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Feature Fri Sep 18 2009
The weekend before school started, my kids wanted one final summer adventure. So, we loaded up the car and took an overnight trip to Wisconsin, for some camping, biking, and beer and cheese sampling.
We didn't have the best luck camping: The campground, in Brodhead, was overrun with golf carts, a camping trend I wasn't aware of. The golf carts were easy enough to avoid, but we couldn't avoid the loud argument that erupted in the tent next to ours at three in the morning. (My kids did, however, learn some new vocabulary words. Gallivanting makes its way into many sentences now.)
The biking, on the Sugar River Trail and Badger State Trail, was magical. Peddling next to cornfields at sunset, on the Sugar River Trail, was a perfect farewell to the season. The rail bed was once the route of the "Limburger Special," the train that carried cheese out of the area. We rode for three or four miles from the campground, across a covered bridge and into Brodhead proper, for a pizza dinner at Calhoon's Supper Club, the only place that looked open on the quiet strip that makes up downtown Brodhead.
The next morning we packed up our tent and left before our rowdy neighbors woke up and embarrassed themselves or us. We drove into Monticello to pick up the Badger Trail and set off on our bikes, hoping to ride through an old railroad tunnel that promised to be dark, and maybe even spooky. Because of the heat and lack of sleep the night before, we had to cut our ride short. Our youngest biker, nine-year-old Stella, rode for a few miles, but got tired about a mile short of the tunnel.
Instead, we drove to New Glarus for lunch, stopping first at the New Glarus Brewery. The brewers just expanded and opened a new chalet-like facility in June. It looks and feels very European, from the groomed grounds to the family-friendly vibe. The place reminded me of the Trappist breweries we visited in Belgium several years ago, when the kids were babies and our family's time living in Brussels was coming to an end. Most of the Abbeys we saw had gardens, where food was served--at the very least, cheese squares sprinkled with celery salt--and children could play on a playground while adults relaxed with a beer. New Glarus, while not serving food, did make families feel welcome. The self-guided brewery tours are open to all ages, as long as those walking through the brewery don't fight, spit or cry. We managed to walk through without doing any of the above, and even found an employee willing to answer our questions about why we can't find New Glarus in Chicago and how brewing beer is different from letting fruit juice age too long in the refrigerator (fodder for future science projects). New Glarus says it can only produce enough beer to meet local demand, so the beer isn't available outside of Wisconsin. We also learned that the company was started by master brewer Dan Carey, after some prompting from his wife, Deb, who's the founder and president, and the first woman to operate a brewery in the U.S.
After our tour, I tried a pint of the Golden Ale, and my husband bought the three tasting-room samples. As he walked in and out with his samples, my kids (who chided their father for gallivanting around the brewery) and I relaxed on oversize rocks and watched a group of smaller kids play in the gravel around a fountain. I was a little disappointed in the Golden Ale. It had a nice amount of hops without being bitter, but there was an earthy, farmy taste that I couldn't get past. I also tried the samples of Fat Squirrel (brighter and sharper than the usual nut brown ale) and Raspberry Tart (which tasted like an Izze soda. Knowing that minors are allowed to drink with their parents in the state of Wisconsin, our 12-year-old, Henry, tried to talk us into giving the sweet drink to him. Didn't happen.) Then I tried the Crack'd Wheat. This too brought me right back to Belgium. New Glarus describes Crack'd Wheat as a cross between a Bavarian Heffeweiss and an American Pale Ale, but it's richer and spicier, like something straight out of Corsendonk.
In New Glarus we managed to hunt down local cheese, some aged-Swiss melted in a big bowl of fondue, at the Glarner Stube, the most Swiss-seeming of the restaurants lining the streets of America's Little Switzerland. (And also the place reputed to have the largest urinal in the Midwest.) To accompany the heavy cheese, I got one of the crispiest salads I've had in a long time, without any of those pesky field greens that can never withstand the journey from farm to table. The heartier eaters in the family had pork schnitzel and potato roesti.
We headed home with a case of Crack'd Wheat and a six pack of Blumers Soda to ease us back into school and the many demands of fall. The soda is gone, and the beer is quickly running out. Luckily, it's still warm enough to spend another weekend biking and hanging out in and around New Glarus--once the poison ivy clears up.