As Wisconsin embarks on third winter late into April, the approaching promise of summer beer gardens is one of the only motivating factors keeping cheeseheads going. Where else can you enjoy the summer sun while socializing with your children, family, friends, and dog and enjoying a glass boot filled with craft beer?
Entwined deep within Wisconsin’s German roots is a favorite summer tradition: day drinking at the beer garden. Outdoor areas serve beer and food with casual seating at picnic tables or long wooden tables and benches to encourage socialization. Often accompanied by live music, the beer garden is widely popular among Wisconsinites, particularly those in the Milwaukee area.
It’s hard to give a name to the magic one experiences on a warm summer Saturday afternoon in the company of new and old friends with a cold pint in hand. But the German term gemutlichkeit—warm, friendly cheerfulness—captures that intangible quality found at the local beer garden.
Milwaukee, a city well-known for its breweries, was at one time the “undisputed leader in the number (and extravagance) of beer gardens,” Carl Miller says in The Rise of the Beer Barons. He says the eight-acre Pabst Park, one of the more popular gardens in the 1870s, boasted a roller coaster, a fun house, an attraction coined “the smallest real railroad in the world,” regular wild west shows, and daily live orchestra performances throughout the summer.
German-brewed lagers drew crowds, but an environment designed to foster drinking, leisure, music, dancing, and sport consistently drew community members to the bustling, social atmosphere found at a local beer garden.
Beer gardens attracted large crowds at that time due to the lack of suitable public parks, Milwaukee chief historian John Gurda said in a Milwaukee Magazine article. However, once public parks were built, attendance trickled, and Prohibition officially halted the tradition. Yet as craft brewing has gained momentum over the last decade and a half, so have local beer gardens.
Beer gardens in Milwaukee range from well-established seasonal gardens to traveling pop-up beer gardens—a newer trend that brings the gemutlichkeit of a beer garden to beloved local parks. Parks are kid-, dog-, and group-friendly, so they’re suitable for a range of summer celebrations (or, you know, Tuesday).
Perhaps the most notable beer garden in the Milwaukee area, Estabrook Park, is the first public beer garden to resurrect in the U.S. since Prohibition. Featuring beer imported from the Munich Hofbräuhaus as well as a collection of local favorites, this beer garden situated in a Milwaukee county park offers open, shared seating, encouraging the camaraderie a true beer garden is designed to promote. It lines the Milwaukee River and connects to the Oak Leaf Trail (over 135 miles of trail running across Milwaukee), so you’ll find guests accessing it by foot, bike, or car (or even kayak).
The Southshore Terrace offers arguably the best view of any beer garden in the area. It sits next to Lake Michigan just south of downtown Milwaukee, offering a clear view of Milwaukee’s skyline to the north. The lower level of a historic 1930s bathhouse building (available for rentals for weddings and large events) houses the kitchen and some indoor dining space operated by Milwaukee County Parks as well. Its close proximity to South Shore Park offers a play area for the kids within view, making it a fun stop for the whole family.
Another Milwaukee County operated beer garden, Whitnall Park, sits among 220 protected acres. It’s home to the Boerner Botanical Gardens, the Wehr Nature Center, Whitnall Golf Course, and the Whitnall Park Beer Garden. It carries a collection of local brews (and some other popular choices) and pub favorites (cheese curds, brats, and fish fries) and offers spacious seating options. It’s also park-adjacent which makes it another great stop for families.
The Landing at Hoyt Park offers a poolside vibe just outside of Wauwatosa’s Hoyt Pool. Local craft and imported beer are available alongside a traditional beer garden menu with family-friendly additions like pizza and popcorn. It also hosts live music and a collection of other special events.
While every local park would be lucky to have a beer garden on site, other Milwaukee and Waukesha parks partake in this historical pastime by hosting a traveling beer garden on select dates throughout the summer. The Milwaukee County Traveling Beer Gardens serve Sprecher brews out of restored fire trucks converted to beer trucks. They have two separate tours—the Roll Out the Barrel tour and the Pass Me a Pint Tour—that make weekend stops at other favorite parks across Milwaukee County.
This collection of well-known Milwaukee-area beer gardens only scratches the surface of the many establishments partaking in this time-honored tradition. Wisconsinites only get to enjoy this beloved outdoor tradition for a few months (most gardens are open from April or May to September), so make sure to stop in the cheese state this summer while the lager is cold and the bratwurst is hot.
Laura Bengs (she/her/hers) is a midwest-based freelance journalist and copywriter covering parenting, food and beverage, education, culture, and entertainment. You can find her at @BengsLaura or laurabengs.com.