Wisconsin town taps potential of revitalized Potosi brewery
BY DAVE HOEKSTRA firstname.lastname@example.org August 20, 2011 7:32PM
The silo from the original Potosi brewery farm has been made to look like a beer can. | Dave Hoekstra~Sun-Times
IF YOU GO
POTOSI BREWING COMPANY: 209 S. Main St., Potosi, Wis. National Brewery Museum is open 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. Reservations encouraged at the restaurant; (608) 763-4002, potosibrewery.com.
MORE ONLINE: For Potosi history, archival art and the brewing process, have a beer at blogs.suntimes.com/hoekstra.
Updated: November 16, 2011 1:26AM
POTOSI, Wis. — During the baseball strike of 1995, I had nothing to do in the summer.
I took up fishing.
I had previous success as an angler along the Mississippi River in beautiful Lansing, Iowa, and on a Chicago-to-New Orleans Big Muddy boat trip.
So in pursuit of something as slow as baseball, I spent a weekend casting my fortune in the southwest Wisconsin villages of Potosi and Tennyson, an area known as the state’s “Catfish Capital.” The twin cities are located along the twisting Great River Road, a scenic byway.
During my 1995 fishing trip, I came across the ruins of the Potosi Brewing Co. in downtown Potosi (pop. 711).
My imagination got the best of me, as it does when I see any forsaken old building, a ghost billboard on a city street or a World War II veteran salute the flag.
Windows were broken. The limestone and wood exterior had been chipped away. The brewery opened in 1852 and was expanded 15 times before closing in 1972.
“This place went into a state of ruin,” said Dave Fritz, president of the non-profit Potosi Brewery Foundation.
At the peak of the brewing industry, there were about 4,000 breweries in the country, Fritz said, adding that the number plummeted to 65 in the early ’70s.
The four-story Potosi complex reopened in June 2008. It’s now a big fish in the small pond of roadside attractions.
Besides a brewhouse, the family-friendly complex features:
† The National Brewery Museum and research library. (I’ll drink to that!) The American Breweriana Association chose Potosi over beer big leaguers like St. Louis and Milwaukee.
† A restaurant and outdoor beer garden.
† A very cool gift shop where you can buy local cheese, steins, T-shirts, beer and sweet, homemade Princess Potosa Root Beer. Potosi beer comes in eight styles in 12-ounce bottles. Another four seasonal or limited versions are available in Wisconsin and Iowa pubs. (You can find Potosi in Galena and Rockford but not Chicago.)
† A transportation museum and interpretative center for the Great River Road.
“This museum tells the story of how this industry used the road and river to bring raw materials here,” Fritz said. “Potosi owned a steamship [between 1893-1917] to haul beer to Dubuque, Iowa .”
People are again finding their way to Potosi, which claims to have the world’s longest Main Street without an intersecting crossroad.
“In the 12-month span after we opened, we had 60,000 visitors from every state in the country and 36 foreign countries,” Fritz said.
There may be no better time to visit than the third annual Potosi Brewfest from 1-5 p.m. Aug. 27 in the Holiday Gardens Event Center across from the brewery. Tickets are $35 and include unlimited beer samples, a souvenir glass and free admission to the National Brewery Museum; potosibrewery.com.
The fest takes place on the site of the former brewery farm, where the original silo is now the world’s largest cone-top beer can. The brewery used to boast one of the area’s largest dairies, which helped it survive Prohibition. (The bottling equipment was used to bottle milk.)
Of all the fascinating tidbits I learned, none tops Potosi’s 1940 concept of a “rolling bar” that traveled through this unglaciated “Driftless Region.”
Today’s food trucks have nothing on it.
“The mahogany bar measured about 60 feet in length,” Fritz said, while looking at a miniature steel replica of the rolling bar in the transportation museum. “It was originally built on a 1929 Pontiac chassis.”
Original bar builders George Kowalski and John Burgmeyer (they sound like beer drinkers) called their contraption a “mobile tavern.” They made the rolling bar with four tapper units and their own ice box. Cash was not accepted. Tip jars were OK. The mobile tavern stopped running in 1972 when the brewery closed.
The dilapidated bar now sits in a machine shed outside of town. The nonprofit foundation wants to restore it and make it “the traveling showpiece of the Potosi Brewery,” Fritz said.
The movement to save the brewery building began in 1997, when Potosi native Gary David and two of his cousins pooled $6,600 to buy the building from Grant County. David, a woodworker, built and designed the restaurant’s bar made of walnut, white oak and maple.
The reclamation project turned out to be more than the David group could handle. The entire community came on board and formed the Potosi Brewery Foundation in 2000. Community spirit has always been the cornerstone of regional breweries.
My favorite brews of the now flourishing Potosi line are the flagship Good Old Potosi, a golden ale that tastes like a lager, and the lemony (with a dash of sugar) Potosi Steamboat Shandy, named in honor of the Potosi vessel.
Potosi’s Snake Hollow IPA is a tribute to the former name of the village.
“It used to be called ‘Valley of the Drunken Men’ in the 1800s,” Fritz said. “We thought Snake Hollow was better.”