By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Jun 04, 2022 at 6:01 PM

Get ready to soak up more bar articles, imbibable stories and cocktailing content, brought to by Miller Lite. For more of our Bar stories click here

Even with bars opening in grocery stores these days, the sentence “I’m gonna go drink at the liquor store” is still a good way to score alarmed glances and disappointed head shakes. But not if you’re talking about Ray’s Growler Gallery, the venue perched behind Ray’s Wine and Spirits at 8930 W. North Ave. in Tosa. 

“It’s always the funniest comment when someone is like, ‘I was invited here on a first date, and I was a little weirded out at first, but then it made sense to me,’” said Rob Zellermayer, general manager of the Growler Gallery, with a laugh.

Ray's Growler GalleryX

Found through the side door, up a stairwell and through a few quick tight turns, the space is a fairly new addition to the beloved longtime liquor store, established back in 1961. What began as office space for outside tenants was eventually transformed into a room for tastings and classes, but not fully embraced as a bar until 2014. And while its name might be inspired by the 64-ounce jugs used to transport beer from tap to home or elsewhere, it's a place where customers just feel too cozy and comfortable to leave ... when they finally realize it’s there, of course.

“It is never usual to hear a customer say, ‘I’ve been shopping here for over a decade, and I’m just finding out about your bar today,’” Zellermayer noted. 

But over the course of almost eight years, people keep finding the Growler Gallery, turning what could’ve been just a liquor store filling station into a full-on friendly neighborhood tap.

“The whole thing was really designed to be like walking upstairs to your friend’s really nice basement bar,” Zellermayer said. “We’re like the showroom for the store. We get to show our customers how we would put all of these alcohol bottles into practice if we were at your house. That’s how we treat it.”

While the Growler Gallery has limited bar space and just eight taps to play with, Zellermayer and company work hard to make the most of it – and thanks to their efforts, it lives up to the famous drink diversity located just down the stairs at Ray’s. The handful of taps switch out very regularly, guaranteeing something new almost every time a customer drops in while still offering a wide spectrum of craft brews to satisfy all sorts of tastes. The constant rotations, tap takeovers and exclusive collaborations mean the Growler Gallery can often shine a spotlight on self-distributed, small or hyper-local breweries, as well as keep up with customers’ overall shifting preferences and trends.

“Consumer behaviors have changed a lot since the pandemic,” Zellermayer noted. “When we first opened up eight years ago, we could have all very esoteric, price-didn’t-matter, high ABVs – really just for beer hunters. Speaking for myself, consumers now are looking for more sessionable, lower-ABV products – still full-flavor, maybe a little bit more cash-conscious. But really, just the idea that they want to make sure they have the opportunity to drink three beers in a sitting, not just one.”

As one would expect from a venue with a somm on staff, the Growler Gallery also has a strong, diverse and adventurous wine collection along with a buzz-worthy assortment of whiskey and bourbon – complete with a bottle club. And while the bar doesn’t have the space needed to create craft cocktails, Zellermayer has found a fun alternative: boozy business slushies. 

“That’s our way to do batch cocktails,” he explained, “In kind of a joking way – even though we take them very seriously. They’re fun, but they’re not sugared gut-rot like a New Orleans daiquiri.”

The overall result is a personally-crafted menu with a distinctive fingerprint, one that truly creates that friend’s basement vibe even more than the warm décor and arcade game in the corner. The atmosphere is just people drinking old favorites and new discoveries because they simply really like them and want to share them with somebody.

“We are all members of the beer and booze-drinking community,” Zellermayer said with a laugh. “So if we honor ourselves, and our likes and dislikes, we feel like we’re inclusive to all of our customers. I know my first experience coming to Ray’s as a customer was being impressed that even the person stocking the shelves could answer any question and speak intelligently about all the products. Product knowledge is really paramount for everyone who works here – and that’s because we all really enjoy the product.”

Ray's Growler GalleryX

Indeed, the only thing more impressive than the collection of interesting and engaging beer and boozes on the menu is the collection of interesting and engaging people in the bar. The warm and welcoming familial basement vibe invites everyone to interact with anyone. On my last visit, a room of strangers quickly became friends trading sips of the latest tap additions or homebrews, swapping stories, amicably discussing the news of the day, and trading podcast and movie recommendations. It’s the kind of place where time moves in dog years, a quick stop-in suddenly turning into closing the bar down in a blink – with the beer list by no means the only culprit.

“The best bars that I’ve ever been to – especially in Milwaukee – provoke the most beautiful conversations,” Zellermayer said. 

“It is by far the most chill, relaxed vibes I’ve ever worked at with a bar,” added Lisa Richter, a bartender for a decade and at the Growler Gallery for the past five years. “There’s a neighborhood feel where everyone kind of lives in the ‘Ray-borhood’ – that’s the joke.”

The “Ray-borhood” may sound like some catchy branding – but the Growler Gallery works to make it not just a punny platitude but actuality. In addition to the tastings, classes and tap team-ups in the Gallery itself, the bar and liquor store regularly hosts community-driven events in and around its space – from family-friendly block parties to its impending eighth anniversary, with proceeds going toward Courage MKE, to an upcoming brewery and distillery rummage sale donating proceeds to Street Angels.

Ray's and the Growler Gallery regularly join forces with its fellow local businesses as well. With Lion’s Tail Brewing Co. moving in soon down the street, the bar dedicated one of its tap takeovers to the new neighbor with help from fellow Tosa friend Miss Molly’s Bakery, which often sells baked goods in the bar. When Heaven’s Table was building out nearby, Ray’s opened up a residency in its parking lot for the barbecue hotspot’s food truck.

“We feel a responsibility as a 60-plus-year family-owned business – Ray’s, as a whole – to promote other independent businesses,” Zellermayer said. 

With all of those inclusive events and efforts – plus the personal, friendly energy found inside on daily basis – it’s not surprising the Growler Gallery’s “Ray-borhood” keeps growing, adding a second room upstairs for events and spillover on busy nights as well as an outdoor patio space right off of North Avenue. But the most important thing it’s grown is its reputation as a place for everyone – from beer fiends to families.  

“It kind of reminds me of a beer garden almost,” Richter said. “That vibe where you can bring anybody in and everybody’s welcome. Just have a couple of beers, make new friends, everybody chats across the bar here – it’s awesome.”

So sure, the idea of a bar in a liquor store serving as a happy hangout – much less a family-friendly neighborhood hub – may sound strange or new. But for Zellermayer, Ray’s Growler Gallery isn’t a new trend but rather a continuation of a classic Milwaukee tradition and Wisconsin culture, one that deserves celebrating – and continuing.

"The neighborhood bar generations before us included full-family experiences. How many people learned how to play pinball while their dad and their uncles were at the bar or while their parents were at bowling leagues. This is kind of the updated version of that family-friendly neighborhood establishment."

Ray's Growler Gallery is open Tuesday through Friday from 4-10 p.m., Saturday from 11 a.m. until 10 p.m. and Sunday from noon until 6 p.m. For information on upcoming events, tastings, classes and more, visit Ray's website

Matt Mueller Culture Editor

As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.

When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.