If you find yourself passing through the quaint little knee-high town of Hillsboro, take a minute to turn down East Madison Street. It won’t take long before you find yourself admiring the beautiful 106-year-old historical Carnation Milk plant. Once upon a time, this factory produced condensed milk, but now it produces good beer, good food and good times. That’s right, you would’ve never guessed that there was a tourist destination restaurant and statewide brewery inside this old building — well, before it was fixed up anyway. Now the building is a true Wisconsin relic, having housed two of Wisconsin’s greatest assets: milk and beer.
The Hillsboro Brewing Company found its second home in the old factory when owners Snapper and Kim Verbsky took the bones and created something new and youthful for their community. Snapper had his eye on this building since he was a teenager, always aspiring to fix it up and make it into something new. When he married his wife, Kim, the two of them set off on an adventure to renovate the iconic building.
The exterior endured a much needed glam-up, but the interior was beautifully transformed to fit its new purpose. While the remodel maintained the industrial edge they were hoping to save, it’s more palatable with an underlying theme of chic. Right on trend, Edison bulbs dangle above the shuffle board table and neon signs speckle the distressed brick walls. A golf simulator is tucked away by the front entrance and a hang out space was added near the back. There is more than enough space to entertain, and I have no doubt that the whole town could fit in this one building. The high ceilings and metal finishings exemplify the history of the refurbish factory building, but with its own modern touch.
The lighting is soft on the eyes, but the walls radiate an energy more in line with a local pub. The staff is friendly, and it’s a small town so many of the people walking in greet each other like neighbors. It’s the kind of place where the locals come in and order the usual and the out-of-town folk come in asking ‘what’s good?’
Upstairs in the loft, we can hear the rhythmic pounding of feet as a wedding party dances along to the cues of the DJ. The music pours down the steps, followed by the heels of the bridesmaids clanking on the metal staircase. They are dressed in speakeasy attire and wearing a different sort of mask than the rest of us. Glasses chink with the cheers of celebrations and the laughter from the family in the next booth over settles into white noise. For a moment, if you close your eyes and listen, you can slip out of reality and remember what it was like to have a sliver of normalcy. When you open your eyes, the laughter continues, the celebration is ongoing, and the waitress is ready to take our order.
The Verbsky’s know their marketing, for the brewing tanks are showcased Immediately to the left when you walk in the front door, so beer is front of mind. It worked on us, so we ordered our first round: a blood orange infused beer for me and a Hillsboro Pale Ale for my friend.
The menu isn’t extensive, but as my eyes scan across each line, my mouth waters at every word. My eyes linger a little longer on the wings section, specifically one unique flavor. Intrigued by the curious name, we order an entree of Stinging Honey Garlic wings to split as an appetizer. As a full basket of these wings flies across the table towards me, I dig in immediately. The sweetness of the honey is complemented beautifully by the tinge of spice that’s all flavor and no burning aftereffects. That’s when I realized, I believe in love at first bite. Okay, maybe a little bit dramatic, but in all seriousness, I think of those wings often.
Next course: burgers. Are you really from Wisconsin if you don’t order a burger with your beer? Well, you’re really from Wisconsin if you pile your burger a mile high with brisket and queso. At Hillsboro, they call it the MORE Cowbell. To me, it felt a little like the Day-After-Thanksgiving sandwich. I’ve got to say, reading the description alone almost gave me a heart attack, but that didn’t stop me, until about halfway through when I knew I wasn’t going to finish that race.
We were running a little low by the time we finished our meals, so we ordered another round to fill in the cracks. The beer menu is almost longer than the food menu, but that’s just the way we like it in Wisconsin, after all, beer is the main course. I’ve always been more of a light and sweet beer drinker, so I was a huge fan of the blueberry Heifenweizen, Blue Hefe, whereas my friend tends to lean more towards darker beers, like the Joe Beer.
We had the privilege of getting a grand tour from Kim and Snapper themselves, and they took us through the brewery and into the back storage/shipping room as well explaining the history of the brewery and some of the beers. When they were first starting out, Snapper used to drive around the state as a traveling salesman, with his van full of beer, looking to sell to local restaurants and bars. Now they are found throughout the state of Wisconsin in restaurants, bars and stores. The pair was delightful to chat with and knew how to tell a good story.
As the last few straggling party guests filed out, we enjoyed our final drinks by the gas fire pit on the patio. The restaurant was quiet now, and we kept looking over our shoulders to make sure they hadn’t locked up. The warm sun had long since sunk behind the horizon, so I tucked my knees into my fuzzy new sweatshirt that I bought at the checkout and closed my eyes to let the fire warm my face.