Milwaukee-based Lowlands Group, which operates eight European “grand cafe” style restaurants throughout Wisconsin, took Wisconsin’s lemony “tied-house” legislation and turned it into cultural lemonade.
The organization’s name comes 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 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.”
This collaborative spirit has allowed Lowlands to become more than a typical craft beer restaurant concept. Its collaboration “biers”, including the top selling High Speed Wit, account for a large slice of its sales.
“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.”
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 local lake.
Each establishment boasts unique design elements informed by European cultural regions along with world-class beer lists, a craft cocktail program, wine, local coffee and non-alcoholic options. Constant throughout is the aim to create “gezellig,” described on the company website as “a cozy, or nice atmosphere, but 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.”
To that end, building materials are repurposed and reused in buildings whenever possible, and much of each establishment’s decor has come straight from Old Milwaukee or Europe. In fact, Lowlands Group possesses one of the largest collections of vintage enamel Belgian and European bier signs outside of the continent.
Once Upon a Time in the LBC
Through its Lowlands Brewing Collaborative (LBC), Lowlands now collaborates with both Belgian brewers and craft players local to Wisconsin to maintain its own beer roster, always operating on a handshake deal. The focus is more on quality than novelty.
“We’re always up for tasting something new,” said Herwig, “but we don’t worship at the altar of change. Good bier is the result of mastering not only a specific style, but also perfecting a specific bier.”
The newest addition to the LBC roster is a Wiesn-style Oktoberfest, the first in an episodic beer series titled “Now Playing” which supports the non-profit organization Milwaukee Film. The next beer in the series will launch in late winter.
Along with other currently unannounced collabs, Lowlands will celebrate Kwaktoberfest on September 28 at Café Benelux in downtown Milwaukee, partnering with Brouwerij Bosteels to bring a special Belgian brew to the states.
Keeping It Real
“Authenticity is a philosophical quagmire,” said Herwig. “What we do attempt to maintain is a unique point of view – and a set of corresponding values – that has been formed by our travels, our relationships, and our history.”
Lowlands presents a decidedly European experience to Wisconsinites, but in the process has become an extension of the state’s own cultural mélange.
“Wisconsin is a unique place,” Herwig said. “We talk funny. We use weird words like ‘bubbler’ and we have really distinct regional culinary and drinking traditions. We skew German in our heritage, but we have a strong streak of Norwegian and even the only community to speak Wallonian outside of Belgium… every time we return home we’re always struck by how unique our own culture was.”
To outsiders, Wisconsin’s diverse heritage and seemingly insular nature can make it seem daunting to the outsider. The former Café Bavaria’s new theme another chance for Lowland to share culture through exploration of food, drink, and the nice cozy feeling that comes when you put them together.
“The Buckatabon is inspired by the place we call home,” said Herwig. “It’s been a bit of an anthropological exercise, travelling the Northwoods of the state with the same level of openness and inquisitiveness that we normally have when in Europe… This is the first time we’ve tried to put our finger on what makes Wisconsin ‘Wisconsin.’”
Sometimes, even weird words won’t do.
“Much like ‘Gezellig,’ you can’t describe Wisconsin,” said Herwig. “You just have to experience it to fully understand it.”
Learn more about the Lowland’s Group on its website at https://lowlandsgroup.com.
Lowlands Brewing Collaborative