Port Huron Brewing Company in Wisconsin Dells has been in the works for over two years. For brewmaster Tanner Brethorst, it must have felt like the longest fermentation period he's ever dealt with. But this past weekend, he opened the brewery's taproom for the first time.
While it's been a long time for Brethorst, for those living in the Dells, it's been even longer since they hoisted a pint from a local commercial beer maker. The community's last, the City Brewery, closed in 1904. At that time, it wasn't known as Wisconsin Dells, but Kilbourn City. The Dells does support the brewpub-restaurant called Moosejaw Pizza & Dells Brewing Co.; however, a commercial brewery that bottles and kegs its beer for off-site sale hasn't existed in Columbia County since Eulberg Brewing of Portage shuttered in 1958.
Brethorst, 34, started Port Huron Brewing along with family members and a few friends. It's all part of the package to find Tanner, his father Dave, and several uncles working the brewery and taproom. As soon as six-pack cartons arrive, Port Huron will offer bottled beer to stores in the Wisconsin Dells area -- probably within a week. Madison will have to wait a little longer.
Brethorst grew up in Lodi and attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he earned a degree in agricultural business management. He then went on to study brewing at the Siebel Institute of Technology in Chicago. He's also worked for several well-known area brewmasters: Tom Porter of Lake Louie, Kirby Nelson of Capital, and Rob Larson of Tyranena.
Even so, Brethorst experienced many starts and stops along the way to opening Port Huron -- a range of mechanical challenges as well as the legal hurdles of local, state and federal permitting.
There's family symbolism to the name "Port Huron." Over the years, Brethorst and his family have enjoyed restoring a 1918 steam tractor built in Port Huron, Michigan. "We all developed a close connection working on this steam tractor that my grandfather saved from becoming scrap metal in the 1950s, so there was never a question what we would call our brewery," Brethorst says, adding that it also makes a good logo -- Port Huron labels feature an image of the namesake tractor. And the brewery itself has a replica of the tractor that serves as the its mailbox.
At the heart of the brewery is a steam-fired 17-barrel brewing system. Brethorst has breathed new life into a previously used brewkettle from Two Brothers Brewing of Illinois and secondhand fermenters from West Virginia and Colorado.
Port Huron has four standard brews so far:
- Honey Blonde is a pale golden ale made with Wisconsin honey from Mount Horeb. It's bubbly, easy-drinking and an ideal beer for summer; it's been an early big seller for the brewery.
- Hefeweizen, a traditional German wheat, is unfiltered, with a bright yellow-golden color, banana and clove tones from the yeast, and Hallertau Mittelfrüh hops to add crispness.
- Alt is made in the Dusseldorf style, and has a solid amber color and a smooth, clean, malty flavor.
- Porter is the darkest of Brethorst's beers, almost coal-black. Despite the heavy look, it's light-bodied, with firm chocolate maltiness and a clean finish.
Port Huron Brewing is located east of downtown Wisconsin Dells and its tourist attractions, just off Highway 23 in the business park; the address is 805 Business Park Rd., the phone is 608-253-0340. The brewery taproom is open Fridays 3-9 p.m. and Saturdays noon-9 p.m. Brethorst says he may expand those days later in the summer as the vacation season heats up. Ongoing updates are provided on the Port Huron Facebook page.
Port Huron is available at many familiar Dells locales, including the Showboat Saloon, Nig's Bar, the downtown Monk's, the Del-Bar, Ravina Bay, Great Wolf Lodge, and the Ishnala Supper Club. Closer to Madison, it's available at the Roxbury Tavern in Sauk City, but more will soon be on the way.