In Wisconsin, A Bloody Mary Isn't Complete Unless It Has A Beer Chaser

Sep 23, 2016

A weekend brunch staple: the Bloody Mary. The vodka and tomato juice drink has become known for its garnishes, which tower over other cocktails. Garnishes in Milwaukee may include asparagus spears, jumbo shrimp, even a piece of brisket or a miniature hamburger.

And if you order a Bloody Mary in Wisconsin, there's something else that sets it apart: the beer chaser. Bubbler Talk question asker Susi noted that she's only seen it served here. She's not alone in the observation.

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"We were literally just talking about this," said David Sage of New Berlin. He was having brunch last weekend at Sobelman's Pub N Grill in Milwaukee's Menomonee Valley, with his friend, Ali Borchers, who was visiting.

Brian Wakefield assembles Bloody Marys during Sunday brunch at Sobelman's
Credit Ann-Elise Henzl Reporter Milwaukee Public Radio

"I'm from Iowa and I have never had a beer chaser after a Bloody Mary," Borchers said.

Borchers says she wasn't sure how to react when she ordered a Bloody Mary at Sobelman's and also got a small beer.

"They're like, 'here you go.' And I said, 'is this normal?' And they looked at me like I was crazy," Borchers said.

Borchers sipped just a tiny bit of the chaser, uncertain about the tradition. But Sage imbibed his.

"OK, so my argument for the chaser is it cuts a little bit of the savory down with a little bit of bitter," Sage said.

Sobelman's owner Dave Sobelman agrees that the flavors make a good fit. But he admits he's not sure why people began serving the drinks together.

"Best I can come up with, it's just a part of our culture," Sobelman says.

Melissa Labonge of Nashville was in Milwaukee for work, when she decided to try the Bloody Mary at Sobelman's
Credit Ann-Elise Henzl Reporter Milwaukee Public Radio

Sobelman says Milwaukee is "America's Beer Capital," and small glasses of beer -- the size of the chasers he serves -- have been around for decades. When he was a kid, people in neighborhood taverns nursed them.

"There'd be men who are retired, and you just sit at the corner bar, you drink your tiny glass of beer, you're sipping on it for hours while you're watching Hawaii Five-0, whatever they would watch, The Honeymooners," Sobelman said.

Sobelman guesses that at some point someone realized a small glass of beer would go nicely with a Bloody Mary.

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Matt Langoehr shared his thoughts on the chaser's origin, while preparing a Bloody Mary at the White House in Bay View. He said for years, Wisconsin drinkers have ordered "a shot and a beer," using the beer to "chase" the liquor.

"It's kind of like the 'water back.' When you order something neat or on the rocks like a bourbon, it's standard to hand a small side of water with it too, just to kind of wash the burn down," Langoehr said. So, he says, when the Bloody Mary arrived on the scene, it must have occurred to someone that beer would do a good job "chasing" the thick, spicy drink.

Historian Jim Draeger confirms that chasers were established before the 1950s, which is when Bloody Marys began to catch on. He's co-author of Bottoms Up: A Toast to Wisconsin's Historic Bars and Breweries.

Just a few of the garnishes that make their way into a Sobelman's Bloody Mary
Credit Ann-Elise Henzl Reporter Milwaukee Public Radio

"You can certainly find chasers in Minnesota, parts of Iowa, Illinois, Michigan, but kind of the heart of the chaser is in Wisconsin," Draeger said. He added, he does not know why that's the case, other than that it's "tradition and custom." "You know, some things are, just because they are."

Draeger says while chasers in general are regional, he believes the Bloody Mary beer chaser is most often found in this state. Yet while it's well-loved among fans, Draeger believes the tradition is dying out. "The Bloody Mary itself is getting more ambitious. There's a lot more attention paid to the garnish. So in some ways, the garnish is starting to replace the chaser, I think."

As far as beer lovers such as Chris Ranson are concerned, what matters is not the prevalence of the chaser but rather, its quality. She's with Lakefront Brewery in Milwaukee.

"The beer should accent that Bloody Mary flavor, and if you have something that doesn't do that, then (you) might as well not have it," Ranson said.

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