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Estabrook Park Beer Garden Reclaims a Milwaukee Tradition

Jul. 5, 2012
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When German immigrants flocked to Milwaukee in the 1840s, they brought with them the culture that would reshape and ultimately come to define the city, most famously their taste for beer. In the following decades, breweries, beer halls and beer gardens sprouted across the region, giving Milwaukee its reputation as a friendly, festive city. When Prohibition began outlawing alcohol in 1920, then, it was a blow not only to the city's economy, but also its very spirit.

“During the beer age, there existed all conditions requisite to sociability,” Gunnar Mickelsen lamented in a wistful 1932 article for the Milwaukee Sentinel. “The Germans brought with them their love of relaxation, beer drinking and talk. The brewers furnished the beer and the places in which to drink it and do the talking. Is there anyone who will deny that Milwaukee has lost its frankly happy mood mainly because the bulk of its citizens have been deprived of the pleasure to gather openly in congenial surroundings, drink their beer and talk to their full desire?”

The repeal of Prohibition a year after that article, in 1933, brought back the city's beer economy, but one of its great traditions had been lost, since the beer gardens that once lined parks around the Milwaukee River never returned. In their prime, these sprawling gardens had been a center of social life, hosting church and family gatherings. The largest of them could seat as many as 3,000.

Hans Weissgerber III longed to see Milwaukee reclaim its beer-garden tradition. The owner of the Old German Beer Hall, as well as a beer garden in Florida, Weissgerber had been pitching the county on the idea of opening its own beer garden for years. It was a tough sell in some corners, but eventually the county warmed to the idea (or at least to the promise of the revenue it would bring in), and after submitting bids along with two other businesses, Weissgerber was chosen to operate the park system's first beer garden in generations.

Located near the playground in Estabrook Park, where its long picnic tables are shaded not only by umbrellas but also by maple trees, the beer garden celebrated its opening last month. It offers a more traditional German experience than some might expect. Miller Lite is on tap, but much more popular are three imported Hofbräu taps (hefe weizen, dunkel and lager), and all beer is served in imported glass steins instead of plastic. Visitors can bring their own steins or pay a refundable $5 deposit to use one of the garden's steins.

The garden also serves Riesling, Pepsi sodas and bottled water—more beer and beverage options are expected in the coming weeks—as well as hot dogs, brats and giant hot pretzels, which come with German brown mustard. The county takes home 20% of all alcohol sales and 10% of sales from food and other beverages.

Just a few weeks after opening, the beer garden is already a point of pride for the county, says Parks Director Sue Black. “We've seen great attendance so far, and everybody is talking about how excited they are to visit it,” Black says. “Estabrook was the right site for something like this. As much as we celebrate Bradford Beach and the other parks we have on the lakefront, bringing people back to the river is very gratifying.

“We have signs around the garden that tell the history of beer gardens in Milwaukee, so while people are enjoying the river they can read about what Milwaukee was like,” Black adds. “When it used to get hot outside, everybody would go down to the rivers, since it really is cooler down there. They'd bring their families and socialize. So seeing all these families back there, and seeing people bring their dogs and meet new friends when they go down there, is just really special. There's a wonderful community feel.”

Estabrook's public beer garden is increasingly looking like it may not be the county's last. Black says the parks system is considering opening beer gardens in other parks in future years.

Weather permitting, the beer garden will be open daily from noon to 9 p.m. through the end of September, and on the weekends through Nov. 24. It will also host live music on the weekends.


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