Kochanski's Concertina Beer Hall, 1920 S. 37th St., is a classic Milwaukee polka bar with a modern twist. The Burnham Park bar is a South Side mainstay still offering up a lot of Polish and German polka culture including, this time of year, the traditional Polish Christmas tree suspended upside-down from the ceiling.
"I bought this place for it to survive. Milwaukee deserves to have a polka bar preserved," says owner Andy Kochanski.
Art Altenburg's Concertina Bar was in the space for decades and drew hundreds of polka dancers every weekend. Kochanski bought the bar just over four years ago. During his first year, Kochanski tried to strike a balance between preserving polka tradition and introducing new live music to the bar. Kochanski started booking rockabilly and surf bands on Thursdays. Customers began to suggest he book these bands on weekends, augmenting the usual polka scene.
There is still an open polka jam every Wednesday, but the beer hall has now expanded its musical offerings to include blues, honky-tonk, bluegrass and punk.
"We also offer a tad of metal with some old-school country and western. There's so much talent in Milwaukee," says Kochanski. The beer hall also books bands from all over the world, from Germany to Australia. A rockabilly band from Louisiana plays regularly.
"Polka alone just doesn't pay the bills," says Kochanski.
The traditional polka stage is still beneath the windows near the front door. And Kochanski added a second stage in the rear, where a back bar used to be moored. He tried to operate both bars when the place was really full, stocking coolers at the back bar with bottles and staffing it with another bartender, but people weren't using it, preferring instead to use the main bar.
The two stages allow Kochanski to book two bands concurrently in events he calls "dueling stages." Each band plays for 30 minutes back-and-forth throughout the evening.
"It's great. I'll book a surf music band on one stage and a punk band on the other (for example). This event mixes crowds and exposes each band to new listeners who are here for the other band," says Kochanski.
Kochanski lays claim to having the most Polish beer available in Wisconsin. Due to supply factors the numbers vary, but he currently has 24 varieties in the cooler and one on tap, Okocim Brewery's O.K. Pilsner.
The Polish beers are joined on tap by Spaten Oktoberfest and the German black lager Kostriker. Other German beers are available in bottles, as well as an assortment of Milwaukee beers, micros and what Kochanski calls "malternatives."
Kochanski's offers a fun alternative to doing shots with the bartender: the "shot-ski." Three shot glasses are embedded in a wooden ski, filled with your liquor of choice and tipped back simultaneously by three drinkers who all hold on to the ski.
In addition to open polka jam Wednesdays, you can drink your Polish beers and shot-skis on Thursdays during an "old-school record spin" and open stage (live performers take precedence over the record spinners). Kochanski's has live music Friday and Saturday nights (usually beginning at 9 p.m.) and Sunday matinees from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m.
The Sunday matinees are currently on hiatus, as Kochanski found competing with Packers' games to be futile. Although they did try having Kochanski's mom bring food in for Packers parties, the beer hall will remain closed Sundays until the end of football season.
"It's nice to have a real day off anyway," says Kochanski, who is a full-time arborist for the city of Milwaukee during the week.
For five years Kochanski was also an on-call firefighter for the city of St. Francis. Kochanski grew up on South 11th Street and Oklahoma Avenue, attending Thomas More for two years of high school and Pius for another two, where he graduated. Kochanski went on to the Brown Institute near Minneapolis and Paradise Valley Community College in Phoenix, where he also attended a fire training academy.
Kochanski dreams of being a full-time firefighter. In the meantime, he's busy taking care of the city's trees and preserving some Milwaukee traditions, while spicing them up just a bit.
Accordions are now allowed in the beer hall, which is a big change from the concertina-only policy of its previous owner. The bar had once been adorned with numerous concertinas on shelves and walls.
Concertinas are very similar instruments to accordions and harmonicas. Concertinas have buttons on both ends, usually, and when pressed the buttons move in the same direction as the bellows, unlike accordions.
There are other differences, yet most folks would call a concertina an accordion upon first sight. But doing so would get you thrown out of the place when it was Altenburg's bar. The former owner is reputedly a very good concertina player and took his love for the instrument to various extremes. Altenburg was reportedly extreme about multiple aspects of the bar business.
"It was like buying a piece of property from Rod Serling," Kochanski says of the year-long process acquiring the bar from Altenburg.
Kochanski is taking everything in its own time, slowly adding a patio that, when completed, he says will be the second largest beer garden in Milwaukee. He recently added a wood-burning furnace, which heats both the bar, the rooms upstairs and the house in back.
"Once you start it for the season, the stove never turns off. You just keep adding wood – and wood in almost any condition – including wet. It creates the same carbon footprint that wood rotting in a landfill does," says Kochanski.
Royal has taught courses in critical pedagogy, writing, rhetoric and cultural studies at several schools in Wisconsin and Minnesota. He is currently Adjunct Associate Professor of Humanities at Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design.
Royal lives in Walker’s Point with his family and uses the light of the Polish Moon to illuminate his way home.