WI - Neville Museum raises glass to beer-making tradition
Paul Srubas, Press-Gazette Media
Sometimes being doomed to repeat history doesn't sound like such a bad thing, especially when beer is involved.
Still, studying the history of beer can't hurt, can it?
The Neville Public Museum's latest series of exhibits and lectures — well, it has a whole bunch of interesting exhibits and lectures, but let's talk about the beer.
Right now, and through October, they have an exhibit called "Agriculture to Tavern Culture: The Art, History and Science of Beer." The exhibit takes the viewers, as curator Kevin Cullen puts it, from the field to the glass. It's interesting from several different angles. The exhibit has a lot of Green Bay lore as well as a lot of good information about beer-making.
But take a look at this string of lectures:
Tuesday (Aug. 19) — "German Roots of Wisconsin Brewing: From the Iron Age to the Information Age"
Aug 26 — "Breweries of Wisconsin"
Sept. 9 — "Alehouses, Inns and Taverns and the Origins of a Democratic Society"
Sept. 16 — "Bottoms Up: A Toast to Wisconsin's Historic Bars and Breweries"
Sept. 23 — "Uncapping the Origins of Beer and Our Ancient Fascination with Fermentation"
If you think these sound kind of stuffy and intellectual, consider that each of these 7 p.m. lectures follows a half-hour beer tasting session. If my college lectures started like that, I'd have gone to them.
Then, there will also be brewing and bottling workshops. You can do a dunkelweizen, a Belgian farmhouse ale and a Scandinavian Baltic porter in sessions this fall.
So what's with the Neville? Is it going all "barley pop culture" on us?
Not at all, Cullen assures us. Beer is actually a fascinating historical topic, a product that shaped Green Bay's existence in several different ways and that has been similarly shaping other cultures as a part of human existence for thousands of years.
Fermentation happens in nature, and humans have been taking advantage of that process, helping it in ever-increasingly creative ways and making the end result a part of their social experience and even their religious ceremonies since the ancient days of the Mesopotamians, Cullen says.
Beer archaeologists — is there still time in my life to change careers? — have scraped the insides of urns recovered in archaeological digs, analyzed those scrapings, recovered ancient yeast strains and reproduced recipes from long-extinct cultures from all over the world, Cullen says.
Germans, Czechs, Poles, Irish and other beer-loving ethnic adventurers found their way into Wisconsin in the mid-19th century and created lasting impact, Cullen says. The ethnic makeup was only part of it; there also was the good farmland, bountiful water and even the cold winters, which provided the ice that made Wisconsin a major supplier of beer to the nation.
"The history is evidence," he says. "Beer is in our DNA. We're the land of amber waters."
Milwaukee came to be the dead center of the world wheat market in the 19th century, and that helped solidify its place as a major beer center the following century, according to Cullen.
Nineteenth century farmers gave over countless acres to the production of wheat, barley and hops as farmhouse breweries gave way to increasingly larger beer-making operations.
By the middle of the 20th century, Green Bay was home to numerous lucrative breweries, but all began to fall by the wayside as Miller, Budweiser and the other giants gobbled up the market share and worked like the devil to teach the American beer-drinking public to accept a single bland, American light lager as the benchmark for the beer experience.
But then, in the last 20 years or so, the tables began to turn. More and more craft beers started appearing on the market, and beer-drinking tastes became adventuresome once again. It's gotten so huge that farmers once again are finding hops to be a lucrative product, and Green Bay is once again home to four breweries.
Experimentation and variety are once again the watchwords of the industry.
Cullen is enlisting the help of Green Bay's local homebrew club, The Green Bay Rackers, and several lecturers to make it happen at the Neville.
"We have a bottle of Rahr's, still full, from the 1960s," he says. "I'd like to recreate the strain of yeast … Even if we can't find the original recipe, we'd at least have the genetic continuity."
Those and similar projects could be in the works, if, as Cullen hopes, the Neville's exhibit and lecture series succeed in establishing a beer-making club at the museum.
"It's not about abuse, not binge drinking," Cullen says. "Beer is a cuisine. It's quality over quantity. The more you know, the more you respect it."
Here's to that. What he said.
— email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @PGpaulsrubas.