The recently opened Malt House at the corner of East Washington Avenue and Milwaukee Street is receiving high praise from those seeking the perfect pint. There are two big reasons: It serves an ever-changing beer list with more than 170 bottle and tap selections. And those beers are served over what may be the oldest wooden bar in the city.
"I love the fact that Union soldiers drank at that wooden bar," says Malt House owner Bill Rogers as he points to the central fixture inside what neighborhood locals remember as the Union House Tavern. Both the bar and back-bar were once part of the Union House hotel, built in 1858. For soldiers bound for Camp Randall, this was a last stop before reporting for duty.
"There's a good chance that those Union soldiers might have had a Fauerbach or Hausmann, which we serve today," he adds.
The Malt House's atmosphere is a combination of old corner cafe and neighborhood beer hall. "I wanted to create a place where the neighborhood comes in, a reasonably quiet place where you can sit and talk with each other while enjoying a world-class beer," says Rogers.
On a recent Saturday it was tough choosing among 150-plus bottles and 18 tap beers. Those on draft are dispensed through three imported European beer towers, each with a unique glass rinser at the base. One-third of the taps offer Wisconsin beers, another third Belgian beers, and the final six serve whatever strikes Rogers' interest at the time the distributor turns up.
You'll often find Rogers himself behind the bar. He purchased the Union House Tavern earlier this year from owner Jane Curtis, stepping down from his computer programming job at CUNA Mutual Group after nearly 20 years.
Rogers is a veteran home brewer and a four-term president of the Madison Homebrewers and Tasters Guild. He served two stints as chair of Madison's Great Taste of the Midwest, an August beer festival that, by the standards of the 5,000 who manage to obtain tickets each year, is also world-class. "If you're knowledgeable about beer, you'll find a style here that fits your mood; but if you are not that knowledgeable, we offer something that opens your eyes to great beer," says Rogers.
Ryan Haasl, a patron from the neighborhood, agrees, as he and a friend sip on a $17 bottle of Buffalo Belgian Stout from the Van Den Bossche brewery of Sint-Lievens-Esse, Belgium: "I was looking for something that you wouldn't see elsewhere."
Don't get the idea that the Malt House just sells pricey, high-alcohol beer with an attitude. While you will find several rare beers that top $20 a bottle, you'll also find local favorites from Ale Asylum, Tyranena and Capital for $3.50. While 85% of sales are beer-related, the list of spirits has tripled to around 50 since the Malt House opened back in June. "We have secret intentions to also be the best whiskey bar in town. And, the name Malt House works for both."
The Malt House features good beer in an environment devoted to personal conversations. There are no pool tables, no televisions, not even a jukebox. There's also no kitchen, but patrons can order in from places like Glass Nickel Pizza or Dimitri's Gyros.
You also won't find an average bar glass anywhere in the Malt House. Rogers obtained more than two dozen styles of glasses to be matched with specific beer styles. He feels the right glass enhances the experience by showing off color and focusing aromas, making it more enjoyable for his customers.
While Rogers may be a perfectionist, he's not a beer snob. He wants to share his appreciation of good beer. "Sometimes when I see someone standing in front of the beer board with the 'beer in the headlights' look, I'll offer to help them through the list; other times a customer will go over and help them out."
Three beers not to overlook:
- Picnic Ants from O'so Brewing (Plover, Wis.), a Belgian-style Saison. This is the first bar in Madison to be serving this new brewery's products.
- Brother Thelonious from North Coast Brewing (Fort Bragg, Calif.), a rich, malty Abbey-style ale.
- Pauwel Kwak from Brouwerij Bosteels (Belgium), a deep golden- to amber-colored beer served in what resembles a mini-yard of beer. This unique glass is thought to have been used in the 19th century by coachmen who visited Pauwel Kwak's brewery and bar.
The Malt House
2609 E. Washington Ave., 608-204-6258, 4 pm-midnight Mon.-Thurs., 4 pm-2:30 am Fri.-Sat.