A Foodie’s Day Trip to Milwaukee – Exploring 5 culinary spots from Danish pastry to coffee roasting to craft beer to custard to seafood in the area.
When you think of Milwaukee, what foods and beverages come to mind? I bet I can guess: brats, cheese and beer. All true! Yet, Milwaukee has a vibrant culinary scene that you need to hear about.
Exploring the food world within a city doesn’t just mean what you find in the city’s downtown. In fact, creative and innovative options can be found all around town. The first gem on my road trip to Milwaukee started in Racine. I then traveled to Wauwatosa, Glendale and the east side all to experience unique finds and experiences in Milwaukee’s culinary world. Whether you live in the area or are coming for a visit, there are 5 places that you need to check out.
My culinary adventure begins in Racine. Just off I-94 at the Racine exit (route 20), is O & H Danish Bakery.
This family-run bakery creates works of art in their kringles. If you are wondering what a kringle is, then let me describe it for you. It is a Danish pastry made with 36 layers of buttery pastry dough that rests until it is light, tender and flaky. This process takes three days! And it is worth the wait!
What makes this a Wisconsin favorite – even though the recipe is Danish – are the ingredients. Wisconsin is the dairy state after all, making the key ingredients, butter and cheese (in some kringles), a natural inclusion. Now, with 23 varieties, you will find at least one that will become your favorite. To add to the list of Wisconsin grown ingredients beyond those mentioned above, let’s add Door County cherries and cranberries from local bogs. In fact, O & H has created the Wisconsin Kringle that is baked with cherries, cranberries and cream cheese all “homegrown”.
These kringles are the perfect addition to a party as they feed many. Designed in a large oval shape and topped with icing, sugar, chocolate or ordered plain, you can find fillings that include nuts, fruit, chocolate or cheese. They make several that are a combination of flavors like the Wisconsin Kringle as well as seasonal options. My family favorites are the apple, cherry or pecan. Interestingly, I learned that pecan is their number one seller with raspberry running second.
Now, grab your cup of coffee as you review this brief menu of flavors before reading the rest on their website:
- Chocolate pecan
For those unable to visit the bakery, O & H Bakery website is where you can choose the kringle you want to be carefully shipped to the recipient (ok, you!). One other tip for you, these freeze beautifully. I am sure all the butter helps that happen but that is a very good thing. As these are a tradition in my family, we always have them for my Dad for celebrations of any kind. The rest we bring home go in the freezer for when guests stop by. How long they last there are a bit uncertain as they are well loved by our whole family.
Finally, the Danish have a philosophy on life called Hygge (pronounced hoo-ga) that is something to strive for as they are considered the happiest people in the world. Enjoy the good things in life from your home to your family and friends. That sounds perfect to me.
For more information on stopping by the bakery or ordering directly, see their website.
As a coffee lover, there is nothing I like better than a cup of rich, fragrant and smooth coffee. While the caffeine can be a good thing, it’s the taste of the coffee that I just love. Understanding the different types of beans, roasting methods, growing regions and processing styles all make a difference in the outcome of the brew in your mug.
On Milwaukee’s east side is a coffee roaster that I have come to know and admire for their pride in producing a quality product. And I am not the only one! Since 1993, Colectivo (formerly Alterra) Coffee has been amassing a very loyal following by diligently creating a coffee brand that supports fair trade and local farmers in countries across the world.
When you arrive at this location, before even walking in the doors, you smell the perfume of the roasting coffee beans. Heavenly. The roastery is a part of the coffee house where you can take a seat at the bar overlooking the heart of Colectivo’s production facility.
What you see is a very dedicated team eyeing the beans with a keen sense of knowledge to determine the right shade of “roast”, using their noses to smell the fragrance they are looking for and removing any extra particles that found their way into the burlap bags that have traveled across the world to land in Milwaukee to be roasted in Colectivo’s hands.
Having such a passion for coffee gave me the unique opportunity to learn about the cupping process and it’s impact on what we ultimately end up drinking in a Colectivo cafe or at home. Sort of like wine tasting but far more complex in just the set up of the experience as can be seen in the photos below. In our experiment, we sampled beans from different women owned coffee producers (GAIA) across the world. To begin with, water is heated to a specific temperature, poured into the beans ground to the right grind for this method of brewing, the “crust” is removed carefully to not disrupt the liquid and then the cupping actually begins with the tasting process. It’s a fascinating and far more intricate process than you can imagine. But I was fortunate to learn from the best at Colectivo: Al Liu, V.P. of Coffee and Nate Roedl, Coffee Quality Manager.
In the cupping process, we did two passes to consider:
- Overall assumption on how we like the coffee
- How it tastes: good, weak, acidic, smooth, the mouth feel (ie. juicy pear or dry)
Here are some lessons I learned:
- The fragrance of coffee grounds comes from a dry smell.
- The aroma of coffee grounds comes from a wet smell. Some examples of a wet smell include: baking spices like cinnamon, brown sugar, nutmeg, cloves or a floral/fruit scent like plum, concord grape, blueberry, strawberry, apple.
- The darker the roast, the fewer nuances you can smell in the cupping process.
- The beans that taste good hot may not taste as good cold.
- The specialty coffee business is growing.
- Colectivo goes directly to the farms to buy the beans. They KNOW what they are buying, roasting and selling to their customers this way.
So, when you next go into a coffee house and ask what do they recommend, be prepared for them to ask you the following questions:
- What type of coffee do you normally drink? ie. Folgers, Starbucks
- When you are referring to the coffee being acidic or bitter, you are talking about the roasting effect.
- Do you like coffee from certain origins like Sumatra, Brazil?
In the end, try different blends, origins, roasts, processes (water or natural) and brew methods to find that cup of coffee that you enjoy. One size doesn’t fit all. You may want a darker cup of coffee in the morning than the afternoon. Lighter brew for other times of the day or season. Coffee is far more than a source of caffeine. It’s an experience. A beverage to savor.
And the great news is that Colectivo Coffee is growing and expanding their coffee houses. With 15 cafes in Milwaukee, 3 in Madison and 2 in Chicago (with more coming this year), you will find a location convenient to you. If you have the opportunity to visit the roastery on the east side of Milwaukee, you will get the full experience of seeing the production in motion. The cafes also have a full menu to choose from whether breakfast, lunch or snack that are made from scratch in their central kitchen. If you are not in the area but want to try their coffee, you can find a variety of beans to choose from on their website.
Milwaukee is clearly known as a beer town. But Sprecher Brewery is different. And that is thanks to the passion that Randy Sprecher had in creating a microbrewery back in 1985. After years of working for Pabst and a long history of perfecting his homebrewing skills, Sprecher Brewery was launched.
Originally located just south of downtown Milwaukee in an area known as Walker’s Point, Sprecher Brewery relocated to a north suburb in 1993. The facility is complete with all operations needed to produce craft beers and sodas including the fire-brew kettles and a bottling line. The Rathskellar, beer garden tasting room and retail store are there for customers to enjoy samples of the beer and soda. Sprecher opens its doors for scheduled brewery tours with reservations requested. The tour takes about 30 minutes and is hosted by guides who welcome questions no matter how simple or intricate your question
As we began the brewery tour, we learned about the gas-fired brew kettles, the ingredients that go into producing the products including Wisconsin honey. With 24 beers on tap plus 10 sodas (their root beer is a top seller) and hard cider, the opportunity to expand your palette is extensive.
We have all heard of wine tastings and even wine and cheese pairings, so when I learned about Sprecher’s Reserve Tasting Tour that includes a “Beer and Cheese Tasting”, I had to sign up. This is a small, adult only group experience in their tasting room. No matter your level of cheese or beer expertise, you will learn something. And it’s fascinating!
In the session, you are given 10 beer and artisan cheese samples. The “menu” showcases the flavors that will be highlighted by the pairings. Just like red wine and dark chocolate, Sprecher has this figured out. As a cook, I found the opportunity to talk about the flavor profiles that come out in each bite of cheese and sip of beer so much fun. It challenges your taste buds in a way that you are not use too. The depths of flavors that come out when you pair the “right” cheese with the appropriate beer whether spice, sweetness, smokiness, salt or textures are enhanced.
Some pairing examples:
Black Bavarian – The most award winning beer. Complex malts in this medium bodied Schwarzbler. Smooth capped by a creamy head perfectly balances flavors of coffee, chocolate and caramel. Cheese pairing is Black Pepper Bella Vitano.
Citra – Smells super citrus with a grapefruit flavor and a touch of bitterness. Cheese pairing is Sartori Citrus Ginger Bella Vitano.
Magnum Pale Ale – Sprecher has a hops farm in Stevens Point (north of Milwaukee). This beer highlights Wisconsin grown hops. Flavor profile is more piney and not as citrusy. Cheese pairing is Monterey Jack wit Morel and Leeks.
Cidre de Pomme – Made by cooking down apple juice and then adding champagne yeast and letting it sit for 4-6 weeks. This is crisp, mild, dry and light. Cheese pairing is Clock Shadow Double Cream Colby.
Irish Stout – Toasty, smooth, light bodied, dark colored with a dark chocolate coffee flavor. Cheese pairing is Sartori Espresso BellaVitano.
Scotch Ale – Smokey aroma completed with caramel and lightly toasted malt. This one smells like smoked bacon. Cheese pairing is Country Castle Smoked Baby Swiss. Note: My host was surprised at my reaction to this beer. I liked it!
Belgian Dubbel – Belgian beers like to use multiple yeasts. This beer uses two yeasts with different flavors coming out of the barley and hops. There is a sweetness and maltiness in taste like plums, raisins and dried fruit notes. Cheese pairing is horseradish and chive Havarti.
Pineapple Express – Mosaic and equinox hops create a juicy and fruity beer. We tasted white chocolate chips with this beer.
Sprecher has brought more than craft beer to Milwaukee, they also brought back the camaraderie that comes from chatting with your neighbors in local beer gardens. They have rolled out their own fleet of repurposed fire trucks and ambulances that can be found in local Milwaukee parks, festivals and even Lambeau Field on game days. Known as the Traveling Beer Gardens with 12 taps on each of the 5 firetrucks, there is a subtle connection to the way the beer is made through fire-brewing. The ambulances are used as concession stands. You can find the trucks from May through September in Milwaukee Country Parks.
The cost of the Beer and Cheese tour is just $20 and includes the opportunity to tour the brewery before the class as well as an etched tasting glass for you to take home. Reserve Tours are offered on the weekend and require reservations that can be made online or at 414-964-2739.
Custard. The best custard. Ever. Opened in Glendale in 1950 by Elsa Kopp, (who’s son later opened Elsa’s restaurant on Cathedral Square in downtown Milwaukee), there are now three locations of this always busy restaurant. While their custard is the primary reason people come, they are also known for their jumbo burgers. This post, however, is about the amazing custard.
Rich, dense and creamy delicious. Different from ice cream in that there is very little air churned into it which is what makes ice cream lighter in consistency. Plus, the addition of egg yolks in custard adds to the decadent taste and texture. In fact, Kopp’s is so well loved that when businesses want to open a custard stand in their town, they use Kopp’s as their guide. The ingredient balance is the true success of this brand.
If you ever called Milwaukee home, then a visit to Kopp’s when back in the neighborhood is a given. In fact, we have been known to ship custard gift packs (plus hot fudge of course!) to family on the West Coast knowing how much they love it. Now, wouldn’t you want to be THAT recipient?!
The main location is on Milwaukee’s north side. A digital screen showing the day’s flavors with a calendar “forecast” online so you can plan ahead for your next visit. And trust me, people mark it on their own calendars to not miss their favorite flavors. You can even sign up for flavor alerts. I’m a purist and think their vanilla is the best but some are all about the sundaes.
Kopp’s is a must stop on your culinary travels to Milwaukee. Your sweet tooth will thank you.
What’s your favorite custard flavor?
While Milwaukee may be thought of as a meat and potatoes town, this seafood eater will direct you to one of her favorite places to find the freshest fish. For me, that is Eddie Martini’s Restaurant in Wauwatosa, a suburb about 15 minutes west of downtown. Known as a steak house initially, they have expanded over the years to serve innovative and creative fish dishes that not only look beautiful but taste delicious.
The interior of the restaurant has an old-world, supper club feel to it but what happens in the kitchen is miles ahead. The Chef takes ingredients that will elevate the dish from scallops to Tamarind-Glazed Sea Scallops in a red curry tomato broth that highlight the seafood without hiding its natural flavor. Each and every dish we had resulted in the oohs and aahs of a dish we want to savor.
There is nothing better than starting a celebratory meal than with a seafood tower. This one has rich in flavor crab legs, mussels and accompaniment salads like salmon rolls. Even the seafood skeptic in my family dove in.
And the Seared Yellowfin Tuna is just melt-in-your-mouth delicious:
To give you more seafood options to consider, here are Salmon and Grouper dishes that were delicately flavored and absolutely wonderful:
At Eddie Martini’s, you won’t feel the need to rush through your meal or to shout over the music to hear your dinner companions. The ambience is relaxing and comfortable. Service is excellent and focused on your enjoyment of their menu and experience. Whether you are looking for a full meal or soup and protein, they will take care of you with a menu full of options. Thanks for the hospitality, Eddie Martini’s. We can’t wait to come back!
If a foodie adventure is on your mind, come visit Milwaukee to explore their culinary and cultural scenes. Visit the Milwaukee Public Market for a taste of ethnic and artisanal local food purveyors. Dine in or take home your finds. Finish your day with the peaceful sights of the rolling blue water of Lake Michigan from the Milwaukee Art Museum with the spectacular architectural design by Santiago Calatrava.
For more information on places to visit in Milwaukee, see Visit Milwaukee’s website.
Special thanks to Mazda for their CX-5 Grand Touring AWD vehicle. Very comfortable ride for all passengers. on our road trip plus fun to drive. Particularly liked the windshield notification of current speed and posted speed limit. Very useful in unfamiliar areas.