The Southwestern Wisconsin town of Woodman has a population just over 100. At one time it was the terminus of the “Dinky”, a narrow-guage railroad that connected it to the towns of Boscobel and Fennimore. Of course at that time Woodman was a bit more bustling, with residents numbering in the thousands. The Dinky used to drop mail it passed the post office in Woodman, announcing its arrival with a toot of its whistle. The Dinky tracks are still in the ground behind the Whistle Stop Restaurant, and the kitchen still doubles as the town’s post office.
In almost every way the Whistle Stop is what you would expect from a restaurant/tavern in a tiny Wisconsin town. The décor is simple; it’s relatively unadorned save for the Bud and Miller Lite posters on the walls. The tables are covered with the requisite red and white checked tablecloths. There is taco night on Tuesday and an all-you-can-eat Friday night fish fry. A small number of locals sit around the bar talking and drinking beer. On a busy night they might be joined by bikers. The thing that makes the Whistle Stop unique is the beer that they are drinking. It’s brewed on sight.
After Dennis Erb and his mother Leslie bought the restaurant in 2008, Dennis started looking for a way to make the place a little more special. He started making beer there in 2010. With no prior brewing experience, he has leapt right in, constructing a home-made, half-barrel, electric brewery in the basement. During summer high-season he brews every other day. That’s essential given the six house-brewed taps and numerous bottle selections he keeps available. He also sells a limited amount of bottles in area stores.
Erb says that his brewery is like “Dogfish Head on a smaller scale.” The comparison is not entirely undeserved. Many of the beers in his lineup are one of a kind. There’s pistachio kölsch, hazelnut red stout, the minty-bitter Arctic IPA, and Rose Red, a red-ale brewed with rose hips and rose extract. He takes inspiration from all around him. Sometimes it’s something he sees in the grocery store. Or maybe he reads about an exotic location and sets his mind to translating it into beer. As he talks about it, the joy he derives from the process is evident. The experiments don’t always work, but when they do they are surprisingly tasty. And you have to give him credit for going out on a limb in a place where Busch Light is king.
Ordering beer at the Whistle Stop is a bit of a crap shoot. About half of the beers I tried were sour; unintentional, but not always entirely bad. Those that hadn’t “gone Belgian” were actually pretty good. There was the deceptively drinkable Amber Bock, a dangerous seven-percenter that drank more like it was four or five percent. I approached the mint-infused Arctic IPA with trepidation. It ended up being one of my favorites of the night. While the smell of spearmint was intense, the flavor was just enough to enhance the already minty Northern Brewer hops. And the floral rose-hip/rose extract ale was a downright, champagne-like delight.
The food at the Whistle Stop was good as well. My bacon double burger was prepared by postmaster Leslie Erb herself. It was delicious. The French fries were nice and crisp.
Oh, and there is supposedly a ghost.
If you tend to geek out on style guidelines or can’t control yourself when presented with a beer that’s gone over to the other side, then don’t go to the Whistle Stop. If you are looking to have fun tasting some very interesting beers and chatting up the super- friendly locals, then this place is for you. Check it out next time you find yourself in the southwest corner of Wisconsin.