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Three great beer-themed getaways in the Midwest

Richard Clementi Joliet tries some Budweiser straight out finishing tank Anheuser-Busch brewery tour St. Louis. They still use strafirst batch

Richard Clementi of Joliet tries some Budweiser straight out of the finishing tank at the Anheuser-Busch brewery tour in St. Louis. They still use a strain of the first batch of Bud brewed in the mid-1800s. | Lori Rackl~Sun-Times

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Updated: June 27, 2011 12:17AM



It might not sound as glamorous as a weekend in wine country, but beer-themed vacations can be a lot of fun. Especially here in the Midwest, with its rich brewing history. So pack your bottle opener, beer can cozy and some Tums and hit the road for a heady adventure.

ST. LOUIS, MO.

The birthplace of the country’s top-selling beers — Bud Light and Budweiser — is in St. Louis at Anheuser-Busch Brewery, where they still use a direct strain of the yeast used by Adolphus Busch when he brewed his first batch of Bud in the mid-1800s.

Take a free tour at this historic landmark for a firsthand view of the brewing and packaging process — one that’s extremely automated, so you won’t see many employees milling around. You will, however, see horses. Big honking 2,000-pound, white-stockinged Clydesdales, the iconic symbol of Budweiser. All tours make a stop at the horses’ pristine stables.

For serious beer aficionados, Anheuser-Busch offers 90-minute “Beermaster” tours ($25) that include a few more bells and whistles, like a souvenir glass and hat and the chance to swig back a Bud straight out of the finishing tank. All tours finish with the 21-and-over crowd getting to sample a few of the 300-plus Anheuser-Busch brands.

The brewery is in St. Louis’ oldest neighborhood, Soulard, known for its brick row houses, blues clubs, corner bars and the longest-running farmers market in America.

Anheuser-Busch’s massive campus contains, appropriately enough, a school. Beer School. And tuition is only $10. During a half-hour class, fellow student Richard Clementi of Joliet and I learned that the King of Beers is made with rice (who knew?) and that you should pour your beer with an inch of foam on top so more carbon dioxide is released in your glass, not your gut. This is one school that encourages drinking, so we tasted and compared five kinds of beer; budweisertours.com/toursSTL.htm.

While in St. Louis, bed down at a 19th century home that once belonged to the city’s first beer baron, John A. Lemp. (The Lemps’ beer biz went belly up thanks to Prohibition.)

The 33-room Lemp Mansion is now a restaurant and inn. If you hear things go bump in the night, you’re not alone; the mansion is said to be haunted. Then again, maybe you just had too much to drink.

KOHLER, WIS.

Looking for a last-minute Memorial Day getaway? Head 2½ hours north of Chicago to Kohler, Wis., for the third annual Kohler Festival of Beer.

This isn’t your crowded frat house beer bash. It’s a classy, intimate event with a strong foodie focus.

“Beer used to mean a 12-pack with the guys,” said Donn Bischsel, who lives in Logan Square and works for Dogfish Head Brewery, one of the festival’s participants. “The demographic has really changed. You’re seeing women bring men to events like this. And beer is seen as something to pair with food, whereas before it was only wine.”

Several of the May 27-29 festival activities revolve around food, from beer-centric cooking demos and a “Beer Lovers’ Seafood Buffet” at the upscale American Club Resort to the “Eggs & Kegs Breakfast” and “Blues, Brews & BBQ” events on Sunday.

The highlight of the weekend is Saturday night’s “Cheers to Beers” party at the Kohler Design Center, a sleek showroom featuring the latest and greatest Kohler kitchen and bath products. Beer vendors are stationed throughout the showroom, so you wander between rows of showers and tubs while sampling suds from Wisconsin to Scotland. Be prepared to make a lot of trips to the bathroom, not because of the open bar but because of the power of suggestion that comes from staring at a soaring wall display of Kohler toilets.

“We’ve come both years and this is the primo event because you have all the brewers in one place,” said Rupert Vaughan, who attended last year’s festival with his wife, Sherry. The Chicago couple was taking turns making beer runs and watching the Blackhawks on one of the big-screen TVs set up in the Kohler showroom. It was the Stanley Cup Finals, after all.

“I sold my tickets, eighth row on the blue line, so we could come here,” said Vaughan, a Hawks season ticket holder. “It basically paid for our whole weekend.”

Tickets and hotel packages are available online at ameri canclubresort.com/beerfestival or by calling (800) 344-2838.

MILWAUKEE, WIS.

No city in the Midwest — make that the country — says beer like Milwaukee.

Our neighbor to the north was the longtime home to the Big Four: Blatz, Pabst, Schlitz and Miller, all started in the 19th century by German immigrants.

The former Blatz, Pabst and Schlitz breweries have been turned into condos, offices and the like. But you can take a free tour of MillerCoors just west of downtown. Drink in more than 150 years of brewing history on the hourlong tour, which includes a peek in the underground caves where Miller beer was stored to keep it fresh in the days before refrigeration.

A former supervisor at Pabst went on to open Milwaukee’s original microbrewery, Sprecher, in 1985. See how Sprecher follows Old World brewing traditions on a tour that ends in Sprecher’s indoor Munich-style beer garden. Don’t miss the beer-flavored kettle chips.

Another worthwhile tour is at Lakefront Brewery, home to the country’s first gluten-free beer. Unlike most brewery tours, Lakefront lets you start sipping as soon as you walk through the door.

Your $7 ticket includes a souvenir pint glass, four pours of Lakefront brews and a coupon for a free beer at a local pub. Time your visit to take in Lakefront’s Friday night fish fry, where the fish is beer-battered, of course, and served with stacks of potato pancakes, rye bread and applesauce.

Milwaukee has something else cool going for it: You can do a brewery tour by boat. Take a Sunday cruise along the Milwaukee River aboard the Brew City Queen II or the Milwaukee Maiden and you’ll stop for tours at three microbreweries along the way: Lakefront, Milwaukee Ale House and Rock Bottom. Tickets cost $29; riverwalk boats.com, (414) 283-9999.



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