There are few states with such fervent love for their quirky, one-of-a-kind eats than Wisconsin. From squeaky cheese curds and bratwurst platters to brandy old fashioneds and beer, groups can’t resist giving the foods and drinks that make America’s Dairyland famous a try when they gather for a meeting.
Following are seven iconic foods and drinks—and where to try them—for groups meeting in Wisconsin.
In a place nicknamed Brew City, with a baseball team called the Brewers, even people who have never been to Milwaukee know that good beer is in its DNA. Major brands like Pabst, Schlitz and Miller have been brewed in Milwaukee, and now the city is home to a booming craft beer scene, too.
Miller still calls Milwaukee home, and visitors can tour 160 years of beer history by exploring the underground caves and its historic Bavarian-style Miller Inn. And though Pabst no longer brews in Milwaukee, relics of its past remain, like the old brewery house and the mansion of its beer baron, Captain Pabst, both of which are available for tours and event rentals.
Lakefront Brewery, established in 1987, is one of the most popular craft beer spots in the city. It’s housed in the circa-1908 Milwaukee Electric Railway and Light Company’s coal-fired power plant on the Milwaukee River.
Public brewery tours run seven days a week, but private group tours can also be reserved. On weekdays, private tours of a minimum of 20 people occur on the half hour; on weekends, public tours can be bought out and require a minimum of 50 people.
The brew hall can also reserve tables for groups or be rented out for special events Sunday-Thursday for 25-100 people.
[Read next: VISIT Milwaukee Names Local Leader New President & CEO]
Bratwurst in Sheboygan
German immigrants have had a profound impact on Wisconsin’s favorite foods, so it’s no surprise that its residents are big fans of bratwurst. For groups meeting in Sheboygan, they will be meeting in the bratwurst capital of the world, and therefore have access to some of the best brats Wisconsin has to offer. (Photo: Brats on the grill in Sheboygan; Credit: Courtesy of Visit Sheboygan)
A traditional bratwurst plate here—fried brats dressed on round (not oblong) Sheboygan hard rolls and sprinkled with onion and brown mustard—can be found at many ma-and-pa restaurants in Sheboygan, with some of the more popular ones including Sly’s Midtown Saloon, Charcoal Inn, Al & Al’s Stein Haus and 8th Street Ale Haus; the latter two can host large groups.
Additionally, if your group meets in Sheboygan during the first weekend in August, you’ll be in town for the annual Johnsonville Brat Days, which showcases anything and everything brat related.
And if you’re still not convinced you should take your group out for a traditional Sheboygan brat dinner, ask yourself: Would a city that posts an official “brat oath” on its website deliver anything less than seriously good product?
Door County Cherries
On a first trip to Door County, you may stop in at Door Peninsula Winery and sample some cherry port during a tasting. Next door, at the adjoined distillery, you can spot cherry vodka on the shelves. Throughout the charming towns of Door County, you may start to notice cherries in everything. Cherry salsa. Cherry pie. Cherry Swedish pancakes. (Photo: Door County cherries; Credit: Door County Visitor Bureau)
Turns out, Door County, Wisconsin, is the fourth-largest producer of cherries in the U.S. and harvests 8-12 million pounds of cherries each year. Drive around the region a little and you’ll start to notice acres of orchards—2,500, to be exact.
This fruit flourishes in Door County because of its cooler spring months and unique soil composition.
Groups meeting in Door County, which is an ideal retreat destination from cities like Green Bay, Milwaukee, Madison and Chicago, can experience this quirky cherry culture in many ways:
- Group winery tours: Door Peninsula Winery offers tours daily, with an impressive list of fruit wines featuring cherries.
- Orchard tours: Seaquist Orchard and Lautenbach’s Orchard Country Winery and Market offer guided orchard tours for groups, plus opportunities to buy cherry goods at the end.
- Restaurants: Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant is famous for its grass roof with live goats grazing on top and its Swedish pancakes, which are garnished with cherries. For thirsty attendees, the cherry margaritas at Fred and Fuzzy’s in Sister Bay are local favorites, best enjoyed on the waterfront.
- Trolley tours: Door County Trolley tours are a great way to explore the small towns of the region. Highlights include stops at the orchards, wineries, restaurants and more.
Supper Club Fare in Waukesha-Pewaukee County
Supper club culture remains strong and revered in Wisconsin. These dining establishments—often reminiscent of a 1960s dining room—are known for their homey atmospheres, scenic surroundings and plates of hearty grub like prime rib, chicken, fried fish, potatoes and stiff brandy old fashioneds.
Supper clubs, as their name suggests, are typically open only during early dinner hours and make for excellent group meals. These dining spots thrive in many Wisconsin towns. For groups meeting in the Waukesha-Pewaukee area, Visit Waukesha-Pewaukee’s marketing manager, Susan Shoultz, recommends two options for groups.
For meetings groups craving a truly traditional supper club experience, The 5 O’Clock Club delivers. It’s a fourth-generation, family-owned club serving all the classic supper club dishes. There are several private dining areas available to accommodate groups of 20 or up to 50 with reservations.
For more adventurous palates, Edgewater Supper Club sits right on Pewaukee Lake and has a Wisconsin-style supper club atmosphere, but serves dishes with Cajun and Creole twists. Groups of up to 80 people can reserve the restaurant for private events for lunch or dinner. During regular dining hours, groups of up to 14 can be accommodated with reservations.
Brandy Old Fashioneds in Madison
The old fashioned cocktail has been a mainstay in bars and hotels since the 1880s. The recipe typically consists of bourbon whiskey, bitters and sugar, and is often garnished with a cherry and orange peel.
Order an old fashioned in Wisconsin, though, and you’ll be served a cocktail made with brandy instead.
Photo: Old Fashioned variations at Avenue Bar, Madison; Credit: Focal Flame Photography
Wisconsin has a strong German heritage, with many immigrants settling in the state in the 19th and 20th centuries. Through them, brandy made its way into the popular old fashioned cocktail, and now, most Wisconsinites insist that a Korbel brandy old fashioned with a splash of Sprite or 7-Up is the only right way to make the drink.
For post-meeting drinks and networking, brandy old fashioneds can be ordered at almost any bar in Wisconsin, but a popular bar in downtown Madison next to the Capitol bearing the drink’s namesake is perhaps the best place to try one for the first time.
The Old Fashioned bar has an entire menu paying homage to the cocktail. Pair a classic brandy old fashioned with locally sourced brats and cheese curds for a true Wisconsin meal.
For groups that want to dive into the mechanics of an old fashioned, Destination Madison’s director of PR and communications, Rob Gard, recommends another haunt about a mile down the street.
“Avenue Club is another great old fashioned restaurant, and they do a ‘Bitters Boot Camp’ for visitors and groups that teaches people about the history of the old fashioned,” he said. “They also walk guests through making their own bitters, which they can then take home. It’s a really cool thing for meetings.”
[Related: 3 Standout Madison Meeting Options to Get Your Group Outdoors]
Frozen Custard in Brookfield
Creamy, dense frozen custard is a Wisconsin staple, especially in the Milwaukee metro and its surrounding suburbs. Frozen custard is made with egg yolks and hardly any air when churned in the machine, which gives it its density and smooth, creamy texture.
Though its first roots are technically in Coney Island, Wisconsin made this sweet treat famous in the mid-20th century. And one of its oldest producers—Kopp’s Custard—is in Brookfield. (Photo: Kopp's Custard cone; Credit: VISIT Milwaukee)
Kopp’s was founded in 1950 and soon became a Milwaukee staple. It was the first custard stand to introduce the “flavor of the day” concept, one many may recognize when visiting local chain Culver’s (which has now expanded to many states in the U.S.).
More meetings groups are bound to convene in the Brookfield area next year—a new conference center is scheduled to open in April 2020, with two large ballrooms, a 9,000-square-foot outdoor plaza and 8,000-square-foot boardroom. Attendees meeting in Brookfield should put Kopp’s on their list for post-meeting sweetness, and maybe even take home a pint or two.
Cheese Curds Everywhere
This author would be remiss to write about Wisconsin food without mentioning its most famous food of all: cheese. Wisconsin is the Dairy State, and, according to Travel Wisconsin, produces a whopping 2.8 billion pounds of cheese each year.
As a result, there are cheese factories and cheese markets all over the state. Groups traveling on I-94 from Minneapolis-St. Paul or Chicago will see frequent exits on their way to Wisconsin destinations promoting cheese shops in small towns.
Photo: Fried cheese curds; Credit: Lakefront Brewery
One of the most popular ways to experience Wisconsin cheese is to eat cheese curds. Whether eating them fresh or fried in beer batter and dipped in ranch, the Midwestern obsession with cheese curds is strong, and Wisconsin produces some of the best.
Although there are innumerable spots to experience cheese curds, groups who really want to dig into cheese curd production should tour Clock Shadow Creamery in Milwaukee. It’s Milwaukee’s first (and only) cheese factory.
Tours cover the history of cheese in Wisconsin, the importance of dairy to Wisconsin's economy, and why the best cheese curds are “squeaky,” while sampling some, too. Tours for groups of 10 or more are available Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays and must be reserved in advance.
For fans of the fried variety, both nearby Lakefront Brewing and Milwaukee Brewing Company (across the street from Clock Shadow Creamery) have beer-battered curds in their taprooms.
From the curds and the custard to buckets of cherry-flavored things and brandy old fashioneds, sample just a few of the iconic foods on this list, and you’ll get a good taste for what it’s like to be a true Wisconsinite during your next meeting in the state.