The Essen Haus: Returning to the Scene of the Crime

December 31, 1998. I’m shy of my 21st birthday, but I am carrying an ID that says I was born Christmas Eve, 1975. I’m visiting Madison, Wisconsin for the very first time, courtesy of my roommate Brian, a Wisconson native. After the requisite dinner with his parents, the two of us and a few of his friends and/or the younger generation of his family adjourn for more alcoholic waters, landing at one of Brian’s favorite Madison watering holes: the Essen Haus. It’s New Year’s Eve, it’s snowing, and I have no idea what I’m in for.

Sign outside Madison's Essen Haus


We enter from the parking lot, through the heavy double doors serving as the main entrance. My first clue that this is an unusual bar comes with the blast of heat cutting through the winter chill, and my heavily-insulated ears detect what sounds like … polka?

I am a native Iowan, composed of equal parts Swedish and German heritage, but of that uniquely American kind that contains not a trace of its original ethnic roots. The closest I ever got to ethnic food as a kid was when we ate pizza. We rarely had bratwurst, let alone spaetzle or some of the other German foods I’ve since come to savor. But I am getting ahead of myself …


The music, which we’ve now confirmed is polka, increases in volume as we near the bar, and it feels as though we’ve walked into a party in full swing. A serious party. There is beer EVERYWHERE … in mugs large and small, in pitchers, and … in boots. Glass boots. BIG glass boots. “I want one.” My genes are tingling.

The Greg Anderson Band, house band at the Essen Haus

As we settle into a long table near the musicians, a waitress approaches in full German barmaid costume. “Is this heaven?” Again I feel my heritage stirring. At least I think that’s my heritage.

We pony up for a boot of something alcholic, liquid, golden and German, but we have to fork over an $80 deposit before they’ll leave the container in our raucous trust. Doing some quick calculations, I decide that my checking account is probably up to the challenge, as is my liver. I don’t recall running into “the bubble” encountered in the movie Beer Fest, but things became a little blurry after downing the two liters of alcohol that tradition dictates must not touch the table.


The blurrier things got, the more at home I felt. The accordians! The feathered caps! The beautiful blondes in cleavage-enhancing dirndls! This was my long-lost heritage! I was home!

As bar closing approached, I grew alternately happier and sadder. I loved this place, but I was going to have to leave it, to return who knew when? I began to contemplate a souvenir, something to remind me of my newly-discovered Motherland. As the alcoholic fog set in, boldness descended, and I realized there were souvenirs EVERYWHERE. On the walls, above my head … everywhere I looked there were hundreds, no, THOUSANDS of mugs. Surely they wouldn’t miss one, right? But one mug would be lonely, right? Perhaps one mug might like a friend to keep him company in my cupboard, so far away in Iowa.


I removed two mugs from the wall as surreptitiously as my impaired limbs would allow, tucking one under each arm beneath my heavy winter coat, seemingly designed specifically for this task – I had found my heritage, and my coat had found its special purpose! When my friends were ready, I led the way, striding carefully toward the door just 10 feet, 8 feet, now 6 feet, now BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP!

I hadn’t noticed the retail store-style metal detectors on the way in, but I was aware of them now, as was everyone else in the bar. I rushed out the door as fast as I could, but as my feet reached freedom, my shoulder was slowed by a strong arm trying to keep me in the door. Momentum carried me outside, but I was followed closely by the doorman, who didn’t look happy.

“If this were anything but New Year’s Eve, I would have your ass in jail right now.”

“Uhh, sorry.”

“Give me the mug.”

I carefully removed one of the mugs from beneath my coat, handing it to him sheepishly.

“I never forget a face, and you are NOT welcome back here. If I ever see you here again, I will call the police.”

As he turned his back and re-entered the bar, I spun and took a step in the opposite direction, my heart beating double-time, feeling proud of my apparent misdirection. So smart, so bold, so … CRASH. The remaining mug slipped from under my arm, shattering on the frozen asphalt.

I didn’t think. I ran.


And that was the last time I visited the Essen Haus, until last weekend, when I returned for Brian’s wedding. The doorman wasn’t there (he probably wouldn’t have recognized me anyway given my gray hair), but the atmosphere inside was just as I remembered it. Warm (especially compared to the -8 temperature outside), festive, beery. I came alone, but I felt comfortable sitting among the people at the bar, my people.

The metal detectors were gone, but the mugs were still mostly there. Some careful conversations with the bartender confirmed that more than a few of them have walked out over the years, replaced by new ones. Apparently of the thousands covering the ceilings, very few are used regularly, most purchased decades ago and abandoned like so many good intentions.

The boots are mostly plastic now, though a few glass vessels remain. The deposits have disappeared with the glass, though. On Thursday nights, UW students stream in for $14 2L boots, and they no longer have to check their account balances before sharing their beer-filled footwear with the table. School was out when I visited, so the place was a little slow, but the spirits were still as high as I remembered them, as you can see in this very brief video I shot with my new Mino HD of the house band and bar staff. Prost!

Oh, and by way of restoring my karmic balance sheet, I’ll personally donate $2 to Mercy Corps for every comment this post receives (limit $200). Hopefully that covers the mug. ;)

29 thoughts on “The Essen Haus: Returning to the Scene of the Crime”

  1. Ring it up buddy!
    I’m really disappointed that you failed to make good with the second mug so long ago. The story would’ve been much better if you had been able to return it. I just wish I still had the 2 liter margarita glass I swiped back in college. I really regret not getting the number of the waitress who knowingly let me swipe it.

  2. Oh, and if you ever make it to Chicago or even Milwaukee, I expect you to let me know so I can treat you to a beer or two at a place equally as interesting. One of which is called “The Brat Stop”.

  3. You’ve basically described an experience every kid has in a bar before they’re 21. Replace Wisconsin with Salzburg, Austria and that is my story (minus getting caught) right down to breaking what I got away with…

  4. Excellent story. I passed it on to one of my friends who has frequented Essen Haus back in the day. He was disturbed that the glasses are plastic now.

  5. Friend of Lance here.

    Fantastic story of the Essen Haus, a place that has been good to me. Though the thought popped in my head, I did not have the cajones to attempt a mug swipe.

    I have not been there since 1999, but I had many a lost evening when I lived there between ’94-’95. Sucks they moved to a plastic boot. Part of the fun was forking over a credit card and then having to take the walk of shame to reclaim it after the inevitable blackout which usually happened sometime into the 2nd boot. Downtown Madtown has changed for the worse. Buck’s was a great choice for a quality drink, but they moved over by Camp Randall.

    Great site. Bookmarked.

  6. One of our favorite restaurants in Xiamen (China) was a German restaurant called Edelweiss. We especially loved Taco Night (Sundays). You could get a bottle of Erdinger Dark there for about $5 (I could get 22oz of Tsingtao at the corner shop for around 20cents). This paragraph accurately describe the expat experience in China.

    But really I’m just priming the pump for Mercy Corps.

    p.s. Don’t worry about your Karma, if this is the biggest heist you’ve ever committed you’re in the black.

  7. $2 and awesome story man. you should have fessed up to the bartender that you stole 2, gave 1 back and broke the other. perhaps you could have bought you own mug to abandon.

  8. Great stuff. How do you like that Mino HD? My brother got a Kodak zi6 and he’s pretty happy with it. Amazing what these little cameras can do now.

    How’s the panning on the Mino? The Kodak’s a little shaky.

  9. Came across this through connections with Mercy Corps, but have you officially bookmarked. Fun post– reminds me of many a bar frequented in Botswana/Namibia. Only those German beer gardens involved mechanical bull-esque Zebras AND women in German barmaid costumes. Unfortunately, no boot glasses.

  10. Accordions and beer are the greatest combo there ever was. Never has a fake id been more appropriately used.

  11. Great Story! I love all things that have to do with German food and German beer. I own a few of those glass boots myself…

  12. I appreciate this story! Not only am I jealous that I have not drank out of a glass boot in memory of my German ancestors, but I can empathize with a nostalgic and epic return to your favorite pub of long ago! I wish there was a place like that Portland!

  13. Ahhh the Essen Haus. Great place… Best polka in town, I’m sure.

    …can’t say I’ve been back since I got food poisoning, but I’d go back in a heartbeat, at least for the beer. The place has a great atmosphere, and everyone talks to each other there.

    Madison is a great beer town, and I miss it dearly.

  14. Oh.. this brings back so many memories.
    I used to wash dishes at this place. At the time I was not yet 21 yet either. After a heavy night of drinking, I somehow ended up back in the kitchen with the manager who had just called the cops on me…
    To make a long story short, I also tried to steal a mug(not someones personal mug but a nice bar mug) , took the sensor of the bottom first though and still got busted on the way out.. I got out of it after I told the manager I wasn’t 21 yet, he was pissed. I ran like the dickens!

  15. Cha-Ching! I love Mercy Corps.

    Somewhere here in the house I still have my 1L 29th Street Cafe mug from my USC days. It’s seems very likely that I put enough into that bar to get a little something as a parting gift. Here’s a tip, tuck your shirt in and put the mug in your shirt under your big winter coat.

  16. I’ve never drunken anything out of a boot, but I once consumed beer straight out of a 10 gallon hat (does not work well).

    And two bucks.

  17. This made me laugh out loud. I had forgotten most of the details of that first night at the Essen Haus.

    I got to have one of the glass boots there (half-filled, sadly enough) a few day before my wedding. Those around me had the new half-sized version that is plastic, which looks ridiculous next to the real deal.

  18. I know how tempting those mugs are…mine was stolen and it was never replaced as they don’t make the clay ones anymore!!!!!

  19. Grandma Yost made some authentic German food. Too bad I never learned to do it…there was something involving dill pickles/bacon?

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