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Watch now: Brewing experience adds another story line to Old World Wisconsin

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EAGLE — Rob Novak has worked in the Milwaukee area with noted brewpubs like Black Husky Brewing, Draft & Vessel and Raised Grain Brewing Co.

The longtime home brewer knows all about malted grains, variations of hops, fermentation and styles of beers such as porters, ales and lagers.

But he also knows how to tell a story, thanks to a previous life in which he graduated from the University of San Diego with a theater degree and for 10 years worked as a playwright.

That’s why his resume seems uniquely suited for this 600-acre historical island nestled in the Southern Unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest.

Old World Brewing

Rob Novak, coordinator at Old World Wisconsin’s new Brewing Experience and Brewhouse, transfers boiling hops into a strainer that drains into a copper trough called a coolship. Brewing at the new facility that opens Wednesday near Eagle is done over a fire with beer fermented in wooden half-barrels.

Novak is the coordinator of Old World Wisconsin’s Brewhouse & Brewing Experience that opens to the public on Wednesday with a grand opening celebration on Saturday. His new position will allow him to brew historic beer recipes and use his storytelling skills to educate his audiences that visit the 1,765-square-foot brewhouse building made of Cream City brick and sporting two chimneys.

“How do you find the stories in Wisconsin’s beer history while also trying to recreate some of the beers,” Novak said last week. “The brewing side of it is its own challenge but it tells a story, too. All of the work we’re doing here helps tell the story.”

Old World Brewing

Hops used in the brewing process at Old World Wisconsin are grown on site.

Here, there are no stainless steel tanks, computerized brew kettles or other modern tools favored by 21st century brewers.

Instead, Novak, 40, uses chunks of oak and maple to fuel a fire under an 8-gallon kettle stirred with a wooden paddle. Hops are grown on site, and the beers he’s been producing since early March are fermented in wooden half-barrels and, after three weeks, transferred into 5-gallon wooden casks.

Old World Brewing

Rob Novak, coordinator of the new Brewing Experience and Brewhouse at Old World Wisconsin, will make beer Wednesday through Sunday. Each batch takes about six hours to make but typically ferments in wooden half-barrels for three weeks. 

The facility, part of a two-phase, $5.5 million project, is intended to allow Novak and others who brew here to represent how beer was made from the middle 1800s to early 1900s on both farmsteads and in commercial settings, and is one of only a few historic brewing experiences in the country.

The building sits on a stone foundation, has large windows that offer up sweeping views to the west, and a bar that will serve up Spotted Cow and Old World Wisconsin’s own brand of root beer. However, due to state regulations, beer made on site cannot be sold. Instead, visitors will be able to enjoy complimentary 3-ounce samples.

Old World Brewing

Old World Wisconsin’s new Brewing Experience and Brewhouse, right, and the former Wittnebel’s Tavern, left, share a hill at the state historic site south of Eagle.

An interactive touch-screen display will allow visitors to explore historic breweries that once dotted the state, while another screen shows a four-minute video of the six-hour brewing process.

“What we ended up with is not a building that is a replica of a historic brewery but was inspired by the architecture of breweries in Wisconsin,” said Dan Freas, director of the state historic site that opened in 1976. “We felt (a replica) would lock us in to telling only one chapter of the story of beer and brewing in Wisconsin, but it’s evolved over time.”

Old World Brewing

Visitors to Old World Wisconsin’s new Brewing Experience and Brewhouse explore the former Wittnebel’s Tavern, which was moved in 2021 to the state historic site. Work to restore the tavern will begin next week. The facility is scheduled to open in 2023.

Next door to the Brewhouse is Wittnebel’s Tavern, which is likely to open in 2023. The two-story building that includes an upstairs dance hall had been a fixture in the Dodge County community of Old Ashippun since 1906 but was moved in 2021, in three sections, 27 miles to Old World Wisconsin.

The Wittnebel family closed the business in the 1980s and used the tavern, which was attached to the family home, as a place for family gatherings. But in 2017, the Wittnebels donated the front and back bar, a wooden walk-in beer cooler with a single tap handle and 10 barstools from the tavern to the Wisconsin Historical Society, which was in search of post-Prohibition artifacts.

Wittnebel's Tavern

Frank and Fanny Wittnebel founded their tavern in 1906 along what is now Highway 67 in Old Ashippun. They are seen here in this photo from the 1940s holding their grandson, Jim Wittnebel, next to a stack of wooden beer crates from the Lithia Beer Co. in West Bend. 

Work on restoring the tavern to its look in the 1930s will begin next week. Once completed, it will allow Old World Wisconsin visitors a chance to sit on a bar stool or at a table, sip a beer and experience the ambience that is slowly fading from the state and being replaced by more modern brewpubs.

“We’re grateful,” Barb Lund, whose grandparents, Frank and Fanny Wittnebel, founded the business, said just before the tavern was moved. “Who could have predicted this? Certainly not my parents. Certainly not my grandparents. This will live on for many, many more years.”

Wittnebel's Tavern on the move

The first floor of Wittnebel's Tavern rolls through the Southern Unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest in May 2021 on its way to Old World Wisconsin.

Old World Wisconsin includes 60 restored historic structures from between the 1840s and 1910, which were moved to the site from all over the state and represent a wide range of cultures. Crossroads Village includes a general store, blacksmith shop, a church and homes from Irish and Yankee immigrants. There are original buildings from an early African American community in Wisconsin, along with homesteads from Pomeranian, Polish, Hessian and Scandinavian immigrants.

Old World Brewing

Rob Novak checks a half-barrel that is used to ferment beer at Old World Wisconsin’s new Brewing Experience and Brewhouse.

Beginning in 2015, Old World Wisconsin partnered with the Milwaukee-based Museum of Beer and Brewing to brew beer outside every other Saturday during the summer adjacent to the 1880 Pomeranian village. But it’s taken more than 50 years for the state’s brewing tradition and tavern heritage to permanently appear here. The master plan for Old World Wisconsin was created in the 1960s and called for a tavern and brewery exhibit. But officials say instead of a static exhibit, the Brewing Experience will be able to further engage visitors and help other brewers from around the state learn about the history of their trade by brewing in the Brewhouse.

Beer dinners with four different breweries will take place once a month, while Wittnebel’s Tavern, in conjunction with the Brewhouse, a planned outdoor beer garden and the adjacent 1897 octagonal Clausing Barn, will also be used for special events. Historic recipes are being collected, while others are being provided by the Museum of Beer and Brewing.

Old World Brewing

After being moved in three pieces from Old Ashippun, the former Wittnebel’s Tavern is back together again and is about to undergo a major restoration.

“People are really going to see some beer history that’s a little unexpected,” said Nick Hoffman, the historical society’s administrator of museums and historic sites. “We’re telling a more complete history of the state’s brewing heritage and bringing attention to a lot of breweries that people may not have ever heard about, from Hillsboro to Oshkosh to Marinette and communities across the state.”

Novak made his tenth batch of beer in the new Brewhouse last week. Most, made in 5-gallon batches, will range in strength from 4.5% to 6% alcohol by volume. There are cream ales, an India pale ale and a saison, a pastoral ale that originated in the farmhouses of Wallonia, the French-speaking region of Belgium. Novak also wants to experiment with using native spruce and juniper.

Old World Brewing

Rob Novak, coordinator at Old World Wisconsin’s new Brewing Experience and Brewhouse, uses a wooden paddle to stir a batch of beer being made in a kettle over an open fire.

Beer will be brewed five days a week, but tastes will vary depending on not only style but weather, since the Brewhouse is not heated or air conditioned. Novak uses a coolship, a copper trough, to more quickly cool freshly brewed beer. He also has copper bucket-like containers that can be filled with ice and placed inside batches of beer in the fermentation barrels to assist the cooling process and further demonstrate the Old World ways of brewing.

“We’ll do a bunch of styles but they’re not going to be perfect beers,” Novak said. “There’s going to be tinkering all summer to try and perfect different aspects of this process. We want to keep it interesting.”

Barry Adams covers regional news for the Wisconsin State Journal. Send him ideas for On Wisconsin at 608-252-6148 or by email at badams@madison.com.

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