The Most Important Beers in Wisconsin Brewing History: A 12-Pack of Leaders & Legends

Historic Wisconsin beers selected by Doug Hoverson // Photo by Tj Turner

Few places on earth are more synonymous with beer than Wisconsin. Names like Pabst, Schlitz, and Miller spread the fame of the state worldwide while many amazing beers were seldom available beyond a 50-mile radius of the brewery.

Ranking the most important beers in Wisconsin history is only slightly less controversial than ranking its “best” beers. Several of the brands on this list are memorable for factors other than taste. These beers have stood the test of time, advanced the industry, and became important economic and cultural touchstones.

To keep this list to a 12-pack, many extraordinary examples of the brewers’ and marketers’ arts had to be left on the shelf. The beers of Franz Falk were considered by many locals to be the best in Milwaukee during the 1880s, though after two major fires the company was absorbed by Pabst. The breweries of Janesville produced an impressive variety of ales in the late 19th century. Ripon Brewing Co. brewed a 12% ABV ale called Old Derby in the 1930s. 

And modern crafts like Central Waters’ Peruvian Morning, Capital’s Autumnal Fire, Lakefront’s New Grist, and Tyranena’s Bitter Woman either defined their categories or paved the way for their style in Wisconsin. Kingsbury Brew was the only near-beer that brought a small regional brewery to a national market. I’d rather not save space for a near-beer, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t start by pointing out the state’s near-Champagne.

Honorable Mention: Miller High Life, Miller Brewing Co. (Milwaukee) 

High Life spent years as a lesser-known national brand until after World War II, when it became an international sensation. Indeed, High Life’s mention here is earned by management’s success at reinventing the beer periodically. 

Frederick C. Miller brought in renowned industrial designer Brooks Stephens to create the “soft cross” logo in 1954, replacing the old-fashioned Girl in the Moon for a more modern look. Later, the “Champagne of Bottle Beers” slogan from 1907 was replaced with a more working class appeal: “If you’ve got the time, we’ve got the beer.” The company even made a selling point of High Life’s clear bottles.

But High Life doesn’t quite crack our top 12 because its many memorable ad campaigns and indeed the beer itself followed a path already paved by its neighbors—survival alone isn’t enough. With that, and hoping to provoke some fun and respectful conversation—here’s the list.

12. Dunkel Weizen, Hibernia Brewing Co. (Eau Claire) 

Hibernia, located in the former Walter Brewing Co., was the first modern craft brewery in Wisconsin. They earn additional points for boldness. Honestly, what brewery thinks to start with a dunkelweizen—a style seldom made at any prior point in American history? It was way ahead of its time, and it was a good beer. It was made for less time than any other beer on this list, but it showed the way for other craft brewers to come.

11. Wisconsin Belgian Red, New Glarus Brewing Co. (New Glarus) 

Dan Carey’s homage to the epic fruit beers of Belgium put New Glarus on the international brewing map. The success of this product encouraged them and other Wisconsin breweries to experiment with other fruit and eventually other microorganisms—leading to Wisconsin becoming among the leading states in brewing sour beers. The tall, wax-dipped bottles became one of the earliest sought-after craft beer souvenirs from the state.

10. Augsburger, Huber Brewing Co. (Monroe)

Augsburger showed that smaller breweries had a road to survival other than cutting prices. Huber Brewing acquired the assets of the defunct Potosi Brewing Co., including its Augsburger label, and created a full-flavored beer that became one of the few viable competitors to Michelob in the “super-premium” category in the ‘70s and ‘80s. While the brand was eventually sold to Stroh Brewing in the mid-1980s, under Huber’s management Augsburger was sold in 40 states and company president Fred Huber was awarded the key to the city of Augsburg, Germany.

9. Old Milwaukee, Jos. Schlitz Brewing Co. (Milwaukee)

Remember, this is about importance, not transcendent flavor. Old Milwaukee was Schlitz’s “popular price” label—comparable to Pabst’s Red, White & Blue or Busch Bavarian. What allowed these beers to be sold at a lower price (aside from ingredient costs) was the fact that very few advertising dollars were put behind the brands. But in the mid-1960s Schlitz began to promote Old Milwaukee heavily and the beer became the fastest-growing brand in the country as well as the national baseline for cheap beer. (And the notorious ads featuring the Swedish Bikini Team were produced several years after the sale of the company to Stroh Brewing Co. of Detroit.)

8. Schlitz Malt Liquor, Jos. Schlitz Brewing Co. (Milwaukee)

Again: importance, not flavor. Schlitz used its marketing muscle to take malt liquor national. Until the 1960s, malt liquors (higher-strength lager beers, typically above 6% ABV) were not a premium product and brands such as Country Club, Stite, and Colt 45 were regional products. As with Old Mil’, Schlitz spent millions on advertising to dominate the category. The ads from the late 1970s and early 1980s were probably the most entertaining beer ads other than the Miller Lite All-Stars. (The Platters vs. Kool & the Gang; Richard Roundtree doing Shaft; Don Adams reprising Maxwell Smart—it’s hard to top these.)

7. Leinenkugel Bock, Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Co. (Chippewa Falls) 

Bock beer—the robust, amber German lager—was the most important seasonal beer in pre-Prohibition America, and recovered much of its popularity after Repeal. However, the extra cost of ingredients and the struggle for shelf space and tap handles made bock a liability for many brewers. While a few small breweries continued to make bock beer through the 1970s and 1980s, Leinie’s bock was the most widely available and the brand given the most advertising support. (Remember the ads proclaiming it was so thick you could stand a pencil upright in it? Okay, are you over 50? Sorry.) Bock beer kept the idea of seasonal beer alive through the era of light, fizzy beer until craft brewers were able to create a mind-boggling array of seasonal styles.

6. Old Style, G. Heileman Brewing Co. (La Crosse)

At the turn of the 20th century, Heileman launched a new product called Old Times Lager. A couple of years later, it was renamed Old Style Lager and the beer propelled Heileman from third-place status in La Crosse to eventually becoming one of the five biggest breweries in the nation. Recently retired Heileman brewmaster Randy Hughes recalls commuting home to Sparta and never being out of sight of a truck hauling Old Style to Chicago. The “World’s Largest Six Pack” of storage tanks at the brewery proudly displayed the Old Style can design.

5. Point Special, Stevens Point Brewery (Stevens Point)

In 1972, few people outside of Portage County had heard of Point Special, other than beer can collectors attracted to its bright blue cans. But in 1973, Mike Royko, the acerbic Chicago newspaper columnist, rated Point Special as the best-tasting American beer in an unscientific but widely publicized blind taste test. Instantly, Point Special became the nationally known symbol of small-town beer. The small plant was unable to keep up with demand which came from as far away as India and Hong Kong. The desire to travel to Point to pick up the coveted brand was a forerunner of modern beer tourism.

4. Spotted Cow, New Glarus Brewing Co. (New Glarus)

New Glarus introduced Spotted Cow in the brewery’s fourth year and the “Wisconsin Farmhouse Ale” brewed with flaked barley and a hint of corn became an immediate hit. The biggest impact of Spotted Cow was that it paved the way for craft beers into many Badger State bars and taverns that previously were unwilling to take a chance on a brand other than the mass-market lagers. Not only that, its success has provided New Glarus Brewing the financial resources to develop adventurous beers and provide an employee-centered workplace.

3. Schlitz Lager, Jos. Schlitz Brewing Co. (Milwaukee)

It really was the “Beer that Made Milwaukee Famous.” Though Joseph Schlitz was not the founder of the business (that was August Krug), and though he died in 1875 before the company gained its greatest fame, it was Schlitz’s name that appeared on signs, saloons, bottles, and cans with ubiquity. By the 1890s, Schlitz beer could be found all over the world. The Schlitz Palm Garden in Milwaukee was one of the most opulent indoor beer gardens in the world. After Prohibition, Schlitz continued to grow in popularity, and was the best-selling beer in the country for many years—Schlitz was the last brewery other than Anheuser-Busch to hold the top spot among American brewers. Unfortunately, in the 1970s Schlitz beer suffered from quality control problems and became a case study in how not to respond to a public relations crisis.

2. Lite Beer from Miller (aka Miller Lite), Miller Brewing Co. (Milwaukee)

It wasn’t the first (or even the second or third) low-calorie beer. But Miller Brewing took a label acquired as an afterthought from Meister Brau and made it the most important new style of beer since Pilsner over a century earlier. Copycats abounded, and eventually passed Lite in sales, but Lite remains as a testimony to the skill of the brewmasters (you try to brew this!) and the genius of the advertising teams (mostly McCann-Erickson of Minneapolis). The lines from the Miller Lite All-Stars commercials became cultural touchstones for a generation: “Tastes Great! Less Filling!” “I also love the easy opening can!”

1. Pabst Blue Ribbon, Pabst Brewing Co. (Milwaukee)

A common myth declares that “PBR” earned its blue ribbon at the Columbian Exposition of 1893, but Phillip Best Brewing Co. (as it was then known) had been tying blue ribbons around the neck of Best Select since the early 1880s. Blue Ribbon helped Pabst become the first American brewery to brew one million barrels of beer in a year (in 1893) and the famous brand was available around the world. Blue Ribbon remained one of the top sellers after Prohibition, but couldn’t quite pass Schlitz or Budweiser. Pabst Brewing Co. went out of business in 1996, but PBR staged a comeback as a contract-brewed hipster brand sold in 16-ounce tallboy cans. Because it was bigger earlier, and managed to reinvent itself in the modern era, it edges into the top spot. “What’ll you have? Pabst Blue Ribbon!”