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Authors: Ken Wells

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BOOK: Travels with Barley
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Indeed, as I nudged into Wabasha County, I passed through rustic river hamlets with names like Wabasha, Weaver, and Minneiska: I motored up and down bluffs, watching pleasure boats etch silver wakes upon the broad river below; I glided past endless stretches of tasseled cornfields and low-cropped soybean fields, all being nudged slowly toward harvest by a cheerful and unrelenting sun. It was only when I entered the semicluttered outskirts of Winona, Minnesota, an otherwise pretty town with a population of 27,000, that I was suddenly jolted back into beer world.

I swore I saw what seemed to be an improbable sign: for a bowling alley/brewpub.

As soon as I could, I made a U-turn on the four-lane highway and doubled back and, sure enough, I wasn't wrong. Tucked into a shopping center, I spied a sign that read: ‘The Westgate Bowl/Wellington Pub and Grill/Backwater Brewing Co.”

That seemed a lot for a bowling alley to take on. It was about 3:30. I pulled into the parking lot and went in.

The place was almost empty (unsurprising, given the hour) but seemed as advertised. A long wooden bar, with an impressive array of beer taps, fronted a glassed-off sixteen-lane bowling alley. A woman sat at one end of the bar nursing a beer and talking to a waitress. The occasional thud of bowling balls thumping the floor came from behind the long glass panel behind the bar. I peered through and saw a cluster of kids staking out a solitary lane in a sea of empty ones.

I settled in at the bar and was greeted warmly by the waitress, whose name was Jody Wilkins.

“Yes, we do brew our own beer,” she said, in response to my question. “Of course, we serve Bud and the like, too.”

I told her I'd never heard of a beer-brewing bowling alley. She said she hadn't either until she worked here and that if I hung around for a while, I might snag the owner-brewer, Christopher Gardner, and have a chat. “He's around here someplace,” she said. “You want a beer?”

I actually didn't want a beer but since I'd had a research beer for breakfast I couldn't very well pass up a research beer at tea time. I looked the taps over and settled on a backwater IPA. (Hops again!) Jody poured it and sat it before me, and I sipped it. It was a worthy, well-balanced IPA—and by far the best microbrew I'd ever had at a bowling alley (and, okay, the only one so far).

I nursed my beer for about a half-hour and was about to give up on the proprietor when he sauntered out of a back room with a man dressed like a chef, heading outside.

“That's him!” Jody said, pointing.

They'd cleared the door by the time I could respond but I chased them down in the parking lot.

Gardner at first seemed confused as to why a man with a notebook and pen was running after him and shouting, but said he had a few minutes to talk when I explained my mission. We walked back into the bar/alley and sat at a table where Gardner, a cheerful, middle-aged man who looked like he liked his beer, told me the bowling alley had been started by his father in 1961, with never a thought of adding a brewpub. But Gardner got the idea from his brother, a homebrewer, and started making beer on a shoestring, at first using an old retrofitted soup kettle in place of a mash tun and boil kettle. “It's just a little system,” he said. “We brew two barrels a week, usually. When we're busy, we'll brew eighteen barrels a month.” (A barrel is 31.5 gallons.)

Gardner said that when he started he had no idea how his bowlers would go for microbrew but he was pleasantly surprised. “I'd guess we sell 30 percent of our stuff and 70 percent of the other stuff.”

I asked him if he thought he might be the only brewpub/bowling alley on earth. He said he'd never really considered the question; the town was just a good place to sell beer.

Winona, I learned, was built atop a large Mississippi River sandbar flanked by bluffs on each side. Mark Twain, in his pilot days, called this stretch of the river the “Thousand Islands” and didn't care for all those shifting obstacles the islands created. Winona was largely settled by working-class Poles who came in the 1850s to cut timber for the lumber barons who dominated the town well into the nineteenth century.

“Heck, at one point back then, Winona had more millionaires per capita than any place in America,” Gardner told me. These days, Winona was solidly Middle America—a mix of blue-collar workers and a fairly large contingent of white-collar employees and college students, mostly owing to the presence of two colleges, Saint Mary's University, a 1,600-student Catholic-affiliated college, and Winona State University, an 8,000-student state school.

“So we get everybody in here—white-collar, blue-collar, college kids,” Gardner told me. “Fall and winter are the busiest, when all the students come back.”

Gardner then introduced his sidekick in the chef's uniform, Chad Peters. He turned out not only to be Wellington Grill's actual chef but also the alley's current brewmaster. He'd just come from his lunch shift and his white chef's jacket looked like it'd had a losing argument with an obstreperous deep-fat fryer. “I started here in ‘99 as a cook,” the thirty-something Peters said. “I became an accidental brewer. I used to brew a lot at home and one day they just said, ‘Hey, you wanna brew?' I said, Okay.'”

Peters said his philosophy was to keep the beer fairly simple and fresh. “It's all kegs. We don't bottle anything. We make it in small batches and it rarely stays around long. We'll switch our beers from time to time—we'll choose a pale ale over an IPA in the wintertime.”

I actually think of pale ale as a summer beer but, whatever, that meant Peters made quite a bit of pale ale. The town gets about four feet of snow annually, a goodly number of zero-degree days, and is frost-free only about five and half months a year. On the other hand, it's probably fair to say that the drinking season in bowling alleys is perpetual summer (though statistics I unearthed indicate that bowling alleys as surrogate beer joints may be somewhat overrated—they only account for 3 percent of all on-premise beer consumption).

At any rate, that's all I got: out of Gardner and Peters—they had to run off to an appointment., I thanked them for their time, headed out the door, and steered the rental car back south onto early rush hour traffic on Highway 61.

Thus, I drove out of Winona without learning perhaps the most interesting thing about the place: that the aforementioned Saint Mary's University, which Gardner had made a point of telling me was “just up the road” from the bowling alley, was haunted by the ghost of a murderous priest who, having shot one of his brethren of the cloth on campus, had been floating through one of its dormitories for the past forty years. This news came to me during a late night beer joint conversation in La Crosse and I later “confirmed” it on a Web site called Ghosts of the Prairie. But, alas, though the priest apparently liked guns, he was not a beer man so far as I could learn, so I didn't go back to check it out.

By 4:30
P.M.
, spying no more beer oddities along my route, I had quit Minnesota for Wisconsin. By 6:00
P.M.
, after a bit of a look around, I'd settled into a Marriott Courtyard on the river in La Crosse, partly because it had a river view and partly because it was close to Old La Crosse, thus I could walk in search of the Perfect Beer Joint. Walking was certainly the preferable mode of transportation if I wanted to cover more than one or two beer joints in a night and sample beer at each.

I liked the looks of La Crosse, which an entrance sign told me was the pride of “Wisconsin's west coast” and a tourist brochure I'd picked up at a visitors center said was home to about 52,000 people. The town seemed to have its share of outskirts sprawl and its isolated pockets of neglect but its downtown and old town were quaint and impressive. French fur traders were the first Europeans to arrive; in the late 1700s they named it La Crosse after watching some Winnebago Indians play a stick-and-ball game that reminded them of a game by that name that they'd played back in France. Today, the game, spelled lacrosse, is played by an estimated 250,000 kids and college students in the U.S., though in somewhat more genteel form than the original Native American version. Original lacrosse could be a rowdy and even bloody and violent game that some tribes used to settle scores in lieu of war.

In its heyday, La Crosse had also been a timber town and a bustling port, handling as many as 300 steamboats a month. It sits not just on the Mississippi but also at the Mississippi's confluence with the Black and La Crosse rivers. A twenty-five-foot-high, twenty-five-ton statue of Longfellow's mythic Indian, Hiawatha, arms folded, peace pipe at repose, has marked this spot for more than forty years. I found it bizarrely charming but I guess I'm fond of kitsch. Depending on your politics and sensibilities, it is either an impressive tribute to Native American culture, or a caricature thereof (and thus presently a matter of some local controversy). But the spot is considered unique to Native Americans for another reason: tribal lore has it that any place that sits on three rivers will forever be immune from tornadoes. (And for as long as records have been kept, La Crosse hasn't had one.)

Mark Twain called La Crosse a “choice town” and during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries it was also a choice brewing town, supporting more breweries than any other Wisconsin town save Milwaukee, which was on its way to becoming the beer capital of America (a title which it some time ago surrendered). Today, many La Crosse residents refer to it as “God's Country,” and not necessarily because it has sixty churches, one third of them Lutheran. Around sunset, at the top of Grandad Bluff, reachable by a winding road 500 feet above the city, La Crosse preened for me, in colors I could scarcely describe, like a postcard in otherworldly light.

It was also edifying (strictly as a beer scribe) to learn that La Crosse has more bars and beer joints than churches—eighty by actual count. I'd have my work cut out for me.

After a nice long jog (a beer pilgrim has to stay in shape) I ended up after dark just a couple of long blocks from my hotel at a place called Buzzard Billy's—well, actually, the trying-very-hard-to-be-wry name on the neon sign out front was Buzzard Billy's Flying Carp Café. Above the neon sign was a wooden one, hung from a substantial iron pole, of a cartoon buzzard clutching a mug of beer. The name made me think Billy's was either part of a chain or a tourist joint. (It turned out to be one of a small chain; one Billy's is in Waco, Texas.)

Still, it sat in a lovely, stand-alone redbrick building, obviously restored with some care, that literature inside would tell me had been a historic 1860s hotel. I have a soft spot for people who preserve antique architecture in lieu of tearing stuff down and replacing it with the squat, East German-styled cinder block squares or neon-lit plastic-and-glass boxes that seem to be required in most contemporary strip malls. And anyway, I was hungry, food being a wise pre-beer-sampling ritual, so I went in.

It was about what I expected: tray ceilings, hardwood floors, exposed brick walls hung with antique Coca-Cola signs, faded beer signs, old thermometers, and various bric-a-brac and whatnots. It might one day look like the Flora-Bama down on the Gulf Coast if it were allowed over time to slide slowly into half-ruin. (Live buzzards on the counter: now
that
would be something to see.) The bar had an impressive array of beer taps, flanked by two ole-timey Texaco gas pumps. I puzzled on the gas-and-beer juxtaposition as I settled in at a table and an enormously cheerful waiter brought a menu.

I scanned it and gulped—it was pretty much all Cajun food!

Okay, well, I figured this was some sort of weird fate, testing both my palate and my sense of humor, so I didn't hesitate: I flipped through the menu and ordered the red beans and rice with sausage. I could hardly wait to see what mutation of that most simple of Cajun staples would appear before me.

I was actually much more interested in the beer menu. Not only did the Buzzard have an impressive range of microbrews on tap (plus Bud Light and Miller Lite) and about thirty bottled beers, it also offered a number of relic beers in cans: Schlitz, Falstaff, Old Milwaukee, Old Style, and Stroh's, among them. These were all once proud national or large regional lager makers with thousands of well-paid, unionized employees (Schlitz, in the late 1940s, was the best-selling beer in the
world
) that had been killed off in recent decades in what might be termed the Lager Wars—a struggle for market shares, dating back to the 1870s, characterized by extreme competitive pressures, consolidations, technological upheavals, management misfires, fractious, costly union bust-ups, or some combination thereof.

The beers mentioned above—the labels, not the breweries—had all been resurrected in the past few years by Pabst Brewing Co. Pabst, in its turn-of-the-century heyday, had been the number one brewery in America and through the 1970s a worthy competitor to AnheuserBusch. But since the 1970s, it has been in a slow decline owing to some extent to its own management gyrations. After swallowing up the Olympia Brewing Co. in 1983, it was itself the object of a hostile takeover in 1985 by secretive California billionaire Paul Kalmanovitz. After buying the company, Kalmanovitz proceeded to plow much of its profits into real estate—as Pabst all the while continued to bleed market share. Kalmanovitz died in 1987 and Pabst's ownership passed to a kind of self-dissolving charitable foundation obligated to sell itself off by 2005 (indeed, as of this writing, Pabst was for sale). Meanwhile, in 1999 the company bought the much depleted Stroh's Brewing Co. operations—a transaction that gave it the Stroh's label and the majority of the other twenty-nine beer labels it now sells.

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