I was driving home from Madison recently and as I was passing the small town of Mount Horeb on U.S. Highway 151 I spied a sign for the Grumpy Troll, a brew pub in town that I've been to before, but it's been a long time - over 10 years - since I was last in there. It was around 1:30 and I was sort of hungry, so I decided to stop in to get some food.
Mount Horeb describes itself as the "Troll Capital of the World". The Mount Horeb Trollway winds through the small southern Wisconsin town with trolls statues and signs along the roadway. So when the Mount Horeb Pub and Brewery - which had opened in 1998 - changed its name to the Grumpy Troll Brew Pub four years later, they got in line with the local heritage and lore.
The original brewmaster at Mount Horeb/Grumpy Troll was a young man by the name of Mark Duchow. Duchow got his start in the brewing business as a keg washer at the Water Street Brewing Co. in Milwaukee. Duchow eventually made his way up the ladder to become the brewmaster at Water Street. From there Duchow went to the Gray Brewing Co., then had a short stint at a small brewery in Oconomowoc. When the owners of the Mount Horeb Pub and Brewery got ready to open, they hired Duchow as their brewmaster.
Duchow worked for Mount Horeb Pub/Grumpy Troll for three years before going on a nomadic existence that took him to breweries/brew pubs in Iowa, Illinois, North Carolina and Texas. In 2006, Doug Welshinger - a former Army helicopter pilot and a pilot with Northwest Airlines - bought the Grumpy Troll. During a chance meeting with Duchow, he convinced the brewmaster to come back to Mount Horeb to run the brewery. Within a couple years, Duchow came up with an award winning beer - the Baltic Porter - which won a gold medal at the 2008 World Beer Cup in Denver. Duchow came up with a couple more award winning beers before leaving the Grumpy Troll in 2010 to become brewmaster and part-owner of Sweet Mullets brewpub in Oconomowoc.
Welshinger then turned to a local brewer, Mark Knoebl, who parlayed a 1997 Midwest Homebrewer of the Year award into professional stints at New Glarus Brewing Co., Sand Creek Brewing Co., and City Brewing Co., the former Old Style brewery in LaCrosse. Knoebl continued with the award winning brews and added more to the already deep list of beers offered at the Grumpy Troll. Knoebl also studied at the Siebel Institute in Chicago, the oldest brewing school in the U.S.
Toward the end of 2011, Doug Welshinger was looking to sell the business. Annette Slocum was the brewpub's accountant and she was worried that a large corporation or an outside owner who didn't care about the people of Mount Horeb or the small brewpub would come in and snatch it up. She convinced her husband Jack that they needed to buy the business and in March of 2012 the Slocum's bought the Grumpy Troll. They kept the staff - including Knoebl - intact, but changed the menu slightly and gave the brew pub a much needed sprucing up with a fresh coat of paint throughout, revamping the restrooms and putting air conditioning in the kitchen.
I found a parking spot on S. 2nd St. just up the way from the Grumpy Troll, just south of Main Street, a.k.a. the Mount Horeb "Trollway". (see map) I entered the building and food a spot at the bar. Actually, I was hoping that they had their pizza available for lunch, but the pizza oven doesn't start cranking out pies until 4 p.m. and the upstairs pizza parlor is closed during lunch hours through the week. I was given a menu and I ordered up one of the Grumpy Trolls Over and Under Pale Ale.
The building that houses the Grumpy Troll is nearly 100 years old. The original location had been an ice house before the Mount Horeb Creamery and Cheese Co. built a large brick building on the spot. Many of the dairy farmers in the area brought their cream via horse-drawn wagons. Over the years, the company expanded and the creamery built a new building next door that allowed for the production of Swiss cheese. As much as 15 tons of milk was processed by the creamery/cheese factory each day.
In 1945, the building was purchased by another company who continued to manufacture cheese for over 40 years. Once that business closed, the building sat empty for a number of years. In 1996, the investors who started the Mount Horeb Pub and Brewery/Grumpy Troll started an extensive renovation of the building before opening for business two years later.
I'd had the hankering for a pizza, but since it wasn't available during the lunch hours I had to look for something else. I wasn't interested in getting a burger - I was "burgered out" on this trip. They had a number of appetizers that looked good and even though I didn't want a burger, their burger menu looked interesting including a "build-your-own" burger that featured toppings such as jalapeños, grilled onions, applewood smoked bacon, gorgonzola crumbles and a fried egg along with Swiss, cheddar or pepper jack cheese. Entrees included a Cajun-style blackened chicken over penne pasta, chicken pot pie, and fish tacos that were breaded and deep-fried instead of grilled.
Looking over the sandwich menu, the "Under-the-Bridge" reuben looked good. They also had a number of wraps including an Italian wrap with turkey, ham and Genoa salami topped with banana peppers, lettuce, tomatoes and a zesty pesto mayo sauce all folded into a tomato basil soft shell tortilla. And, of course, since it IS Wisconsin, the Grumpy Troll features a signature brat - Erik the Red Brat - that features a bratwurst from the Bavaria Sausage Co. in nearby Fitchburg that is cooked in the Grumpy Troll's Erik the Red lager beer, topped with a dijon mustard made with their Spetsnaz Stout beer, and served on a soft pretzel bun. Sauerkraut - a must on a brat, in my book - is optional with the brat.
I almost went with the brat, but decided upon the prime rib French dip sandwich. For an upcharge, I got Swiss cheese and sautéed mushrooms on top. The beef was sliced thin and piled high on a soft hoagie bun. I had my choice of sides such as housemade chips, beer-battered fries, sweet potato tots and cole slaw, but I went with the waffle fries.
There was a lot of roast beef on the sandwich. The au jus sauce that accompanied the sandwich was not very salty - a welcome taste since most au jus that I encounter tastes like half a salt shaker was poured into the juice. The hoagie bun was soft and flavorful, but the Swiss cheese and mushrooms were hardly discernible in taste. It didn't matter, with the large amount of shaved roast beef on the sandwich, it was tasty enough. The waffle fries were fine - a nice changed from regular fries. But I only had four or five of them before I called it quits for the meal.
And I enjoyed the Over and Under Pale Ale, as well. It had a nice and distinct hoppy forward taste with a nice smooth ending. The Over and Under Pale featured barley from Canada and hops from Slovenia, New Zealand and Glacier hops from the state of Washington. It wasn't filling or too hoppy, and I enjoyed it thoroughly.
I'd really like to get back to get a pizza at the Grumpy Troll at some point. But the prime rib French dip sandwich that I had was well above average in my book. The pale ale was also very enjoyable and the overall atmosphere and service was of high quality. Lunch or dinner, it would be tough to pass up a stop at the Grumpy Troll. I'll just have to make sure it's not over 10 years to my next visit.