The drive from Madison to Potosi, via Highway 151 and County Highway O, takes about an hour and a half. It's an old, rural landscape, but beautiful with trees, woods and cold-running trout streams. It's not hard to imagine that today's natural beauty isn't that far from what Gabriel Hail, who immigrated from England, saw when he arrived in Potosi and built the brewery that would become home to the community's namesake beer.
In 1852, Hail and his partner, John Albrecht, established the brewery along Potosi's main street in the lower part of town, in an area known as Snake Hollow. That original brewery cost about $10,000 and employed eight men. The brewery was built on the side of a bluff, about a half-mile from the Mississippi River.
In 1906 the business incorporated into the Potosi Brewing Company. During Prohibition the brewery continued making products such as "near beer" and even bottling milk from its own dairy farm. At its height, the Potosi Brewery was Wisconsin's fifth largest, making over 60,000 barrels of beer a year.
The brewery went silent in 1972, a victim of competition from larger, more modern operations. The buildings sat vacant; equipment was sold off. During the next 30 years, the old buildings saw little to no upkeep.
Brewing returned to Potosi just over a year ago with the opening of the Potosi Restaurant and Brewpub in the same location that was once famous for labels like Good Old Potosi, Holiday Beer and Potosi Pilsner.
"We're the only nonprofit brewery in the country," says Greg Larsen, executive director of the Potosi Brewery Foundation. He oversees the Potosi Brewery complex, a combination of two museums, a highway interpretive center and the restaurant and brewery.
After local artist Gary David bought the bottling building in 1995 and, a few years later, the brewery building, the idea of returning to beer-making grew. So did the concept of a private nonprofit to create something beyond a place for food and drink.
In 2000, a group of citizens and brewery history buffs formed the Potosi Brewery Foundation. By 2004 they had made a surprisingly successful pitch to the American Breweriana Association to be the home of its National Brewery Museum, beating competition from Milwaukee and St. Louis.
Potosi is coming into its own in making beer, too. In May, the Foundation hired Steve Buszka as its brewmaster. Buszka is a former brewer for the well-known Bell's Brewery of Kalamazoo, Mich. Brewing now takes place on the third floor, with the serving and fermentation vessels tucked back in the stone-lined corner of the restaurant.
Helping to bring back beer to a small town with such passion about its brewery is a real treat for Buszka. "I like talking with the old-timers who come with stories about going down to the old brewery to drink short fills that the brewery put outside in a tub of ice; free for the immediate drinking - you just couldn't take any home." (Short fills are those bottles that are underfilled on the bottling line, and are pulled out as cases are loaded.)
During any trip to the small Grant County town, population 711, you'll find at least four standard beers and a couple special seasonal offerings at the brewpub.
Start with the brewery's best-seller, the Good Old Potosi, a light-bodied golden ale with a firm malty profile and very clean overall taste. Buszka's version of the Holiday Bock is a traditional German lager made with Munich malt and Perle hops that pours with beautiful golden-bronze color, medium body and caramel flavor.
The Malt Cave Ale has a brilliant amber color and a bolder malt character, accompanied by a mild hoppy finish. The Cave Ale purist will want to step inside the actual brewery caves that were dug deep into the adjacent hillside in the 1800s.
Seasonal brews that merit sampling include the current Belgian WIT, with its hints of coriander and orange. When the WIT runs out sometime in August, Buszka plans to follow up with a Czech-style pilsner that will feature pilsen malt and Saaz hops that should combine for a crisp, clean-tasting lager with a beautiful golden hue.
But the beer that allows Buszka to show off a bit of his brewery roots from his days at Bell's is the Snake Hollow IPA (India Pale Ale). With a hazy orange copper color, Galena, Cascade and Centennial hops provide a firm bitter body with an assertive citrus nose. Buszka says there's nearly a pound of hops in every barrel, which makes it the hoppiest of the Potosi brews.
The restaurant's menu features soups, sandwiches, burgers and hearty entrees like steaks, fish and pasta. It was hard to go wrong with a Good Old Potosi burger and a Snake Hollow. The pesto pasta and a Good Old Potosi ale also paired nicely.
But expect some changes to the menu in the weeks ahead. "We're currently researching foods of the Great River Road from jambalaya of Louisiana to St. Louis-style ribs," says Larsen. "We want our menu to reflect our connection to the Great River Road."
Business and history
Last July, the $7.5 million Potosi Brewery Complex opened, with the National Brewery Museum and its attached restaurant and brewpub. Potosi is located on a 3,000-mile network of scenic highways along the Mississippi River, so the facility also made a successful pitch to become a welcome stop and interpretative center for the Great River Road.
The old brew house museum contains more than 70 exhibits featuring thousands of pieces of memorabilia and historical artifacts from breweries across the U.S. The restoration of the Potosi brewery itself adds to the experience, showcasing a building that has made beer in three centuries.
Village President Frank Fiorenza attributes a ripple of development throughout Potosi to the brewery, including the Holiday Convention Center, new cabin-style lodging next door and a restored grocery store.
And Potosi has just received a $125,000 Scenic River Byways grant to develop an observation deck for the Mississippi River.
Plans call for renovating the brewery's ice house and stock house, and the foundation is exploring how it might do contract brewing throughout the state.
On Aug. 22, the Potosi Brewery will hold a brewfest with regional brewers. Ticket info at www.potosibrewery.com/events.cfm