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Bier, Food and Gezellig with Lowlands Group

Lowlands Group in Milwaukee, Wisconsin fosters an atmosphere of "gezellig" in its restaurants, bars and pubs throughout the state. "Gezellig" is a Dutch word that translates to a cozy atmosphere, "the feeling of seeing someone after a long absence or the warm feeling you get when spending time with friends," according to the company's website. Read on to experience how Lowlands Group creates that ambience of "gezellig" in its themed establishments.

Changing of the “Tieds”
Before Milwaukee was incorporated in 1846 and before Wisconsin became the 30th state in the Union two years later, it was building its reputation as “The Brew City,” thanks to robust European roots from Scandinavia to Bavaria.

German immigrants brought their refined Rhineland brewing traditions overseas, manifesting in turn-of-the-century powerhouse brewers like Pabst, Miller, Schlitz and Blatz, which secured their turf with “tied houses,” bars tethered to a specific brewer like mob capos to their godfather.

Together, these relationships did gangbusters business, and the law had to step in to give smaller brewers a chance. Thus, tied-house legislation was born, with the aim of trust-busting the big guys.

The Goliaths of 20th-century brewing in Wisconsin are gone or transformed, but these laws are still in place, and while they were intended to give small business owners a chance and offer variety to the consumer, they’re now doing the opposite. Under tied-house legislation, no two tiers can touch. For instance, a bartender must quit bartending if they want to start their own brewery, meaning would-be brewery founders will often skip town to set up shop somewhere less restrictive, like Chicago.

Centraal Grand Cafe & Tappery

Help From Friends
Milwaukee-based Lowlands Group, which operates eight European “grand cafe” style restaurants throughout Wisconsin, took the lemony legislation and turned it into cultural lemonade.

The organization takes its name from the coastal lowlands found in the Benelux region of Europe, along with a deep fascination for the area’s food, beverage and bicycling culture. So when the idea emerged to begin brewing collaboration beers with some of Europe’s finest brewers in 2011, it was a no-brainer.

“Due to Wisconsin’s tied-house laws,” said Dan Herwig, Director of Brand and Marketing at Lowlands Group, “we’re not legally able to brew ourselves, which led us down the road of collaborating with brewers we respected and felt a personal connection with. Jef Versele, owner of Brouwerij Van Steenberge, was crazy enough to say ‘yes’ to our first three collaborative biers, including High Speed Wit. It remains our bestselling bier by far, and our Lowlands Brewing Collaborative biers are a large percentage of our overall volume.”

Anticipating the next question, Herwig continued:

“And yes, you’ll see us refer to beer as ‘bier’ constantly. We make a distinction between the beverage you suck down after mowing the lawn and the unique liquid that results from as much – if not more attention to detail than any vintner ever spends on their craft. Bier is so variable and diverse that it requires time and focus to truly perfect as a craft.”

Cafe Hollander - Hilldale

Weird Word, Familiar Feeling
Lowlands Group has a total of eight locations across Southeastern and Central Wisconsin, including five Café Hollanders – its original concept and the first to bring Belgian beers to Wisconsin in 2006 – Café Benelux in Milwaukee’s Third Ward, Centraal Grand Café & Tappery, as well as Café Bavaria, which is being reconceived this winter as a Wisconsin-centric concept dubbed “Buckatabon,” sharing a name with a lake located north of Milwaukee.

Each of these establishments boasts unique design elements informed by European cultural regions along with world-class beer lists, a craft cocktail program that partners with local distillers and bitters companies, broad wine options, a scratch bloody mary program and a non-alcoholic program including a coffee collaboration with a local roaster. Constant throughout is the aim to create “gezellig,” described on the company website as “a cozy, or nice atmosphere that can also connote the feeling of seeing someone after a long absence, or the warm feeling you get when spending time with friends.”

“This weird Dutch word is actually our ‘why,’” said Herwig. “It’s this feeling that we try to foster in everything we do at Lowlands – from the spaces we create, to the food we serve and the experiences we offer our guests. At the end of the day, we want all of our guests to leave with this unique, hard-to-describe feeling of ‘American gezellig.’ It’s at the center of everything we do.”

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