I was so absorbed looking at my dashboard GPS that I nearly hit a wild pig that ran across the road in front of me. Was I driving across south Georgia or the Carolinas? Nope, I was on my way to Woodman, in Grant County, near Boscobel and the Wisconsin River. There, in a building decorated with signs indicating "Deer Registration," "Bait & Tackle - this way," and "U.S. Post Office," I found the Whistle Stop Restaurant and Brewery.
The Whistle Stop has an interesting history. Woodman was once known as the "End of the Dinky," a reference to its being the terminal point of a narrow-gauge steam locomotive line that connected Woodman with towns like Boscobel and Fennimore from 1878 to 1926. At the very end of the line was a railroad turntable that rotated the engine for its return route. The Whistle Stop sits where the train (called the Dinky) dropped the mail, signaling its arrival with a toot of its whistle as it approached the turntable.
Today, the tracks are abandoned, and the Whistle Stop is one of the few visible signs of commerce in Woodman, population 96. It does double-duty as the post office, and brewmaster Dennis Erb takes turns with his mother, Leslie, in sorting the morning's mail for local town folk.
The Erbs acquired the Whistle Stop in 2008. They'd been living in Milwaukee when they decided they wanted to find a small town and open a business.
Dennis Erb wasn't as much into beer as he was mixed drinks when he took over the Whistle Stop, but he borrowed a relative's home-brewing books and recipe guides and taught himself how to brew. Leslie helps in the kitchen and tends bar.
The Whistle Stop looks like many a small-town Wisconsin tavern; there's not much indication that beer is being brewed on site. The taps are tucked away in the corner, labeled by hand with white and blue masking tape.
Erb uses the tavern's kitchen for the brewing site, and he has about 20 10-gallon oak barrels that he uses as fermenters. It's a system that is somewhere between a large home-brew operation and the smallest of commercial brewpubs. Erb does it all himself and says the most he can produce in a year is about 220 barrels. (By comparison, Middleton's Capital Brewery turns out about 24,000 barrels annually.)
Choices for beer at the Whistle Stop change frequently, and several are available in 12-ounce bottles to take home. Among the standard brews on hand is Erb's American Wheat, made with just a touch of Wisconsin honey. It's a hazy gold beer, light and bubbly with a subtle sweetness. An amber-colored bock is called Dark Tunnel, a reference to the area's railroad history. It's a medium- to full-bodied lager with a rich brown color and sweetness from additions of molasses. The Rye Porter is a dark black beer with a semi-sweet chocolate maltiness. It finishes with a smokey-dryness from the rye.
The Irish Stout was the pick of my trip. It's an oatmeal stout that's dry-hopped with Willamette, giving it some firm bitter tones. Overall it's a smooth beer because it's served on a nitrogen tap line. Patrons may also find a few fruit-flavored beers and several seasonals.
Later this summer, Erb's Jamarillo, a blond ale made with Amarillo Hops and infused with jalapeÃo peppers, will heat up the taps. On my visit I sampled both a Lime Brown Ale with a tart lime flavor and a Ginger Pale Ale with a hint of spicy pepper to the finish.
On the lighter side of the beer menu is Whistle Stop 77 (a play on "Miller 64," Miller's 64-calorie light beer), a light golden, very clean-flavored pilsner-like brew.
The food choices at the Whistle Stop include a selection of sandwiches from chicken to prime rib, plus burgers and pizzas. On Fridays, what else but a fish fry? You can also get a good beer and cheeseburger for under $6.
This is a brewpub to appreciate for what it is - a small-town tavern looking for its niche among discriminating local beer drinkers. And Dennis Erb can pretty much say he knows all the locals - after all, when he's not serving them beer, he's sorting their mail.
Whistle Stop Restaurant and Brewery
401 Main St., Woodman
Open daily 9 am; call for closing hours.