Beers of the Big Ten: The Brews Fans Love
Football and beer: the perfect autumn pairing. Football is the ideal sport for socializing and, of course, sampling a favorite brew. Brewpubs become gathering spots for game fans to stoke the fire, toast a victory, or lament defeat with a soothing beverage. In many college towns, the names of brews and pubs pay homage to a beloved team. Then, of course, there’s tailgating. There is something about a bundled figure, on a brisk fall afternoon, enjoying food and drink in less than perfect conditions that screams “football fan.”
More than a beverage to consume on the sidelines, beer has a historical and symbolic link to the game. Football fans and beer lovers share in their sense of camaraderie. College football fans are fiercely loyal to their teams and their respective conferences. Regional bias adds yet more fuel to the sometimes blazing fealty, with inevitable debates about whom, or which, is superior. Beer aficionados are little different—they are often staunch in their love for styles, brands or regional inclinations. The debates are more subdued but no less inspired.
College football and brewing also share a chronology, as both were popularized in the latter half of the 19th century. Nowhere is this connection more apparent than The Big Ten. Famous for its physical, take-no-prisoners style of football, the member universities cut a latitudinal swath across the upper Midwest and Great Lakes, which geographically casts a cultural mentality common to all of the members.
The Big Ten universities range from Iowa to Penn State in the east. Every state in between has at least one conference member. The region is also the birthplace of professional football. The earliest teams rimmed the Great Lakes in small, working-class cities whose residents were enamored of both football and beer.
Primarily immigrants from central and eastern Europe, these new Americans brought their brewing skill and love for beer with them. As they were accustomed to imbibing lager beers in their homeland, they brewed the same in America. The affinity for bottom-fermentation endures, though all modern styles of beers are well-represented, making the region unique in the United States.
The Big Ten states of Pennsylvania, Indiana, Wisconsin, Ohio and Illinois were among the most prodigious brewing states of the 19th century. The cool climate and often hilly terrain provided the perfect environment. Today, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania are hotbeds of the modern American brewing scene.
Historically, football was just as reflective of the populace. Blue-collar football teams composed of farmers, factory workers, lumberjacks, and coal miners made for some rugged games on hardscrabble fields, a style that is still synonymous with the Big Ten.
Some of college football’s oldest rivalries are found in the Big Ten. Wisconsin and Minnesota have the longest skein of battles, at 112 games. Michigan versus Ohio State is easily one of the fiercest tilts in college football and is considered by some to be the most engaging of all athletic contests. Massive alumni bases and gargantuan stadiums, some of which can hold over 100,000, only enhance the festive atmosphere, which builds to a crescendo on game day. Fans set aside a whole day, if not a weekend, to indulge themselves in the frenzy of the game and its peripheral activities.
To explore the beer haunts of the Big Ten is to explore college football history itself. The names Butkus, Nitschke, Warfield and Nagurski are synonymous with Midwestern football and conjure up images of olden times. Griffin, Carter and Brady symbolize the new Big Ten, more wide open, but no less tough. The Big Ten has never shed its image as a blue-collar conference, with a nod to modern tastes. And so it is with the region’s beer, true to its roots, with plenty of contemporary flair and style, and a solid dose of savvy. The Big Ten’s gridiron stars and beers are worthy of legendary status.
So let’s strap on the gear and take a run up the gut, with a few jukes here and there, through Big Ten country and head for brewing pay dirt. Both the wizened beer veteran and the curious rookie should be satisfied.
University of Wisconsin Badgers
Situated between Lakes Mendota and Monona in Madison, UW is quintessentially Wisconsin. Its beloved football team, with a hard-nosed, grinding style, befits its mascot. Winner of three Big Ten championships in recent years, coach Barry Alvarez preaches straightforward and mistake-free football. Apparently, the local brewers share his philosophy. The city has few rivals when it comes to the beer scene in a university town. Madison has three brewpubs near campus, Great Dane, J. T. Whitney’s and Angelic. Nearby are two world-renowned breweries, New Glarus and Capital, winners of numerous national and international awards. There’s nary a glitch in either’s beer portfolio, most of which is available in bottles. Homespun Lake Louie Brewery in Arena makes small batches of beer to perfection. The spiffy Tyranena Brewing Co. in Lake Mills produces five regulars and four seasonals, all bottled. The selection makes coolers at Badger games among the happiest around.
After the game, check out the Student Union, with seating for hundreds, German décor, and numerous local brews on draft. The plaza outside rises just a couple feet above beautiful Lake Mendota. Local hero Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch, a native of Wisconsin and perhaps its most memorable player, is worthy of a toast on a fall football afternoon.
Penn State University Nittany Lions
A member of the Big Ten for about a decade, Penn State is a perfect fit. Known as “Linebacker University” for its tough, wide-ranging defensive marauders, Penn State is widely respected among football fans as an honorable foe. Coach Joe Paterno is an institution, as revered as the team itself. Excellence across the board is the modus operandi for Penn State, with solid, rather than flashy, players the norm. Dave Robinson, Jack Ham, and modern madman, Lavar Arrington, have wreaked havoc over the decades with lessons learned at Penn State. Hundreds of superb high school gridders ensure a steady stock of rough-hewn kids whose passion is Penn State football.
Pennsylvania’s beer culture is vital and diverse. Its most venerable microbrewery is Stoudt’s, in Adamstown, whose portfolio features both ales and lagers. Victory Brewing is equally eye-popping and even more diverse, with hophead delights Prima Pils and Hop Devil, and hard-hitters like Golden Monkey Tripel and Storm King Imperial Stout. Tröegs Brewing is yet another stellar operation.
Otto’s Pub and Brewery, State College’s only brewpub, is a great place to get wound up or wind down. Run by Penn State grads, it has hand-pumped ale and an authentic roggenbier. For a pint of Pennsylvania’s finest, check out Zeno’s Pub, a convenient jaunt from campus, featuring numerous taps.
Ohio State University Buckeyes
OSU has fought for Big Ten supremacy more often than not in the past 45 years. They were famous for the “three yards and a cloud of dust” offense advocated by the gruff Woody Hayes. Until Archie Griffin ushered in a more up-tempo style of football with his slashing, dashing style in the ’70s, Ohio State had no flash to go along with its smash. OSU fields teams with outstanding athleticism, and pro football rosters are loaded with the sleekest of them all, wide receivers and defensive backs, who hail from Ohio State. High school football in Ohio is a religion. Nearly every kid in the state dreams of one day donning the buckeye-slathered silver helmet of Ohio State and playing in front of 100,000 worshipping fans.
With a busy and selective beer landscape, Columbus is home to several brewpubs. Barley’s Smokehouse and Brewpub has two locations and comes with high praise from Buckeye beer lovers. Hand-pulled cask ale is available among an impressive range of brews from pilsner to barley wine. Gordon Biersch has a brewpub in Columbus. Known far and wide for its mastery of German lagerbiers, Biersch never disappoints with its märzen, dunkel and export. Rounding out the starting lineup is the Columbus Brewing Co. and The Elevator Brewery and Draught Haus. Columbus Brewing has been in business for 15 years, a quality litmus test. Elevator keeps a dozen beers on tap, including Ole Pen Nitro Stout, a rare American-made, nitro-dispensed brew.
Great Lakes Brewing Co. in Cleveland is one of finest in the United States. Its much-fêted brews, such as Dortmunder Gold and Edmund Fitzgerald Porter, should accompany any Buckeye football party.
University of Michigan Wolverines
Perhaps no football mascot is more appropriate than Michigan’s wolverine. Tenacious, relentless, adaptive, and nearly impossible to conquer, the Wolverines’ sustained success is astounding. The keys are versatility and grit. Certainly, the mercurial players like Desmond Howard and Anthony Carter get the ink, but Michigan excels in the trenches, the blue-collar backbone of any great team. The yeoman mentality has made many a quarterback successful, too.
The brewing culture in Michigan has blossomed in the past 15 years. Kalamazoo Brewing Co., makers of Bell’s beer, is perhaps the most recognizable. Its regular roster is fairly straightforward and excellent. The Two Hearted Ale (IPA) rivals any. Seasonally, Kalamazoo is stellar, with a wit for summer and several brews for the cooler months, including Third Coast Old Ale and a Java Stout. Most are bottled.
Should you find yourself in the greater Detroit area before or after the game, don’t miss the Kuhnhenn Brewery in Warren. Quickly gaining fame as one of the most innovative and eclectic breweries in the entire Midwest, it’s a straightforward place that is all about beer.
After the game, slake your thirst at one of Ann Arbor’s three brewpubs. Arbor Brewing Co. offers two cask ales, among other brews; Grizzly Peak produces a range of ales; and Leopold Brothers specializes in German beers, including a schwarzbier.
Michigan State University Spartans
Though Michigan State is better known as of late for its basketball teams, its football fans are no less ardent and enthusiastic than any others. The rivalries with hated Michigan and Notre Dame keep the town rambunctious during the fall. Back in the mid-1960s, Michigan State was on top of the college football world with a fearsome defense led by Bubba Smith, he of beer commercial fame, and the rangy George Webster. Gene Washington and Herb Adderley are other famous alumni. Michigan State’s style of ball today is best exemplified by wide receivers Plaxico Burress and Charles Rogers, strong and tall players who are adept at wrestling the ball away from the skilled defensive backs that seem in endless supply in the Big Ten.
Southern Michigan is one of the best places in the United States to indulge in a variety of excellent beer. Many of the breweries have a beer bar where patrons can get a fresh pint or bottled beer to go. Most have an extensive selection of seasonals. Whether tailgating or hosting a party, you’ll find the selection of brews awesome. Fill your cooler with New Holland in Holland, Arcadia in Battle Creek, and Founders in Grand Rapids. Then guard it carefully.
University of Minnesota Golden Gophers
The University of Minnesota has in recent years fielded some entertaining, if not powerful, football teams. They give the Michigans and Ohio States of the world fits when they meet. But UM has produced some of the toughest and best athletes ever to play college football and has five alumni in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Perhaps the perfect gridiron name ever came from UM. Bronislaw “Bronko” Nagurski was a one-man wrecking crew for the Gophers in the late 1920s. He was the epitome of toughness and essentially defined football of the era. Bud Grant, who starred in three sports at the university, was a stoic but beloved ambassador for Minnesota football. Quintessentially Minnesotan, he spends his time now mostly hunting and fishing. Carl Eller, Bobby Bell, and Leo Nomellini were also among the best of their era. The bitter rivalry with Wisconsin transfers to the pro league, where the Vikings and Packers battle twice annually.
UM sits in the “land of sky blue water,” with dozens of glacial lakes scattered around the Twin Cities. The Cities are vivacious year-round and the social scene is vibrant. Not to be missed is the Minneapolis Town Hall Brewery. Within walking distance of the university and the football stadium, it is quickly becoming as celebrated as Minnesota’s legendary gridiron stars. The Masala Mama IPA may be the best selection, but a range of excellent brews awaits. Some are cask ales, some are Belgian, and all are delectable. For cooler fodder, look for bottled Summit brews. The porter, IPA, EPA and malty Oktoberfest are definitely tailgate-worthy.
Purdue University Boilermakers
Purdue has been a veritable quarterback factory with Len Dawson kicking off the lineage in the ’50s. Ten years later, Bob Griese teamed with perhaps Purdue’s greatest player, Leroy Keyes, to form the most formidable tandem in school history. They defeated the mighty USC Trojans in the 1967 Rose Bowl in Purdue’s finest moment. After a 30-year dearth of success, Drew Brees arrived in the late ’90s and his daring and spirited play put Purdue back in the Rose Bowl in 2001. The resurgence has lasted. Behind the success is head coach Joe Tiller, who has taken the Boilermakers to seven consecutive bowl games. Famous alumnus and Hall of Fame football coach, Hank Stram, would be proud. There is reason again to be festive on fall afternoons in West Lafayette.
The state of Indiana was a leader in brewing a hundred or so years ago. Today, its beer scene is experiencing, like its football program, a rebirth of sorts. Indiana is now home to about two dozen breweries and brewpubs. Just a couple of miles from the university is the Lafayette Brewing Co., whose unfiltered brews include “Eighty-Five,” an IPA with 85 IBU; a rotating cask ale; and some seasonals. If it’s homegrown Indiana beer that you seek for the football party, look no further than Three Floyds Brewing Co. of Munster. Feeling adventurous? Try the Dreadnaught IPA or Dark Lord Imperial Stout.
Indiana University Hoosiers
Hoosier nation is first and foremost fanatical about basketball. Every year, however, Indiana has three “rivalry” football games: Purdue, Kentucky and Michigan State. The state rivalry with Purdue goes back over 100 years. They are natural enemies in all sports. Kentucky shares a border with Indiana, and as the two schools are often similar in talent, the match-up is almost always a good one. Both have adopted similar styles of play—wide open, and a pleasure to watch. Jitterbug players thrive in the system and one of the most entertaining and valuable players of recent memory is Indiana’s Antwaan Randle El. No player did more for his team, or was more of a thorn in the paw, than he. He now skitters in the National Football League.
The Bloomington Brewing Co., near the university, offers some award-winning brews, some on cask, and growlers to go. Big Stone Stout is a nice example of an Irish dry stout. The restaurant is first-rate. BBC’s brews are also sold in many restaurants and pubs around Bloomington. As for the cooler, revisit Three Floyds, as there’s more than enough to keep you busy, or look for some of Backroad Brewery’s fare. Football fans are football fans, and with three rivalries, there is no reason not to enjoy some great college action and beer in Bloomington.
The University of Iowa Hawkeyes
The Iowa Hawkeyes have experienced a football renaissance within the last few years and are now a force to be reckoned with in the Big Ten. It was a matter of finding the right coach, one who could recruit well and convince his players that his system is that of a winner. Iowa has enjoyed its best two-year run in 80 years. The state is renowned for its wrestling prowess, a product of farm boys and their work ethic, toughness and dedication. Football coach Kirk Ferentz has instilled the same in his players. Tough line play, hard-hitting defenders, and a dash of pure athleticism keep the Hawkeyes’ opponents on their heel. Robert Gallery, a soft-spoken Adonis, is symbolic of Iowa’s recent success. Solid and understated, something Iowans can relate to. It seems they might be a persistent foe for some time.
The upswing of the football team no doubt has encouraged a bit more revelry among the fans. Iowa City is a hip college town that can appreciate good beer. There may be no breweries or brewpubs in town, but the beer selection is still outstanding. John’s Grocery, a local epicurean landmark, offers beers from throughout Big Ten country, including Millstream, Gray’s, Three Floyds, Sprecher, Capital, Summit, Goose Island, New Holland and Schell. Millstream, located in Amana, is just 25 miles away. Millstream, founded in 1985, has endured as Iowa’s premier microbrewery, and it makes an eclectic assortment of brews. Its dialectically correct “Warsh Pail Ale” is just one of the selections. Take some to the party; people will thank you.
University of Illinois Fighting Illini
With football alumni like Butkus, Nitschke, and Red “The Galloping Ghost” Grange, it’s hard not to think of UI as a university with a great football history. Butkus and Nitschke took their grudges to the NFL. Grange was the single most important player in the early years of pro football. Butkus is still the standard by which all defenders are measured. But perhaps the most important gridiron figure of them all is UI’s very own George Halas. Halas never left Illinois in his football career. He helped found the National Football League, played in it, and then coached the Chicago Bears for 40 years. Football in America probably would be stunted were it not for Halas. History, indeed.
The University of Illinois won the Big Ten title in 2001. As the fans look to regain past glory, they remain unwavering in their optimism. So it is with the beer lovers of Champaign-Urbana. No brewpubs or breweries grace the city, but a couple of decent package stores provide a much-needed oasis of Midwestern craft brews. Picadilly Beverage Shop in Champaign usually has some Founders, Bell’s and Three Floyds available. The Corkscrew in Urbana has a similar selection. One could do a lot worse than that.
Northwestern University Wildcats
The Wildcats are not what one would call a perennial football power, but they did garner a trip to the Rose Bowl in 1996 with a magical season. Northwestern is considered on par with an Ivy League university and, as such, is sometimes overmatched on the field. Its Rose Bowl coup in ’96 was sweet justice for a team that had had enough sand kicked in its face by the bullies of the Big Ten. Perhaps the most cerebral player ever to don a football uniform is a graduate of Northwestern, Otto Graham. A tailback at NU in the 1940s but a quarterback in the pros, he led his Cleveland Browns squad to an unprecedented 10 straight championship games in two pro leagues. He was the victor in seven.
In 1855, Northwestern passed an ordinance that no liquor could be sold within 4 miles of campus. Remnants of the law are still in place, at least symbolically, so the beer scene around campus is less than enlightened. Thankfully, Chicago, one of the best beer cities in the United States, is a short commute away and most of its watering holes have Midwestern brews among the options. Northside pubs like The Clark Street Ale House, The Hop Leaf, and The Map Room are near enough via public transportation to make the trip worthwhile. One of the best breweries/brewpubs in the Midwest is a short distance away, too. Goose Island bottles many of its excellent beers and has an array of others on tap. The Piece brewpub has a mouth-watering lineup, a few guest taps, and growlers to go.
The boom of craft brewing in the United States has returned Big Ten country to its past glory in regard to beer. The quality of football, however, has never waned. If you are a beer fan, a trip through the region would be satisfying, whether you are looking for finesse or punch. Are you ready for some football?
K. Florian Klemp
K. Florian Klemp is an award-winning homebrewer and writer. He is also an unabashed Big Ten football fan from the heart of Big Ten country.