cheese. As a final brat stop on your road trip, head to Usinger’s Famous Sausage for a sampling of meats, or walk across the street to the Milwaukee Brat House for a Usinger’s brat served on a pretzel bun with fried curds.
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