To be able to feel like the very definition of the dernier cri in hipsterdom, to feel luminary and gastro-culinary and worldly wise, but to do it with friendliness and zero pretense: that’s Milwaukee.
It’s time to discover the taproom at Enlightened Brewing Company.
And ‘discover’ is the word, because this place is on an ill-travelled block of bad old buildings south of the River; it’s open only in the late afternoon and evenings.
It’s like that city that appears every one hundred years
— and all the cooler for it. Obviously.
On Fridays and Saturdays between 3 and midnight, if you pilot your car down South First Street and over the bridge on the Kinnickinnick, you’ll find the place.
In the winter darkness, the block is black. There’s a car repair lot on the right and some empty little buildings. On the left, a fat industrial hulk with a few semis backed into loading docks. It’s the sort of FDR-ish building that would have sent Dorothea Lange into paroxysms of pleasure.
It’s a notch on the rustbelt. And on its southern edge, a lantern glows.
Through steel-framed shop windows pitched above revelers’ heads, and through an enormous rolling garage door in the facade, you see glowing pendant lamps. There are green walls in a shade a decorator would love and, in the far back, a mess of pipes and a row of massive stainless vats: the wombs and umbilici of beer.
Enlightened Brewing Company may indeed be the smallest brewer in the state of Wisconsin, but they do their thing with a craftsman’s pride. This place is a working brewery and not a brewery-themed restaurant like the kind this city discovered circa 1998. Hence the loading docks and the concrete walls, however nice the paint.
The red-bearded Tommy Vandervort, an Oak Creek boy and graduate in philosophy from UWM, founded the place. It was he who sprinkled the tiny menu with references to the history of ideas: a beer called “The Human Condition” (a rich French saison) or “Sustained Thought” — infused with excellent Valentine coffee (a Vliet Street shoutout) and named after a snippet from that brilliant coffee-addicted pervert, Voltaire.
Something called an “American IPA” – which sent this hops-lover into raptures – goes by “A priori.” Latin on the drinks list, indeed.
And yet stuffy it’s not. This place is literally Ma and Pa: on the night we visited, Mr. Vandervort’s charming wife was with him behind the counter — a brand new solid walnut slab.
An ancient canvas portrait of Abraham Lincoln droops its eyelids over the whole scene.
The Vandervorts explain their brews with patience and a twinkle of pride. They’ll sell you a beer in a little five-ounce beaker (flashbacks to high school chem) so you can try three or four of these masterpieces and still walk out the door without being ballasted by your designated driver.
The setting is so new, so in, so recherché. I learned of this backlot alcoholic Shangri-La not from any mainstream tout but by overhearing a tatted barber talking to his client while having my mustache trimmed in a hair joint in East Tosa where, without gauged earlobes, I felt naked.
But God bless that barber, because: serving beer in Milwaukee? Giving customers something good you made yourself, and doing it with a foaming head of joy and globs of Gemütlichkeit? If that’s not old fashioned and modest and Midwestern, what is? I found something of myself on South First Street.
So fear not the flannel-clad and post-postmodern and French-derived. If Milwaukee is part of your identity, enlightenment awaits you. It’s under golden lights, behind a garage door, directly across from Drilling’s Automotive.