Berghoff & Blues Festival in Monroe, WI

Last Friday afternoon, I headed north for some well-deserved R & R... Having exited the Illinois Tollway at Beloit, it took but about 10 minutes to be in a rural area and I then headed west for the small town of Albany, Wisconsin.

Oak Hill Manor B & B in Albany, WI

After the 75+ mph of Tollway driving, the rural landscape tucked up against Route 181 – along with slower speeds – was a welcome relief; 50-55 mph was more like it. Fifteen minutes or so after leaving Beloit, I passed through the small town of Brodhead where I noted a place called Prospectors, to which I would return later for a fish fry.

A scant 10 miles north and west was the very small town of Albany, where I located the Oak Hill Manor Bed and Breakfast (now closed). The house is about 100 years old, but is as sound as ever. Run for the past year and a half by Barb and Gene Tolli, the Manor was a perfect choice; their slogan "The perfect blend of elegance and comfort" is a very good fit.

If the truth be told – as of course it must be – I have never stayed in a B & B, so not only was I a bit apprehensive, I didn’t quite know what to expect. No need… From the minute that I stepped through the old oak door at the entrance, it was clear that the Gene & Barb would take good care of me. The whole place was immaculate. The room on the second floor was spacious and had its own bathroom; the queen bed had a firm mattress and there were plenty of little “extras”.

The was a small sitting room outside of my room where there were magazines to read, a small television if I were so inclined, and there was a small refrigerator complete with a few bottles of soda, drinking water, a Blumer's root beer and a Berghoff dark. There was also a basket with some snacks that would be great before bed. Unfortunately, after returning from dinner, my head had no sooner hit the pillow than I was out like a light. The open window allowed some wonderfully fresh night air in and the quiet of the small town was almost deafening. I slept like a newborn baby…

The parlor at Oak Hill Manor

In the morning, Barb brewed some decaf coffee just for me and served picture- perfect Eggs Benedict along with fresh fruit. I ate slowly, savoring the breakfast and the quiet of the small rural town. It was going to be a great day – weather-wise – and I was looking forward to what lay ahead.

Here in the mid-west, there are few things better than great music, great beer, and great weather… other than great fishing of course.  But at least three of those things came together at the same time last weekend at the 2005 Berghoff and Blues Festival in Monroe, Wisconsin. 

Under a giant tent at the Green County Fairgrounds were assembled some of the finest musicians that music in general and blues in specific had to offer.  And although I have always loved all forms of music (rap does not count as music) I have never become all that attached to blues… at least until last Saturday.

Blues under the big tent

The “festivities” began at 11:30 am.  But let me digress a bit, because prior to the music fest, I stopped at the Huber Brewery for an informative tour, followed by a visit to the Founder’s Tap room to sample some of the Brewery’s finest products, from my favorite non-alcoholic brew: Blumers Root Beer, to several of my favorite beers – from Huber Light to Berghoff Red Ale to Berghoff Oktoberfest… with a few stops in between for several other taste treats. 

It all started in 1845, when a guy named Bissinger founded the brewery on its present site.  By 1848, 300 barrels of beer per year were being produced.  This year, 180,000 barrels of will be produced.  A lot of events and history has taken place in the last 157 years, but most importantly, the brewery still pays attention to detail – making its beer the old fashioned way with Old World recipes, care and pride – and there are plenty of awards to attest to the quality of the Berghoff family of beers.

Once at the fairgrounds, my first stop was at one of about a dozen food booths for some deep-fried cheese curds, a Berghoff Red Ale and later a German Wurst. As I munched, I listened to the sweet harmonics of The Crashers, followed by the Westside Andy/Mel Ford Band.

As Kenny Neal was about to take the stage, I had the opportunity to meet the Head Brewmaster for Berghoff, Kris Kalav. A planned brief interview turned into an informative 2 hour conversation that ranged from topics like just how yeast works in beer making, to the color, flavor and finesse required to produce the more than a dozen distinguished beers at the brewery.

Blumers Root Beer, Berghoff Octoberfest, Blumers Orange Cream Soda

Kris started as manager of the lab facility about nine years ago and has worked his way to Head Brewmaster – having once worked alongside the previous and somewhat legendary Brewmaster, Hans Kestler (remember him on TV?  “Drink a little beer” – don’t forget the German accent when you say that!). 

Kris is as easy to talk to as he is hard working.  His love for chemistry and biology is obvious; his dedication to quality and consistency are but a few of the reasons that Berghoff beer continues to gain in popularity.  Of course Kris is not solely responsible for success at the brewery; the entire company is peopled by dedicated and hardworking folks who really enjoy what they do. 

The pure water and fertile soils of the area are also important ingredients in the process.  As far as I can tell, there is a certain “magic” at Huber (now called Minhas Brewery) that is generally not found at what Kris and others would refer to as the “800 pound gorillas” (places like that baseball town in St. Louis that also make beer). 

But it is certainly obvious that Kris is proud of his work, not only the great beers he formulates and brews, the sodas as well – especially the Blumers Root Beer – Kris’s own special formulation.  It is some of the best I have ever tasted.  But try the Orange Soda too.  Kris claims that adding a scoop of vanilla ice cream to it mimics exactly the “Dreamsicle” that we used to like as kids.

Huber Brewmaster, Kris Kalav

I could easily continue… not just because the interview with Kris was incredibly informative and easy, but because I have really grown to respect and appreciate what takes place at a certain brewery in this small little town in southwestern Wisconsin. I won’t. I do need to finish on a note (pardon the pun) about the music. Shortly after my discussion with Kris ended, so did the music of Kenny Neal.

There was plenty of Blues to follow though, and I stayed for a while to dwell on the melodious sound of harp and slide guitar backed with keyboards and vocals before I exited the fair grounds and headed for the Alp and Dell Cheese Factory on the outskirts of town. I marveled at how good the music really was, and smiled at the fact that such a small town could attract so many – there must have been 4,000-5,000 people there; I was told that the number grows larger each year.

The Founder's Tap Room at Huber Brewing Co.

A short drive back north and east and I was back in Albany.  My second night at the Oak Hill Manor was just as enjoyable as my first and I slept just as well, before arising to the reality that my R & R had come to an end.  I reluctantly packed, skipped what I am sure was another marvelous breakfast and headed out. 

I took the back way home, along as many of the rural roads as I could, allowing for a little additional relaxation and time to contemplate the value of a restful weekend.  If you get a chance to sneak away for a few days, consider a night or two at the Oak Hill Manor.  There are great restaurants nearby… and a great brewery in Monroe that would love to take you on a tour.  Just don’t forget to stop in the Founder’s Tap afterwards for a few samples…

R. Karl 

Special Thanks to:

  • Noreen Rueckert - Green County Director of Tourism
  • Barb & Gene Tolli - Oak Hill Manor Bed & Breakfast
  • Everyone at the Huber Brewery, especially Kris Kalav

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